“I was already beginning to regret this career move. As if going from nothing at all to something crummy was a move” A short story that explores the altruistic oddities of public television…

by: Danny Anderson

“One thing you’ll have to worry about is the phone. That’s all on you after five.” Stanley said this with some bitterness. I could tell it was a sore spot for the engineers.

“Who’s gonna call after five?” I asked.

“Kooks. Idiots. Rich pricks. You know.” Stanley waved me off. “Look, I’m sixty and I’m sick of this place. You’ll see soon enough.” He was bitter enough to say the quiet part out loud.

I pressed. “Well what is someone gonna call a TV station about anyway? I mean that can’t wait until the front desk gets back.”

“Look.” Stanley gestured around at the control room. “Understand one thing. This isn’t TV. This is public TV. Why do you think we’re still using all this ancient technology?”

I looked around and noticed that, yes, the buttons on the control board look a little large and square to be modern. And not only did the graphics generator still use a floppy disk, it was a floppy disk big enough to eat your lunch off of. I’d never seen technology this old, in fact.

Stanley continued with an accusing question. “You know how much duct tape is holding this place together? Well without that and my handy little soldering gun here, all those rich pricks’ precious little brats would never get to vegetate in front of these shitty educational shows.” My face reddened from the venom in his voice when he spat out the word “educational.”

When I’d taken the job as ‘Master Control Operator,’ it was with a lot of excitement. Not that the title impressed me; yes it sounded powerful, but I knew that it just meant recording programs from network and making sure they play back smoothly and on time from 3PM until midnight. But it was educational TV. Broadcasting for the greater public good, not just another product to make Rupert Murdoch richer. Stanley was really bringing me down with all this perspective.

“So get that straight kid. This isn’t TV, this is public TV.

I could tell he used this line a lot.

“OK, so what are they gonna call about?” Stanley was leaving soon and I would be alone in the station until 12 and I wanted to get back to his point.

“Well who watches public TV? You got your nut jobs who think that the government is sending signals through their home set. As if anything that hi-tech could make it out through these ancient mouse shit wires.”

“Ok, so conspiracy nuts.”

“Yea, but they’re more likely to show up in person. They usually think their phone is tapped.”

“Of course.” I was already beginning to regret this career move. As if going from nothing at all to something crummy was a move. “Who else?” I asked.

“Ah just some randos really. By far, the most calls you’ll get are from clueless rich people complaining about SAP.”

“Like tree sap? What?”

“SAP. Second Audio Program. Basically all televisions made in the last thirty or so years have SAP built in. It’s a setting that picks up an alternative audio channel that the station broadcasts along with the program. But underneath the main audio. You have to have SAP turned on to hear it.”

“Oh like so you can hear it in Spanish or something. Like the football games and stuff.” I’d heard of this actually.

“Yea, a lot of people will complain about Spanish. But remember, this isn’t television; this is public television right? So we also have this agreement with the Sight Center downtown. Local do-gooders volunteer to read the newspaper every day from six to eight, and blind people can tune into our channel, with the SAP setting on, and they’ll listen to the newspaper being read.”

“Well that’s kind of cool, actually.”

“In theory,” he shrugged. Stanley was cynical, sure, but in pretty much the same way as most people who get into nonprofit work. Ideals are a prerequisite for bitterness.

Stanly then flashed a mean smile. “And with that, I’ll leave you. If anything goes wrong, call me. But this is pretty much all automated at this point, so just make sure to hit record at the right time and get on the phone if the signal drops. By the way, if that happens, this fucking phone will ring off the hook. When boob tube goes out, everyone will assume you’re God and you fell asleep on the job. So prepare yourself.”

Stanley took his crackling, leather shoulder bag off the wobbly office chair with the torn leather seat and walked out, whistling the theme song to the Dick Van Dyke show. `

So there I was, alone at last. In reality, there were other people working alone after five. Editors and producers were cutting video back in the editing suites. Community Engagement people were making a few calls after people got home from work. Some production assistant was somewhere doing something that needed done yesterday for the people who left promptly at five every day. But everyone did these things alone, as if they were the only ones in the building. I reminded myself that this wasn’t television, it was public television.

As for my job, there was still one more hour of children’s programming before our local station switched to the national network’s nightly world news broadcast. I sat in front of the large switcher, three feet tall and three-and-a-half wide, full of lighted buttons. But there were only two I was concerned with: A and B, each linked to a monitor on the wall above the switcher. Whatever was on A was going out over the air, live. Whatever was on B was the thing about to go out over the air, live. These days, the board was automated, so I didn’t have to literally push the buttons, but if something ever went wrong, I would have to. So I watched like an eagle and held my breath as the B monitor showed a countdown from 10. At two, the screen went black and, like magic, the board switched from Kid Show A to Kid Show B, just like the public television gods required.

I exhaled and sat down to watch and listen. I smiled and felt proud that this wasn’t commercial TV. I felt a tangible sense of purpose and meaning for once. Then, I walked into the tape room, which had a television tuned to our station so I could verify that what I saw going out was what the viewing public saw coming in. Check check.

I had about twenty minutes before the next program switch, so I sat down and poured over my logs, looking for anything that might trip me up as the night wore on. Since everything was automated now, there was a temptation for laziness and since I was excited about this job, I wanted to be as buttoned up as I could.

That’s when the phone rang.

“W – – – , this is Ben. How can I help you.” I recited my script word for word.

“Who is this? Ben, you say?” The woman’s voice on the other end was speaking very quickly.

“Yes, how can I help you?

“Well, Ben. Let me tell you how you can help me.”

