Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Short Story March: Day One

The rules are: Write. Write write. Write write write.

Free write.

Elaborate on something I've already written.



The Sign-Off

Hank looked around the booth which had been his workplace for the last thirty five years. His producer in the adjacent booth was running the news tape over the air. Hank looked at his watch: 6:58 PM. For this night, the station manager and the production staff had pulled one of the studio's old record players from storage and given it a good going-over so it would be ready for airtime; new stylus, rebalanced tonearm. In two minutes, Hank would place a recording of Mahler's Titan symphony on the turntable. He was going to repeat his first night on the job for this, his last. Every single recording, on vinyl. He had three hours until the new format kicked in. The producer knocked on the window and pointed to the clock. Hank took his seat, fumbled in the box of records he had brought from home and got ready to sign on one last time.

A year ago, a company calling itself Caring Creatives started making the rounds of radio stations in the area. There was a lot of chatter in the community about what they were looking for. Word was they wanted a station with a strong signal but a small listener base which they could turn into a contemporary Christian Rock station. They looked at a couple of the local listener supported stations before moving on to the commercial stations. Hank and his cohorts at Classical 103.5 were dismissive of the suits wandering their halls one day in the late summer.

"It's not likely to happen to us," Hank said after the men walked through the break room, "we've been around for over forty years with this format. No other FM station can claim that." He took a bite of his turkey sandwich with lettuce. He frowned at the lack of mayonnaise, but his doctor had told him to watch what he ate, and Babette, his wife, had taken the doctor's word every afternoon while she packed Hank's dinner. First the cheese was gone, then the potato chips on the side were replaced with carrots, and now the mayo was gone.

"I don't know, Hank," Jeremy, one of the station's engineers said between gulps of coffee, "From what I hear in the marketing department, things aren't looking as rosy as they used to."

Hank waved the naysayer off. "Think of what we've got on the dial in Springfield," he said. "One NPR affiliate, two classic rock stations, two alternative stations, two talk radio stations, one oldies station, two contemporary easy listening stations, three top forty stations, a community public station and five, uh, rap, R and B hippy hop stations, and a low power jazz station, and us. We're fine, they'll take one of those rap stations." Hank eyed the tub of yogurt in his lunch bag. He stood up, fished some coins out of his pocket and walked to the vending machines.

"I wish I shared your optimism, Hank," Jeremy said. "You seem pretty sure about it. But our listeners aren't getting younger, and, well, I'm no farmer, but if you've got one old chicken who won't lay any more eggs, and five cows who can still produce milk, and you've got to kill one animal to make room for a sheep or something, uh, you're gonna kill the duck, right?" Jeremy was known for meandering metaphors.

"I suppose," Hank said, compromising with his inner Babette by selecting the pretzels over the saltier rippled chips. "But in five years, three of those rap stations will be gone, half the other stations will have switched formats, and we'll still be here. And it makes more sense to their 'mission' to remove a rap or a rock station than a classical station. Mark my words."

Over the next five months, there had been silence on the buyout front. Hank assumed Caring Creatives had given up their search. But in that sixth month, the rumblings began again. This time, more people came to the station, and this time, there was serious talk about the station being sold. Meredith, the station manager, called a staff meeting one morning.

"Will we all still have our jobs if this goes through?" Jeremy asked her. Others nodded in agreement. Hank sat back and watched. He knew it would not happen.

"Much of the support staff in marketing, sales, and production will be offered comparable positions with the new station under the proposed plan. Offers will be given to senior staff first." Meredith was noticeably shaking, which made Hank sit up.

"What about on-air staff?" somebody called out. Other voices joined.

"Half of the on-air staff will be retained, but the other half will be replaced with the new format." There was a commotion. Meredith raised her arms to quiet the group. "Hey, listen. Those who are retained will not be receiving their current salaries. You'll have to take a pay cut and you won't be broadcast over the air. They plan on moving the classical music to the internet, running from five in the morning until eleven."

This sparked more commotion. Hank stood and the room quieted a little. "Will the on-air staff retention be based on seniority as well?" He met Meredith's eyes and brushed his gray hair back form his temples. She looked to a packet of paper she had in front of her.

"I'm not sure," she said. "I would assume so, but, I don't know. Not off hand."

After the meeting, Jeremy came up to Hank. "I'm screwed," Jeremy said. "If everything is based on seniority like they say, I've been here the second shortest of the engineers. I'm cooked. And in this economy, too."

Hank put a hand on Jeremy's shoulder. "Take it easy; nothing's set in stone yet. The deal will never go through." Hank wanted to get home and do some reading before he came back for his 7-10 weekday shift. "I told you, they're going to buy out one of the other stations. Probably 98.3, they've been struggling for two years."

