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Morning Host Gary Walker and News Director Doug Doyle share Memories of being on WBGO as the Horrific Events of 9/11 Unfolded

Sasha Ingber/NPR
9/11 Memorial in NYC

During the nearly 23 years of being WBGO's morning jazz team, Host Gary Walker and News Director Doug Doyle, will always remember the uncertainty and responsibility they felt on September 11, 2001.

Walker and Doyle spent nearly the entire broadcast day on WBGO on 9/11.

WBGO Director of Editorial Content Nate Chinen spoke with the radio duo about their remembrances of that dark and tragic day.

9 11 remembrance.jpg
Doug Doyle/Zoom
WBGO's Nate Chinen chats with morning team of Gary Walker and Doyle about being on the air during the terrorist attacks in 2001

Walker vividly remembers how the morning started.

"It actually kind of a special day for us because it was our fiscal finale fundraiser and that is something we always find a little extra energy and maybe a little more smiles to bring to the table. That morning started out like any fund drive morning for WBGO and the phones were ringing. We were having a great time and looking forward to raising a lot of money to keep the station and the art of jazz churning they way it has since 1979. On that Tuesday morning we're in the midst of fundraising we're laughing and have a great time and we get this message that a plane has hit the World Trade Center. I immediately thought it was one of those tourist plane had gone awry and run into the building. Well it was just eight or nine minutes later that there were reports of a second plane that hit the other tower. It was at that moment we looked at each other and we knew things were quite different."

Doyle picked up the story from there.

"I think confusion is the word to sum up that moment. No one really knew what was happening. No one was really able to report what was actually happening. Even as events were unfolding and the horrific scene was there in front of us. We were going into the situation frantically, trying to figure out what just happened. It was scary. The responsibility that we have as a radio station, a news team and a morning show is to make sure we get out proper information. We can't assume anything so we really had to wait to people know exactly what was going on and we stayed on the air for hours and hours that day to make sure they knew what had taken place, what they need to do to be safe and what they had to do to find out about their loved ones."

Chinen asked Walker about how WBGO's "Morning Jazz" approached the breaking story in a "responsible" way.

"For me, the instinct of broadcasting kicked in. That is the important part of the mix is not myself, it's not Doug, it's the other side of the microphone. And with that in mind, we immediately stopped almost all of the music programming with the exception of a Milt Jackson piece that I had chosen to act pretty much as a bumper to go in and out. We carried a lot of NPR News that day. Time flew, I turned around Nate and it was five o'clock in the afternoon."

Gary talked about what he selected "Olinga" as the tune that set the tone of the morning.

Milt Jackson's "Olinga"

"It immediately spoke to me for a couple of reasons. The haunting nature of it, the foreboding nature of the piece as it opens up, but at the same time as it proceeds, the peacefulness, the comfort, the respite that was all contained in that 3:49 piece. It was unbelievable. Milt Jackson just had that way of doing that. I immediately thought of that piece of music to transition as we transitioned from our most out of the ordinary broadcast day."

Doyle feels the chaos, uncertainly and magnitude of the tragic eventon 9/11 changed how many reporters and new organizations responded to "breaking news" and its aftermath.

"I think it was one of the first times we really started to realize in our lifetime that (reporters and announcers) are human beings and as you cover this you are impacted. Yes, you want to be professional and yes you want to make sure you give the information but you're also realizing what has taken place now, how many people have lost loved ones, people you knew, people your friends knew, it really changed how reporters think about covering tragedies. Our mental health of reporters is also in question when you cover major events like that."

WBGO immediately stopped fundraising when news came about the Twin Towers. Walker, who is approaching his 72nd birthday (September 18), remembers it was a difficult time to even consider coming back on the air many days later and ask for financial support for the radio station. But the response from listeners was tremendous as they were eager to return to some sense of "normalcy" and routine.

"As we (eventually) returned to the air with the rhythm involved in fundraising and the response, you know that's the luxury public radio has, is that we have to fundraise and most of air fundraising, the large majority of it, is on air. So the luxury is that you know you're doing something right when the phones ring or now in the year 2021 as pledges come in from around the world, it gives you that vote of confidence and that sense of energy and that sense of doing something right. My rhythms simply compliment the rhythms of the jazz masters and those musicians that are making this music today and for what's around the next corner."

You can see the entire interview at https://fb.watch/7X761yD7xg/.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.