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Interview Neal Spelce who reported live from the University of Texas at Austin during the 1966 mass shooting



Transcript

JEFF WALLENFELDT: I'm Jeff Wallenfeldt. I'm the Manager of History and Geography at Encyclopedia Britannica. I'm talking with Neal Spelce, award-winning journalist and longtime television anchorman, in Austin, Texas, who reported the events of the University of Texas tower shooting in August, 1966, as they happened. Hi Neal.

NEAL SPELCE: Hey. It was a lot of time ago.

50 years ago, now.

WALLENFELDT: My goodness, yes. We're on the 50th anniversary of it, now. Neal, how was it that you came to report the shooting both on television and radio at the same time?

SPELCE: Now, let me tell you. It was very primitive. You've got to remember there were no cell phones back at that time. The telephones were rotary dial. Everything was very primitive as far as broadcasting was concerned. And radio was the dominant means for communication on an immediate nature.

I was broadcasting for a long time on radio, doing anything, just, you know-- there's a shot, there's another shot, and telling people to duck down, stay away from the campus-- all that sort of stuff while the gun battle was going on.

At the same time, the television station for the University of Texas-- very primitive in itself-- had a television studio with a big, huge, clunky camera that they kind of wheeled over to the door or window and aimed it at the top of the tower.

And they took a picture. It was a static picture, just locked in on it, of the top of the tower that show the observation deck, the clock, and then ultimately, to the top, where it cut off. And they were broadcasting that picture.

Well, back at the television studio, we took the picture from the university station and took my radio broadcast and overlaid that as the audio for the broadcast, itself. So yeah, it was live on television, but all you saw was a static picture of the top of the tower and then a radio narration.

All that film was not live. That film did not air until that night at 5:30 PM central time, because we were out there shooting the film at 16 millimeter. We processed and edited before it could be put on the air.

So later, the images that we put on the air with the film came to be married up with my radio narration, and it gave the impression that this was a television broadcast. But it really wasn't live television, as such.

WALLENFELDT: When that report came together, it went out over the three national networks before it was even shown locally. Is that right?

SPELCE: You know, interestingly, the three national networks-- and there were only three at the time, ABC, CBS and NBC-- at that time, none of them had any crews here in Austin, Texas.

In fact, we were really the only ball game in town from a broadcast standpoint. Another TV station was on the air, but it had just signed on. It didn't have the resources that we had.

So all three networks called. They said, we need that story. Can you send us your story? And we said, yeah, we'll put it together for you. Well, what they said was, what are you going to do in the way of film? Said, well, we'll send you a film of what happened.

What does it show? I don't know. I haven't seen it yet. It's still being processed and edited, and I probably won't see it when it goes on the air. You know, they probably rolled their eyes and thought, oh my.

And then they said, well, can you send us a script of what you're going to say? And I said, no, I don't have time to write it. We're going to ad lib it while it's going on. They said, you're going to ad lib a story of film that you haven't seen, and you're going to put it out on all three networks at the same time? Said, that's all we can do.

Well, it happened, and it came off without a hitch, though I'm sure there were a few heart attacks at the network level at that point, just relying on some kid in Austin, Texas, to take over their station, their network air.

WALLENFELDT: Part of the reason that you all were able to capture all of this is because the station was really close to the campus, itself, wasn't it?

SPELCE: No more than nine blocks away from the station. And when I jumped into a mobile unit-- which was a radio mobile unit, no TV-- and started driving to the campus, I could see the tower as soon as I got in a car and started driving.

So we started broadcasting the radio report of what was going on while driving to the campus and looking at the tower and observing what was happening, and I put it on the air at that point. We were very close, so we were able to get there very quickly.

WALLENFELDT: And then was it sort of an all hands on deck situation, back in the station, itself, where cameramen were kind of scrambling to get to the campus?

SPELCE: They asked me afterwards. They said, well, Neal, did you put your emergency plan into effect? While we didn't have a plan, we had really good people, not just in the news department, not just photojournalists, but really good people throughout the station who came in to help.

People who were off duty-- we didn't have to call them-- people who were off duty came in on their own when they heard what was going on. Also, at the same time this was going on, we had people in other parts of the station walk into the newsroom-- how could I help? We had sports guys, who came in and said, look, what can I do to help [INAUDIBLE].

And we fed hundreds of radio stations all over the United States, and people who came into the newsroom to help actually were preparing those reports and sending them out to them.
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