“Ok.” She had done something with my name that I didn’t like. My name sounded like a sour grape being spat out.

“You can tell me why my seven year old is hearing a cartoon rabbit talk about someone being shot to death during a drug deal.”

“Oh dear.” Was what I said for some reason.

“Uhhhh. Yea. I hope you can do better than that, sir. When I turn on my public television station, I don’t expect to have my child traumatized. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Of course.”

“Good. I’m very glad to hear that. I don’t want to be an unreasonable person, you know.”

“No not at all, ma’am.”

“Good. I’m an educated person and I value educational television and I try to be a good person. Is that something you understand?”

“Well yes, of course.” The theme to the Dick Van Dyke show popped back into my head. Stanley was home eating dinner, but I felt his spirit hovering over my shoulder. A real haunting.

“Good. So I’m not being unreasonable. Good. Tell me Ben. Are you an educated person? Is that too personal? I just want to get a sense of who I’m talking to.”

The little lights on the switcher caught my eye and I stared at them as I thought of an appropriate answer. I was going over Stanley’s instructions again and I was wondering if this was an “idiot” or a “kook” or a “rich prick.” 

“Well, I guess I’m not sure exactly how to answer that, ma’am.”

“Oh really. Well.” She laughed. “I guess that kind of does answer my question then, doesn’t it?”

“Well ma’am, let me just make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying. You’re saying that you’re hearing something about drug deals and murder?”

“Yes I am. And so is my child. That’s kind of a problem isn’t it? Do you think a fuzzy rabbit should be telling children about murder and drug deals? I mean, I don’t. Do you think I moved my family into Chardon so they could hear about drug deals and murder?”

“Of course not, ma’am. I think I…”

“Right. Exactly. We live where we live to keep our kids safe from that kind of thing and we support public television because it’s a positive voice on television. I don’t want anything to do with what goes on in those neighborhoods, do you understand that?” Her voice was breaking now as she spoke in decidedly higher pitches.

“I understand, ma’am. I think that what’s going on…”

“I mean look I know how that sounds. I’m a good liberal and I know how that sounds. I hope you’re not judging me for that. That just wouldn’t be fair. There’s nothing wrong with protecting your child, you know. And some places, some ways of life are just toxic and not good, you understand?”

“I do. If you just let me explain…”

“Oh and now listen to this! Now he’s talking about a rape! This is ridiculous. Why is a rabbit talking about a rape? Oh this isn’t a rabbit now. Now it’s a pink duck. A pink duck is talking about rape with a fuzzy rabbit that’s obsessed with drugs and murder and you call this children’s programming?”


“Listen to it! I’m going to hold the phone up to the television so you can hear it for yourself!”

“OK.” I was by this time very much looking forward to hearing a pink duck talk about rape with a murder-mad rabbit. An elderly woman’s voice now came through the phone.

“Detectives are still investigating the incident. Police are asking that anyone with any information to call 555-1111.”

“Did you hear that?” The aural transition back to the idiotic, kooky, rich prick was jarring. “Does that sound right to you?”

“Ma’am I know what’s going on and I can help you.”

There was a pause. A beautiful moment of Zen.

“Oh really.”

“Yes,” I jumped in quickly to keep her stream of consciousness dammed up.

“There is a setting on your television called SAP. Some manufacturers call it DVS.”


“That’s right.”

“Is this a joke? Are you insulting me?”

“No ma’am. Not at all. It’s an acronym.” I paused a moment, letting it soak in that I was educated enough to produce the word “acronym.”

“It stands for second audio program. Sometimes your remote control will have a button that says ‘SAP’ or ‘DVS.’ Do you see that?”

Another pause, then “No I don’t.”

“Ok then, go to your television menu settings and find the audio settings.”

The pauses were rapture. “Ok. Audio settings. I see something that says ‘Second Audio On.’”

“Good!” I was euphoric. “Scroll over to that and turn it to off.”

Over the phone I could hear the bouncy folk-guitar musical soundtrack and high pitched squeal of a pink rabbit talking about her upcoming tea party. The public television gods provided for their flock, always. The squealing voice pouring through the phone matched the image in front of me on my monitor.

“Ok. Wow. So that seems to have fixed it.”

“Oh I’m so happy.”

“Yea. So what is this SAP?”

I explained about Spanish and the Sight Center reading program and how broadcast signals work.

“Reading to deaf people?”

“Blind people, ma’am.”

“So…” She followed this with a dismissive, scoffing laugh. “Wow. So how many people actually listen to this? How many blind people are we talking about here?”

“Ma’am I have no idea. You could maybe call the Sight Center and ask them if you really want to know.”

“I’m just curious about…you know. Whether this is worth scarring a child so read to some blind person over the TV. And how do they even set their TV up to hear this. If you ask me, the whole thing is silly.”

“Right. Well. I don’t know what to say about all that.”

“Oh that’s right. I forgot you’re not very educated are you?”

“I suppose I’m not.”

“Ha ha. Well. Thanks I guess.”

“Thanks for watching.”

I hung up the phone, unable to believe I’d just said “Thanks for watching.” The B monitor was counting down from ten again. The automation took it from there and the pink duck and her rabbit friend were replaced by a group of eight children of obvious wealth and privilege. They were laughing and learning in a well-stocked classroom. It was a utopian vision of social progress, just as the public television gods had intended.


Danny Anderson has published stories and essays in a variety of publications, including Across the Margin, Litbreak, Dream Pop Press, PopMatters, Film Inquiry, along with his Substack, UnTaking. He is working on his second novel while defiantly shopping around his first. He lives and works in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania.


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