In Inner Voice by Steve Zarro

Many of us have been in positions or jobs where we’re compromised in some fashion. We’re stuck between staying true to our professionalism and our word by doing what we said we’d do, and staying true to our morals and guiding principles as both workers and humans. Our ideals.

Listening to our inner voice is not always easy. Or clear. Sometimes that voice is telling us two different things at the same time. Neither is wrong, but they can still be in direct conflict with each other and cause confusion as to what we should do. Is one voice coming from your head and the other from your heart? Is there a third yet, coming from your gut instincts? Most likely all three, yes.

It’s up to us and us alone to determine which voice to follow in a given scenario, and for what reason(s).

Years ago I took a part time job at a start-up company in my hometown. It was an internet radio station begun by a friend of a friend. They knew of me, my voice-over work, and my acting history. So when I made the contact and asked about voicing promos, ads, and doing some of their imaging narration, I was instead offered a gig as host of a daily morning show. They desperately needed capable on-air talent for their launch to establish credibility and an early base of listeners.

Although I have a degree in performing arts and no small amount of experience as a performer of multiple genres (stage, screen, voice, even some live music), I had never taken broadcasting in college. I had also never worked for a radio station before.

My subject-matter-expertise in this area was limited to years and years of radio fandom, though. Growing up in the greater New York City area, I received a radio education from the likes of Howard Stern on K-Rok, Don Imus on WNBC, Scott & Todd on WPLJ, 100.7 WHUD in the Hudson Valley, CBS-FM, and more. As I got older there came the Morning Zoo on Z100, Opie & Anthony, X107, Q104.3 (and their former iteration of WNEW 102.7).

I was the unwitting recipient of a radio education without the formality of a curriculum and degree. I loved many genres of music and also had an appreciation for live talk radio, with and without the edge. So I knew I could deliver whatever they wanted to have on the menu for listeners.

I had no problem proceeding bravely into uncharted territory. For me, that’s a place in which I thrive and have fun too. I embrace such challenges and take them very seriously. My goal is always to leave people with no clue that the territory is new for me. And I am proud to say that I am frequently successful in that vein.

This gig gave me an opportunity to learn an all new aspect of communications too. Things I could apply to my own business. The equipment. The process. The vernacular. The ups and downs. The challenges. Even the pitfalls. I was having a blast right from the get-go, learning a ton while doing quite well and having fun.

I got to exercise creative muscles, both old and new. Soundbite production and placement. Writing. Live improv comedy. Playlist curation. Promotion. Marketing. So, so much.

The owners were two long-time friends who had studied radio and broadcasting about 20 years earlier, in the mid 90’s. They knew a lot about radio. Old radio. Unfortunately that industry has evolved a lot since then, and not necessarily for the better. But they gave it an effort, despite their idea being 20 years too late and closer to a non-profit passion project/hobby.

A couple of local businesses signed on for temporary ad space on the air from the get-go, but many only did a month or so with the station before letting their deal expire. The station was getting very little traction and the businesses were showing practically zero interest in us.

As host of a daily 3-hour show I felt I might be able to have some positive impact on the marketing effort myself as well, despite having a dedicated marketing rep already employed at the station. So everywhere I went I was wearing the company shirt and speaking with business owners about who we were and how we could work together. Every local event, like festivals and street fairs etc, was a place in which I could work to drum up new business and do my part to help get this endeavor into an orbit. I even ran into the actual official marketing rep at one of these events as I was making the rounds and doing the pitch. We were attending the same crowded family event with our kids.

She saw me in the shirt doing the spiel to the local business owners and asked me, “Do you, like, do this a lot? With the shirt and the magnets and all? You do a lot of marketing for them on your own?”

I knew I was already going above and beyond the rest of the team, and now someone else finally saw it too. And even though I did wish others were carrying as much water as I was trying to carry, I made no complaints. I persevered.

