By Alex Paen | Published Dec. 23, 2015
My hands were trembling as I approached the heavily guarded main embassy gate. It was more from Tehran's cold temperature that clear January morning than from what I was about to do. I walked past young, grim-faced militant guards holding rifles while I gripped several radio cassettes between my frigid fingers.
Days earlier, many of my journalistic colleagues had been expelled from Iran, so now I was the only accredited American reporter left to cover the story of the American hostages being held inside the U.S. Embassy. However, my mission that day was not to report, but to deliver those tapes -- a recording of the just-completed Super Bowl XIV.
My radio station back in Los Angeles, KMPC, was the flagship station for the Los Angeles Rams, who had faced the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I had tape-recorded the broadcast that morning via the telephone in my room at the Intercontinental Hotel. Allowing the American hostages to hear the game would bring some joy to their horrible predicament, I thought, while also buying me more time to remain in Iran to cover their plight.
I was a young reporter for KMPC, and this was my first overseas assignment. Far from my normal duties covering the school board, city hall or various local crimes, I was now in the middle of the biggest story in the world.
Shortly after Iranian student-militants overran the embassy in Tehran and took scores of Americans captive inside, I had arrived on the scene to report on the story and, in particular, a hostage from Los Angeles, businessman Jerry Plotkin.
My bosses at KMPC thought I was crazy when I first approached them about traveling to Iran. This was an international story, not an assignment to be given to a young, local journalist. But I convinced them that Plotkin's involvement also made it a local story. I learned from his family that it was Plotkin's first overseas trip, and he just happened to be meeting with a consular official when the embassy was overrun. And besides, I told my news director, there were other hostages from cities in which KMPC had sister radio stations -- San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Detroit -- all owned by our boss, legendary western actor and singer, Gene Autry, under his Golden West Broadcasters banner.
I was told I could go for one week.
After more than two months in Iran, I was the only American reporter left. I was proud of what I had accomplished to that point. My reporting on the scene had produced several scoops for our station. I was the first reporter to get a message from the hostages. I was allowed to bring in mail and millions of Christmas cards, sent from schoolchildren and other concerned Americans, to the hostages. This enabled me to develop relationships with, and gather information from, militant contacts at the embassy compound, and it even provided me with the opportunity to talk on the phone with Plotkin. I also reported daily on the crisis, detailing things like the changing political rhetoric from the militants and the government while painting a picture of life in Tehran for my radio audience back home.
This story had captivated the masses from Day 1 -- Americans and others around the globe were interested in what was happening at all times.
As for me, a 26-year-old reporter, it was simultaneously scary and exciting. I kept asking myself how I could walk around this city freely, go to restaurants, visit the homes of Iranians I met and go shopping, while just a short distance away, other Americans were being held illegally against their will, some of them tortured, in buildings that Iranians were, according to international law, forbidden from entering without permission. Why were Iranians nice to me, for the most part, while being hostile to other Americans who had done nothing to them?
I don't mean to minimize my anxiety -- there were times when I was frightened. Guns would be pointed at me, or rifle barrels pushed into my belly. Many times, I would be caught in the middle of angry crowds shouting, "Death to America." But for some reason, I never thought I would be killed. It was probably naiveté on my part. Or maybe I was distracted by the journalistic adrenaline that came with trying to find something new to report every day, hoping to be on hand to eventually say, The hostages are free.
Of course, I needed to remain in Iran for that to happen. So when the Ministry of National Guidance (the press office of Iran's fledging revolutionary government) declared that all American reporters had to leave in January, I had to think fast.
Though the revolutionary government did not oppose the student-militants' actions, it wanted to better control the narrative and to diminish the press attention and supposed leverage it felt the student-militants were enjoying. If all the reporters were forced to leave, the government could more effectively manage the hostage story and take away the militants' international megaphone.
I would use that conflict between the government and the militants to my advantage.
I remembered that some of the students I had dealt with talked about American football. During my numerous conversations with the captors, I found that many of these young militants had attended American universities. They enjoyed American culture, our food and our sports. Many were football fans, naming their favorite NFL teams from the cities where they attended school. I coupled that thought with reports from some of the hostages themselves, who told visiting clergymen during Christmas how they missed home and also wanted to know how the football season was going.
I thought, Why not let them hear the upcoming Super Bowl?
But that would be a challenge. I needed to get the sign-off from the Iranian government, as well as the students. When I approached the students, they said sure, they would love to hear the game, as well. My student contacts promised they would allow the hostages to hear the game. However, there would be one important condition: I had to make sure that the broadcast mentioned that the game was being recorded to give to the hostages to hear. That way, America would think the militants were "gracious hosts."
