Fifty years ago today, “WMUC staffers Paul Palmer and Bill Seaby were sitting in a Radio Announcing Class where one student was playing Vaughn Meader’s First Family comedy album. Suddenly, the classroom door flew open and another student yelled ‘The President’s been shot!’ We immediately took off at dead run to the studios in Building FF (whose site now is a parking lot) and signed the carrier current AM station on the air. In those days, we had an AP wire machine which was a teletypewriter. It was slowly churning out updates. We were also tied in to WRC’s off-air NBC feed, so Bill and I kept up a running commentary. The AP would ring a bell three times on the machine to signify breaking news. Our hearts froze when the machine dinged ten times. The operator on the other end painfully picked through the bulletin: ‘President Kennedy died at 1:42 PM today at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.’ Not knowing what else to do, we played ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Later that night at dusk, I was standing outside the building and I saw a lone 707 slowly gliding toward Andrews AFB. That was Air Force One taking the President’s body home. I believe there are still recordings around somewhere of that fateful day’s broadcasts. History in the making at WMUC.” (recollection posted by Al Batten on the WMUC Alumni Facebook page, November 22, 2012)
Remarkably just last week the recording of Batten’s stunning announcement that the President was dead was discovered among the 1,800 audio reels in the WMUC Collection in the University Archives. Batten’s pronouncement is followed by snippets of the NBC feed he references above, then by an excerpt of student reporter Jim Spears interviewing a fellow student about her reaction to the news.
John F. Kennedy was especially popular among college-aged youths, and his visit to the University of Maryland’s Spring Convocation as a U.S. Senator in 1959 was received with a great deal of enthusiasm. It is fitting, then, that the announcement of his untimely death in 1963 would become an important part of our own campus history. It shows the strength of the station’s staff members who, despite their own shock over the event, fulfilled a vital duty to their peers and the community. Fifty years later, we are proud to thank Alan Batten, Paul Palmer, Bill Seaby and Jim Spears for making history at WMUC.
The WMUC Collection is featured in the exhibit “Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present and Future” in the Maryland Room Gallery in Hornbake Library. For more information about the exhibit and to view a digital version of the show, see: http://www.lib.umd.edu/wmuc/index.html.