This is a short story that was noodling around in my head. The premise of a caller with a seven second delay on a radio station almost wrote itself, but why the caller was calling in the first place remained elusive. Eventually I got to thinking about the radio industry as a whole (Deminski and Doyle, Drew and Mike) and suddenly I had a story that wanted to come out. Hope you enjoy!
"Go ahead caller, you're on the air".
I slid back in my chair and lowered the volume on my headphones while the caller on the other end of the line launched into something that apparently kept him up all hours of the night. Honestly it didn't matter what he was saying if the ratings were to be believed and the radio station only served as a giant feedback loop for whatever manifesto or conspiracy he was spouting to the rest of the conspiratorial faithful. I half-listened to his sermon, occasionally making knowing grunts and repeating the last thing he said as a question in order to feign interest. Frankly, the show wasn't about me anymore, ever since the Station Manager moved the show to the no-mans land of 2am - 5am. Before the move the show was a lively discussion of current events, politics, debate; you name it. But apparently the show couldn't pull the ratings they wanted during that slot so they moved both of us to "the dead zone" where the only folks awake enough to discuss anything are the ones too paranoid to sleep at night. What was a long succession of debates and passionate thinkers became nothing more than a bunch of cranks who should have laid off the extra doses of cough syrup and paranoia. But it pays the bills, and even though I resented the move, I knew the alternative would be worse. The Station Manager was a friend, and he said flatly that they were ready to hand me my non-compete clause and a pat on the head if it wasn't for this slot needing some attention. But a live call-in show is impossible to replicate with previously loyal listeners hearing the podcast version of the show long after the show aired. And even then only the most dedicated listeners stayed in touch, mostly via email. Deep down I knew it was only a matter of time before this show too was radio history and I would end my long broadcasting career with nothing but a non-compete clause to show for it. Honestly, where would I go after this? My heart sank even more as I weighed my options, and found the scale wanting.
Bill popped his head up behind the console in the engineering room, and motioned that he was going to take a cigarette break. "Fine Bill, whatever", I motioned back. I don't think he could see me silently flipping him off underneath the console. Worthless, absolutely worthless. If the station didn't have a policy against it, I'd probably engineer my own show. But rules are rules, and even a worthless engineer like Bill could see the phone queue was empty on the new console setup and his lizard brain decided I could handle it. And he was mostly right. The new computerized console was similar to the old console, but just different enough that I didn't feel as comfortable not having an engineer around to make sure I didn't accidentally put out dead air, or worse. At least the dump box was working so in case Mr. Paranoid Pants started spouting things that would get the attention of the FCC or any other interested parties I could easily dump him and resume the broadcast. The counter read a healthy 7 seconds, and based on the conversation I was half-having with Mr. Paranoia I started wondering if even the FCC changed the station. I mean, how riveting could a one-sided conversation about how rubber soles prevent the electrical charges from our feet from touching the ground, and this was some grand conspiracy to - wait, what? I'm not even sure what he was talking about anymore, so I politely mentioned that we had to take a quick station break to pay some bills and got him off the air as quickly as possible in the hopes that Bill had the show sponsors lined up. Thankfully he did, even though they were about as crazy as the callers. Oh well; your stupid promotion ensures I get a paycheck another week. I set the wheels in motion and got up to see if someone remembered to make coffee.
Only two more hours of this, I reminded myself. Two more hours and then you can go home.
The whole transition to late nights had been hard on both my wife and I. She starts her day early, and of course by the time I finished the post-show cleanup she would already be off to work, or in the process of leaving. And when she got home, I'd either be asleep or working on something for the show before I got my sleep. Our schedules rarely gave us any time to be together, and as a result the time we did have together was short, sometimes sweet, and invariably not enough for both of us. We lived as though we were roommates. I even took to sleeping in the guest bedroom so she wouldn't disturb me, and I wouldn't disturb her. It wasn't an ideal situation, but it was the best we could do at the moment.