The government approval would be the hardest to attain. The Ministry of National Guidance said I had to leave with everyone else. I told them the students already approved of my plan, and that they were expecting me to deliver the tapes after the game.
That was the button that needed to be pushed.
After a few long seconds, the director, who also got his college degree in America, said yes. He even said he would like to hear the game, as well!
As Super Bowl Sunday approached, I prepared for the big moment. I needed blank radio cassettes to record the three to four hours of the game -- and I had only one left in my hotel room! For most of two days, I searched stores in Tehran until I finally was able to buy a package of five.
Several times in the days before the big game, I confirmed with my militant contacts that they would indeed keep their word and allow the hostages to hear the recordings. They continued to say yes, but they also kept reminding me that the announcers of the game had to say that the contest was being recorded for the hostages to hear -- or the militants would not play the tapes for them.
I reiterated to my colleagues back at KMPC that this was non-negotiable: If the broadcast didn't carry that announcement, the game would not be played for the hostages.
In the early hours of Monday, Jan. 21, 1980 in Iran, I was awakened by my station, and then I set up. I unscrewed the telephone voice receiver, clipped the two prongs that stuck out and plugged the other end of the cable into my tape recorder. The stack of cassettes was next to the tape recorder, and I hunkered down to replace the tapes at the appropriate commercial breaks.
The Rams had a 9-7 season record, but were successful in the playoffs, beating Dallas and Tampa Bay. The Steelers finished their season at 12-4, downing Miami and Houston in the playoffs to reach Pasadena. While the game was close for three quarters, Pittsburgh pulled away in the fourth quarter to win 31-19 and claim its fourth title in six seasons.
I gathered the cassettes, wrote the proper identification on each one and prepared to go to the embassy.
During the taxi ride to the compound, I kept wondering if the militants would keep their word. I thought, What if they refuse the tapes? While they had accepted some of my previous mail, they had become agitated when bags and bags of Christmas cards I brought in earlier created an international show of support for the hostages. After promises that there would be no problem with deliveries, they frequently refused subsequent requests when I presented myself at the front embassy gate. Other times, they accepted them. Was it a mind game they were playing with me? I kept telling myself, This is the Super Bowl -- who wouldn't want to hear this game, especially if you were a football fan?
As I got out of the car, I tried to feel optimistic.
Two militants approached the big gate. I said, "Hi, I am Radio California," (a moniker they had given me) and explained that I was there to deliver the Super Bowl. The militants knew I was coming, because I had pre-arranged the time the day before. One of the students at the gate was someone who knew me, and he shook my hand. However, before accepting the tapes, he kept asking if the announcers had said that the game was going to be given to the hostages to hear. Otherwise, they would not allow the recording to be played. I repeatedly said, "Yes."
Then the two militants said something in Farsi to one another and turned to me proclaiming they would accept it -- but they would have to listen to the game first to see if I had kept my promise, and to make sure no secret messages were contained in the tape. Once satisfied, then -- and only then -- would they play the tapes for the hostages.
With that, I handed the cassettes through the bars of the gates. I told them that allowing the hostages to hear the game -- the Super Bowl, no less -- would be a great humanitarian gesture. The hostages would enjoy it. Of course, I had no idea if they would give the cassettes to the hostages, but I felt fulfilled that I had tried.
Recently, my 16-year-old son, Alexander, asked if I believed at the time when I walked away from the occupied compound that the hostages would hear the game. I said I thought so, because when I handed the tapes to those militants at the gates, I detected a small smile on the face of that student who knew me. In my mind, this slight, non-verbal facial expression was a way for him to tell me that Super Bowl XIV would be played for the hostages.
Almost a year later, when the American hostages were finally freed, some of them informed me that, yes, they had heard the game. Jerry Plotkin ran up to me on another cold January morning -- this time in 1981, on the tarmac in Wiesbaden, Germany -- and gave me a big hug, thanking me for the tapes of the game and all the cards and letters I had managed to deliver to him and his fellow captives. Other hostages expressed similar gratitude.
Listening to the Super Bowl, many said, was their way of re-connecting with America for a little moment in time -- and it did something similar for me, inspiring memories of watching the first Super Bowl (although, of course, it wasn't called that at the time), and every Super Bowl after that, with my family.
If I could bring that same sense of family and country to my fellow Americans in captivity, then I believed I had done something right -- and I still feel that way today.