In the video above you will see NBC's coverage from November 22, 1963 and the work of Bill Ryan. As you watch this, compare the television technology of 50-years-ago to today. Here's a very good article by James E. O'Neal for TVTechnology.com that explains the state of the art in 1963.
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All we knew is we were being sent home from school early. No one explained why. Mrs. Wendell, my third grade teacher at Campfield Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland, told us to turn on the TV when we got home to find out what happened. I raised my hand. “Yes, David”.
“Mrs. Wendell what if we don’t have the right channel on?”
“Don’t worry David, you will.”
I didn’t understand. I was even more confused walking home with some of my neighborhood friends because there were a lot of different stories about what event had occurred to bring an early end to school. There was even talk among my classmates the Russians were about to attack us. This actually made sense in our young minds because the school held a drill during the Cuban Missile Crisis a little more than a year earlier where they sent us home early in an effort to see how fast the school and immediate area could be evacuated.
The only thing consistent in all the rumors was that it involved the President. Half-way home my mother pulled up alongside us on Laurel Drive to drive us the rest of the way. Only then did we learn that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.
When I got into the house my grandmother, who lived with us, was sitting in the den in front of the TV set. She had been crying. The TV was on Channel 11, WBAL, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore. We always watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report, so it was habit to tune to NBC for the news.
I sat and watched with my grandmother and mother. Even then I was interested in TV so I knew the names of a lot of the news people. Thinking about it years later, I remembered seeing David Brinkley from Washington, and Chet Huntley and Frank McGee from New York. I also had a vague recollection of a third man sitting next to Chet Huntley, but I had no clue who that was. And I didn’t learn his identity until November 22, 1988, on the 25th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
That’s when A&E ran almost six hours of NBC’s coverage from 1963 in real time during a program called, “JFK Assassination: As It Happened”. NBC’s first news from Dallas was not from one of its newsmen, but from the legendary Don Pardo, a staff announcer, who now, at 95-years-old, is still heard each week on Saturday Night Live.
But a little later the camera finally warmed up in Studio 5HN, the small news “flash” studio at 30 Rock. It was only then I saw the newsman I couldn’t name but recall watching 25 years earlier. He was Bill Ryan. His was not a household name around the country like McGee, Huntley or Brinkley. But what I saw from Bill Ryan kept me watching all six hours of the NBC coverage and wondering just who was this guy.
In 1988, at the age of 33, after 16 years in the news business I was pretty convinced no one anchored the initial hours following the Kennedy assassination as skillfully as Bill Ryan (my apologies to all of the Cronkite fans, of which I am one).
Now, in 2013, after 38 years in radio and TV news (I retired from news in 2010, for those questioning my math), I am absolutely certain Bill Ryan was the best broadcaster giving us the news that day and possibly during any breaking news event I’ve watched.
NBC was plagued with technical difficulties early on. They were also hampered by not having some of the resources in Dallas that CBS did. But Ryan kept his cool and was unflappable. He spoke in complete sentences and had a calm manner about him that came through the camera. That’s something so key when the news is so chaotic. Ryan also added knowledgeable insight from his own experiences that helped him easily put into context for the viewer some of the fragments of news that were coming in.
What struck me most is that Bill Ryan constantly reminded people of the facts that were known and acknowledged very clearly what wasn’t known. No conjecture. No unconfirmed reports. Just a clear explanation of what we know and what we don’t know. It’s a lesson that stuck with me for the rest of my news career and helped me get my thoughts together when I handled breaking news.
Not having the Internet in 1988, I used one of my twice yearly visits to the Museum of Radio and Television in Manhattan to learn more about Bill Ryan. Ryan’s career at NBC was mostly spent at the owned and operated station in New York, WNBC. But he also did regular network radio newscasts and some network TV reporting assignments. He may have been best known in New York for the Pressman-Ryan Report, the daily newscast with Gabe Pressman. Watching some of those local newscasts from the late 1950s at the Museum I saw the same solid work from a very talented broadcast newsman. But I came across something else that was almost as impressive to me as Ryan’s anchoring of the Kennedy assassination.
