To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
When last we left out hero (me), I had redeemed myself with an audition that left the judges in stitches.
This is where we pick up the story.
It did not come as a surprise to me when my parents called me a few days later to say that KMPC had phoned them looking for “Brian Mannor”. Thankfully, I had clued in my parents to my alias so there would not have been a tragi-comedic ending to the story (“No,” my father would say to KMPC in my nightmare, “there’s no Mr. Mannor here. You have the wrong number.”)
A week later I again made the drive up to Los Angeles on a gray Wednesday morning that also went by the name of Cinco de Mayo. I was in the parking lot at 6:15, almost pathologically early, to make my 7:00 debut. I gave my name to the receptionist and waited for my handler to come fetch me.
For the previous few days, I had been contacting everyone I knew to tell them that I would be on the air and that I needed them to call in. My reasoning was that if the phone lines were full while I was on the air, the station would see this as proof that I was a viable on-air host who could bring in the listeners. I wasn’t that worried about having anyone to chat with. I had five other co-hosts inside my head all clamoring to have their opinions heard. I had even been holding mock conversations with all of my characters during my week of preparation. This is fine in the comfort of your own home, but it really caused a stir in the freezer section of my local grocery store.
On my drive up, I realized I would need all the help I could summon to have the phone lines clogged. Since KMPC was in transition between formats, they had taken themselves off the air. On this Thursday that I was given my prime-time morning slot in the second-largest radio market in the country, the station at 710 on the AM dial would begin its broadcast day with static followed by me. I would have absolutely no lead-in audience.
As I continued to practice my voices in the reception area, my handler arrived. As she guided me through the corridor to the studio, she informed me that I was going to be paid for my hour. For my sixty minutes on the air, I would earn fifty dollars. This was far above the hourly rate I raked in while in St. Geroge, so I was most surprised and pleased. I nervously began to tell her that Brian Mannor was a stage name and I asked if the check could be made out to my real name. I was worried she would be upset that I had won the audition under false pretenses.
Quick question for the class: Are there ever true pretenses?
She could not have cared less.
After a brief rundown by my handler as to the format of the show (an hour in length, mandatory commercial breaks at the quarter hour, news at the bottom of the hour), I was escorted into the studio, which for me was known by many other names.
The Promised Land.
Choose your own cultural reference for the perfect place. I was finally inside the four walls of where I knew I was born to be. I sat down in the chair in front of the microphone and breathed in the odor of metal and electronics. The engineer in another room wanted to do a sound check. I adjusted the microphone so that it was positioned slightly to the side of my mouth. That’s a technique I had learned while at the college station. I was not speaking directly into the mic, which is a mistake that most people make. The advantage to this position was that I would not pop my “p”s so it would not sound as if I was spitting into the listener’s ears when I pronounced “please”, “place”, or “Pomona”. The engineer gave me the thumbs-up that my audio levels were okay. I then set to examine my surroundings.
I was seated in front of a console that was distressingly free of knobs, buttons, and sliders. In Evanston, Minnesota, and St. George, I acted not only as the on-air talent but as the engineer and all of the other positions. I was comfortable with both talking on the air and being able to set the different audio sources (e.g., record, microphone, CD, cassette, phone, etc.) that the various knobs, buttons, and sliders controlled. There were none here to be seen. There was a red button that my right hand could touch and a yellow button within reach of my left hand. Turning my head to the left, I could see a green-screen monitor. Turning to my right, there was a knob that adjusted the volume level of the headphones I would wear so I could hear the callers. Directly in front of me on the desk was a clipboard-like device which could be slanted allowing me to prop up the books, magazines, and newspaper clippings that I would use as my material to talk about until my time ended at eight in the morning.
As I was breathing in the stale, cool air of a professional radio station a man walked in ten minutes before I was to go on the air. He introduced himself as Reggie, the producer. He took his place at a desk to my left that was on a raised platform. This gave him the stature of being higher than I was so I had to look up to him when I wanted to chat with him over the flickering green of the monitor.
I asked Reggie where all the controls were. He laughed and said they were in another room. The engineer, Reggie explained, was in that room and we could see each other through the window that separated us. Think of the setup between Roz and Dr. Crane on the television show Frasier except that the KMPC studio was illuminated like a submarine rigged for silent running. The engineer was responsible for setting all the audio levels and for running all the commercials. My sole task, Reggie told me from his oracle-like position on high, was to talk and to be cognizant of when the breaks were coming up. Advertisers shelled out big money to have their commercials be on the air when they had paid for them to be on the air. Reggie advised me that while I was here to gab away, I also had to be fully aware of when to clam up.
