To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
That is the last line from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. It’s a poem I was introduced to by my English teachers in high school. Those ten words are fabulous advice on how to live a life.
There have even been times in my life when I have emulated those words.
This is my story.
In May of 1994, a radio station in Los Angeles was changing formats. KMPC (710 AM) had been a long time purveyor of the golden-oldies playlist, but they had recently switched to a sports-talk format. Two years of that experiment showed the executives that they had gambled and failed. So they shuffled the cards again and decided to re-launch KMPC with an all-talk format. In what can only be described as a brilliant high-quality publicity stunt, the station decided to hold an open casting call. The plan was to give all comers a one-minute audition. Sixteen would be chosen and be given an hour in the morning (radio’s coveted prime time slot) to show their stuff to the metropolitan listening audience. Two would then be chosen from that sixteen and be hired by the station.
I left my San Diego abode at five-thirty in the morning to give myself plenty of time to plow through the weekday Southern California traffic to make it up to Los Angeles in time for the opening of the studio gates at eight.
I arrived at seven-thirty and found more than three hundred people already in line ahead of me. Holding any sort of “come one, come all” audition in Los Angeles is akin to killing an impala on the Kalahari.
All sorts of beasts show up.
Once the gates were opened, the line snaked its way through the parking lot. Ninety minutes later I was ushered into a tent along with thirty other hopefuls. I registered at a desk by writing by name, address, and phone number on a piece of paper becoming more and more tattered on a clipboard. I was then asked what position I was auditioning for. KMPC was looking for both on-air talent and announcers. Given the number of people already in line and given the egos of most public performers, I figured that the majority of folk would opt for the on-air host position. I decided to aim low and I chose to audition as an announcer. For the announcer slot, I was handed two pieces of paper. The first was my number, 345, and the second was the one-minute announcement plus commercial that I was supposed to read. I saw that the on-air host wannabes were only given a number. I found out quickly why they were not given a prepared text like I was.
A station official told us we would come up one by one. We were being recorded both visually and aurally. We were to be judged by six KMPC staff members including current on-air hosts and the program director. I looked over my text and saw that it consisted of a time check, a temperature check, and a station identification followed by a blank line where I was to introduce myself. The next paragraph was a rundown of what was coming up in the next hour and it ended with a plug for a mythical sponsor. It was exactly the sort of cut-and-dried verbiage I had done at the radio stations in Evanston and St. George.
Allow me to return to my Kalahari metaphor. Around the carcass that was the open audition, a bestiary of on-air talent appeared. There was the angry member of a minority group out to expose all manner of institutional racism. There was the angry American convinced that anyone who couldn’t speak English should be given a ticket back to where they belonged. There was the angry progressive who barked about the evil inherent in all corporations. There was the angry female who was simply pissed at her ex-boyfriend.
Have you perhaps detected a theme to this zoo under the tent?
Into that bristling, boiling cauldron of wrath stepped I, the non-angry, smooth-toned announcer. I stepped up onto the platform and stated my name and number for the judges and taping devices. I then began my sixty seconds of glory that would catapult me to my Big Break.
“It’s 12:45 and sixty-two degrees at KMPC-AM. Good afternoon, I’m Brian Fe….”
Phlegm is a quirky thing and I am not merely speaking of its spelling. I refer instead to the funny, mysterious manner that the mucousy substance can suddenly, and without any warning, appear and park itself in various places of a person’s anatomy…such as a throat, for example.
Raise your hand if you have no idea where this is heading.
I never managed to pronounce my last name in full as a phlegm ball the size of a buffalo nickel (I was going to say “size of Pittsburgh”, but that’s an exaggeration for humor’s sake and that’s a literary device that’s been beaten like a dead elephant) lodged in my throat so that I announced myself to the judges and the audience as “Brian Fe…ERK…ACK…PHLOCK“. I did proceed through the rest of the prepared announcement flawlessly but the damage was done. There was no way I was going to be pulled as one of the sixteen announcers after flubbing my own name.
I left the platform as gracefully as one can after phlegming their Big Break away.
It was now only ten in the morning and I did not feel like making the long drive back home with my pity as my passenger. My grandparents lived five minutes away from the studio so I decided to motor on over there to smother my pain in grandparental love (or at least with some excellent noshing).
