Former Tucson DJ recalls JFK assassination, aftermath

It was about 11:30 in the morning and I was driving to my political science class at the University of Arizona. During the day I was getting my college degree. At night I was a disc jockey at KTKT radio. KTKT was the hottest station in town. It was a Top 40 format and had more audience than all the other stations combined. 

This day I sat at the traffic light on Broadway at Wilmot traveling west. I was listening to my station, KTKT. There was a Kinney Shoe commercial on the air. All of a sudden Lloyd Couch, the News Director, interrupted the commercial with a news bulletin. You never interrupted a commercial. Any bulletin could wait a few seconds to make sure you got those few extra bucks in the coffers. But, not this news bulletin.

His first “flash” was that shots had been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas and that apparently he was hit. I was stunned. As I drove west on Broadway, Lloyd kept up with the bulletins until he announced that President John F. Kennedy was dead. 

I arrived at class and the students were just milling around the professor, Dr. Conrad Joyner (who would later become a Pima County Supervisor) with shocked looks on their faces. Girls were crying. Somebody went out and brought in a television set and we watched Walter Cronkite provide the details of the murder and the search for the gunman. After a while, Dr. Joyner said there would be no class, so we all went our separate ways.

I decided to go to the radio station, a magnet for any radio guy at a time like this. When I got there, the three executives were in the production studio having a meeting. Phil Richardson, Station Manager, Frank Kalil, Assistant Manager, and Jerry Stowe, Program Director. The President of The United States had just been shot and they were deciding what to do on the air.  How does a local station respond; what is appropriate until at least the state funeral was over? 

The question was asked, “How can we go ahead and play rock and roll music during this time of national tragedy and mourning?” The answer was, “We can’t.”

They all agreed to stop the top 40 format immediately and start playing patriotic tunes until after the funeral. It sounded like a wise choice at the time, and certainly seemed “the right thing to do.”

The problem was there just weren’t that many patriotic songs. We were hard pressed to come up with more than five or six. The Program Director, Jerry Stowe, went out to Rubitom’s Records on Speedway and came back with a couple of albums, shaking his head. 

For the next four days on the air, instead of Elvis Presley, or Chuck Berry all you heard were symphony orchestras, marching bands, and military choral groups. The selections included “America”, “America The Beautiful”, “My Country Tis of Thee”, “Columbia Gem of the Ocean”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and of course, “The Star Spangled Banner”.  

Over and over again for four days. Lee Greenwood hadn’t even recorded “God Bless The USA” yet. Sure, the assassination was depressing, but listening to KTKT made it even worse. 

Finally, on Tuesday night, we were airing our regular programming. Fats Domino and Bobby Vinton were back. But, there was a memo from the program director eliminating some songs from the play list because they could be considered in bad taste. Two I remember were “Long Tall Texan” by Murray Kellam (self explanatory) and “Down at Papa Joe’s” by The Dixiebelles (JFK’s father was known as Papa Joe). And, no more cuts from Vaughan Meador’s comedy album, “The First Family” (comic impersonations of the Kennedys). 

I often wonder what rock stations would do today if a president was assassinated. I hope we will never find out. But, I’m absolutely sure that they wouldn’t do what we did. However, In retrospect, it was the right thing to do in 1963.

(Editor’s Note: Ray Lindstrom is now 72, retired, in Oro Valley.)

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