Originally published in Spinal Network Extra, Fall 1990
by Skip Kaltenheuser
For those safe in front of their televisions, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s June 1989 funeral was surreal theatre, the inflamed masses jumping and hitting themselves in the head, the trampling of zealots into martyrs. For most Americans, being in the midst of that funeral thicket ranked with the worst of nightmares.
For reporter John Hockenberry, covering the event for National Public Radio, it was a dream come true. The Chinook helicopter carrying the press from downtown Tehran dropped him over a mile from the grave. Other reporters took off running while a frustrated Hockenberry sat in his wheelchair surveying a giant, impenetrable field of what looked like cauliflower. Suddenly, six Persians on their way to the funeral figured out Hockenberry was a newsman, picked him up in his chair and carried him toward the maelstrom. They then commandeered an ambulance, loaded Hockenberry and kept the ambulance from being turned over, fending off those who had fainted and were being passed over the crowd.
The pace has changed for Hockenberry. It’s worse. Five days a week, he wheels over the Brooklyn Bridge to Greenwich Village to prepare for his two-hour late-night radio show, Heat, syndicated nationwide on National Public Radio stations.
“The 14-hour days hit me with an energy requirement that is hysterical,” says Hockenberry. But his payoff comes when Heat’s eclectic, improvisational segments generate new perspectives. After a show on the heart, a weary Hockenberry was beaming over a radio conversation between a heart recipient and a heart donor. On another program, it may be Middle Eastern politics followed by an hour of people doing voice improvisations that sound like cartoon animal noises. The show’s experimental style might have ex–boxer George Foreman reading poetry or Hockenberry interviewing wheelchair innovator Ralf Hotchkiss, both in their wheelchairs, in the bowels of the miserably inaccessible New York City subway system. …
Hockenberry isn’t sure to what extent t