Read an Excerpt
Dominic Yun is in my sound booth.
He knows it’s my sound booth. He’s been here four months, and there’s no way he doesn’t know it’s my sound booth. It’s on the station’s shared calendar, the one connected to our email, in a blue bubble that reads booth c: goldstein, shay. repeats monday– friday, 11 to noon. ends: never.
I’d knock on the door, but—well, a sound booth’s defining feature is that it’s soundproof. And while I’m certain a list of my faults could fill a half hour of commercial-free radio, I’m not quite so awful that I’d storm inside and risk screwing up whatever Dominic is recording. He may be Pacific Public Radio’s least qualified reporter, but I have too much respect for the art of audio mixing to do that. What happens inside that booth should be sacred.
Instead, I lean against the wall across from Booth C, quietly simmering, while the red RECORDING sign above the booth flashes on and off.
“Use another booth, Shay!” calls my show’s host, Paloma Powers, on her way to lunch. (Veggie yakisoba from the hole-in-the-wall across the street, every Tuesday and Thursday for the past seven years. Ends: never.)
I could. But being passive-aggressive is much more fun.
Public radio is not solely filled with the kind of honey-voiced intellectuals who ask for money during pledge drives. For every job in this field, there are probably a hundred desperate journalism grads who “just love This American Life,” and sometimes you have to be vicious if you want to survive.
I might be more stubborn than vicious. That stubbornness got me an internship here ten years ago, and now, at twenty-nine, I’m the station’s youngest-ever senior producer. It’s what I’ve wanted since I was a kid, even if, back then, I dreamed of being in front of a microphone instead of behind a computer.
It’s eleven twenty when the sound booth door finally opens, after I’ve assured my assistant producer Ruthie Liao that the promos will be in before noon, and after environmental reporter Marlene Harrison-Yates takes one look at me and bursts out laughing before disappearing into the vastly inferior Booth B.
I see his shoe first, a shiny black oxford. The rest of his six-foot-something body follows, charcoal slacks and a maroon dress shirt with the top button undone. Framed in the doorway of Booth C and frowning down at his script, he could be a stock photo for business casual.
“Did you say all the right words in the right order?” I ask.
“I think so,” Dominic says to the script instead of to me, completely serious. “Can I help you with anything?”
I fill my voice with as much sweetness as I can. “Just waiting for my booth.”
Since he’s blocking my path, I continue to scrutinize him. His sleeves are rolled to his elbows, and his black hair is slightly mussed. Maybe he dragged his hands through it, frustrated when his story didn’t turn out precisely the way he wanted. It would be a refreshing contrast to his recent stories dominating our website, the ones that get clicks because of splashy headlines but lack any emotional depth. During those fateful twenty minutes he spent in Booth C, maybe he grew so fed up with public radio that he’s on his way to tell Kent he’s so sorry, but he wasn’t cut out for this job.
He’s barely been here long enough to understand the nuances between Booths A, B, and my beloved C: that the headphones in Booth C are perfectly broken in, that the weight of the faders on the board makes them easier to manipulate. He doesn’t know the significance of Booth C, either—that it’s where I mixed tracks for the first show I produced entirely solo, the one about being fatherless on Father’s Day that tied up our phone lines for hours. Listening to those stories had made me feel, for the first time in years, a little less alone, had reminded me why I’d gone into radio in the first place.
I’d say it’s not just about Booth C, but it’s also possible that I’ve formed an unhealthy attachment to these twenty-four square feet of wires and knobs.
“It’s all yours,” he says, but he doesn’t move, nor does he glance up from his script.
“It’s supposed to be. Every weekday from eleven to noon. If your calendar isn’t working, you should probably tell IT.”
Finally, he wrenches his gaze from the script down to me. Way down. He settles into a lean against the doorframe, a slight hunch to his shoulders. He’s always doing this, and I imagine it’s because regular-size buildings are too small to confine him. I’m five two and never more aware of my height than when I’m standing next to him.
