In November of 1979, 26-year-old Alex Paen, a cub reporter at KMPC Radio in Los Angeles, convinced his bosses to send him to Iran to cover the story of the 52 American hostages held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It helped Paen’s case that Los Angeles was home to the largest population of Iranian nationals in the United States and businessman Jerry Plotkin, the only non-government employee among the hostages, was from nearby Sherman Oaks.
Paen’s ambition and resourcefulness during his coverage of the crisis, which included arranging for an audio cassette recording of Super Bowl XIV to be provided to the hostages, is featured in an upcoming episode of the NFL’s documentary series “The Timeline.” George Clooney narrates “America’s Game and the Iran Hostage Crisis,” which premieres Saturday on NFL Network after the Redskins-Eagles game.
Earlier this week, Paen said he was at first met with blank stares and few words from the student militants guarding the U.S. Embassy when he tried to start a conversation. Paen, who now hosts four nationally syndicated TV shows, including “Animal Rescue,” persisted and eventually found some common ground on the subject of sports.
“A lot of them started talking about football,” Paen said of the guards, some of whom had gone to college in the United States. “That’s how I started to get through to them. I was trying to create some sort of link, or some sort of relationship. I was there to get information and news from the hostages. I was trying to create a rapport with the guards and possibly gain some information from them. I was quite surprised that they knew about NFL teams.”
The tactic worked and Paen got information for his daily reports. Before Christmas, Paen helped deliver 4 million cards and letters of support to the embassy, which the guards agreed to distribute among the hostages. In January, Paen would make an equally important delivery for the hostages’ morale.
After the ruling regime ordered all journalists to leave the country, Paen approached the militants with a proposal. He would provide them an audio recording of Super Bowl XIV, which was to be broadcast by KMPC, under the condition that they would play the recording for the hostages. The militants and Ministry of National Guidance agreed, and Paen was permitted to remain in Tehran through the Super Bowl. He recorded the broadcast of the game between the Rams and Steelers through a telephone line in his hotel room and delivered the tapes to the embassy.
It wasn’t until the hostages were released that Paen learned the militants had followed through on their promise. Rocky Sickmann, one of the hostages interviewed in the episode, wrote in his diary about the joy that being able to listen to the Super Bowl brought him.
“It made me feel good that I had made a small contribution, that I had made a small difference,” Paen said.
The next year’s Super Bowl had a celebratory feel, as it came five days after the hostages were freed. A large yellow ribbon adorned the side of the Superdome in New Orleans, where the Raiders defeated the Eagles.
“As Americans, we came together and we could agree on one thing,” Tate Donovan, who directed the episode and knows the subject well from his role as immigration chief Bob Anders in “Argo,” said. “When they get back, let’s celebrate them.”
Donovan said it was an honor to tell the hostages’ story and how football played a role in their lives during their time away from home.
“The Iran hostage negotiations took a lot of patience and a lot of smarts, very much unlike a football game,” Donovan said. “There’s a sort of conflict between how a football game plays out and the way this crisis was resolved, and it was interesting to figure out a subtle way to tell that story.”
The episode will re-air on Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. ET.