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Morning Mayor Harry Harrison a Comforting Presence at WCBS-FM in Days Following 9/11 Tragedy

As you’ve been reading, FishbowlNY has explored how some of your favorite TV and radio personalities are coping with the 9/11 attacks—ten years later.  

None has been more beloved than the Morning Mayor—Harry Harrison.

Harrison spoke with FishbowlNY for our special 9/11: New York Remembers feature.

The Hall of Fame DJ ended his steady work with WCBS-FM in 2003. At the time, the legendary jock received numerous letters and online accolades as he stepped into retirement.

Many offered comments highlighting Harrison’s work on the days that followed September 11, 2001.

“Yours was the voice that comforted us in the terrible days after 9/11,” One person writes. “You encouraged us to be brave, to smile, to be happy, and basically appreciate life.”

Harrison was about to end his morning show on 9/11, when word filtered into the studio of a problem.

“My engineer and friend, Al Vertucci and I were startled when our newsperson Sue Evans opened the studio door and said that a plane reportedly had just struck one of the World Trade Center towers,” Harrison recalls.

Like most, Harrison initially thought it was a small, private plane crash. While a sad story, there wouldn’t be any ramifications for New York or the United States—yet. 

“Minutes later, we were told it was a large passenger plane,” Harrison says. “That’s all we knew at that moment.”

The first crash into the north tower occurred at 8:46 a.m., just prior to Harrison turning the microphone over to “Dandy” Dan Daniel at 9 a.m.

Moments after Harrison left the air, at 9:03 a.m., the insidious plan was coming to light as a second plane made a direct impact into the upper floors of the south tower.

Now that a terrorist attack had hit New York, CBS-FM took the situation seriously. Veteran newsman Al Meredith provided updates, while the music playlist was immediately altered. During that 9 o’clock hour, program director Joe McCoy dropped songs that weren’t slow or medium tempo. 

“Be careful what you say, and let’s not get anyone in a panic,” McCoy cautioned Daniel.

Daniel would only remain on the air for a solemn version of his midday show until 10 a.m. By that time, CBS-FM started to carry the feed of its sister station, WCBS-AM. The FM operation would remain in non-stop simulcast mode for the next 24 hours.

While listeners were aware of the temporary changes on the frequency, they had no idea that CBS-FM staffers were ordered to evacuate—not by the NYPD or FBI—but instead, by then-CBS chief Mel Karmazin.

“We just stood outside, nobody knew what the hell was going on,” McCoy remembers.

Unlike today with the New York CBS Radio cluster (save for WCBS-AM) being within a mile of ground zero, in 2001, CBS-FM was at 44th Street and Broadway in Midtown.

Without a working radio station, McCoy and several others began their unsuccessful quest to find a hotel. Instead, they passed several hours at an area restaurant.

Harrison, though, was not part of that group.

As soon as the “Morning Mayor” left the studio, he called his wife Patti (whom he affectionately referred to as “Pretty Patti” on the air). Amid the chaos, Harrison found momentary solace hearing her voice and assuring that he was alright.

The legendary personality wasted no time and rushed out of the station and into the mass exodus of traffic leaving New York City.

“They weren’t letting anybody from New Jersey over the [George Washington Bridge],” Harrison recalls. “They had a cop line and they had hundreds of people standing outside their cars. It looked like one of those disaster movies.”

Of course, this was all too real.

McCoy and his other CBS-FM staffers, though, were not as fortunate as Harrison. Already forced to evacuate, it appeared less likely that getting home would be an option on 9/11.

“Unless you were in relative walking distance, meaning one of the boroughs, you weren’t going anywhere,” McCoy recalls.

But by 3 p.m., still hunkered down at a steakhouse, McCoy, who lived in Connecticut, noticed that commuter trains had limited service.

The program director got his Metro North train. However it was more problematic for engineer Vertucci, who hailed from Port Jefferson, on Long Island’s North Shore.

Vertucci accompanied McCoy to Bridgeport, before boarding a ferry for the next leg of his journey home.

Having finished his show on the cusp of the second terrorist attack, Harrison was able to get out of Gotham before the city was in a virtual lock down.

“I was saying prayers for all the people who would lose their lives that morning,” Harrison remembers. “I also said prayers of thanks, and was grateful to be alive and safe.”

However, CBS-FM, and specifically Harry Harrison, rallied the city in the aftermath of the deadly events. 

“I’m a disc jockey, a guy who plays music on the radio,” Harrison reflects. “How important can that be at a time like this?”

Harrison, who says he couldn’t get into New York on 9/12, resumed his morning show on Thursday, September 13. Harrison exuded positivity and professionalism throughout his stellar career, and most recently with his WCBS-FM listeners.

“I continued that after the attacks, but even probably more so,” Harrison remembers. “I added lines like ‘Be Strong, Be Safe, Be Positive, Be Hopeful’ … and ‘We will all get through the dark times together.’”

“Harry’s always been that comfort zone,” McCoy tells FishbowlNY. “That reassuring voice, that kind of—everything’s ok. If Harry’s back on the air, everything’s ok.”

It was far from ok at the World Trade Center, as bodies were being pulled from the mountains of debris. But, through it all, Harrison made sure not to pontificate.

“And yet you can’t just ignore it either,” Harrison says. “It’s a part of all our lives.”

With CBS-FM back to music following the wall-to-wall WCBS 880 coverage, the station threw more patriotic tracks into the mix.

“We toned it down. We made sure we didn’t get anything offensive on the air, “McCoy remembers.

Employing a veteran staff of on-air talent, lead by Harrison, McCoy was not concerned that he’d need to speak with them, especially his morning man.   

“He’s that guy that would just take care of a situation,” McCoy says. “He would know what to say. He’s not going to say anything stupid.”

And, of course, he didn’t. He was a familiar “friend” during the dark, unchartered days.

“We tried to make it as normal as possible, in a really [abnormal] time,” Harrison says.

On Monday, remembrances of a veteran FM radio newsman who tried to stay ahead of the tragic news.

Photo #1–(l to r) McCoy, Vertucci, and Harrison at Museum and TV and Radio (now the Paley Center) for Harrison’s final regular show at WCBS-FM in 2003. (Credit–Harry Harrison)

Photo #2–(l to r) McCoy, Irv “Mr. G” Gikofsky, Harrison at a noontime concert at the World Trade Center in the early 1990s (Credit–Joe McCoy)

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