Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Watching 'The Newsroom' and remembering

Somewhere in my dim, dark past... before Dear Boy, before Melbourne, before PhD... I was a broadcast journalist.

I wasn't a particularly good one.

The station's tech-heads kept a recording of me screwing up and would play it when I went to visit. I introduce myself and then there's the sound of me tapping the keys of the computer... and tapping... and tapping... then my slightly panicked voice cuts in " computer appears to be frozen so there will be no news at 11 o'clock...". And then nothing. Dead air. Dead, dead air until the jock on duty realised his 5 minute break was cut short and raced back to the booth to press buttons.

I started as the weekend newsreader for two radio stations. At the same time. I would write two bulletins, prerecord and send one through five minutes to the hour, then go straight into the other live. I was waking at 3am, falling in the back door of the studios at 4am with the early newspapers under one arm and then on air at 6.

But nothing happens on the weekend. It's not a peak news period by any means. The politicians are at rest and the public is at play. My biggest responsibility was to get the weather and tides right. But that doesn't fill five minutes of news on two stations every hour.

I began to drive to work, hoping for catastrophes, for car crashes, for big news.

And then they happened.

I started a 14 day breakfast shift on Boxing Day 2004 while everybody else went on holidays. I was the only journalist at work in my city that day. I was the only person in my building that morning. I felt like the only person left alive in the world, trapped in a darkened soundproof booth, as water washed away more than a hundred thousand lives.

Each day the death toll rose, the stories began to roll in - the Australian stories, then the local stories, then the personal stories.

The day after my shift ended I handed in my notice. But not because I was burnt out, although I was. Not because I felt like a garbage bin, filled with the news of the worst of the world, although I did.

I resigned because something I said was the worst moment of someone's life.

A light aircraft crashing after take-off at a small airfield in the valley! Two fatalities! A story! I grabbed it with both hands and broadcast it loud and clear. Twenty minutes later, crackling on the police scanner and an officer reporting in after pulling over a speeding driver. "Yeah, mate, she said she just heard on the radio that her husband's plane had crashed. She thinks he's dead... Yeah. Will do."

I still have nightmares. But not about any of that. I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming of missing my cue, of my computer crashing, of dead air. I should have left sooner.

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