I was 13 and the year was 1983. And I wanted to be the next broadcasting star. I idolized news anchors on TV, but I especially admired sports anchors. I wanted to be one.
I knew every statistic of every game and studied them every night. I remember lying down in my family’s living room, putting the newspapers on the floor as I literally soaked up every bit of sports knowledge that I could.
Yes, literally. As I would lay on the newsprint and press down while reading the pages in front of me, some of the newsprint and stories would transfer over and the ink would end up on me! Arms. Stomach. Chest. Newsprint everywhere.
One day right after school let out for the summer–and in Massachusetts, that was usually mid-June–I walked into my local radio station, WKOX AM 1200 in my hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts. 50,000 watts of broadcasting greatness.
I wore a tie that day because I knew that meant I meant business. And it was a clip-on, so it was easy on and very easy off. I entered the dark, wood-paneled lobby and the receptionist was on the phone. I sat down briefly, looking at the wall of fame in front of me, as it showed the radio hosts from the station–both current and former–with all levels of celebrities and wannabes. I waited for my opportunity to jump in and work my magic. She eventually got off of the phone call and looked in my direction. I jumped to my feet, introduced myself, and walked over to her desk to make my sales pitch.
OK, I didn’t have a sales pitch. No one told me I needed a sales pitch, so I went with what I had.
“Hi, I’m Peter (now I go by Pete, but I was named after my Dad and I got called Peter because it made it easier to know who she was calling to) Havel and I want to work here. I love radio and I want to be an anchorman. Can I have a job?”
She took my phone number, said they’d call me back, and I left.
I wasn’t cynical enough to know at that time that someone saying they’ll call you back may mean you’ll never hear from them again, but I waited patiently–for an hour or so.
Then, fidgeted impatiently for the next week.
Until THE CALL came.
“Peter, this is Deidre (I think that was her name, but maybe not) from WKOX. I have some good news for you. You’re hired!” she said.
She explained all the details, when I should arrive at the station, and then, as I assumed was customary for all hires, asked if my Mom could talk to her.
They chatted for a few minutes, came to some sort of understanding and my Mom served as part-negotiator/part-traitor as I heard her make her soul-crushing concession ‘Oh, I think he’ll be happy to be there. You don’t have to pay him.”
Womp. womp. womp. And, thanks Mom.
I wasn’t happy with whatever had just transpired financially, but I viewed it as the first step to certain stardom. And knew that if I worked hard, my luck would change quickly
I was assigned to work with the crack morning talk show team of Dave Scott and Sandy Gresham. They were both true professionals–in very different ways. Dave was serious and regimented. Sandy was lighthearted and engaging. But they met in the middle in their styles and hosted a very entertaining show built on their personalities, the topics of the day, and a steady flow of guests they’d interview.
My job was to work with Dave and Sandy, but mostly to help the producer. I don’t remember her name, but she gave me lots of work.
“Can you file this?”
“Put this somewhere.”
“Can you call this Roseanne Barr person’s staff and tell her we don’t have time to talk with her that week?” (Yeah, that happened.)
I did whatever she asked. And got pretty good at it–whatever I was doing. Apparently, all that I did, I was starting to do the work of the producer.
And how did I know that? Because I walked in one day and the producer was no longer there. She had been let go, as was explained to me, and I would fill her role.
I was now producing the show, though I really don’t remember whether they gave me the title. Booking guests, answering the phone lines when listeners would call in, getting Dave drinks at commercial breaks and, most importantly, never doing anything stupid. Or let anyone know how old I was–Sandy would have been fine with that, but I think telling callers I was 13 wasn’t a part of the show’s brand.
And there was even bigger news–I was getting a paycheck! $5 per hour! That summer job was going to become my pathway to great things.
Over those next few months–and actually a few years when I moved into other roles like serving as producer of the nightly sports talk show–I had some amazing experiences, including:
- Economics. learned that broadcasting was a business. I did well and the radio station cut someone else. I learned to work hard and that broadcasting was a business…and a low-paying one at that level.
