Monday, December 10, 2007

How I got here.

A blog comment asked me how I made the jump from telemarketing to journalism. Well, interesting question.

I didn't start out in journalism... and let's be honest, folks. I'm only barely a journalist. I write mostly entertainment features. I talk to musicians and low-watt stars. A few of the hardcore newsies sort of look at what I do with disdain. I'm filler compared to the real news of the day -a truth I do no dispute.

I didn't intend to be a journalist. Not ever. I've wanted to be a writer since I was twelve, but how to make a living at it always seemed a bit vague. I figured I could be Stephen King. I did the math, thought he'd be ready to retire by the time I turned 30.

I went to college and studied broadcasting because I thought it might make for an interesting day job, while I wrote short stories, novels and epic poems. By the way, I write really bad poems, Seriously.

In college, I avoided news classes and focused on production aspects, copy writing and radio. At Concord College, Broadcasting majors were required to take a studio workshop every semester. It was always a one-hour credit that ate up ten to twenty hours of your time every week. I did radio semester after semester. One year, I did both radio and television.

I screwed around a lot in college and was disappointed that being a college dj and a tv cameraman wasn't landing me a lot of action. I was just one of many, and not particularly talented. As an almost last ditch attempt to get accomplish something in college, I signed on for the campus newspaper. The editor was a friend of mine. He wanted me to write news stories. I wanted to write a column about virtually nothing. I won because I was taller.

The column enjoyed some success. People bought me drinks and my ego swelled to the size of the Galapagos islands. A drunk sorority girl offered to blow me once because she liked something I wrote. Regrettably, that was about three months after I'd got it in my fool head to get married. I declined the offer and have occasionally regretted it since. You tend to to do that after a divorce.

After college, I did an internship at my hometown paper, which nearly finished me on the prospect of writing news. The hours were long. There was no pay, and they wanted me to wear a tie every day. The stories were also incredibly dull. (1994)

My first job out of college was for a small am station in Beckley, Wv. I got the job because the guy working the afternoon shift that day was an acquaintance from college, who'd dropped out a few years back. He went to bat for me after the owner of the station took ten minutes out of his day to pull apart my resume and tell me I was qualified to work at his family bbq this weekend, but not for much else.

I kept writing, but did nothing remotely journalistic. The job didn't pay much and I worked at an airline reservation company, processing tickets over the phone. Mostly, I listened to complaints. The company was run by Lex Luthor and the legion of dumb asses. It is the only airline I've ever heard of that occasionally had flights depart early.

The radio job went away after ownership of the station changed. I quit the airline company a month after my son was born.

I went to work for a Canadian-owned satellite television provider with offices in Bluefield. Again, it was a troubled company run by retarded super villains who couldn't figure out where to put the decimal point on the bills they sent people. We took thousands of calls a day and seldom for anyone not royally pissed off about something. (1996)

The job lasted a year, then disappeared suddenly. After a short stint selling vacuum cleaners, I went to work for Adventure Radio as an ad copywriter. I wrote lots of terrible lies about car dealers, who in turn made lots of money. I also got another job working for another satellite company part-time. (1997)

To keep me happy, because I was really good at writing lies about car dealers, the radio station offered me an additional part-time job as an on-air announcer. I'd been bitching like Lucy Ricardo about wanting to be in the show for so long, they finally figured out I was cheap labor and this was a way to keep me writing the most outrageous fabrications about low prices or friendly service.

No journalism yet, but I did deliver newspapers for six months, then worked for CDG, where I bilked little old ladies out of money to buy vans for veterans.

I did four years for radio and realized in the last three months of it, I had no hope of ever being anything more than a guy who could write compelling lies, but whose own real voice was nothing special. I have what is often been termed a classic radio voice. It's generic. I sound like an MC for a game show. (2001)

I took a job with West Virginia Public Television. Again, I was writing scripts and doing some production. I was really in over my head, but I tend to get in over my head. The thing, however, was after I got settled, I realized the pace was far slower than what I was used to. I was almost comatose. I couldn't stand it. I saw decades of boredom ahead of me and wanted to just hurry up and die.

On a whim, I picked up a copy of Graffiti at a record store. I'd read the paper before many times and hadn't really thought much about it, but looking through the articles, I realized I could do that. It wasn't too big of a reach. I contacted Michael Lipton and asked him if he'd like me to write a column for him. I knew how to do that.

He said no.

But he also said he could use some features. Would I like to try that? I said I'd give it a shot. (fall of 2002)

I transferred from public television to public radio in Charleston. Again, I had this nonsensical idea of making it in radio, of becoming a personality. I was given the 9 to noon radio slot. It was all satellite. The only time I opened a microphone to talk was to read the donor, the weather or the top of the hour ID.

I wasn't even particularly good at that and also took a second job working for Dial-America. (2003)

I wrote for Graffiti in the meantime. I did an ongoing feature about weird shit I thought was interesting. I talked to witches, retired porn stars and the owners of a gay campground. I got a little better. I got cocky and contacted the editor of the Charleston Gazette. He offered me a chance to cover town council meetings in St. Albans. I balked at it because I didn't know local politics and because I'd just started an evening job with Books-a-Million.

That really pissed him off. He never spoke to me again.

I kept writing for Graffiti (for free) and started writing for Vibe (free), which became Voiceboxx (still free). I tried the editor at the Gazette again. I was sent to Doug Imbrogno, who asked me if would I be interested in writing about music? I said sure. He asked me if I knew any bands? I said sure.

I wasn't being entirely honest about that. I knew one guy in a band, but I did the story anyway and it worked out. I also tracked down a skinhead who'd moved to Charleston and did a story on that.

On my 34th birthday, I got a call from Doug saying they were going to print the stories and pay me. (2004)

After that, I pitched story ideas to Doug and then to Amy, who took over The Gazz. I also started pitching story ideas to Charleston Magazine, West Virginia Executive, West Virginia South and Goldenseal. Everybody said yes, eventually. (2005-2006)

I also pitched ideas to Rolling Stone, Relix and No Depression. I occasionally speak with the editors of those magazines. None of them has ever printed me.

Last winter, there were some changes in the newsroom. Several people left suddenly and they had an opening. I'd been writing pretty steadily for the Charleston Gazette and it just so happened, they had an opening in the department where most of my stuff had been published. I had been pretty unhappy with my career direction at West Virginia Public Radio. They offered and because my wife had also been offered a job the same day, so that we kept our medical benefits, I accepted. (2007)

There's no big secret. I didn't score a huge interview or come to the table with a mountain of talent. I just kept at it. Along the way, a lot of people were kind enough to cut me a break or point me in the right direction. People supported me. I could never have done any of this without a wife who would watch the kids from time to time or else allow herself to be dragged along on one of my trips. I got by with the blessings of supervisors who let me use my half-hour lunch in the middle of the night to talk to musicians in California.

I took criticism willingly, eagerly. I read books, asked for advice and got my heart broken when things didn't work out like I hoped. I kept at it, though. I faked it until it became real. It's what I'm doing now.

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