Arts, Culture & Media

Here's a glimpse into PRI's The World's newsroom the day Mandela died

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Mike Wilkins

PRI's The World newsroom at WGBH in Boston, Mass.

There’s nothing quite like making a daily radio program. And those of us who are practiced at it accept the strange idiosyncrasies of the trade.

Our internal body clocks are trained to the rhythms of our program deadlines. As deadlines approach, we slash communication to its bare minimum — there's no room for flowery language or convoluted decision-making — and we resort to a strange mix of technical and journalistic jargon: lede, backanno, post, cutaway.

When Mandela died on Thurday, we’d already made our program for the day. It had a riveting opening on fears of genocidal-like violence in the Central African Republic, a sequence on China’s one-child policy, a feature about a Croatian-American winemaker, and some tongue-twister fun involving a video of most of the newsroom staff making fools of ourselves. We were wrapping up our post-show debriefing and heading out to pick up kids or go to the gym or whatever else it is our routines demand at the end of our often adrenalin-filled days. But then word about Nelson Mandela came.

Suddenly, everyone is back at their desks. Clark is recording South African President Jacob Zuma’s announcement. Marco is already in the studio cutting in live to the 4pm edition of PRI's The World to announce Mandela's death. Jennifer begins writing a new "billboard" that will tell listeners what to expect in the 5 pm edition. Chris finds our pre-recorded Mandela obituary and readies it for air after the headlines.

Shirin calls Cape Town in South Africa. Carol calls Johannesburg. Reporters and producers begin calling in to report for duty. I begin to hear people chatting with South Africans, offering condolences and requesting interviews. The newswires tell us President Obama will speak soon.

We start contacting our stations to let them know we’re covering the story for the rest of our editions through 9 pm ET. It’s a seamless wonder, as one person after another gauges the situation and steps into action. Within minutes, our breaking news program dedicated to this remarkable world figure is rolling out over the airwaves.

I sometimes tire of the relentlessness of what we do, the information overload, the arbitrary deadlines, the overdose of sitting and the computer eye glaze. But in these moments, as history unfolds, as fellow humans crave news and connection and inclusion and meaning, I always feel I’m in exactly the right place — in the frenetic open-plan architecture of the newsroom, under the harsh fluorescent lights, helping whoever’s listening remember and understand.

A day later, I'm in the car listening to someone else’s radio program. I'm hearing again the haunting and evocative power of the tape of Mandela’s speech in the courtroom before he was sentenced to life in prison, and I know that radio is pure magic.

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