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Peace and Quiet in the Time of Pandemic

On one side of the breakroom in the television station where I work is a wall of floor to ceiling windows that lend it plentiful sunlight. Even on cloudy days or after dark, it’s a peaceful place to hang out when I need a connection to the outside world. As a newscast director, I use a lot of expensive, high-tech equipment that doesn’t play nice in sunlight.

Craving some peace, I was eating lunch in the coveted breakroom today when one of the like-minded anchors greeted me.

“What do you think of the new reality,” he asked as he bought a Snickers.

I took my time to consider before I answered. “The whole station is quiet. You’d think I’d like that but it’s getting a little creepy. And lonely.”

“That’s exactly it! Creepy and lonely.”

It’s time to get back to work, and we have to return to the newsroom. The anchor and I spend most of our work day in the newsroom preparing for the show. In normal times, the assignment editors are fielding phone calls while listening to multiple emergency scanners and relaying the information to anyone in earshot. The managers are barking coverage plans to producers, reporters and photographers. Everyone else is trying to write, edit and code under the din before show time.

And the show WILL start on time.

However, we are well aware these are not ordinary times. Early in March, the governor and the mayor issued stay-at-home orders for employees of non-essential businesses. Television news has been deemed essential but that doesn’t mean business as usual. Corporate had a goal of moving 80% of work in each station out of the buildings. It was a daunting challenge, but it happened. 

Six weeks later, the anchor and I share the cavernous newsroom with two producers and one assignment editor. The creepy part is the occasional burble just under the hum of the air conditioning of a disembodied voice still trying to make a connection.

Because the show WILL start on time.

The lonely part comes in when the anchor and I have to go to our respective parts of the building to make the show happen. He goes to the studio and is alone for the next hour. No co-anchor, no weather or sports, not a floor manager. Those people are working from home.

I go to PCR. That’s what we call the Production Control Room. It is the bridge of the starship where the director and producer command the newscast in side-by-side captain’s chairs. (I mean that figuratively. The director sits in front of four computer screens and a video switcher. The producer, behind me with four or five screens of her own. Both of us are using unremarkable office chairs.)

The director and the producer are the dynamic duo behind the scenes of a newscast. We talk to and over each other, leading our crews. Her crew are editors, writers and reporters in the field. My crew are the audio operator, robotic camera op, prompter and anyone else who is hands-on. When there’s breaking news and we ride the crest of the wave, we tear every segment of the show apart and put it back together again. The producer is gone now, ordered by the boss to another isolated room across the building.

Through the anchor’s earpiece and through my headset, we can still hear these people, talking to us from the other side of the building or the other side of the metro. We are still alone, though, in rooms usually filled with people and their voices. Sometimes necessarily brusque and demanding voices, because broadcasting is a demanding job.

Jerry-rigging the equipment to keep us apart is also demanding, and that’s a job for another person who has to be in the building: the engineer. We’ll see him trotting to the rescue when the duct tape comes loose, or to put out a fire. (Again, figuratively—but there’s this one story…)

Kidding aside, the engineer’s primary mission is to keep us communicating, both with each other and to our viewers despite the barriers of our remote work stations. Poor communication is an insurmountable barrier in even the best partnerships, like Lennon and McCartney from the Beatles, or Waters and Gilmour from Pink Floyd. The producer and I aren’t writing groundbreaking albums, but we’re still working around a barrier. Though we’re both capable of picking up the slack, there is definitely something missing that won’t be found again until this is over.

We still get the shows on the air. Every day, in every show, the anchor reads the numbers of new deaths and pitches to the lead about the record unemployment, followed by a story about another business that can’t survive another week. The gall it would take for those of us who still have jobs to think, “poor, lonely me.” We are not health workers or first responders or those that feed and supply us. We report the news and tell the stories of the people who are out there working their asses off because we need them to.

The building will repopulate again soon. The anchor and I will have our coworkers back and the newsroom and PCR and the studio will fill with noise. That day will come when we privately think how nice it was when we had the rooms to ourselves. Or maybe I’ll see the anchor buying a Snickers in the breakroom, and we’ll both remember the creepiness and loneliness. We’ll have to concede that peace and quiet can be overrated.

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Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!

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