On March 1, 1962 the ticker-tape parade for Astronaut John Glenn was held in New York. The three networks pooled their mobile television units to cover the parade. But another news story got in the way of those plans. American Airlines Flight 1, a Boeing 707, crashed into Jamaica Bay on take-off from Idlewild, killing 87 passengers and eight crew members.
One of those pooled mobile units was moved from the parade route to cover the crash. The reporter on the scene was NBC’s Bill Ryan. In the middle of the John Glenn parade coverage, Ryan appeared on all three networks with a rather long, live, ad-libbed report from the shore line. It was so smooth it sounded as if it had been scripted.
Between what I had seen from the A&E telecast and at the Museum of Radio and Television I began telling anyone who would listen that if you want to learn how to do breaking news on television watch the work of Bill Ryan. Somehow that got back to a reporter I knew at WTOP Radio. It was only then I discovered that Bill Ryan was the father of my friend Kate Ryan. Kate still works at WTOP with my wife. Her father died in 1997 at the age of 70.
Before you think all of this is just blowing smoke about the father of a friend of mine, please take a moment to read an article by Bob Greene, the former columnist of the Chicago Tribune. I discovered the column this week, but it was written a month before the A&E telecast of 1988. It was his second column on the upcoming special telecast (here's the first), because Greene, having a preview copy, was also intrigued by Bill Ryan's work. Here’s an excerpt:
The day`s NBC coverage-and you will see this if you watch the A&E cable presentation-was anchored by Frank McGee and Bill Ryan. McGee was one of NBC`s most prominent and respected correspondents. Bill Ryan, though, I had never heard of. He was magnificent-he did as steady and professional a job of anchoring that coverage as any network executive could ever hope for. The A&E producers, at my request, checked into this. They didn`t know who Bill Ryan was, either. They called back to say that he had been a local newsman at WNBC-TV in New York at the time. Imagine that: a local reporter anchoring the network`s coverage of the assassination of a president.
So, for those I haven’t yet lost in this assortment of memories from Dave’s life from age 8 to 58, there is some usefulness to all of this beyond my long, rambling contribution to the Kennedy nostalgia of this week. There are two distinct groups of people who can get some real benefit out of closely viewing the work of NBC’s Bill Ryan: those in the news media and those in public safety.
Despite having to hold up still pictures from the AP wire as a visual aid and patiently watching Frank McGee wrestle with a balky contraption in a mostly unsuccessful effort to get a phone report on the air from Parkland Hospital, Bill Ryan’s anchoring 50-years-ago today is heads above most breaking news coverage on television in the digital age. That’s because Ryan concentrated on confirmed facts and real information and was very honest with his audience about what he didn’t know. There was little or no speculation on what it all meant and no emphasis on what we think we know.
Not that there weren't mistakes made in NBC's coverage and on CBS and ABC. One report, corrected fairly quickly, was that in addition to Dallas Police Department Officer J.D. Tippit, a U.S. Secret Service agent had been shot and killed. In 1963 there was little of the report now, confirm and correct later mentality that seems to be standard operating procedure today and has resulted in a pattern of major embarrassments during the coverage of breaking news.
As for those of you in public safety, social media has transformed many of your departments into news operations. You have become instant sources of information for the public and the news media at a time of crisis in your community. As we did with Bill Ryan and his collegues on television in 1963, we are now turning to you more and more on our smartphones, tablets and computers for the latest information when something big happens.
I’m often asked by chiefs and public information officers what should they tweet or post in the very early stages of a rapidly developing incident where sometimes even those on the scene aren't yet clear about what they're dealing with. My answer is very simple: think of Bill Ryan.
Just explain to the people what you know and what you don't yet know and are still seeking answers for. Nothing more and nothing less. They will appreciate it.