Fortunately someone hadn't managed to drain the rest of whatever coffee was in the pot, so I topped off my cup and returned to the console just as the dulcet tones of the psychic surgeon (quack) finished up. But I can't complain: dude's need to promote his bullshit equals ad dollars which equals revenue which eventually equals paycheck. Which equals why I'm doing this all in the first place. I briefly wonder how much psychic surgery pays before my conscience gets the better of me. Get rich quick - foiled again.
I noticed Bill wasn't back from his smoke break (figures), so I had to go back into the show without the opener music. Not that it mattered to both of my listeners, I thought.
I checked the phone queue, and noticed someone calling from an area code I didn't recognize. Normally Bill would have screened the calls, but since he was indisposed, and because I didn't have much else to say this segment, I figured I'd press my luck and just go live, with my finger near the dump box should things get screwy.
"Hello caller, you're on the air"
There was a noticeable hum and static noise on the line. Hm, that's odd. Wonder if one of the telephone lines isn't hooked up properly to the new system. Normally the number of calls we got didn't stress out the lines too much. I made a quick note for the day shift to look into it while the half listening to the caller.
"I don't have much time" the voice began in earnest. "You'll dump this, but listen: I need to tell you..."
I snapped back to reality. "Huh wha? Who is this?"
"Look, you and Kat going to be fine. You'll figure it out."
Kat? Katherine? How the heck did this person know my wife's name? Immediately my defenses kicked in. God I hope this isn't some crazy stalker going to do something crazy to my family. That's the last thing I need. But something sounded off. Normally crazy people aren't terribly reassuring. This sounded more like someone's son calling to let his parents know that he was OK, and whatever bad thing they were watching on the TV didn't affect him. And what did he mean that I'd figure it out? As far as I knew I hadn't mentioned to anyone in the audience what was going on with me or the show.
There was something else about the voice that didn't seem to add up. The voice was a bit faint, but it sounded almost like - and this will sound as bat-shit insane as my callers - but it sounded almost like when I did interviews over the phone and listened back to them on the air. I've spent most of my time listening to my voice through a great set of cans and a custom microphone so hearing my voice off-air always sounds tinny and distorted. I finally stopped listening to myself, so hearing a voice that sounded like me was downright - well, let's just say I already didn't like what he was saying and hearing it in a voice that sounded like me didn't help matters any.
"Look, I don't know who you are"
"I'm a friend" the voice reassured. "And you have three seconds".
"Now hold a ..."
"Dump it. Now!" the voice interrupted. "Bye."
Reflexes took over. I don't know what came over me, but I hit the button just as the static and "I don't have much time..." started playing over the air.
That static disappeared. We were live.
"Hello? Hello caller? Bill did we lose him?" I improvised. Bill was nowhere in the studio but the adrenaline kicked in and I had to make it look good. No matter what just happened - the show must go on.
I cut to commercial again (just how many spots did this psychic surgeon buy anyway?) and tried to regain my composure. My heart was racing and my palms sweat while I tried to process what the hell just happened.
I need to call Katherine. Now.
I grabbed my cell phone and dialed her up. She was two hours from getting up from work, but I had to wake her. To warn her.
Warn her of what? Some reassuring voice that called?
Bill sauntered back into the booth. "You OK?"
"Bill! I just had a strange - hold on. Kat? Hi, it's me. Are you OK?"
"Huh what? Why are you calling me? What time is it?"
"Kat, I just had the strangest call. Just let me know you're OK"
"What time is... yeah, I think I'm OK. Is something wrong?"
"I just had a strange call and wanted to know if you're OK"
Bill chimed in, just as confused as Katherine: "what call? Dude we get strange calls all night"
Katherine mirrored Bill's revelation: "Of course you had a strange call dear. That's all you get now. Now can I please get some sleep?"
"Bill, check the skimmer. I need a record of that call. Katherine, stay on the line. Bill, have you got it?"
"Got what? Skimmer's not working yet. Should be up in a day or so."