When our receptionist Emma took his photo for the website, she blushed the whole time, probably because he’s the only guy here under thirty who isn’t an intern. In the picture, he’s serious except for one corner of his mouth, the tiniest parenthesis tugging his lips to one side. I stared at that corner for a long time when the photo was posted, wondering why Kent hired someone who’d never set foot inside a radio station. Kent swooned over Dominic’s master’s in journalism from Northwestern, consistently ranked the best program in the country, and the way he swept the collegiate journalism awards circuit.
Dominic gives me a tighter, more restrained version of that staff photo smile. “It was eleven oh five, and no one was in it. And I might have a big story to break later. Waiting on confirmation from one more source.”
“Cool. I have to mix Paloma’s intros, so—” I make a move to enter the booth, but he doesn’t budge, his impossibly tall frame blocking me. I am a cub trying to get the attention of a grizzly.
That parenthesis pulls at his mouth a little more. “You’re not going to ask what my story is?”
“I’m sure I’ll read all about it in the Seattle Times tomorrow.”
“Aw, where’s your team spirit? Public radio can break news,” he insists. We’ve had this argument a dozen times, dating back to his first week at the station, when he asked why none of our reporters regularly attended city council meetings. “Wouldn’t it be great to get ahead of a story for once, instead of playing catch-up?”
Dominic can’t seem to grasp that breaking news isn’t our forte. When I told him during training that sometimes our reporters simply rewrite news briefs from the Times, he looked at me like I’d said we wouldn’t be giving out tote bags during our next pledge drive. Our reporters do great work—important work—but I’ve always believed public radio is best when it focuses on longer features, deep dives, human-interest pieces. That’s what my show, Puget Sounds, does, and we’re good at it. Paloma came up with the name, a play on Puget Sound, the body of water along Washington’s northwestern coast.
“People don’t turn to us for breaking news,” I say, trying to keep my voice down. “We’ve done studies. And it doesn’t matter where local breaking news comes from. Tomorrow it’ll be on every station, blog, and Twitter account with twenty-seven followers, and no one will care where they saw it first.”
He crosses his arms over his chest, which draws more attention to his bare forearms and the pattern of dark hair that disappears into his sleeves. I’ve always been a forearm girl—a man rolling his shirt to the elbows is basically foreplay for me—and it’s a crime that such nice ones are wasted on him.
“Right, right,” he says. “I have to remember that real radio focuses on—what’s your segment today?”
“Ask a Trainer,” I say with a thrust of my chin that I hope projects confidence. I refuse to be embarrassed by it. It’s one of our most popular segments, a live call-in show where renowned animal behaviorist Mary Beth Barkley—98 percent chance that’s not her real name—answers listener questions. She always brings her corgi, and it’s a fact that dogs make everything better.
“You’re providing a real public service, analyzing cat vomit on air.” He pushes away from the booth, and the door closes behind him with a thud. “I must have been sick that day in grad school. Not a lot of other people can capture that nuance the way your show can.”
Before I can answer, Kent strides down the hall in his trademark suspenders and novelty tie. Today it’s tiny slices of pepperoni pizza. Kent O’Grady: the station’s program director, and owner of a radio voice that made him a Seattle legend decades ago.
He claps a hand on Dominic’s shoulder, but since Kent’s only a few inches taller than I am, it lands on his bicep. “Just the people I was looking for. Dom, how’s that story coming along? Do we have a scandal on our hands?”
Dom. In ten years, I’ve never seen Kent bust out a nickname so quickly.
“Scandal?” I ask, interest piqued.
“We just might,” Dominic says. “I’m waiting on one more call to confirm.”
“Excellent.” Kent runs a hand through his graying beard. “Shay, does Paloma have time at the top of the show for a live interview with Dom?”
“Live?” Dominic says. “As in . . . not prerecorded?”
“Of course,” Kent says. “We want to be the first to break this story.”
“Gotta get on that breaking news,” I say as Dominic pales. While I don’t love the idea of ceding time to Dominic, if he’s uncomfortable, I am definitely on board. “I guess we can give you a few minutes of Ask a Trainer.”
