Speech To Emerson College
My name is Benjamin Wagner. I’m the Executive Producer of MTV News Digital by day, a performing singer/songwriter by night, and an author, blogger, marathoner, triathlete, aspiring filmmaker, son, brother, uncle, and boyfriend in between. I’m here at Emerson tonight to tell you that you can be anything you want to be. Here’s how.
My mother, a nurse, was studying classical guitar while pregnant with me in the summer of 1971. I was born September 4, in Iowa City, Iowa. Three weeks later, my mother, brother and I moved to Washington, DC, to meet up with my father, who had already begun teaching chemistry at a community college. We moved four more times before my eleventh birthday.
There were three constants in the intervening years: music, reading and writing. The 70s were all about the singer/songwriter – the balladeer with an acoustic guitar – James Taylor, Carol King, and Jim Croce. Their music was in constant rotation on a now-archaic piece of technology we called a “record player.” My parents took me to my first concert when I was four-years-old. I refused to believe it was actually John Denver way off on that distant stage, but sang along with every song just the same.
Books were readily available but never forced upon us. I especially remember Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” and “Where The Sidewalk Ends.” But it wasn’t until picking up Judy Bloom’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” that I got hooked on reading. Her stories were about kids like us, kids with pimples, braces, and big glasses. Girls worried about their periods, boys worried about nocturnal emissions. This was real stuff, even if it was a few years ahead of my time.
I did ok with math and science, but I excelled at the arts. My parents responded with an avalanche of creative activities: painting and drawing classes, voice, piano and acting lessons – the works. They bought me my first journal — a Preppy Diary (Preppy was all the rage in The Eighties) — for my ninth birthday. It had a lock. These days, some twenty-six years later, I update my Daily Journal on Benjamin Wagner Dot Com every morning for some fifteen thousand monthly readers. There is, suffice to say, no lock.
My first public performance was at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary Talent Show. I auditioned with a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” but was asked instead to perform “The Theme From The Greatest American Hero.” You won’t remember the TV show, but it was the “Lost” of its day. Or at least the “Mork & Mindy” of its day. The protagonist was a reluctant, bumbling everyman who received his superpowers from aliens. The chorus of the song went, “Believe it or not I’m walking on air / I never thought I could feel so free.”
My parent’s divorced that winter. My brother and I spent Saturday afternoons at my father’s. One Saturday, we shot what would now be called a music video — but was then called a Super-8 movie — for the talent show. I played The Greatest American Hero; my brother played the bad guy. Three schoolmates, all named Jenny, co-starred. The short film – complete with a blue screen improvised from a piano bench and a bed sheet – played over my shoulder as I performed at the talent show. The year was 1980. Cable television was in its infancy. MTV wouldn’t premiere for another year.
Music was salve for the adolescent chaos of my parent’s divorce. I spent entire afternoon’s wearing big, puffy headphones plugged into my father’s Magnavox stereo. I listened to Styx “Paradise Theater, Neil Diamond’s “The Jazz Singer,” Journey’s “Escape,” Gordon Lightfoot’s” Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” on repeat. I escaped into the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine, relating at ten-years-old – somehow — to these musicians, their addictions, infidelities, madness, and rock and roll fantasies. I fell in love with a Top 40 AM radio station in Chicago called WLS. I listened to a zany morning DJ named Larry Lujack on so often and so loud, that my father broke my transistor radio over his knee.
If rock and roll was the music of rebellion, I had found my cause, and an antagonist.
Cut to sixth grade. I’m the new kid at Devon Elementary in Suburban Philadelphia. The school bully, Brad Daggett, has challenged me to stand high atop the jungle gym and sing Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” for the entire playground. I assume he thought I’d be embarrassed. To the contrary, I was thrilled with the attention. He may not have appreciated the impromptu show, but the sixth grade girls did. I was hooked.
Six years later, I was Editor of my high school paper, The Conestoga Spoke. My primary objective had been to drag the paper towards global, not local, coverage. It was a tall order for a monthly written by sixteen year olds. I settled, mostly, for changing the masthead from some silly pen-and-ink monstrosity, to a more elegant font, reminiscent of The New York Times. I thought it gave the paper more gravitas.
