Ever wonder how TV stations know to show up at all those fires, shootings and freeway pileups for the "if it bleeds, it leads" style of news coverage? When I was trying to break into the news business in 1992, it was my job to find the bleeding.
I thought I knew something about journalism. I had interned at a high-minded but doomed international news program at Minnesota Public Radio. But the first paying job I could find was in television.
I grabbed the bottom rung: overnight dispatcher. I would sit in a closet-sized room monitoring 200 police, fire and ambulance radio frequencies and wake the camera crews to roll on breaking news.
"You'll move up in no time," the guy at the assignment desk told me. He had done a brief stint as a dispatcher himself and now worked daytime hours, writing actual news copy.
My trainer took out the sheet of police codes I would have to memorize. A 187 meant murder.
"You'll get really excited when that happens on your shift," he told me.
Minneapolis had about 65 homicides a year back then (20 more than the current average). It was the lucky dispatcher who caught the code and launched the camera crew before the competitors. The daytime bosses might even learn her name.
I showed up at midnight for my first shift. The "dispatch shack" was awash in noise. Imagine 200 radios tuned to different stations and trying to make sense of what you're hearing. But the human brain is a strange organ. As the sound washed over me, I'd somehow catch a strand of a story and block out everything else. My brain became a kind of purse seine, filtering for the codes I'd memorized.
I began to see crime not as random, but as predictable.
Patterns: The first two hours of my shift were jumpy. From midnight until 2 a.m., the metropolis was settling into a summer night: car accidents, robberies, apartment fires. A convenience store clerk might get shot, or a post-bar drug deal would go bad.
I paced the shack trying to plot the calls against the maps that covered the walls. The action hovered in neighborhoods unknown to me.
After 2 a.m. the club scene died down, and across most of the city it was lights out.
I wandered through the newsroom looking at the fakey sets, the drab cubes, the makeup room. I brewed coffee and tried to stay awake.
A scrap of chatter would rouse me like an evil alarm clock.
"Hurry, she says he's got a knife," a female police dispatcher told the squad car. "She says he's trying to break down her door."
These were the domestics. From 2 until dawn, domestic disputes dominated the emergency frequencies.
I had this creepy feeling of flying over the city in an airplane, seeing houses below lit up with violence.
Domestics were not news. They happened all the time. They were messy and private. Stranger murders were more pleasing to the news formula: relatively rare, a slight chance it could happen to you, but probably not scary enough to keep you from falling asleep after weather and sports.
The violence in households was a steady din. I looked at my maps and wondered how many women at that moment were being choked, hit and violated in their own homes, probably with kids around.
At 8 a.m. I'd give my report to the next dispatcher and stumble out onto Nicollet Mall. People looked fresh and beautiful striding to their offices. I walked past them feeling like I'd just watched a horror movie and didn't know where the bad guy was lurking.
The person who trained me had been a dispatcher for five years. I was pretty sure I wouldn't last that long.
Many nights, I heard nothing that required any action from me. When I did hear something that sounded newsworthy, I second-guessed my ability to make sense of the chatter. One night I heard a fire dispatcher call for help from surrounding departments. It was an apartment fire that sounded pretty big.
"Wha-at?" the photojournalist on call said when I woke her up. I introduced myself as the new dispatcher and explained the situation. She waited. "Um, this fire sounds pretty bad..." I faltered. She must have been warm in her suburban bed. She pounced on my insecurity. "It's probably nothing," she snapped and hung up.
I was too chicken to call her back. How much trouble would I be in if we missed a big story? The next day I watched the competing stations and saw with relief that whatever fire it had been, their dispatchers had missed or dismissed it too.
A month went by. The daytime people hadn't noticed my vigilance and I was heading for five years of oblivion in the dispatch shack. It no longer seemed so important to stay awake all eight hours of my shift.
One night I put my head down on the desk and woke up to the feeling my barrette was moving across my hair. I spun around and did a Farrah Fawcett flip, tossing a large cockroach to the floor.
So much for the glamour of television news. I was making minimum wage. I hadn't broken a single story. Domestic violence was an epidemic we didn't report on.
Public radio called. Gary Eichten had broken his arm and needed a typist. Would I be interested?
It's been almost 20 years. I've had thousands of assignments and stayed late many nights, but never with the profound loneliness I felt in television. That month in the dispatch shack I was sifting for the strange, rare and random, and missing the biggest story of all. Why are so many houses lit up with violence? What are we supposed to do about it? It's a life's work in journalism to find out.
Sasha Aslanian is a reporter for MPR News. Her brief experience in TV news sparked a conversation with MPR Youth Radio reporter Valencia McMurray about coverage of domestic violence. Valencia tells the story from the other side: looking back at the day her family's home lit up with violence when she was 6, and how it influenced her family and her own decisions.