On The Air
The printout from the weather centre comes through at 3.43am, and finally someone has given it a name. Cumulus Letalis. Jesse reads the report like he’s supposed to, like he has every night for twenty-eight years, then he taps the screen that fires off Celine Dion on the playout system and stares out at the stars. Celine Dion! Has it really come to this?
At least they weren’t responding like every other station in town. In fact, the WXYW reaction was as far from that as you could get. Station Manager Steve Carlton had made that quite clear at the Crisis Management Meeting yesterday afternoon.
“If these clouds really spread to Boston, like the weather centre predicts, you can guarantee our competitors will be in full-on panic mode. They’ll have reporters up on the rooftops, man-in-the-street vox-pops, eye-in-the-sky choppers tracking the evacuation effort, everybody from the feds to NASA throwing in their two cents worth… there won’t be a station in town sticking to playlist with a live presenter. There will of course be the ones who go to automation and get the hell out of Dodge…”
“Like we all should be doing,” said Gerry Gerrity, WX’s hot-shit breakfast jock (and A-1 pain in everybody’s ass). He still had his blue-tooth clipped to the side of his temple (he regularly took calls from his agent in the middle of station meetings, and never lowered his voice); Jesse thought he looked like a stapled schlong.
“Well, obviously I can’t force anybody to stay and work,” said Carlton, “but—“
“I’ll do it,” said Jesse. It was the first he’d spoken in a station meeting all year. Maybe that explained the looks he got from around the table. But he’d long since given up caring what any of them thought. You can’t expect to maintain any semblance of self-respect when you’re playing James Blunt for a living.
“If you hate the job so much,” Audrey used to say, “quit!”
“I don’t hate the job,” he told her. “I hate what they’ve turned the job into. A business – this was never supposed to be a business!”
“No? What’s it supposed to be then? A calling?”
Audrey never understood.
“What else am I going to do?” he’d ask her. “What else am I good for after all these years but playing records and talking?” They didn’t even call them records anymore. It was all “tracks” nowadays.
“Tracks is what train runs on,” Jesse used to tell them, but he stopped when they started looking at him like he was their grandpa. These kids they were getting in the station nowadays, they wouldn’t even know a record if they saw it.
At a little after 4.30, Jesse watches the clouds rolling in from the South. From the 57th floor of the WXYW Tower of Power, he can see the whole of the city and beyond. Across the bay as far as World’s End and Quincy. And while they still had clear skies overhead, he knew it’d only be a matter of time. From Florida to Virginia, past Delaware and Philly – up to New York and Jersey. Over the last few days, those lousy clouds had squirmed up the whole of the Eastern seaboard. And once they settled, that was it. Everything went dark. No communications, nobody in or out of any of the cities, no idea what was going on inside. They sent in the army, the Hazmat teams, FEMA… they lost contact with all of them within just a few hours. The President declared a state of emergency, but it quickly became apparent the only solution was a complete evacuation, at least until they figured out exactly what they were dealing with. If they ever did. But even with warning, they couldn’t hope to get everybody out of Boston in time, and the highways had been jammed as far as Vermont for 72 hours now.
Of course, there were plenty of theories. Alien invasion. Terrorist attack. The wrath of God. (Though surely God would have taken the West Coast first?) But all the satellites showed was that strange, low-lying cloud. Cumulus Letalis. You didn’t have to be a Classical scholar to decipher the Latin.
“At the end of the day, there are going to be thousands – if not tens of thousands – of listeners who either can’t get out of the city in time, or just plain don’t want to leave their homes,” Steve Carlton had told him, in private once the others had gone. “And while everybody else will be fighting it out to provide up-to-the-second disaster reportage… there will be a large proportion of the audience share who simply don’t want to know – who just want to bury their heads in the sand and hope that this all… blows over. Which, after all, it just might just do. That, Jesse, is where WXYW comes in – offering the perfect mix of adult contemporary classics to soothe the fearful spirit… and a steady, reassuring voice to becalm the troubled mind.”
Jesse wouldn’t miss Steve Carlton and all his inconceivable bullshit. His audience research that suggested listeners wanted a friendly, calm, natural, quietly humorous presentation style on the one hand, while the sponsors wanted an upbeat, non-ironic, in-your-face sales patter from their jock-read promo scripts on the other. His song sampling results that involved playing 30 second hooks down the phone to stay-at-home shut-ins, then building an entire playlist around their ability to Name That Tune in 29… rather than letting the experts – people like Jesse – put their heart and soul into selecting the kind of imaginative, entertaining and provocative music choices that had been delivering consistently strong ratings for a good ten, fifteen years before some idiot with a computer and an attitude decided they knew best. Some idiot who didn’t even know the difference between ELO and ELP. Didn’t even care. And people wondered why Jesse had volunteered to stay behind. There was nothing in this job for him anymore… but since Audrey moved out, the job was all he had.
At half past five, Jesse reads out the day’s Mad Mad Mondegreen email. Listener-suggested songs with amusingly misheard lyrics. “We’ve got to insult microwave ovens,” says Brody in Cambridge, from the song, ‘Money For Nothing’, by the immortal Dire Straits. As Jesse fires off the track, the first fingers of dawn unclench over Logan and Fort Dawes, and though the smother of cloud already hugs the streets beneath him, from atop the second tallest building in Boston, Jesse can still see the sunrise, and the stars winking out in the west. It occurs to him now that while below, the unknown is at last being discovered, as long as he remains up here in the studio… the lousy clouds might never even reach him.
He tries the switchboard for an outside line. He has some crazy idea about calling Audrey, doing his best to make some kind of peace. But the phones are down, and his cell has lost its signal. He eats a Twinkie from the vending machine and burns the roof of his mouth with vile black coffee.
At 6.13, the lights go out in the studio and the desk goes dead. A few seconds later, the emergency generator kicks in and Jesse makes a quick apology for the momentary loss of service, before restarting Dido. He turns his face into the sun that’s rising again – over the advancing cloud line this time – and closes his eyes ‘til the lids go transparent. He sneezes when he opens them again, and wipes snotty fingers on the side of his chair. What a pity Gerry Gerrity won’t be following him this morning.
By 7am, Cumulus Letalis has taken all the land Jesse could see, but still the Tower of Power remains above, so far unaffected. He wonders what would happen if he got in the elevator and punched ‘G’. He wonders how many people got out of the city in time, and how many remain below, down in the mystery. He wonders about Steve Carlton and Dana Oxbury, and that cross-eyed guy Mandy from Sponsorship & Promotions. He wonders about Audrey. He wonders about Audrey a lot more than he might have expected to. But as he watches a jet scar the immaculate blue above, he knows it’s far too late for regret. Particularly when the cloud is rising. He could open the studio window and step out across it now… though soon, those same studio windows will be sinking underneath, and only the transmitters will be visible from above.
“One final matter,” Steve Carlton had told him, suddenly unable to meet Jesse’s eyes, like even he knew the bullshit only went so far. “When… I mean, if something should happen, and you’re no longer able to keep broadcasting… I would of course expect you to switch to automation before… well, at the first sign of… aherm…”
But Jesse has his own plan for when that happens, and as the sunlight blinks through the advancing brume, he knows the time has come to put said plans into action.
“And now,” he says, killing David Gray mid-song and really smiling into that mic for the first time in years, “in a change to our regularly scheduled programming… here’s some tunes you won’t hear every day.” He switches off the playout computer and slips in a CD (if the studio still had turntables, he’d have brought vinyl), introducing a few records from his own… personal collection.
“This first one goes out to Audrey, wherever she might be – you always did love The Ramones…”