As a point of fact, I was doing this job every weekday morning while still employed by my then-day job (a corporate job of almost 20 years at the time, with benefits and responsibilities). I would arrive at the station just after 6am, leaving my wife and young son home to do the morning routine alone as I was on-air from 7am-10am, 5 days a week. I was doing this with the blessing of my day job boss, because he knew what this meant to me and my future voice-over work.

I was working my butt off late every night writing show material, creating promotional posts and memes, show humor, soundbites, bumpers, audio files for imaging, and more. And I was also responsible for making up as much of my lost survival job hours as possible before allocating my own personal time off to cover the rest.

This radio job started off as a paid gig which was definitely a part of why I took it but not the sole reason. However, in week # 6 the owner approached my co-host and I and advised us that their ad sales were far below their hopes ( I refuse to call them expectations because, really, who the hell were they kidding?), and that if we wanted to stay on the air as hosts, we’d have to agree to a pay cut and split whatever ad revenue that they managed to bring in until they can eventually get us back to full pay.

It was at this moment that my Inner voice started arguing with itself. There were already other negative factors in play from the start but I was dead-set on powering through them towards success. But with this news, the internal debate escalated.

“Bail. Walk away, now. You don’t work for free. You owe them nothing and you have other responsibilities, other opportunities. You’re getting dumped on, abused, taken advantage of, and still going the extra 10 miles, all while being restricted from your other pursuits. Don’t let them do that anymore. Do. NOT!

“No! Don’t quit! You aren’t a quitter. Have faith. Be steadfast and determined. Work harder. Make things happen. Get out there and sell it. Make the show so good that it creates such a buzz that you can single handedly be the one who saves the day! Don’t quit! Do. NOT!

This went on for weeks.

I’m deliberately leaving out the parts where the owners as well as my co-host were guilty of absolutely horrid treatment, much of which was corroborated by my fans and by people close to them who knew them well and could see (and hear) the obvious.

Gas lighting.
Sand-bagging.
Favoritism.
Sabotage.
Total lack of professionalism.

I’d get calls and texts after the show, and even during, saying “why do they keep interrupting you like that?! What is that person even doing on the air with you?? They are ruining the show every day and don’t belong there. It’s taking away from the good you are doing, and it’s so unprofessional sounding. You’d do so much better on your own.” Seriously, this happened almost daily. Some of my biggest supporters found themselves unable to listen to the show solely because of the co-host who audibly hated my guts and went out of her way to trip me up and ruin every planned,scripted effort I was making. She would routinely help herself to the segments I had created and worked hard on because she was incapable of originality in any way.

This person did not bring any radio, music, or performance experience to the table either. It was painful to listen to, and even more-so to be the one having to work along side it. During a song she asked me “who is this woman singing?” The ‘woman’ was actually Robert Plant singing Immigrant Song. I was hosting a show with someone who had no idea who Led Zeppelin were. To be fair, she knew more about top 40 pop music than I ever wanted to know in my life, but her knowledge began and ended there.

In addition, the owners demanded that I make zero mention of my acting career on the air. They accused me of sounding like yet another desperate actor looking for a new opportunity. And although I didn’t use quotations above, those truly were their words. They simply refused to recognize that there could be a benefit to letting listeners know that a true trained professional was working there, and not just the unemployed and untrained wives of their friends. They just did not get it, or could not.

I eventually received liberty from my gas-lighting, uber-negative, super toxic, disastrous excuse for a co-host and went solo with my own 3-hour nightly music show. A bit more free-reign and creative license, which was kind of nice. That part was a lot of fun too. Ultimately, the owners knew full well that I was a valuable asset and they truly did not want to lose me. They really liked the work even if they did not like me and had allegiances to the people they knew better. But I still couldn’t allow it to continue.

The owner and I had a meeting one night after my show ended at 11pm and he revealed to me that they can not and would never be able to get us back to full salary. Ever. They had planned poorly, budgeted badly, and overextended themselves in every possible way. He even went as far as to say he’d rather have the place filled with interns if he could, and that his experience was limited to non-profit businesses in the past.

