From time to time, I join Lisa Valentine Clark and Ritchie T on The Lisa Show, the popular daily morning program produced by BYUradio. My visit usually consists of a conversation about the uses of storytelling in homes and classrooms. But every once in awhile, they ask me to share a story. Such was the case yesterday, on Halloween morning. I thought it might be fun to imagine Lisa and Ritchie at the center of their own ghosty tale. Though it wound up being less a scary story than a love letter to working on the radio, You might enjoy what came of it. In performance, the story included ghostly effects from the thundertube, the flexatone, and the double shaker. Good fun on live radio. Here's the story. It's called "Voices":
It happened in the dark of the pre-dawn, as it always does. The show had just gone to break, and Ritchie figured he had just enough time to slip out of the studio to use the restroom and grab a swallow of water at the fountain. And he went. And Lisa was left alone. In the quiet of the studio. She took her headphones off of her ears and hung them around her neck. She gathered herself for the next part of the show. In a minute, Ritchie would come back down the hall, the break would be over, the show’s theme music would fade in, and they’d join their listeners again.
And suddenly, as she sat there, the studio lights clicked off. Lisa wasn’t frightened by this, really, but it was startling. It had never, in all her experience in this studio, happened before. She glanced out the studio windows into the hall, and the lobby. The power was off everywhere, it looked like. From Lisa, there was a sudden little intake of breath as she wondered if the lights would kick back on, or if she’d hear the hum of a backup power system. Again, this had never happened before.
As she sat, more absent-mindedly than anything else, Lisa noticed that in the darkness, there pulsed one, tiny, dim light -- It was a light only as bright as the bulb inside one square, plastic button – the sixth of six buttons on Lisa’s headphone console. The light oscillated: bright, dim. Bright, dim. Bright, dim. She reached out for the button and punched it with a finger. The light of the sixth button stopped pulsing and, instead, burned faintly and steadily – the only light in the building. This seemed unusual. Lisa shrugged it off. She looked away from the sixth button on the headphone console, took her headphones from off her shoulders, and in the complete silence of the studio moved them back over her ears.
Then, in the fraction of a second before the cups of the headphones snapped snugly into place, Lisa heard a sound – a whisper, almost imperceptible except for the otherwise complete silence of the studio.
No words, and it came to an abrupt stop when her headphones fell into place. Lisa whipped her headphones off again. There it was.
The unmistakable, almost impossibly faint whispering of a human voice.
“Ritchie?” Lisa said one time into the darkness. Nothing. The voice must be coming from the hall, though. Lisa stood, felt for the door handle, clicked it open, and stepped into the hall. The building was dark, and Ritchie was nowhere to be found. The door to the studio clicked shut behind her. And the whisper stopped instantly. Lisa wasn’t frightened. She was more than a match for silence, and darkness. Being alone in the studio didn’t bother her. But the power had never gone out before. And that whisper. Well. It was strange. There was no one in the studio, so where was it coming from if not the hall? But here she was. In the hall. Nothing. She peered intently through the glass of the studio door. She could see nothing. Nothing but the faint glow of the sixth button on the headphone console.
Lisa noticed a tiny tremor in her hand, a slight rise in her heart rate, a slightly deeper pattern in her breath as she reached out for the handle of the studio door. She levered it downward and pushed the door open. Like a wind, the whisper rushed out at her. Whiiiiisper! It was no longer barely perceptible. It was like an enormous whispering host, a thousand whispering people – a million. The whispers poured out of the door as the glow of the sixth button on the headphone console shone its ghostly light. And in the whispers, occasionally, an urgent word or phrase, impossible to make out – to cut legibly from the noise. and then she would hear clicks and tones in the whispers. Like a wave, the whispers caught Lisa, and she lost her breath. They tumbled around her, a cacophony of voices – rising, rising, rising.
And then, one more voice:
“Hey Lisa,” it said.
It was Ritchie’s voice. Not a whisper. Just Ritchie’s voice, and Ritchie with it, coming down the hall. And in the moment Ritchie spoke, the million whispers stopped. The studio was silent. Ritchie walked past Lisa. “Thanks for getting the door for me. Man, it’s dark in here. This ever happen to you? This thing with the power?” Lisa stood in the hallway, shaking off the thing that had just happened. She did not yet follow Ritchie into the studio.
“Backup power will come on in a sec, I figure,” said Ritchie. Lisa’s breathing had not returned to normal, but she took a step into the dark studio, as Ritchie said, “What the heck? All the power in the whole building off, and this one little light on? Weird.” Lisa walked fully into the studio then. She walked to the console and punched a finger at the light shining from the sixth button on the headphone console.
The moment her finger touched the button, the lights in the studio flickered on. Through the windows of the studio, they watched the lights in the hall flicker on, and in the lobby. The building hummed back to life, as Ritchie sat down at the broadcast desk.
Lisa spoke, “Ritchie, you didn’t hear any of that?”
“What? Any of what?”
“Those voi…” Lisa began. And then she left off and shook her head. “Nothing. Weird.”
Ritchie shuffled papers. “It sounded like you were going to say ‘voices.’” He said. There was silence in the room for a second.
“Yeah,” said Lisa. “Voices.” And in the closing moments of the break, she told Ritchie about the whispers – about the million whispers in the studio – the studio that was now silent except for their own talk, waiting for the theme music to play them into the next part of the show.
“All that happened while I was in the restroom?” Ritchie said?
“Yeah,” said Lisa.
And Ritchie said, “Have you heard what people say about how every sound in the world, every word ever spoken, is still reverberating in the air, the sound waves generated by those voices still rippling in the atmosphere, even now able to be decoded and played back if only those sound waves could be disentangled from everything else?”
“You are absolutely making that up, Ritchie,” said Lisa.
“No!” said Ritchie. “I think I read that somewhere...somewhere online.”
Ritchie went back to shuffling papers. And Lisa thought. Every word ever spoken, still reverberating in the air, she thought. And, sitting now behind her microphone, she thought about the things she and others had heard, on the air, on radio programs like hers and Ritchie’s, since there were such things. She thought about Neil Armstrong saying, from the moon, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in 1969. She thought about the clicking of the telegraph message that signaled the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. She thought about the sound of the rivets attaching the coat of arms of the BBC, in 1927, to the wall where it hangs – the coat of arms under which stand the words “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation”: thousands of voices – millions – broadcasting since there were means to broadcast. And she thought about what Ritchie had described: the notion that all the words ever spoken might still be reverberating in the air. It was a romantic notion. A goofy notion. But, well, what were those voices that had filled the studio that morning, brought to life, somehow, by the clicking of that sixth button on the headphone console? And what radio host, on some future Halloween morning, might click such a button to hear those million voices – this time with Lisa’s and Ritchie’s among them.
Lisa slid her headphones over her ears. Her theme music was starting. Time to be a voice.
“Want a Twinkie? It’s Halloween,” said Ritchie from across the desk. Everything, it seemed, was back to normal.
“A Twinkie? Um, yeah. Thanks. Happy Halloween, Ritchie,” she said.
And as the theme music rose in her ears, Lisa was, on a Halloween morning like this, just a little less perplexed than she otherwise might be to see that the headphone console had not six, but five buttons.