I was also the front man for an REM, Pink Floyd and Rush cover band — strange combination, I know — called Underground. We played school functions and birthday parties, often splitting our $100 paycheck six ways, which generally meant a burger, fries and Coke from the local Roy Rogers.
But eighteen years later — the paycheck notwithstanding — little has changed. I am the Executive Producer of MTV News Digital, and I perform rock and roll. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.
I applied to two great journalism schools: Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. The reply from Northwestern was thin. I didn’t get in. Ends up I had mis-spelled Cronkite, as in Walter. Note to self: when writing an application essay saying you want to be like someone, be sure you know how to spell that someone’s name.
I got into Syracuse, but not the SI Newhouse School of Communication. And so my work was cut out for me when I started classes in the fall of 1989. I had two years to get a 3.4, and pass a Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation entrance exam. By spring, I had a 3.6, and had eked my way through the test (spelling was never my strong suit).
I started my junior year as a dual major: Creative Writing and Journalism. The Arts & Sciences and Communications schools were on either side of University Avenue. One the north side, I was taught that language was slippery: every word has a thousand meanings. On the south, I was taught that word choice was imperative. A “crash” and an “accident,” they reasoned, were not the same thing. (I’ll let you figure out which discipline was which).
I wrote just one article for the Syracuse student paper, The Daily Orange. It was an interview with one of my heroes, REM front man Michael Stipe that I had snagged by faking the paper’s letterhead. When the features editor failed to welcome my Big Get with lavish praise, I resolved to never write for him again.
I didn’t really like The Newhouse School. It felt like a vocation. It felt like science, not art. They taught me things like communications law, rights and clearances, and graphic design. The lessons were hard learned, and lacked poetry. In one class, we were given the elements for the first section of an imaginary paper — masthead, articles, and ads — and told to arrange them as we saw fit. I put all of the news up front, and all of the ads in the back. “No no no,” the Chair of the Newspaper Department said. “Page one is news, then six pages of ads, then a little more news at the back.” If this was journalism, I wanted nothing to do with it.
Luckily, I had plenty of other things to occupy my time. My “alternative rock” band, Smokey Junglefrog, was one of the best and busiest on campus (the other was called Zoo Trip, and was fronted by now-big time Hollywood actor Tay Diggs, but that’s another story). We self-released three records, opened for The Samples, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and performed in Boston, New York, and beyond. If you asked me then what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said without hesitation, “Rock Star.”
I had no idea what life after college would look like. I approached graduation with huge trepidation, drinking as much beer, and playing as many rock shows as possible. It felt like time was running out.
One of my favorite professors was an author named Tobias Wolff. I had a creative writing seminar with him. His first book, “This Boys Life,” was Leonardo DiCaprio’s first film. Anyway, I corresponded with him just after graduating. This is what he wrote.
You’re passing through what I consider to be the most difficult transition. More difficult, I think, than adolescence. Keep writing. Whether or not you eventually become a writer, it will help you see what’s going on with you, and give you a window on your life.
Now, I hadn’t interned anywhere. I had no skills. I had no clips, no reel, nothing much to show for myself except two degrees, three records, and a wicked hangover. My summer jobs had consisted of running amusement park rides in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, painting houses in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and pumping gas in Telluride, Colorado. Not exactly entry-level mass media stuff.
So I kept singing, kept performing, and kept writing. And I took temp jobs. I spent a week unpacking computer boxes. I spent a week filing TPS forms. And I spent a week assembling plastic medical parts. Which was the final straw. Five days of soul-crushing, mindless labor at six dollars an hour – after taxes – added up to $190. I knew there had to be a better way. But I didn’t have a map.
Everyone talks about “networking” when you’re starting a career. It always sounded like a dirty word to me, a euphemism for “using someone else.” And that might be partly true. But if I’ve learned on thing in the nearly twelve years since graduating college, it’s that people like to help people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The worst anyone can say is, “No.”
So I asked for help. I was living with my brother in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was a small town. He knew someone at the newspaper. I got in the door, I got an assignment, and I nailed it. My editor at The Saratogian was Bev Kim. I asked her for a break, and she gave it to me.