"What? You're telling me none of this was recorded?"
"I thought you knew that."
"Dammit Bill, the one time I actually WANT to go back to listen to the skimmer and it's not up."
Katherine sighed. "I'm fine, sweetheart. Now can I please go to..."
"But I swear it was... honey it was weird. They said it would be OK. I said it would be OK."
"Honey you're not making any sense," The irritation in Katherine's voice was becoming more apparent. "and it's early and I have a full day ahead. I. Need. To. Sleep."
"OK. I love you."
"I love you too."
"It's going to be alright"
"Of course it is. Goodnight."
"No, that's what the voice said. It's going to be alright."
"Uh huh. Goodnight." Katherine hung up.
Bill looked at me cock-eyed. "Going to be alright? You sure you didn't dream this?"
"No, it was real. I even dumped the call."
Bill shrugged. "Then the only people who heard it were you and the caller. Even if the skimmer were active you wouldn't have heard anything after the dump."
My chances of getting verifiable proof were getting slimmer and slimmer. Then a light dawned. The podcast! Of course. That would have at least recorded the conversation we had. If only I could get access to it.
"Bill, tell me we're at least recording for the podcast."
Bill's chortle was all the answer I needed. "Man, you jocks really don't pay attention during the all-hands meetings, do you? The new system transition hasn't been that smooth so not everything is working. Podcasts haven't been working since the new system went online. And even if it were online they were only recording the daytime shows. I thought you knew."
I swore. Loudly. But inside I knew it was a hopeless cause. Even if the system had been running perfectly it still wouldn't have mattered - my show didn't even rate recording. Hell, it wasn't even my show anymore. I had callers who acted as though they were off their meds, management and producers who couldn't care less about what I did, and an engineer who was away from the console more than he was "engineering". Whatever was left for me at this station I didn't want anymore. Paycheck be damned; I wanted MY show back, MY audience. My ratings were in the toilet because my show had been hacked to shit.
Maybe that voice was trying to tell me to quit. I don't know, but I did know I'd had enough and I needed out.
I finished up the rest of the show, and waited for the station manager to arrive. The conversation we had was one we should have had a long time ago. He knew I wasn't happy, but his only options were to give me the crappy slot or fire me. He felt the best option was to let me keep on working. But he knew it was a matter of time before I would quit altogether.
By noon I had the papers in hand - a non-compete clause for one year, two weeks severance, and the assurance that most jocks don't even get that. As an added bonus they gave me my microphone. "His master's voice" they joked.
Kat was surprised to find me sitting at home, drinking a beer. "Shouldn't you be sleeping?" she asked. "Yeah. I'm tired. But the show is done. I gave it up."
We talked. Talked about the future and how we were going to pay our bills and how we were going to make ends meet. Sacrifice and be frugal. Talked about the future and what we were going to do.
We slept. Together. In the same bed. I'd forgotten what that felt like.
The next morning Kat went to work and I got on the Internet to see if I could find some of my old audience. I managed to find a discussion forum where people were still talking about the old show and the conversations they had. Someone mentioned that the podcasts were gone, and they wondered if they would come back. I created an account and for the first time in a long time I reconnected with my audience.
A few days later I turned the guest bedroom into a studio. With the help of some of the audience members I set up a mixer with my old microphone, and bought a set of headphones and a web cam. I do the show live during the afternoons. Lots of people from all over the world find my broadcast and listen in. I got someone to help out to set up a mini VOIP phone bank to take calls. I even managed to find a few sponsors to help support the show. It's not much, but it's my show and my audience. And that's all that matters.
I still keep up with the old station and the people there. They just suffered another round of layoffs. Only a handful of talent were spared. The Station Manager didn't make the cut, but last I heard he had a gig lined up in New Jersey. There was a rumor they were turning the station into one of those Jack stations (the ones that play nothing but recorded music and commercials). I wonder if the psychic surgeon will still want to advertise there.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a very important phone call to make. Should only take me a few seconds.