As one gets to a certain age and experience, there is inevitable reflection. It’s not so much about being sentimental about the past (something that older people in the industry tend to do a bit too much at times) but rather thinking about where one is, how they got there and who to credit (or blame) for their success.
Not to overly-simplify, but I’ve always thought that life and, by extension, careers are made up of individual moments that stitch together. Recognizing when those moments happen can be self-evident and other times, less so. We all look back and think about things that might have happened — or the paths we decided to take.
Similar to some people in the advertising and marketing industry, this wasn’t necessarily my first choice as a career. After getting a degree in International Studies from the University of Denver, I thought seriously about getting a masters degree and pursuing foreign service. But this pesky thing called the Pacific Northwest, a place that I love more than any other in the world, got in the way — thankfully.
Ambling through a career that included international banking, retail and the inevitable waiting of tables to cobble it all together, I found my way to the radio business. At the time, and over the course of nine years, it was a good match. It was the front end of my time there when things started happening positively.
I was running a street team for a hip-hop and R&B station a few months after it changed from a sleepy rock format. I was also chipping in on production and creative for the two stations in the group. The goal was to be on the air on a morning show, but I was getting that itch. I started wondering if I had, in fact, made the right move and my career eye started wandering.
That was until Ebro showed up one morning.
For the uninitiated, Ebro Darden is one of the most influential people in hip-hop. He’s the main guy at Hot 97, a legendary radio station in New York. He also does a show on Beats 1 every day. So, yes, he’s a big deal.
Be-dreaded and naturally confident, he commanded the room. We met briefly and engaged in a little small talk. Later, he came back to chat more — and this is where a epiphanic moment began to take shape. Still working on some production from time to time, I put together a parody (I like to think I’m pretty funny) that I played for him. It was corny and stupid, but Ebro laughed and asked if I wanted to get beers with him.
Little did I know that he saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself.
We spent a couple of hours getting to know each other and I shared my thoughts about what little I knew about business at that time. I was pressed on what I thought a morning show should be. I didn’t realize that Ebro was auditioning me, seeing if I had what it took for something bigger.
The next morning, he came to my cube and said, “I like you. I want you to be my morning show producer.”
You know that bolt of lightning that hits you when something good happens? Yeah. That happened.
I have a theory on the difference between talent getting an “opportunity” and getting “a shot.” To me, an “opportunity” is that chance to work within an environment to systematically work ones way through a career progression. Getting “a shot” is that moment, where someone sees something in you that you might not see in yourself — and can put a career into overdrive.
This is what Ebro did for me. He gave me my “shot.”
We did some great things together. We had some colossal flops as well. But this is what put my career on track — quickly.
Ebro deserves the lion’s share of the credit for my career. He won’t take credit for it (that’s not his style), but he truly does deserve it. Some of the things I learned from Ebro (and a bunch of others at the station) are still relevant and I lean on them today.
There is a certain convenience in sharing this today in light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. I get that. This post, however, has been 17 years in the making. I could have written it ten years ago. But, as I mentioned earlier on, at this age, there tends to be more reflection.
What I think is important is to understand is the narrative. I’ve had plenty of great men and women help me in my career — across the cultural spectrum. But Ebro, an African-American man, is the one who I owe a great deal to and it has informed the way that I think.
We talk so much about people of color getting opportunities, and the story is usually about what white men are doing to help, or it’s through a white lens. But what about flipping the script — the stories of people of color giving someone like me that “shot”? I know I’m not the only person Ebro helped and I know that there are leaders of color who are building diverse teams that do great things.
This isn’t about getting on a soapbox, though I know it will smack of another white guy bloviating about culture and race. But I lived something extraordinary with Ebro and a diverse crew — Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, gay, straight, male and female — at the very center of it all.
We were #1 in ratings and revenue, and it was because of our diversity. We knew the goal, and everyone brought their own thing to the mix. 17 years ago, we figured it out, and it worked.
We talk about diversity transforming our business ad nauseam and, again, I get it, I’m a white guy talking about this. I can only speak to own experience, but I can’t help but shake my head at this industry’s attempts at figuring this out knowing how special it is when a talented, inclusive crew works together towards a goal.
Just get at it.
Yes, progress should be measured. Yes, we (deservedly) talk about HP, General Mills and other brands that are making progress. Yes, we see good things happening, in spite of the tough harsh swirling around us.
But we need more of it. Much more.
And maybe the soapbox is just what we need.
On a day where we celebrate the sacrifice, leadership, brilliance, and love from one of this country’s most important citizens, it's time that we create more moments like the one that helped shaped more than just my career 17 years ago. It’s time to celebrate every moment like that at the top of our lungs.