My grandmother answered the door and was surprised to see me. She let me in and over her kitchen table, I relayed the whole sorry story about how I had seen a fabulous opportunity go down in flames. I actually started to cry over what a crushing loss this was to my career, future, and dreams.
The wonderful thing about grandmothers is that you can be sobbing uncontrollably in the kitchen and they will give you a hug and some reassuring words about how everything will be okay in the long run. That may be the wonderful thing about your grandmother because mine quietly said to me, “Radio has been a nice dream to chase, Brian, but it’s time to figure out what else you can do with your life.”
Still smarting over the Great Phlegm Phlameout, it didn’t dawn on me until much later just what a callous, insensitive, and totally necessary statement she made.
I told her I had no idea what else I wanted to do because radio had been my passion for a decade. I couldn’t think of anything else I was qualified to do. She said that was nonsense and that I wasn’t thinking hard enough.
She then invited me out to lunch.
In a mall food court, while we dined over salads, she asked me again to think what my Career Plan B would be. I continued to struggle with any other paths of employment open to me other than radio. At Northwestern University, I had majored in communications. I had spent my four collegiate years single-mindedly training to be in radio either in front of the microphone as an on-air talent or behind the mic as a technician or producer. In college, I had not minored in anything so I really had nothing to fall back on.
I explained all this to my father’s mother. She absorbed it all and asked me what my hobbies were.
“I like to read,” I started.
“I enjoy going to the movies.”
“Who doesn’t? What else?”
“I like to play computer games.”
“Do you like computers?”
“Yeah, I guess. I can operate them fairly well.”
“Have you ever thought about becoming a computer programmer.”
This was a suggestion I would never have arrived at on my own. Computer programmers were nerds with brains that worked on a completely different level than most carbon-based examples of the Homo sapiens species. I was not in that league. Yes, I liked Monty Python and Star Wars, but I also knew how to date and talk to members of the female gender. At this moment in time, I was actually living with my girlfriend (the woman who would become my lovely wife). Also, outside of an extremely brief flirtation with the BASIC programming language in 1984 on an Apple computer, I had no experience in coding and so I mentioned all this to my grandmother.
“So,” she replied, “you can go to a trade school.”
“I don’t have the time or money to go back to learn,” I countered.
“You’re good at making excuses,” she parried.
“But it’s true,” was my best counter-attack not sure if I was verifying my lack of funds or my talent for manufacturing useless justifications.
“You’re not thinking about other options. Find out what trade schools are available in San Diego and see how much they cost. I’m sure you, me, and your grandfather can come to some sort of an agreement.”
“You mean you would pay my tuition,” I said as I could begin to see a hint of a glimmer of a life preserver being tossed my way.
“Some,” my grandmother said, “but not all. I would hate to think that we were giving you something for nothing.”
“You would really do that for me?”
“Brian, I would do it for any of my grandchildren. You’re a bright boy with a college degree. Soon, at some point, you’ll have a wife and a family. You’ll need to support them and you won’t be able to do it on a radio person’s salary.”
Blunt, direct, and loving – just the sort of qualities that make up my grandmother.
Did I mention savvy? As we finished up our lunch and our conversation drifted towards my girlfriend, my parents, and the Los Angeles Raiders, she asked how long the KMPC audition would be open. I told her that the station closed its gates at half past three in the afternoon. However, the station also promised that anyone in line after that time would still be able to audition. She looked at her watch and saw that it was almost 1:30.
“What’s to prevent you from going back in line and trying again?” she asked.
“Nothing, I suppose.”
“So why not go back?”
“Because I’ve already given my name and they taped me…,” I then hesitated as my brain was trying to catch up.
“I thought we just agreed,” I began, “that I was leaving radio behind and would start a career in computers. Yet here you are telling me to go back. I’m confused.”
A small smile snaked across her mouth. “Brian, I’ve convinced you that employment in radio is not enough to support a family. There’s no harm in going back and seeing if you can talk for one minute without choking. I would hate for you to miss this opportunity. All I’ve done is given you another option. What you do with my advice is up to you.”
Thirty minutes later, after driving my grandmother back home and thanking her for the lunch, I was back in line on the baking asphalt parking lot of KMPC.
That’s my story.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
There would be no yielding on this day.
P.S. As to the end of this tale…well, that’s a story for next week.