Friday, January 29, 2010

Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster on Radio

It's been seven years since the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost over Texas as it sped toward a planned landing at Cape Canaveral on the morning of Saturday, February 1, 2003.

Both NPR and CBS Radio interrupted regular programming to provide live coverage of what NASA described as a "contingency."

I was groggily listening to NPR that morning, and heard the 6:00 am Pacific Time hourly newscast that mentioned Columbia would land within the hour. I was still tuned in (and still groggy) when I heard the 6:40 am Pacific Time headlines that said NASA had "lost contact" with Columbia. That got my attention, and within a few minutes I had aircheck recorders running.


I wrote in Crosscut.com last year about my memory of the NPR coverage of 9/11, and compared it unfavorably to NPR's coverage of the Columbia disaster anchored by Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. In all fairness to NPR and Bob Edwards, 9/11 was a much more complex story with much more serious ramifications and far greater loss of human life. Also, I acknowledge that I'm a Scott Simon fan, and believe he's one of the most skilled radio broadcasters, whether anchoring a regular broadcast or a developing tragedy.

That being said, I listened to the Columbia recordings this past week and noted a few differences that are worth mentioning:

NASA Audio
CBS keeps the NASA audio feed going in the background, and the anchors (Peter King at Cape Canaveral, joined by Dan Raviv in New York) stop talking during live updates from James Hartsfield of Mission Control as they are happening, giving the listener a sense of being right in the middle of the story. Scott Simon and Joe Palca in the soundproof NPR studio (with NASA beat reporter Pat Duggins in Florida) occasionally play recordings of Mission Control updates, giving their coverage a more remote, delayed and antiseptic feeling.

Speculation
CBS mentions damage to Columbia from external tank foam as a possible cause for the accident as early as 7:30 am Pacific Time (and this was ultimately determined to be the cause). Both NPR and CBS mention and downplay (perhaps even "discount") the possibility of terrorism, especially as it relates to the presence of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon aboard Columbia.

Eyewitness Reports
CBS provides a chilling live report from Rob Milford of "smoking debris" on the ground in Plano, Texas and a recording of a fire dispatcher describing human remains found on the Texas-Louisiana border (this comes about 7:45 am Pacific Time). Around the same time, NPR takes a more sedate approach, and does a live phone interview with a woman north of Dallas who, along with her cat, was knocked out of bed by the sonic boom, and with a man in Dallas who heard the sonic boom.

TV on the Radio
While CBS and NPR were covering the disaster on radio, the TV networks were also live and wall-to-wall. Anchors on both radio networks occasionally refer to what they're seeing on the TV monitors that are a fixture nowadays in radio studios (recent radio coverage of 9/11, the Miracle on the Hudson and even Balloon Boy all but depended on studio TV monitors).

The "TV Factor" is about the only difference between modern radio coverage of breaking news and the earlier, more robust days of radio journalism that depended on teletypes and telephones. Anecdotally, I would speculate that dependence on TV images likely dates to the JFK assassination and the technological advances around that time that made live remote video coverage more practical.

Only when the story happens someplace really remote (think the Gulf War in January 1991), does a flip-flop occur, and TV relies on what are essentially radio methods dating to the late 1930s: talking to reporters or eyewitnesses on the phone without live visual accompaniment.

While I don't deny that TV gives radio broadcasters valuable visual information, unless you're in your car or otherwise unable to get to a TV yourself, these live descriptions of what someone (albeit a professional journalist) is watching on a screen (rather than what an eyewitness is watching or has seen) sometimes feel a little cheap. Or is that just me?

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