- Courage. calling and booking some amazing guests, including a slew of cast members from ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ who spoke on the anniversary of the show’s 1st broadcast. I found Morey Amsterdam’s number (he played Buddy) and called him to ask if he’d come on our show. He informed me it was 6:30 AM California time when I called and was extremely gracious about it. He even helped me book another guest for the show that day. His colleague Rose Marie, who played Sally, was his next-door neighbor. He yelled to her seconds later to ask if she’d be on my random talk show in Massachusetts. She was instantly booked.
- Accepting rejection. I secured the in-studio appearance of the 6 Miss America candidates from the New England states for a group interview. This was personally, up to that point, the greatest moment of my life. I was certain that the combination of my charm, wit, clip-on tie (I had to look mature and few things say mature more than a teenager wearing a tie. Am I right?), and several ounces of Polo cologne would result in one of these lucky ladies meeting the man of their dreams. Let’s just say I miscalculated somewhere along the line, as I spent most of their appearance buying them drinks out of the station’s vending machine.
- Confidence. when producing the sports talk show, cold-called several Boston sports teams asking if we could have players on the show. Red Sox. Celtics. Bruins. It was hit or miss–mostly miss–but it taught me to not take no for an answer. And I learned that people appreciated when other people were working hard.
- Handling tough customers. I had the fun experience of helping produce a high school and college football scoreboard show during the fall. This won’t make sense to anyone born in the internet, instant information available at all times age, but there was a time when the only way to find out the scores of some football games was to call someone who was there. But this was before anyone had cell phones. So we would call police departments in our local communities and ask them to ask their colleagues who were assigned police detail at the football games what the score was. Calling the police about football scores had its risk, as the ‘by the books’ dispatchers weren’t pleased to get frivolous calls like this, but it worked out OK and usually resulted in us getting a score we could use on the air.
- Professional etiquette and learning from those with experience. I learned how to handle myself in a professional environment. I was the youngest person in the station–by at least 20 years…or it felt that way. I learned to speak less, and soak up their opinions more.
- Ask and you’ll be surprised what you get. People at the station were incredibly gracious and let me stretch my talents–or lack thereof. As a sports fan and especially a Boston sports fan, I was excited when my New England Patriots earned their way into a Super Bowl match with the Chicago Bears in 1986. It was the year of the “Super Bowl Shuffle”, which featured the Bears players rapping in an MTV-style video. With the ability to rhyme, and with what I thought mistakenly was an ability to rap, I wrote ‘The Bear Trap Rap’, which Scott Gibbons at WKOX let me and my team of equally not-so-talented rapper wannabes record. He put it together for us and, next thing we knew, the song was being played around the country during Super Bowl week.
Here’s the video link to the rap if you can handle it (I’m the first male ‘artist’). Warning: it’s a little rough around the edges.
- Do what you’re asked if it helps the team. Don’t worry about titles. Worry about getting things done.
- Don’t smoke. I learned that radio people at that time smoked like chimneys. I’m not sure if it changed, but holy cow, did they smoke a lot. It’s irrelevant, but I can still smell the smoke on me.
But more than anything else, I learned that opportunities are out there if you show up, ask, and work hard. Those lessons have worked well for me as a political candidate back in the day, legislative staffer, lobbyist, fundraiser, and now author, speaker, and trainer. Don’t ever quit asking for opportunities and never stop working hard for those who help you.
WKOX doesn’t exist anymore, but I’m grateful for everyone there who helped a pimply, awkward teenager with a little ambition learn a lot about how to succeed.
Pete Havel is a speaker, trainer, writer and consultant for companies in need of a more productive and principled workplace culture and stronger leadership teams. He’s the author of “The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures” . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-662-7766. To get your signed copy of ‘The Arsonist in the Office’, go to www. arsonistintheoffice.com for the paperback or head to Amazon for the e-book or audiobook version.
What did you learn from your first job? Good, bad or ugly!