Covering 9/11 for WBBR Was ‘Very Hard’ for Legendary Radio Anchor Mitch Lebe

Mitch Lebe is a veteran newsman with more than 50 years in New York radio.

He worked more than a decade at WYNY and sister station WNBC, followed by WCBS-AM throughout the 1990s.

In the new millennium, Lebe was prominently heard on Bloomberg Radio/WBBR.

On September 11, 2001, he was co-anchor of the afternoon shift.

Lebe spoke with FishbowlNY for our special series–9/11: New York Remembers.

“It was a day that we were starting a new jingle package,” Lebe says.

So that morning, Lebe, wanting to hear what to expect later, tuned to Bloomberg’s website for the streaming audio and the 9 a.m. jingles.

While waiting, he heard a traffic report at 8:55 a.m.

“I hear the helicopter [reporter] say, ‘There are flames coming out of the World Trade Center. We don’t know for sure, but we think a plane hit the building.’”

Those were the first words that Lebe heard via the Internet audio. From his Manhattan home, Lebe immediately shut off the computer and turned on the TV, as the situation got more drastic.  

“This plane is coming toward the building,” Lebe recalls. “I wasn’t positive at this point, except that everybody said the first plane was like a piper cub. This is no piper cub. This has got to be another plane.”

And at 9:03, a second jet crashed into the south tower of the twin towers.

Ever the broadcaster, Lebe jumped into breaking news mode. He called the radio station and gathered his tape recorder, and set out to speak to people on the streets of New York. Lebe spent much of the time from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Fifth Avenue.

“There was a strange, eerie, I don’t want to say quiet, but people were apprehensive,” Lebe recalls. “And you knew that it just wasn’t another day.”

Later, as the situation remained fluid, Lebe, who joined WBBR in 2000, began his anchoring duties at 3 p.m. with Catherine Cowdery. They had only been teamed since the week, or possibly the day, before.

To supplement their coverage, Bloomberg sent a stable of radio and print reporters to lower Manhattan.

“The thing that stood out to me …was being on the air live looking at television pictures and hearing the sounds of reporters, and all of a sudden there’s this picture of tower seven collapsing like at 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon,” Lebe remembers. “…I couldn’t believe that.”

While Lebe hadn’t witnessed or reported on a story this severe during his accomplished career, he was able to bring his experience to the forefront.

“You do what you learn to do—You talk, and then bit by bit, one fact is added, another fact is added, they get you somebody to interview, and it builds from there,” Lebe says.

Specific to covering 9/11, Lebe says the above holds true, but he was also forced to deal with the emotions unlike any time earlier (The brother of anchor/traffic reporter John Tucker, who was on air at the time, was killed in the tragedy).  

“So it was very emotional for us on a very personal level, very quickly,” Lebe admits. “It was very hard for me to broadcast that day.”

But as a professional, Lebe knew he had a job to do—informing New Yorkers about the latest details.

“You want to get factual information. You don’t want to be an alarmist,” Lebe says. “You want to calm the situation.”

In the end, Lebe, who currently does part time anchoring on WABC-AM, and reporting for WOR through Metro Traffic,  says the entire staff at Bloomberg helped make the difficult day run as smoothly as possible.

“The adrenaline, and even without a script, without really knowing where you’re going to next, and a co-anchor that you’re not familiar working with– it all came together,” Lebe recalls.

“Everybody at Bloomberg Radio/WBBR was very proud of the work we did on that day for a station that really was not one of the top tier stations for news,” Lebe admits.

The veteran newscaster also felt a strong attachment to the World Trade Center, where the governor’s New York City office was for years and where Lebe often covered news conferences.

Then, in the days prior to the attacks, Bloomberg Radio hosted lunchtime blues concerts in the World Trade Center plaza.

Lebe emceed a show with the late Odetta (who died in 2008).

“Because I was early, I walked around and looked at this structure, this magnificent building,” Lebe recalls. “…It was just a thrill. This is a beautiful structure; it’s a work of art. I can’t believe that all the times I’ve been in this building for years, I never had a chance to really look and appreciate it.”

Tomorrow, New York’s Dean of TV anchors remembers being behind the desk when the towers came crumbling down.