My worst moment on the radio

Brock Huard gasped, Tom Wassell hissed. It wasn't the worst mistake I ever made on the air, it just felt that way, but what happened next was way more important.

Brock Huard gasped.

That was the first clue I’d made a mistake while introducing our guest, Aaron Goldsmith. He was a member of the Mariners broadcast team, and he was on the phone for an interview. This was my first year as a full-time host at 710 AM, a Seattle sports station. I worked with Brock, co-hosting a show that ran from 9 a.m. to noon every weekday, and I was in the midst of the most pronounced crisis of confidence I’ve ever experienced on the air.

I had clearly said something wrong. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I tried to continue on, but lacked conviction. You could hear it, a slight hesitation in my voice. A bit of hollowness. It sounded like I was saying something I hoped was true rather than something I knew to be correct.

After my introduction, Goldsmith began talking, but I don’t know what he said. My attention was demanded elsewhere.

“Goldschmidt!?!?” hissed the voice in my headset.

It was Tom Wassell, the producer of the radio show, and if we’re being honest he had plenty of reservations the position I held though he wasn’t actually my boss or supervisor. He was sitting on the other side of a piece of sound-proof glass in what is called the control room, speaking to me by holding down the “talk back” button. This piped his voice directly to my headset without anyone else hearing or his words going over the air. He was “talking in my ear” as the radio folk say.

Now I knew what I’d screwed up: the guest’s last name. But Wassell’s tone was a mixture of disbelief and accusation, and I could not tell if Goldschmidt was the name I should have said or if it was the name I mistakenly did say.

I was embarrassed, my face flushed. I was slightly dizzy and for the next minute or maybe even 2, I stopped listening to what was being said and let my eyes wander around the studio before I began staring distantly at a spot on the wall above the window that looked out into the newsroom. I was like a pinball machine that had tilted.

“I thought, ‘Danny’s really going through it.’ “ said Kyle Brown.

Kyle was serving as what is called the board operator, who sits at the console, pressing the buttons to cue the intro music, the commercial segments and the different elements of audio production. The board op controls the soundscape of the show, the schedule and in this particular instance served as the witness to my personal existential crisis.

Maybe I’m not cut out for this … Perhaps I shouldn’t have left my job as a newspaper reporter … What if this was all one big mistake?

In retrospect, that morning was one of the most important I’ve ever experienced professionally not because I learned anything from it per se, but because I endured it. I sat there with sweaty palms and flushed cheeks in a pit of personal embarrassment and professional discomfort. I waited out the self-loathing and the defensiveness and the resentment and after a stretch that felt entirely timeless I re-engaged to ask a forgettable question as part of a forgettable interview. I continued, and then I came back the next day and did the whole thing again.

I’m sure it’s possible to become good at something without ever going through that kind of emotional struggle, but I’ve never been able to do it. I’ve always had to endure these bouts of self-doubt and angst. It was true when I switched from skiing to snowboarding when I was 22 years old and living on the East Coast for the first time. It was true when I was a history major at the University of Washington. As a junior, I stayed up all night desperate to improve a paper I feared would expose me as being inadequate for track I was on. While a newspaper reporter, a mistake that required a published correction could make me apologize profusely to just about everyone in my immediate vicinity because I feared being fired if I wasn’t sufficiently remorseful for my sheer incompetence.

I’ve felt some of this fear and self-doubt again over the past 15 months as I try to understand how to write publication-worthy personal histories instead of the sports articles that have been my trade.

I used to think of this professional insecurity as my own personal soft spot. A weakness that I was afflicted with. I now think it’s a sign of my willingness to try new things, to immerse myself in those challenges, and I see my ability to wade through that self-doubt and uncertainty is what allows me to reach the firm shore of competence that’s on the other side. Sure, it may get dicey in the middle, but I tend to make it across.

I’ve even come up with a name for that little period of angst: the dark and lonely night. I’ve accepted it as part of my own personal learning process, and I think the fear that I feel may even help me summon a sharpness and urgency that helps me reach my destination. When I’m feeling frightened by the possibility that I’m not good and may never become good at this specific activity. I’ve learned to frame the situation as a choice. I can decide it isn’t worth it and abandon that approach. Or I can decide to keep plugging away and do my best and if it turns out that’s not good enough, well, at least I tried.

I made plenty of mistakes on the radio after my Goldschmidt flub. Some were much more noticeable and way more serious. While filling in with Mike Salk on the morning show, I read a racial slur aloud because it was listed as the answer on a Trivial Pursuit card. I was so rattled I failed to effectively apologize. Another time in the afternoon, I completely forgot the script of the ad I was reciting during one commercial break, dissolving into laughter instead of reading the disclaimer about the docking fee that could be added to the capitalized cost of a vehicle from Carter Volkswagen. In the most comical incident, an echo in my headset made it impossible for me to intelligibly introduce John Clayton, saying “we do have him, the profefefefefe …” Dave Wyman always thought that one was funny. Cale Ramaker invited me on KIRO for a live TV segment, and I had a coughing fit so pronounced I had to walk off the set to get a drink of water. Even before the segment wrapped, it had occurred to me how funny it was going to be to play that bit during our radio show.

None of those mistakes inspired a crisis of confidence. In fact, I was able to laugh at all of those things almost immediately. I am better because I bottomed out that day when Brock gasped and Tom hissed. I faced my biggest fear, which is that I was unqualified for and incapable of doing the job I had. I looked at that fear, conceded it was possible it was true, that I was bad and I may never get better, but I was going to try my very best to improve.

My ability to come out the other side of that soul-shaking discomfort has been a source of tremendous confidence over the past 15 months. I can start over. I’ve learned that about myself. I can choose to move from one job in which I am at least professionally competent, maybe even good, and become a beginner in a whole new endeavor. I’ll take some lumps in the process, but eventually, I’ll figure it out.

It’s hard to be a beginner. It’s true with just about anything you try. You feel awkward, uncomfortable. Sometimes, there are physiological reasons for this. You lack muscle memory and don’t have the experience. But mostly, it’s psychological. The unknown amplifies the fear you’re feeling, but if you can just sit with that feeling for just a second – or maybe a minute while someone else asks a question – you can come through the other side and once you’ve sat with that feeling, once you’ve faced that fear, you will have chopped it down to bite-size pieces and I’ve found I’ve never felt that bad again.

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