My friends at Stoked were looking for podcast guests to tell personal stories that have had a long-lasting effect on their lives. I didn’t volunteer. I wrote this instead. I hope it helps someone.
NO ONE WILL HELP YOU
I dunno if this story is what you have in mind. I also don’t know if I could tell it into a microphone, even though I made a living with a microphone in my face for 27 years.
The story I have told myself over and over again is this: no one will help you.
When I first got into radio, I was the worst on-air person, possibly ever. I mastered the controls quickly enough, the part of being a deejay we called “running the board.” I never had dead air. I could mix and and spin records like a champion, cue a reel-to-reel tape in one hand and a 45 with the other while smoking a Kool and back-timing from a sweep-second hand on the giant clock in the corner.
But soon as I cut on the mic and opened my mouth, I was an unsolved Jumble in the Sunday paper. I had a horrific accent and a lazy drawl. I sounded like a Kentucky redneck with a mouthful of marbles. My voice didn’t resonate. It would stick in the back of my throat like mucus from a bad allergy. This was in a time when every male on radio or TV was expected to have a voice we called “deeper than whale shit.”
I had good ears. I recognized immediately that I sucked. So did my father, who made a living most of his career as an announcer and disk jockey. He was good at it, having gone to radio school after a stint in the Air Force. Despite misgivings and a distaste for nepotism, he gave me my first crack at a radio station where he was the program director. My big break was on Sunday morning, where all the programming—except for about 20 minutes—consisted of prerecorded and live church sermons. I had maybe about a half dozen times to open the mic in a six hour airshift. After a few Sundays of bad broadcasting he said, “You don’t have the talent for this.” (Side note: fathers, never tell your angry 17-year-old sons they can’t do such-and-such unless you actually want them to spend their entire adulthood trying to prove you wrong.)
I commenced to teach myself how to not suck. Alone. I listened to tapes of myself over and over, each time getting horrified, then depressed. I listened to Top 40 jocks on radio stations I admired, to voiceovers on TV and radio commercials, to any voice coming out of a speaker anywhere. I tried to imitate them. Late at night, I’d thread a 7” reel of quarter-inch tape onto an Ampex 440 in the tiny production studio where the DJs recorded commercials for local businesses—furniture stores, grocery stores, auto dealers, and the like—dig out the old copy from the trash cans, and read it. This weekend at Houchen’s Market, yellow ripe bananas are 19 cents a pound! I’d play back the tape and wonder why I didn’t sound like John Landecker on WLS in Chicago. I spent weeks and months doing this, way after midnight when no one was around. I pulled discarded AP news wire copy and read it onto the tape, trying to pronounce the names of foreign leaders and sound like Cronkite (or my Dad, who did have a voice deeper than whale shit). I couldn’t do it. My breath would run out at all the wrong places, away from the commas and periods where natural pauses in speech were intended. I was so self-conscious, half the time I didn’t even know what I was reading. I was the opposite of a communicator. I was an awkward, baffled parrot.
All of this is to get to the story that emerged in my head; no—two stories, actually. One was that I worked in a business where no one would help you, because it never occurred to me to ask for help. I fancied radio to be a solitary gig, having started on Sunday mornings and later the graveyard shift, alone in a dimly lit studio. Deejays worked solo. I practiced solo. I got so used to going it alone, I assumed that was how it was done. I never asked anyone to listen to my tapes, break them down, or teach me how to speak. I was scared and defensive about criticism, which I always associated with negativity, which I could execute well enough on my own, thank you very much. I executed myself a lot. Imagine a teenager really bad at basketball: klutzy, awkward, with a ball on an empty playground and no-one to pass and shoot with, no coach or big brother to demonstrate the pivot, the jump-stop, the pick-and-roll.
I disdained direction. I did eventually learn how be a pretty decent deejay and a promo producer, in the time it would have taken, say, a monkey to learn to fly a spaceship. I was ridiculously proud of that, that I had figured things out on my own, taking 10 times longer to do it than it should have. I told myself and anyone who’d listen that radio didn’t have mentors. Mentors. Whuuuuut?People who asked for help or expected knowledge to be shared were flyweight. Tough it out, buddy. I’ll tell you a little, but what you need to do is go listen to how bad you suck for about 10,000 hours.
Needless to say, it hampered my career, and most importantly, my ability to work with other people. Today, I do accept help—sometimes. Others, such as when trying to learn a skill, write a story, or create something, I default to the psychological equivalent of a dark studio at 1:30 in the morning, repeating bad technique over and over, waiting for the light bulb get a flicker. When I’m back in that old groove, I forget that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity. I start thinking it’s practice. There’s rationalization for you. A business partner used to ask me, “Why don’t you just fucking ask somebody?” I’d say, “WEAK.”
I have to remind myself to go be around other people for perspective, get advice, and listen to stories of how they got better. It’s not my default setting. Over and over, I need to be reminded that most people who are happy and successful at what they do were not prodigies, and they did not tech themselves.
The second story I told myself, which was probably worse, was: you suck. Here is my brain in a “practice” loop: Listen to you, look at you, listen and look at these guys. You suck, and they don’t. Listen to how natural they sound!? Look at how they flow to the hoop on a layup! Dude, you are awkward. You will always be awkward. Wheeeee. Repeating this to yourself is incredibly effective practice—for breaking self esteem. I can personally guarantee it is one thing you can do with no coaching whatsoever. Tell yourself you suck a while, keep going it all alone, and hey presto. Your career may never get off the ground. Or you may get lucky. I got lucky. Grace, or something. That’s a whole other exploration.
A few people here and there started to say some nice things about my work, but usually I didn’t pay attention. I knew what good sounded like, and it wasn’t me. Grace stepped in: a new program director took over at the station I was working, and started telling me I was good. He didn’t give a shit about my self esteem issues; he ignored them. He’d call in on the hot line while I was on the air, tell me the intro I’d just done on such-and-such a song gave him a hard-on.
If it wasn’t for that guy, I don’t know if I’d ever have wound up having a radio career. He told me a better story about myself, and somehow got through. In the process, he called bullshit on the stories I’d indulged.
I haven’t been on the radio in nearly 20 years. Today, I am a brand writer and storyteller. Much of what I do I learned from being on the air, writing ad copy, and noticing how people react to the words we use and how we use them. Is it the fact that bananas are 19 cents a pound, or the fact that they are fresh, Costa Rican bananas? That they are cheap, or that they are at Houchen’s, where cashiers are friendly neighbors? My work is listening to other people tell their stories, then feeling for the best parts. I do not use algorithms. I use antennae instead. I tune out the frequencies where they tell themselves things that don’t help, then I write down what I hear. Sometimes, people ask me how I do this, the writing. I say: “Nothing to it. I write down the good parts."
We hear over and over again in marketing that story is everything, that stories have the power to affect people. Here, then, is what I hope you take from this one: the strongest stories are those you tell yourself, for good and ill. Edit out the ill, and ask for some goddam help.
Thanks for listening. Sports and weather, next.