Really?!?! I would have never guessed…

I got up, gave him my key, shook his hand, said thanks, and left. I quit on the spot. The handshake and the gratitude were more than he deserved as well, but it was important to me to maintain my own professionalism till the very end and not stoop to their level. By the time I arrived home, my entire presence had been deleted from their website and social media platforms. Every post, every file, all of it.

It was only six weeks before they ran out of money and yet I worked there for another 2 ½ months for the equivalent of less than 25% of my expected pay. And that was after upping my own game in helping them market (without commission) and sacrificing over 40 hours of my own personal time off from my day job. I refused to quit when I was taking their crap daily from the onset. I refused to quit in week #6 at the first sign of financial challenges. I saw it through as far as I possibly could and endured so many more personal attacks and professional abuse than an employee ever should. AND my job, my own business, and my family life were all suffering.

The reality? I wasn’t an employee for those 2 ½ months. I was a volunteer, donating my time. A lot of it. And I was receiving nothing in return for it except endless flack and higher demands. The harder I worked, the more crap I received.

Preach on, Sister Janis!

They didn’t want to lose me, but…
They never said thank you to me.
Never acknowledged how much legitimacy and credibility my work gave them.
Never went to bat for me, not once.
Never expressed gratitude for how I helped them grow a following online.
Never acted like a leadership team regarding my pathetic excuse for a co-host and their antics.
Never showed an appreciation for the marketing effort I was making, nor for the way I ignored my own entrepreneurship during those 4 months (a mistake I will NEVER make again, by the way).

Months later, I received a call from the aforementioned marketing rep. She had just quit herself due to a commission dispute with the owner, and wanted to tell me how smart I was to leave when I did and how much she admired my being the first one to do it. It was a very nice compliment and affirmation (the only one of its kind) from a phone call I was not expecting in the least.

During our call she also apologized to me directly for not doing as much marketing as I had been doing, and that she felt bad immediately when she saw me out there working it more than she was. She also apologized for not standing up for me more during the 4 months. It turned out that she was aware of all of the above as well, including the co-host’s total and utter discontent for me. The marketing rep had been a life-long friend of my morning co-host and candidly revealed to me that they had it in for me from pretty much day one, too (duh).

Since she had no prior broadcasting or hosting experience whatsoever, she was heavily intimidated by the live-without-a-net aspect of radio, as well as by the studio tech. She also had a bit of jealous rage towards me for not being intimidated by it at all and for thriving on the air in a way she never could. She was completely out of her element, despite my frequent kind and genuine offers to help her and show her how it all works. This offer was not only never accepted, but only made her hate me more and increase her attacks, on and off the air. She simply didn’t belong there so she made sure that I sounded terrible too. Daily. I’d be in the middle of something I had written and prepared while she was texting her family at home, and would then just cut right in and say hello to her mom or daughter or husband right when I was getting to the meat of my bit, as if I wasn’t even there at all. That’s usually when my own phone would light up with texts saying “Is she kidding?? How could she DO that??”

I swear. It was beyond ridiculous.

There’s no reason to get further into the details of what happened during those months. There’s dozens and dozens of such occurrences. It would part bore you and part enrage you. I had been given the affirmation I needed, and I rested well at night knowing that I took the highest road available amidst a group of people who didn’t come close to deserving that from me.

In the end I’m thankful that I listened to the part of my inner voice that told me to stick it out. If I hadn’t done that, I may have spent the last few years wondering “what could’ve been”.

But by staying as long as I did and pushing through, I quelled that curiosity sufficiently. And in doing so, I also now know which of those arguing inner voices to listen to from now on. In the highly unlikely chance that I ever find myself faced with such a quandary again, I will now know exactly what to do and when to do it. I know my value and my worth. I know who I am, where I belong, and what I should be doing. And no one gets to tell me different.

No one will ever get me to compromise myself like that again. My loyalty, when all is said and done, is to myself, my family, my goals, and my business. I had to get taken for a ride in order to never be taken for a ride again. This lesson came at a great cost, both monetarily and mentally, but will surely be saving me from something worse later.

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