It was about 2:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and Steve Cohen, a legend in the sports talk radio industry who is in charge of sports at SiriusXM, was driving his son to the train station in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. for him to head back up to Marist College. Cohen got a text message from his Los Angeles-based colleague Ross Zapin asking him if he'd seen TMZ's story about Kobe Bryant's sudden death in a helicopter crash. It immediately became a scramble drill in SiriusXM's sports department.
There were multiple fronts. Cohen had his son, a communications student, in shotgun Googling for confirmation. A text thread was started with SiriusXM VP Eric Spitz, the NBA channel's program director Sean Butler, and executive producer Shane Connolly, and New York-based sports program director Andy King. Steve Torre and Bill Zimmerman of Mad Dog Radio had flights to Miami for Super Bowl week and were coordinating efforts via Wi-Fi from 35,000 feet.
Mad Dog Radio was already live on the air in weekend talk, but the NBA channel, which listeners would naturally gravitate towards for this news, was slated to air a tripleheader of live games, so they had to hustle to get longtime Miami Heat broadcaster Jason Jackson and Amin Elhassan, who works for SiriusXM and ESPN, ready to go on-air. For a story of this magnitude, NBA Radio had to be live.
Meanwhile, in these minutes, while other outlets were reporting a helicopter crash in Calabassas, Cohen's son was informing his father that TMZ remained the lone outlet reporting that Kobe was a passenger. This was not enough for them to go on.
"The biggest thing for us was to make sure that anything we reported was fully confirmed," Cohen tells The Big Lead. "We're not looking to break news. We're looking to bring you confirmed news. I was seeing all this misinformation all over the place, especially on social media. You gotta be careful. In 2020, people don't do the research. They see something and they talk about it."
Cohen and his staff mobilized to get ready to go live on the air if the TMZ story was true. When Variety and a number of local Los Angeles outlets confirmed the story around 3 p.m. ET, it was go-time.
There was misinformation all over the place. The original TMZ story said that five people died when in fact it was nine, and that Bryant was survived by four daughters when he was in fact tragically survived by three. An ABC News anchor said on television that all four of Kobe Bryant's daughters were believed to be on the helicopter when in fact his daughter Gianna was onboard but his other three daughters were not. There were rumors Rick Fox was on the helicopter which were patently untrue. Inaccuracies that may have been comparatively contained 15 years ago spread like wildfire.
The caution that Cohen emphasized was illustrated when Jason Jackson saw the erroneous ABC News report, but held off on relaying it in real-time:
"It was horrifying. I don't have a better word for it. It was horrifying to have the responsibility," Jackson tells The Big Lead. "We're working with our producers and the program director and leaning on each other -- but it's going to come out of my mouth in the end. I wanted to double-check. I couldn't find it anywhere else other than people regurgitating that report. And if I didn't see it more than once, I wouldn't do it. I was willing to wait. It wasn't important to be first."
When the hosts did get confirmation that Gianna was onboard the helicopter was when, as with the rest of us, Jackson was emotional:
"We were on live trying to sift through the breaking news, trying not to be super dramatic but at the same time provide some depth and insight into what was going on," Jackson says. "It was very hard to stay connected; that's when the news becomes about humanity -- your fatherhood. You turn into the person that you are, not the host. The toughest part of this is we spend all the time in the toy store, and then everything just becomes real and surreal. You're trying to maintain your humanity while you're trying to do your job."
Jackson and Elhassan shifted between relaying confirmed news, offering their commentaries and tributes, and interviewing guests. The SiriusXM team landed Jerry West, who engineered the Lakers' trade for Kobe Bryant on Draft night in 1996, and Rod Thorne. Eddie Johnson, a SiriusXM NBA talent, talked about playing against Kobe when Kobe was a rookie.
"I'm as proud of how we covered this tragedy as much as anything I've done in my career," says Cohen, who's spent over 30 years in the industry at WFAN and SiriusXM. He noted how eventually the conversation began to include stations' callers: "And then to hear on Monday Earl from Austin -- Earl Campbell -- call in Monday to Chris Russo ... he sat on the phone on-hold for 30 minutes! That's when you know you're doing your job. This is two-way sports talk radio. You've got to give the fans a platform to mourn and to tell their fondest stories and memories. It was a long, exhausting day. We were in go-mode."