What I Learned Reporting on the Death of Princess Diana
A radio rookie makes a big decision on a big story and learns a valuable lesson.
I was 20 years old when I landed my first job in professional radio. I began work as what we called a board operator, the person in charge of making sure that syndicated programming, in this case the Leeza Gibbons Top 40 Countdown on Mix 96.1 FM in Davenport, Iowa, ran according to schedule. This was a time when satellite delivered programming was reserved for talk radio and before automation software began making entry level positions in radio obsolete.
While it might sound tedious, being a board operator was great and as said, it was an entry level position with opportunity for advancement. That opportunity came just a few months into my career in May 1997 when I was given the position of part time overnight radio DJ, my own shift with my own personality. I had to stick to a playlist and a few live read testimonials but there were opportunities throughout the overnight to put myself and my personality forward. I learned to take calls and occasionally slipped in a request for the third shift workers who quickly became my unseen friends.
My career in radio would be forever changed however by the happenings on the morning of August 31st, 1997. It was nearing 2:30 in the morning during my overnight shift and there were only two people in the building, myself and a producer for our AM talk radio station. Her job was to watch the wires and prepare the next day’s newscast while monitoring the AM satellite program recordings which came in over, I kid you not, a reel to reel machine.
Sue was the name of my colleague and just before 2:30 AM, she came to my studio to tell me that Diana, the Princess of Wales, had been killed in a car accident. The news stunned me, as I had always been a distant admirer of Princess Di, as had millions of others. The news was sketchy and it turned out she had not died immediately in the crash but I had a big decision to make, whether or not to be the first person in my area to announce that Princes Di had been killed.
Now, my area is not massive. I wasn’t working in New York or Los Angeles where the news would be announced and phones would light up with listeners demanding more information but I felt that the news was important and that it had to be delivered in a timely and professional manner with respect for Princess Di and her myriad admirers. How to make this announcement, what to say in this moment was crucial. I was only months into my career, still wet behind the ears to borrow a phrase.
At 2:40 AM I made the call to not bother my boss in the middle of the night with a phone call to ask permission. I simply opened my microphone coming out of a song, probably Hootie and the Blowfish or the Gin Blossoms, and with a quiver in my voice I announced that Princess Di had been injured in a car accident in Paris and that there was speculation that she may have been killed. I asked people to stay tuned to my station or to turn to our Talk Radio Station WOC-AM 1420 where I was sure that the overnight program hosted live then by a man named Art Bell or our top of the hour newscast with then ABC Radio Network would have more information than I had.
The wires were blowing up with updates from Paris. We had internet. It was relatively new to us but we had it, so the wires weren’t a running fax machine looking device ala the teletype from All the President’s Men with its staccato typewriter tap tap tapping away and dinging when a new story had been received, but rather a website with a continuously updating feed from the Associated Press. Sue would print out feeds throughout the night with the latest headlines and the Princess Di reports were coming in very quickly though with little detail.
There was a significant delay between what was happening in Paris at that moment and what we were hearing from the AP but by 4 AM, the AP had announced that indeed Princess Di had been pronounced dead from her injuries along with her boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed and their driver Henri Paul. It was an exhausting hour-and-a-half of watching the wires and gathering snatches of reports from other media sources and repeatedly going on the air in between songs by Mariah Carey, The Beach Boys, and Elton John which were, naturally, rather trivial at that moment.
Having studied journalism in college I was, at the very least, prepared for how to present a story with gravity and have the ethics to not speculate, just report, but there really is no training quite like being forced to fend for yourself in a big moment. I never told my boss about what I did but when I spoke to Debbie, our morning show host when she relieved me in the morning, she assured me that I had done the right thing, the story was too big and too important to listeners for us to try and go on with business as usual.
There was one moment of dark irony that morning that has stayed with me throughout my radio career. Being under the corporate radio umbrella at that time, we were told that we could not change our music lineup, that we were never supposed to remove songs from our playlist. That morning, in the midst of the sadness and chaos I noticed that Billy Joel’s song "Only the Good Die Young" was coming up. In that moment I decided that the right thing to do and the tasteful thing to do was to take the song out. It was against policy but it was the right call and it helped me learn that no one really knew if you messed with the playlist.
I still look back on that night 20 years later as a formative experience. Reporting on Princess Diana’s death gave me a real time experience of journalistic ethics and why it is important to only report the facts, no speculation. In this day and age, when a rumor or a hoax can spread so quickly via social media, it’s an ever more important lesson to impart to the next generation of radio and journalists, verify your sources, stick to the facts, don’t speculate on what you think happened. If I remember anything the rest of my career, that is the one that will always be with me.