The 10 deaths at a packed Houston, Texas, concert crowd raised powerful and haunting memories for me from an episode of an old TV series more than four decades ago — “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
The series was one of the best comedy shows I’ve seen on TV.
It also was an addictive series because it reminded my wife and I about my early days in radio.
The show made fun of us in radio, which, I confess included truths about those earlier years.
But in a late 1979 episode, the show took on a very serious tone.
The episode was aired shortly after deaths of 11 persons in a massive crowd rushing to grab limited open seating at a concert by the rock group The Who — similar to what happened at Houston.
The WKRP episode raised questions and lessons about the responsibility of journalists, the media and government itself that remain to this day.
WKRP’s General Manager Arthur Carlson had allowed his staff to leave early that day explaining “we’ve got general admission seating so you have to get their early if you want to get a seat.”
His station had promoted the concert. He had brought his son to the concert.
But learning the next morning that 11 people had died in the concert’s mad rush to grab the limited seats closer to the Who concert, Carlson expressed guilt.
“We publicized that concert, gave away tickets,” Carlson said in regret to a station DJ, Venus Flytrap, that morning.
“You know what really gets me, you can’t do anything about it. It’s too late to do anything. I kind of keep asking myself why, why does something happen like this?
Flytrap responded “I don’t know, but we’ve got to do something about this so it doesn’t happen again.”
The episode explored the conditions that contributed to the tragedy.
It was a powerful demonstration about how a broadcast entertainment show can highlight a major public policy issue.
The show concluded noting that less than four weeks after the tragedy, Cincinnati adopted an ordinance that banned open “festival” seating at concerts. That ban lasted nearly 25 years.
The journalistic lesson was raised by WKRP’s news director, Les Nessman, who sought to inspire his distressed young newsroom staffer, Bailey Quarters, to go after the story.
“We’re men…(pause)…newspersons, we’ve got a story to cover here, a very important one,” Nessman told her to which Quarters ultimately responded “let’s kick butt and get that story, OK Lester.”
That scene reminds me of when I’ve covered stories with deep emotional impact that made it difficult to pursue.
I can only imagine what Houston reporters went through covering their concert tragedy.
The most difficult for me was covering the aftermath of the 2000 plane crash death of Gov. Mel Carnahan. He was one of the most candid, friendly and accessible governors I’ve covered.
I was helped dealing with the emotional impact in pursuing coverage of Carnahan’s death by my mentor and a former CBS correspondent, David Dugan, who had been deeply moved covering the aftermath of President John Kennedy’s assassination.
But I also was inspired by my newsroom partner Missy Shelton Belote, now deceased, who displayed that same spirit of Quarters to “kick butt and get that story.”
Missy was scheduled to be on the flight in which Gov. Mel Carnhan lost his life.
But at the last minute, a staffer told her the governor wanted privacy on the flight and she was excluded.
Missy acknowledged to me how haunting it was to be so close to death. Yet, Missy reported and responded to reporters’ questions about the night of Carnahan’s death — much in the spirit of WKRP’s Bailey Quarters.
That WKRP episode raises a question about the responsibility of entertainment media that promote these type of events.
But it also is a lesson for journalists that, as WKRP’S Flytrap said, “we’ve got to do something about this so it doesn’t happen again.”
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).