I was a tad put off by Reggie’s attitude. I was no rookie to radio. I had worked in front of a microphone in commercial radio before (okay, it was only six months in Utah, but that still counts as experience) and so I knew the value of “hitting the mark”, which is radio jargon for finishing talking right before some other event (i.e., song lyrics, commercial) commenced. However, Reggie didn’t know my professional history and probably thought I was some yahoo who managed to catch lightning in a microphone during the cattle call audition.
I asked Reggie what the buttons and monitors were for. Loving to play the teacher, Reggie informed me that the red button was the cough button. Pressing it would cut off my microphone so I could cough and not blow out the eardrums of my eight listeners. The green monitor would show me the names of the callers, their locations, and what they wanted to talk about. This monochromatic display of information allows the professional yakker on the AM dial to say intelligent statements such as, “Let’s go to line two where Harry from Brea wants to talk about Pulp Fiction, the movie that swept the Cannes Film Festival.”
Reggie wanted to know what my main topic would be for my sixty minutes. I explained to him that I didn’t have any one issue to pontificate about. Instead, I was going to lead off with a plethora of issues from the ban on assault weapons pending in Congress to the stupidity of gambling to the motorcyclist who cut me off on the drive up here to the current crop of movies scheduled for release. I might even ask for listeners to chime in with who they thought was the best actor to portray the Doctor on the British television series Doctor Who.
The producer stood up, leaved over the monitor, and sighed.
“Kid, take some advice. I’ve been doing this job for over ten years and your shotgun approach does not work. What you need to do is to find one main topic and make that your hook. Your entire show will hang on that hook. Your listeners will grab on that hook and will be reeled into your show. Your scattershot approach will not focus your audience and you will be begging for calls.”
His dollop of wisdom dispensed, the sage sat.
His words sank in and I absorbed his advice. With less than two minutes to go before air time, I had to choose how my show would go. Would I follow Reggie’s “main topic” path or would I stick with my “shotgun approach” (plus multiple character voices) path? With thirty seconds until the red “On Air” light was to be illuminated, I chose to listen to the voice of experience rather than listen to my own voice.
In the song “My Way”, Frank Sinatra croons, “Regrets, I’ve had a few…”. This decision is one of the few regerts I have in my life.
My show was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. Reggie was indeed correct. By focusing my variety of items, topics, and issues into one main theme (in this case, the proposed ban on assault weapons being debated in the House of Representatives), I was never at a loss for callers. When I wrapped up my five-minute opening remarks about how my show was going to be different because there would be no swearing or name-calling, all the lines were full and remained that way for the rest of my hour. Granted, four of my callers were friends and family, but the other eight who dialed in and chatted with me on this May morning were utter strangers.
The show, from both a technical and professional standpoint, was by no means a disaster. The pace was lively, but not frenetic. I hit all my cues and never missed a commercial, network news break, or local station announcement. I even managed to hit the cough button correctly. I had callers disagree with me which was the point because who wants to listen to a bunch of clones or dittoheads parrot back what you just said. I had one listener call in and say that I was a breath of fresh air on the radio.
Mothers say the nicest things.
A week later, the handler who met me at the radio station called to inform me that I was not one of the two chosen for a full-time on-air slot. When I was told I would not be asked back, I asked my handler if she could tell me what I had done wrong. She told me I had done an admirable job for my rookie hour in the Los Angeles market. She did say, however, that I was too nice. KMPC, she explained, was looking for on-air talent with an edgy, in-your-face quality. My sin was that I listened to my callers and let them speak without harassing, insulting, or interrupting them. That was not what KMPC wanted.
“Plus,” she said as she wrapped up our call, “you didn’t do your really funny characters.”
Personally, the show was a disaster for that fact alone. I knew I failed my one hour audition because I didn’t do the show my way. Had I let Gaston and Chip and Ned and Horton and Summer loose on the air I would not have cared if I lost because I would have known that I went down swinging (or even “singing” because Horton does a great version of “Les Toreadors” from Carmen).
I balked at being true to my own self. Who knows how my world would have turned out had I taken my own path. As it was, I would formally end my career in radio two months later when I left my job at the Ramona station where I played an April Fools’ Day prank that I am damn proud of. I then devoted myself full-time to being a student of computer programming.
It is not a fun thing to walk away from a dream. However, I am happy that with my grandparents’ assistance and the support of a patient girlfriend (who would become my lovely wife), I had a Plan C++ that has given me a career that has allowed me to make ends meet and has given me a quality of life many folks strive for.
Yes, I did yield on that May day in a radio studio in Los Angeles. Sometimes that is how the story ends.
That’s my story.
P.S. As to that April Fools’ Day prank…well, that’s a story for another day.