Morbidity and the Fax Machine

Death is something that happens to inanimate lists of names.

The Weakerthan’s Past-Due always makes me sad and fearful about how and how long we are remembered after we die; if we’re remembered at all. Obituary sections in newspapers are the bare-minimum of being remembered post-life. At the very least they are the freebie to announce to the world that you did indeed exist and now you don’t.

The cruelty of the Obituary is that there is no personality to it. No emotion. You don’t see who the person really was much of the time. It gives you all the life you no longer have, and does it’s best to not remind the living that they will have their day of sterile remembrance.

When I was in high school, I had a summer job working weekends at the local radio station. Rotating between morning and afternoon shifts, myself and another ’Weekend Warrior’ made sure the largely automated station stayed running. It also gave us a chance to record news, weather, sports, the weekend edition of a buy-sell-trade program, and the odd commercial to be input into the system and automatically played. This meant we rarely if ever did anything live. It also meant we could take our time organizing our content.

Being a mostly rural area, we also read the local obituaries as a segment of the news broadcast. If this seems odd, it probably is. The only justification I could ever figure out for it was that I lived in an aging and incredibly boring place. Any news, even the quiet passings of the elderly can be -and is- news.

These obituaries used to come in, individually, through the office fax machine. Whoever had the morning shift had the following routine:

1. Turn on lights.
2. Check that the station is indeed still on the air.
3. Check the logs for the FM and AM station and see what the day would be like.
4. Check the AP and Fax machine.
5. Cut up News, Weather, and Sports info.
6. Record morning News, Weather, and Sports.
7. Input recorded bits into the schedule, and otherwise follow the logs.

At Step Four, I usually hit the Fax last. Mostly because it was the super-local news, and there was rarely any of it. The other reason was (except for the time we received a police report on someone setting a portable toilet on fire) it usually was just a stack of obituaries.

There might be three or four. Never much more than that, and oddly, never none. Someone always died, leaving behind someone. My cohort and I had a contest every weekend to see if we’d ever have a weekend with no obituaries. We got close one weekend where nothing came in until late in the afternoon. Their name -which I no longer remember- was read for the evening news.

That was it, these were badly photocopied names and dates that we respectfully read every weekend. Then we were done with them. I’m not even sure people paid attention at that point in the broadcast. I am sure families were grateful that their relative was announced over the air, telling everyone that they were gone.

We could record in either the main booth, or the production booth. I tended (because it was just the news) record the news in the main booth. This meant two things:

1. I was recording into the main system and could immediately schedule the recording.
2. There was no option to edit, everything had to be done in one take.

It was always worth running through to see what the timing could be: if something needed to be read faster, slower, abbreviated, etc. This also kept me aware of what stories would be read with some kind of gravity. That was never the case with the obituaries. By the time we got to the obituaries we had read the ‘important’ things. I would read them fairly quickly, and with enough reverence to be respectful. It was bland and hollow. Worst is when there were no more to read, energy would come back to my voice for the station ID and snap to stop the recording.

It is unsettling to me now that I would read the obituaries this way. Usually by that point I was starting to get anxious to get the news input into the schedule so I could tackle some other task. The last action (because the news would change, update, or need to be rearranged later anyway), would be to throw the collected script into recycling and immediately forget about it.

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