How ABC News Produced an Inauguration and Hostage Release, 35 Years Ago Today

By Chris Ariens 

As we told you earlier, today is the 35th anniversary of a momentous day in U.S. history: the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States and the day 52 hostages were released from 444 days of captivity in Tehran, Iran.

A late night ABC News update on the hostage crisis anchored by Ted Koppel which began in 1979, would eventually become Nightline and would remain on the air through the crisis, and long past it. We reached out to former ABC, NBC and CNN producer and executive David Bohrman, who was one of the original producers of Nightline. He gave us this brief oral history of this day, January 20, 1981.

After the hostages were taken in late 1979 ABC News president Roone Arledge made the brilliant and crazy statement that ABC News would be on every night until the crisis was resolved. I was working at the CBS station in Los Angeles at the time. Well, it turned out that there was an audience and the hostage crisis went on and on and ABC’s special events unit was getting spread thin. So they decided to create a new program. I was hired for that and started at ABC on March 17, 1980 and worked on the last week of what was called “America Held Hostage” — every night at 11:30. Nightline debuted March 24, 1980. The executive producer was Bill Lord.


What few remember is that the program was only 20 minutes long and only Monday through Thursday. ABC entertainment had the friday timeslot.

ReaganCarterAs for the hostage release, since special events was so spread out covering the inauguration, I got a “battlefield promotion” and was not only senior producer of ABC’s hostage release coverage, but ran the primary New York control room for that Nightline show on Inauguration night. The “hostage group” at ABC News was on duty for days and days, preparing for the hoped-for release, figuring out how to establish communications with Algiers where the hostages landed first and how to track the flights, all the while the Carter administration was in nonstop negotiations to gain the release. It happened moments after Pres. Reagan was sworn in.

This is the actual schematic of the various signal paths and how the audio would work on that day. The handwriting is mostly mine, and some was from Jeff Gralnick, before the days of computers. We color-coded the circuits, something I continued to do for the next 35 years!


Courtesy: ABC News and The Stanford University Green Library

I officially became the New York senior producer of Nightline not long thereafter. The Washington senior producer was Stu Schwartz, the father of CNN correspondent Dana Bash.