Following my sophomore year of college, when I finally turned 18, I was able to get a summer job that was better than the summer’s previous crappy cashier job where I was selling one hundred condoms to men for 99 cents.
My dad was able to get me a job as a “copy boy” at NBC News where he worked in the accounting department. Each summer, the news department needed fill-in help for regular staff members who were taking summer vacation and the copy boy role was only given to relatives of NBC employees. It was then that I added another fancy new word to my vocabulary that was even better than fondue or fuchsia; nepotism. Another great thing about this job was that it paid $6.50 an hour which was double minimum wage at the time, which made the revelation that I no longer had to sell condoms by the bushel all the more exciting.
Prior to the introduction of computers into the news room, there were teleprinter machines which were electromechanical typewriters that were used to send news stories from wire services like Associated Press directly to the newsroom. Dozens of these machines were housed in a special room, and the job of the copy boy was to regularly tear the print copy off the machines and distribute them in the mailboxes for assignment editors, producers, directors and news anchors. If a series of bells went off on the machines, it meant there was a breaking story, and you had to hand-deliver the wire copy directly to each person’s desk which required waiter-like grace and precision since it was easy to trip over the long layers of paper as you moved swiftly across the newsroom.
I learned quickly that news veterans, generally older men who lived on cigarettes, take-out food, and whiskey, preferred the female copy boys to the male ones and were prone to comment on the swiftness of your delivery and how your ass looked as you whizzed away to the next recipient. While I’d learned what nepotism meant, the term sexual harassment was still years away, and so I did what most women in the 80’s did under these circumstances which was nothing.
Perhaps the job task that required the most trouble shooting was the paper jam. If you spotted a jammed machine (which occurred like every 30 minutes) you had to fix the jam as quickly as possible so no key news stories would be lost. Paper jams always resulted in mangled copy that was illegible and you had to decide which person in the newsroom would get the crappy copy. Bad copy generally went to the person who appeared to be the most junior staff member, the person who was least likely to yell at you, and in many cases simply the person you deemed the biggest asshole in the newsroom.
The newsroom was filled with all sorts of the latest technology, namely the fax machine. In 1982, this was cutting edge stuff and one copy boy each day had to fax important multi-page news reports to all of the bureaus; a task that ONLY took an hour and a half to complete. Amazing!
Each day, one of the evening copy boys was designated as Nightly News runner. This person had to take the scripts that were written for the anchor of NBC Nightly News and run them to the studio. This job was generally reserved for the boys, but I was designated as runner at one point and got to keep this role for several months. Running the scripts entailed taking scripts that were typed on color coded sheets with carbon paper inserted in between each sheet to generate the desired number of copies (note to readers born after 1990: carbon paper is nothing like mimeograph paper! If you try to smell carbon paper you will streak your forehead and people will be asking you if today is Ash Wednesday.)
With scripts in hand, the runner had to run from the fifth floor newsroom to the third floor studio. A special elevator was reserved for the copy boy with a special elevator operator just for this job alone. Once you got to the third floor you were immediately greeted by the janitor who was waxing the floors that led to the studio, making the task all the more treacherous. Upon arrival in the studio you had to distribute scripts to directors, producers and lastly to anchor Tom Brokaw and get your ass out of there before the show went live. If breaking news occurred during the broadcast, you had to repeat the task of running from floor five to floor three using the special elevator, maintain your balance on freshly waxed floors and then wait for the cameraman to signal it was ok for you to give the anchor the next round of scripts. My last day on the job, I was a runner and I had to bring new scripts down during the show. After I placed Tom Brokaw’s revised script on his desk, I spun around to quickly leave before he was back on camera and created a gust of wind that blew his script off the desk. I heard him yell, “hey!” but it was too late to return and I kept on running.
There was a great deal of down time in this job since many times you were simply waiting around for the realms of news copy to touch the floor and be ready to be ripped. There were lots of copy boys and almost all of the summer help were kids between 18 and 22, so the wire room looked more like the lounge of a college dorm than a place of business. By the end of my time there I ended up with new friends and two boyfriends, which basically represents one-third of all my boyfriends ever.
The people who worked as copy boys full-time were an interesting cast of characters. One was rumored to be a pimp because he would receive an endless stream of calls from women with names like Candy and Cookie throughout the day (note to readers born after 1990: there were no cell phones then, so we knew everyone’s business). There was a guy who managed all the copy boys who would interview people for positions and scribble important notes on their resumes like “blonde” and “nice legs.” There was another man who worked the midnight to 7 am shift who some said lived in his car. There was a man who always seemed to be going to the supply room for more post-its, which is where we learned he kept a bottle of gin.
But despite all the oddities of the job, it was in some ways the most important job I ever had. It was my first corporate job and it forced me to come to terms with my extreme shyness and interact with adults regularly on a professional level. I got to be in a newsroom during some pretty big moments in history and meet news icons like John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw. I kept this job each winter and summer vacation and then got hired full-time when I graduated from college. But just six months later, the newsroom was automated and everyone got a computer on their desk, virtually eliminating the need for copy boys. There’s no longer a need to rip wire copy, create multiple scripts with carbon paper, run scripts to a studio or have a special elevator operator on standby. The only guy left is the janitor, still waxing those floors and I certainly wish him well.
*Photo credit www.sitenews.net