Former Bloomberg Radio Morning Anchors Ben Farnsworth and Peter Schacknow Knew Something Was ‘Very, Very Wrong’ as They Covered 9/11

During an 11-year span in the 1970s and 1980s, Ben Farnsworth (left) was known to millions as the afternoon co-anchor at WCBS NewsRadio 88.

But it was at Bloomberg Radio/WBBR where Farnsworth informed listeners about the tragedy of 9/11.

FishbowlNY continues our exploration of the tenth anniversary with 9/11: New York Remembers.

“It was just amazing,” Farnsworth says. “It just kind of came out of the blue.”

The day was even more bittersweet for the veteran Farnsworth.

“The irony is that 9/11 is my birthday,” Farnsworth tells FishbowlNY.  “It certainly affects my life every year on my birthday.”

Farnsworth did morning drive with Peter Schacknow from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. The team was only in its second week together when the attacks shocked the city.

“It was kind of his baptism [under] fire,” Farnsworth says. “He did really well.”

Fittingly, when the first plane plowed into the twin towers at 8:46 a.m. WBBR was in a traffic report. Referring to the first whiffs of smoke bellowing, chopper reporter Brian McKinley needed to get closer than his Upper Manhattan vantage point.  

At the time, Farnsworth didn’t have any idea how insidious it was.  

“We just kind of speculated, ‘Sometimes these buildings release water vapor,” Farnsworth recalls. “It could be as simple as that.”

“At that point, not that a plane crash is a small thing, but we figured it was an accident, and that was the story we were going to be reporting on,” Schacknow tells FishbowlNY.

But moments later, television networks and local stations, usually set to check rival business cable channels, provided non-stop coverage.

“Virtually every monitor we had showed the shot of the World Trade Towers and underneath you could kind of read the scrawls, because we didn’t have the sound up,” Farnsworth recalls.

The incredibly fluid situation started with a plane crash, possibly as small as a private jet.

Farnsworth says parts of the sketchy information left people to wonder if the plane originated, or was headed for, one of the New York area airports.  

“We just kind of sat watching it,” Farnsworth says.

 By 9:03, with the second plane strike on the south tower, something much more dramatic had taken place.

“Everything had kind of mushroomed very quickly,” Farnsworth says.

The anchors, though, were reluctant to address a terrorist attack as the cause.

“The minute we looked at each other [we thought] it can’t be a coincidence,” Schacknow says. “Still, at that point you don’t fathom that somebody …will purposely crash [planes] into the Trade Center.”  

Then, the second tower was struck, followed by an attack on the Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“Then we knew that obviously something was very, very wrong,” Farnsworth says.

“It became more and more surreal as the broadcast went on,” Schacknow (right) reflects.   

By 10 a.m., one tower imploded. Less than 30 minutes later, the twin towers no longer existed.

Schacknow, a charter member of CNBC (and now back at the cable channel as a breaking news producer), recalls being stunned as opposed to his on-air partner.  

“I remember thinking [it] was more and more unbelievable that anything like this was actually happening,” Schacknow says.

Because of their business news focus, Bloomberg was rarely covering disasters. This, though, was an event that superceded any other news.

WBBR sent veteran reporters Fred Fishkin and Don Mathisen to ground zero.

“Don was kind of old, I don’t mean old in age, but in his previous life he had been a news guy,” Farnsworth remembers. “Fred was pretty much a tech guy for most of his career.”

Fishkin and Farnsworth spent many years together at WCBS.