Kent snaps his fingers. “Remind me to catch Mary Beth before she leaves. The only way Meatball eats her food these days is if she transfers every single nugget from the dish to the floor.”
“Only a few minutes, right?” Dominic’s voice wobbles.
“Five, tops. You’ll be great.” Kent flashes us a grin and turns back to his office.
“Please don’t mess up my show,” I say to Dominic before I slip into Booth C.
Dominic Yun is in my studio.
Technically, it’s three adjoining studios: the one I’m in with the announcer and mixing console—aka “the board”—the small call-in studio, and Studio A, where Paloma’s sitting right now with her show notes, a bottle of kombucha, and an empty glass of water. Dominic is next to her, wringing his hands after spilling said water on Paloma’s notes. Ruthie had to race to print off another copy.
“Mary Beth’s here,” Ruthie says, coming into the studio behind me after mopping up Dominic’s mess. “And yes, she has water, and her dog has water.”
“Perfect. Thank you.” I put on my headset and scan the show’s rundown, my heart thumping its familiar preshow rhythm.
Puget Sounds is an hour-long burst of adrenaline every weekday from two to three p.m. As the senior producer, I direct the live show: cueing Paloma, calling guests and patching them through, tracking the time spent on each segment, and putting out any number of fires. Ruthie brings in the guests, and our intern, Griffin, works the call-in line in an adjoining booth.
Sometimes I can’t believe I get to do this five times a week. Thousands of people across the city are turning their dials and apps and web browsers to 88.3 FM, and some of them will be so inspired, amused, or even furious that they’ll call us to share a story or ask a question. That interactive element—hearing Paloma through your speakers one minute and chatting with her live the next—is why radio is the best form of journalism. It makes the world a little bit smaller. You can be listening to a show with hundreds of thousands of fans across the country, but it still feels like the host is talking directly to you. Almost, in some cases, like the two of you are friends.
I bounce my tan ankle boots up and down on the lowest rung of my usual stool. Next to me, Ruthie adjusts her headphones over her platinum blond pixie cut before placing a hand on my leg to stop my fidgeting.
“It’s going to be fine,” she says, nodding toward Dominic through the glass separating us. We try to keep our feud secret, but Ruthie, with all her brink-of-Gen-Z intuitiveness, picked up on it within weeks of his start date. “We’ve dealt with worse.”
“True. You’re my eternal hero after rebooking all four guests on our irrational fears show last minute.”
I adore Ruthie, who came to us via commercial radio, which is faster paced despite the near constant ad breaks. Every so often, I catch her humming the 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS jingle under her breath. She says she’s haunted by it.
In the center of the studio, Jason Burns rises from his announcer chair, an ergonomic contraption he specially ordered from Sweden. The board stretches in front of him.
“Quiet in the studio, please,” he says in that warm maple syrup voice of his, hands lingering over a couple of faders. Jason’s a sweet thirtyish guy I’ve only ever seen in plaid flannel and jeans, the uniform of both lumberjacks and Seattle natives.
The ON AIR sign next to the clock lights up.
“You’re listening to 88.3 FM Pacific Public Radio,” Jason says. “Coming up, a breaking local story on Puget Sounds. Plus, Paloma Powers asks a trainer your burning animal behavior questions. But first, here’s your national news from NPR.”
The ON AIR sign goes off. And then: From NPR News in Washington, DC, I’m Shanti Gupta . . .
There are few sounds more calming than the voice of an NPR news anchor, but Shanti Gupta doesn’t soothe me the way she usually does. I’m too focused on the utter wrongness that is Dominic next to Paloma.
I hit the button on my line that connects me to Dominic. “Don’t sit so close to the mic,” I say, and he must be so startled by my voice in his ears that his eyebrows jump to his hairline. “Or all we’ll hear is your heavy breathing.”
His mouth moves, but I don’t hear anything.
“You have to press the—”
“You really don’t want me to be good at this, do you?”