"Jesus, Hank, didn't you hear Meredith?" The two began walking to the elevator lobby. "Didn't you see the way she was shaking? This deal's probably already done, they're just waiting for FCC approval to announce it. Have you heard from anyone else in town? Are they looking at any of the other stations this time around? I'm telling you, we're fucked." They arrived in the lobby. Hank pressed the down button and Jeremy pressed the up button. "We're up a creek without a radio station, my friend. You, you're probably fine, you were here when Beethoven won the Grammy for best new artist, but me..." The up elevator door opened.

Jeremy had been correct; Caring Creatives had already closed the deal with station ownership. A month later, when the FCC approved the sale, the announcement was made that on July 17th, at the end of Hank's shift, the station would become Life 103.5 Christian Contemporary. A week after the announcement, offers were made to existing staff members. Hank waited patiently for his offer. He planned on saying no and taking the severance package, pithy as it was. He was approaching retirement anyway, and he and Babette had just planted a vegetable garden in the back yard the year before. He looked forward to walking out of there with his head held high and spending his golden years keeping squirrels away from his tomatoes.

After two weeks, his offer still hadn't come. By this time, the pink slips were starting to land on desks. One in each department the first day, the same on the second day, and so on. On the seventh day, a Tuesday, Hank found his slip. He marched with it into the new station manager's office. Meredith was still the manager of the classical side, but she now reported to Seth, a man who had studied to become a Lutheran Minister but who had abandoned that track for, as he had said in his first address to the staff, a "different call of service to the Lord." Hank had been silent about the buyout of the station and had a respect for Seth's work ethic. But he could not stand this. He waved the slip in front of Seth and Meredith.

"What's this?" he asked.

Seth leaned back in his chair and took off his glasses. He set them down on his desk and rubbed his eyes. "Meredith, could you leave us for a moment?" he asked.

Meredith stood, looked at Hank, then sat back down. She looked at her feet. "No," she said, "Hank is one of my employees, I think I should be here for this." She looked at Hank, who smiled at her, and then she looked at Seth.

Seth paused for a second. "Okay, sure," he said. "Look, Hank, we appreciate what you do for us here. But you're getting closer to retirement, and we figured you wouldn't want to work in Internet radio. And we don't have a place for you on air; we need young, hip DJ's to spin our tracks for us. Folks who can connect with the youth of the city, bring them in to hear what they need to hear to, to, to save them from what they are assailed with from the rest of the FM dial. Do you hear what I'm saying?" Seth smiled at Hank.

Hank forced his body to straighten as tall as it could. He agreed with part of Seth's reasoning, but another part inflamed him. "What I hear when I listen to the radio," he said, "is some of what you're talking about. But I also hear the free exchange of ideas. I hear passion and artistry. And right now, I'm hearing you say that the best way to 'save' the youth of the city from some of the filth you find on the radio is to take away one of their existing safe havens and replace it with another? Is that what you do when you fight the good fight? Do you push your allies out of the way? I hear in the music we play on this station some of the most exquisite and beautiful and joyous compositions man has ever produced, much of it by people who attributed their gifts not to themselves but to God himself! They celebrate the beauty of God's creation by adding to it! What could be a better compliment to your mission?"

Hank was shaking. Meredith was wide eyed. Seth was frowning. "Are you done, Hank?" Seth asked at last.

"No," Hank said. "Not until ten PM on July 17th." He turned around and opened Seth's office door. He looked back at Meredith, who winked at him, before stepping into the hall and letting the door shut behind him.

Within a few days, Hank had become a hero of sorts. Those who had been told they were being let go when the format changed stood to applaud him whenever he entered a room. Meredith and some of the other staffers who had accepted retention offers came back and rejected the offers. Some of those who were staying on told Seth they would stay on condition that Hank was allowed to serve until sign-off. The archivists found transcripts of his early shows and gave Hank photocopies, which gave him the idea of reprising his first broadcast. Jeremy had pulled the record player out of storage and integrated it with the digital soundboard in the broadcast booth.

Hank sat at the chair in front of the microphone. One minute to air time. The door opened and Jeremy stepped in. "Hey, Hank," he said.

Hank smiled. "Jeremy. Good luck with Seth here in the future." The shook hands.

"I don't think we got off on the best foot, he and I," Jeremy chuckled. "But I'm sure once you're gone, things will settle down. Troublemaker."

Hank's producer pushed the intercom button. "Fifteen seconds," he said.

"I'll get out of here," Jeremy said. "Just...knock 'em dead tonight."

"Absolutely I will," Hank said, getting the record ready on the turntable.


Molly said...

ahhh... bittersweet. Such a realist, you couldn't have written it so the "long-hairs" won? Nah. That would have been a fantasy. Now I'm depressed. The power of the written word in action.

notawritersfather said...

Damn nice! There is some excellent insight here, and i am glad I get to respond this way because I would not be able to speak withot everone knowing how choked up I am. Not just about the article, but because of who the writer happens to be.