Reinvention

When I was 5, my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember mentioning football player, an aspiration shared by many other children then and now.

That is the last time I recall not thinking about being on the radio.

I’m not sure I verbalized this passion to anyone in the following 9 years, but I already knew what I was going to be. In my head, I was already there.

I spent a lot of time listening to John “Records” Landecker on WLS radio in Chicago, and I wanted to be like him. Their big signal was easily received in the small eastern Iowa farming community I grew up in. I listened, I imagined myself saying the same words. Landecker was manic, subtle and powerful, all at the same time. He was a superstar in an era before online media reduced, then vanquished the celebrity power of radio performers. I was fascinated how he wove his voice between, in and out of the top 40 songs of the era, how he rode on sound effects and music beds like a surfer in a Oahu wave. He made me laugh; he gave me shivers. He was my idol.

Summers in my youth were spent in Arlington Heights, Illinois, a sprawling northwest suburb of Chicago. My folks would drop me and my brother at my aunt and uncle’s home for a couple of weeks each year. WCFL and WLS had been engaged in hand to hand combat for a period of years, fighting for dominance in the Chicago radio ratings. The personalities on both stations were all future legends in the business. The competition made them better; it was a street-level battle for the hearts and minds of the young people of Chicagoland.

My memory of those sunny, humid summer days are so vivid; carrying a radio around Mickey and Joe’s home, tuning back and forth between the two stations, trying to understand the difference in the approach of the two.  Mickey and Joe had an above-ground pool in their backyard, an oasis for their five children (and brother Carl and myself). The radio was always on nearby, and I was always paying attention.

There is one moment burned in my mind that will be with me forever. It’s an otherwise ordinary Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1972. Uncle Joe is working under the hood of the family station wagon in the garage. All of the other kids are in the pool playing Marco Polo, the call-and-response game filling the air with sounds of splashing water and laughing children.

I’m sitting on the driveway, cross-legged, next to my bike, a yellow BMX-style ride, transistor radio in hand. I marvel at the mellifluous baritone of WLS DJ Fred Winston as he tosses to a colleague for a live shot from a beach on Lake Michigan. I could imagine the heat coming off the pavement from nearby Lakeshore Drive, the throngs of people sitting on the sand, and this lucky DJ, surrounded by admirers, telling people about the Rolling Stones show coming to Chicago, handing out tickets like candy.

I said the words out loud, speaking to myself as if I were looking in a mirror: “That’s me.”

August 16, 1976 was my first day on the radio. I was the youngest DJ on the air in the state of Iowa.

I understand today that I was highly unusual, this hyper kid with one singular passion so early in life. In my head the dreams were effortless, the goal was simple. I had no angst, no indecision, no waffling. Radio was my career, end of discussion.

30 days after I graduated from high school, I boarded a bus one morning, destination Rocky Mountains. I had a suitcase and a pillow and a dream. My mom was crying. The bus pulled away and her image got smaller and smaller. I hated where I lived, and it didn’t like me much either. I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to be better.

The beginnings were humble- there were low days, tough times and trouble, but I was obsessed with this art form, radio; the powerful medium that had been the object of my desire at an age when most kids couldn’t decide which pair of shoes to wear. I would do this for the rest of my life, I told myself.

On February 22, 2010, it ended, quietly, with a few emotionless and curt words from Don Parker; “It is what it is.”

This past year has given me ample time to reflect on my career; the awards, recognition and achievements. I was successful, by any measuring stick. 34 years of one singular focus, one solitary purpose. I started in a humble town in Iowa and navigated my way to the major leagues.

I could have probably been a bigger suit; Vice President of something-or-other, Regional Director of this-and that. I know why I didn’t.

What gives me more joy than anything in this life is listening to people’s dreams. I had a well-deserved reputation for taking a meeting with anyone, about anything. It didn’t matter that the idea might be DOA; the discussion of the idea might give birth to a concept that could blossom into something real. The enthusiasm of the pitch was enough to get me to ask, “What if we…”

I watched empty suits roam the halls for years, babbling vague generalities and espousing hollow macro-level goals for success. These people knew nothing about the ordinary, seemingly unspectacular folks in their charge. They didn’t know what their employee’s dreams were. They never asked.

I did.

The old-school broadcast media business is in epic crisis, its relevance lessened every day, buried under the weight of debt they cannot possibly repay. Because so few suits are listening to the dreams of their people, nothing new is being created. The mantra of “best practices” guarantees the minimization of innovation and the embrace of the familiar.

Start laying your money on the table and make your bets. The deathwatch for untold numbers of radio, TV and print executives is underway. The bell tolls for the empty suit whose ear is deaf to the dreams of the next generation.

I spoke as a guest lecturer in a class at Academy of Art University this week. I told them a bit of the story of how I got to this place in life. I told them about February 22, 1010. There was an audible gasp in the room as I recounted the 18 seconds that ended 34 years of a career.

Then I told them about the future; the new platforms, the new distribution channels and the new paradigms. I told them to have a dream, and to find people who like to listen to dreams.

Near the end of the class, I sat in a chair and looked at them, scanning the eyeballs and foreheads behind those giant Apple monitors.

“You and I are remarkably similar. We are not the same age, but we are at identical places in our lives. You are, right this moment, trying to figure out who you are. You are trying to decide what you are going to be. You are in the process of discovering what makes you happy and what motivates and inspires you. So am I.

Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will…”

A few heads nodded.

People like predictable outcomes. MBA’s spreadsheets always add up. Voters tend to be “conservative”, preferring the familiar to the unknown, even if it means voting against their best interests. Society prefers people to be “secure”. They’ll feign admiration for the reinventor, but in the end, they won’t be there to witness the acsent. They show up later, when you are “something”. That brings a whole new challenge for the reinventor. They were not with you when you needed them the most, and now they want to hop on the success train and enjoy the free ride. How to repay their lack of loyalty…?

It’s the price you pay for creating a new you. You can’t let it stop you. You cannot suffer paralysis by analysis. You have to take steps. You have to believe in yourself.

I do know this: I know the final words of the chapter of this book. I’ll know how to fill in the blanks. One sunny afternoon much sooner than the universe thinks I will find a warm driveway, sit down next to my Specialized Rockhopper, stream some content from my mobile, and say aloud, “That’s me.”

…President of the Next Big Thing.

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