I was ushered into a conference room at radio station WERC-AM. As I sat at a wooden conference table, Paul Finebaum sat across from me. He was flanked by a couple of guys from the production staff of his popular Birmingham radio talk show.
I was nervous and hoped it wouldn’t show.
It was sometime in the mid 1990s, but I can’t recall the year. The show had run a contest to find guest hosts from the audience to be on the air one week in the summer when Finebaum would be on vacation. It was called the Finebaum Fantasy Fill-in.
I had completed a written application to be considered, but I had no idea whether I had a shot. I was excited to get the call to tell me I was one of the ones being interviewed for a slot. And now here I was facing Finebaum and his producers.
In person, Finebaum wasn’t the caustic personality I had known on the air. He seemed strikingly intelligent and almost quiet. On the air, he was boisterous and loud. In the interview, we somehow hit it off.
I had a good interview that day. I didn’t show my nervousness. I was charming and funny. Finebaum started laughing with me and his producers seemed to relax. One of them slipped out of the room at one point and came back in with a station manager, who listened to the rest of the interview.
When we wrapped up the interview, we were all walking out of the room when Finebaum asked me if I was really interested in doing radio professionally. I told him I had no experience but I’d love to find out if I could do it.
“You have the personality and quick wit to do this,” he said in words that I’m paraphrasing after all these years. “Don’t use up all the energy and laughs you got here, though. Save it for when you’re on the air. I wasn’t any good at this when I started and I almost quit. Get some experience somewhere at doing a lousy job of being funny — and you’ll be great if you ever get on the air for real.”
And then he was gone.
I was selected to be the lead-off host for that contest. I think four of us were selected to fill two days of the Finebaum show. I got the first half of the first day and a woman got the second half of that show. (We each got 90 minutes on the air.) Two other audience members were picked for the next day.
When the day arrived, I was horribly nervous and I didn’t do a very good job. I was terrified of making mistakes and I was horribly self-conscious. I was so scared that I got the producers to allow me to pre-record the show opening, just in case I started to freeze up when I heard the theme music start.
I bumbled through my 90 minutes on the air.
I wasn’t very funny. I wasn’t very charming. I wasn’t horrible, but I also probably wasn’t entertaining. I felt my disappointment growing as the show went on, because my nervousness seemed to make it impossible for me to recapture the easy charm with which I had amused Finebaum during my interview.
After it was over, I stood in the control room and watched the second fill-in host struggle to make it through her segment. She was awful. Everyone in the control room seemed to be nervous about how to get through the rest of the show. About halfway through her 90-minute slot, producer Pat Smith asked me if I’d go back on the air with her for the rest of her part of the show.
When I was brought back into the studio during a commercial break and the woman was told I was going to be on the air with her, she wasn’t happy. Maybe she didn’t realize how poorly she was doing, but she glared at me as though I was personally offending her. We finished the show and everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
I wish I had a tape of that performance so I could see whether it really went as I remember it, but I’ll never know how accurate my memories are. I just know that it wasn’t nearly as good as what I had wanted it to be. I had expected to go on the air and dazzle everyone with my charm and wit and brilliance. I fantasized about getting a shot — being “discovered” — as a result of the show.
But nothing happened. Nobody ever called. I felt like a failure.
Finebaum was big in Birmingham radio at the time, but he’s big on the national scene today. ESPN hired him about five years ago to be the face of the new SEC Network and he gets plenty of ESPN exposure almost any time college football is discussed. He’s a wealthy man and a big star.
I’m thinking about all of this today because there’s a story this week in Sports Business Journal detailing how Finebaum became a national star. I knew most of his story, but there were pieces of it that were new to me — including the times when he was turned down by the people he hoped could make him a national star. I didn’t know the story of the day when he was dejected because a New York City talent agent told him he had no chance to go national — and I didn’t know it was the same day when he first talked with a writer who would first bring him to the attention of ESPN.
As I think about how Finebaum has fought to get to his current success, I think about where he came from. I remember when he was just doing an evening show on WAPI-AM in Birmingham. He was still a reporter and columnist for the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald, but he was fairly terrible on the radio. My friend Bob Lochamy had gotten him into doing the WAPI show. Bob sold and performed the ads. Finebaum brought his controversial voice from the newspaper, but he simply wasn’t good at radio.
It took him years to get really good at radio, but he mastered the medium. Whether you like him or hate him — he’s definitely polarizing — he knows what he’s doing and he knows how to manipulate audiences and attract ratings. Now he’s taken his game to national television and he’s bigger than ever.
Then there’s me.
I started out in newspapers, just as Finebaum did. I’ve been interested in doing radio ever since my friend Hal first suggested it around 25 years ago. I was afraid to think I could do it, but I loved the idea. Hal was convinced that I would be a successful political talk show host, setting the world right about politics. He told me I’d be more famous than Rush Limbaugh.
But I never did anything about it. I never made any calls to find out how I could get experience on smaller stations in order to find out whether I was any good.
What if I had followed Paul Finebaum’s off-hand advice? What if I had found a way to get some experience doing a bad job at some small station where I could have learned what I was doing? Would I have become good at it? Maybe. I like to think so.
Could I have become a nationally known media personality as Finebaum has done? I have absolutely no idea. But what if I’d tried?
What if I hadn’t been so terrified of being terrible when I started? What if I hadn’t been afraid to ask radio station managers for a shot? What if I had done whatever I needed to do to learn the medium?
As I read the story this morning about Finebaum’s success, one thing stood out to me as the difference between us. He’s a bright and talented guy, but so am I. The difference is that he showed up — and kept showing up.
Finebaum showed up when he wasn’t very good. He ignored the fact he wasn’t good enough. He got the experience to get better. He became a well-paid star by doing that.
Finebaum showed up, but I refused to show up. I stayed at home and wished things would change for me.
Is it too late for me?
Is it too late for me to let myself get the experience of being mediocre long enough to get good at something? Is it too late for me to be bold and confident — and risk rejection?
I won’t know until I give myself a chance to learn what I’m doing. I won’t know until I give people a chance to get to know my work and possibly like me.
I won’t know until I decide to show up and really give myself a chance.