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Fall 2002

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For New York newsman, the dust never settles

September 11, 2001, was just the second day on the job for New York City newsman Richard Bamberger ’92. He was the new managing editor for news at WCBS-TV, the network’s flagship station. With experience at Schenectady, Miami, and Detroit television stations, Bamberger was well prepared for managing the largest local news team of the CBS network. But he wasn’t prepared for 9/11.

by Jens David Ohlin ’96

“The morning editorial meetings start at 9 a.m.,” Bamberger says. “We were getting ready to start our meeting, and the police scanners said there was a fire at the World Trade Center—but you hear stuff about fires all the time.”
     When Bamberger realized that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, he dispatched news teams and cameras to lower Manhattan from the WCBS-TV studios on 57th Street and 10th Avenue. At that point, Bamberger and his wife, the executive producer at the station, were under the impression that a small airplane had hit the tower, perhaps by accident. Then word came that it was a large jetliner.
     The WCBS news helicopter was already over the Statue of Liberty, starting to shoot footage of the burning building. That’s when the station made the decision to start the live coverage that was beamed into households in New York and across the country over the CBS network. Within minutes, the second airplane would hit the towers while millions watched real-time video shot from the chopper. Bamberger was now charged with helping to oversee news coverage for the most important event in decades—at a newsroom he’d first walked into only a day before.
     “I still didn’t even know where the bathrooms were,” he says. “I didn’t know names. I called out to people, ‘Hey! Go do that!’”
     The usual chaos of the newsroom was amplified when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Reporters were separated from their photographers, and the station had technicians staffing a transmission antenna on the roof of the towers. In fact, the technicians had switched to the station’s backup transmitter on the Empire State Building, making WCBS one of only two stations in New York City able to continue uninterrupted broadcasting to those viewers who don’t have cable TV and instead rely on radio transmissions to receive their signal.
    “When the towers collapsed, people here fell down crying because they thought the photographers were dead,” Bamberger remembers. “No reporters or photographers lost their lives, but it was two hours before we could account for everyone.” He adds, “Sadly, the two technicians on the 110th floor were killed.”
      “We worked for an insane number of hours. We had some folks drive us home to shower. There was nothing to see on the street—no people, just National Guard troops and cops with machine guns. Nothing was open. No cars. It was all dusty and it smelled funny. There was smoke everywhere. It was very eerie.…Then we went right back to work.”

When will things calm down for Bamberger? “They haven’t yet,” he says. “I wish they had.” These days, “I leave for work by 6 a.m. and I’m usually home at about 7:30 p.m. But that’s only if nothing happens.”
     Indeed, Bamberger continues to be at the center of New York area news. In February he got a call from Fairfield University in Connecticut, where a disgruntled former student was holding twenty-eight hostages in a classroom and was threatening to detonate a bomb. Bamberger was on the phone with one of the hostages, who called the station from a cell phone. Through the hostage, Bamberger was able to exchange messages with the hostage taker and relay them, through a colleague at the assignment desk, to the state police. More used to covering the news, Bamberger had suddenly stepped right into the news.
     The hostage taker composed a statement to be read on the air and dictated it to Bamberger through the hostage who had called the station. Bamberger and WCBS executives decided not to air the statement. He recalls, “We had the helicopter up there. It was post-9/11, and everyone was a little bit stressed out. But it ended happily.” The bomb turned out to be a fake and the police—with Bamberger’s help—were able to negotiate the suspect’s surrender. No one was killed.

An English major at Skidmore, Bamberger was an editor at the Skidmore News, which he credits with sparking his interest in journalism. For him, he says, “Skidmore was awesome—the city and the professors and the students. And the soccer team was great too.”
     After writing and editing stories for the News and some local publications, Bamberger tried his hand as a freelance photographer, snapping shots of fires and car accidents, which he sold to the Associated Press. Then came an internship at WRGB-TV, the CBS affiliate in Schenectady. After graduation he joined the station full-time and worked his way up to producer. There Bamberger met his wife, Kristin Quillinan, a Siena College graduate.
     In 1997 the husband-and-wife news team moved to the Fox affiliate in Detroit. When they made the move to New York, where Bamberger had grown up, WCBS was trailing in the ratings war in the crowded and competitive news market. Bamberger wanted to change that.
     September 11 gave the station a ratings bounce, as viewers tuned into the coverage offered by Bamberger and his team. Through much of the ordeal, the station stayed with local coverage, electing not to switch over to the network feed, as most local stations do during major news events. And recently Bamberger oversaw his station’s live coverage of the 9/11 anniversary observances and memorial services.
     “There’s never been a news story like this before,” he says. “And I hope there won’t be anything like it ever again.”

Former Skidmore News editor Jens Ohlin ’96 earned a Ph.D. in
philosophy from Columbia University last spring and started at Columbia Law School this fall.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College