Don’t be afraid to ask.
Not like I’d made it at that point, or anything even close. I was freelancing, writing an article or two a week. I was writing concert reports, features on local talent, and light news. But it wasn’t paying the bills. So I worked at the local coffee shop – not, I will add, a Starbucks – and even babysat my brother’s boss’ kid just to make ends meet. I earned $8000 my first year out of school. I was struggling.
And I was making music. I released my debut solo CD in 1994. I played all over The Capital District, got some local press, and used both the newspaper and the coffee shop as opportunities to spread the word. Within a year, I was part of a musical community, and had a column in the paper called, “B-Side.” That’s what they used to call the back of a 45, one of those smaller records – a single. The B-Side was where the artist usually put their random stuff: cover songs, ephemera. Anyway…
I had a friend in Saratoga that we called “Doc.” He was what I’d now call an “early adopter.” I had a second generation Mac – I’d long sworn off PC’s – but his computer was truly tricked. Remember, this is the Early Nineties. Dudes at MIT are the only ones using email. Marc Andreeson is still developing the first Internet Browser. But my friend Doc had a Mac with a CD-ROM player. And he had a modem. It was 4400 baud, which is approximately 80,000 times or so – math isn’t my strong suit, remember? — slower than the first consumer modem. Still, he was able to connect to BBS’s, these Bulletin Boards – early Blogs, if you will. I was fascinated.
Sometime around there, my brother’s company relocated to New York City. He asked me if I wanted to move threw with him. So with $400, a fistful of clips from The Saratogian, my trusty Mac SE and a hand-me-down 4400 baud modem courtesy of Doc, I moved to Hell’s Kitchen, 56 Street & Tenth Avenue, in Manhattan. I was twenty-four years old. And scared shitless.
And so I networked. I made a list of everyone adult I knew, called them, and asked them if they’d suggest three more adults to speak with. There were some major misses. I left messages for one guy at The Village Voice every day for two weeks. When I finally got him, he was annoyed. “Dude, I’ve been in Tokyo all month. I’ve got sixteen messages from you! What the fuck?” But occasionally, I got a hit.
I toured the WNBC, Daily News and New York Times newsrooms. And in April of 1995, just a few days after the Oklahoma Bombings, I met Rolling Stone writer – and Syracuse Alumni – Pete Wilkinson at The White Horse Tavern in the West Village. Dylan Thomas had drunken himself to death there, and here I was having a beer with a bona fide Rolling Stone contributor and his BBC reporter friend.
Meanwhile, though, I wasn’t making rent. The night before taking a job at Starbucks, my brother – who himself was editing television seven days a week to make ends meet – told me not to. “You’ll never get the career you want if you’re working at Starbucks all day.” Chris was my Guardian Angel. We all need one.
And Pete Wilkinson was my Gozer, The Key Master, Rick Moranis’ character in “Ghostbusters.” He got me in the door at Rolling Stone. Here I am a 24-year-old musician who writes a newspaper column — with my face on it and everything — walking into the Wenner Media Offices on Sixth Avenue in New York City. I figure they’re going to welcome me with open arms, and give me a staff gig right on the spot.
There were no jobs for me, they said. But there was an internship. It wasn’t a Rolling Stone internship, though; it was for Men’s Journal. Was I interested? Would I like to work for free? For a magazine I didn’t read?
There are maybe a dozen crossroads in one’s life. I dunno, I’m still young-ish — maybe there are more. But this was one of them. I had no money. I was living off of hot dogs and generic Tang. I needed a paycheck. And I needed a career. So I said yes.
College internships are often thankless. I know: one of my current gigs is running the intern program for the department. I can tell you as someone who manages fifteen paid producers and thousands of pieces of digital content online, on cell phones, and via broadband — managing a non-paid, twenty-year-old is not my top priority. It can’t be. But in nearly ten years at MTV News, I’ve hired four of my thirty or so interns. I’ve hired the ones with moxie; the ones who follow through on even the smallest assignment; the ones who work until the work is done.
And so I set out to impress at Men’s Journal. I did crap jobs like organize the equipment closet. I made photocopies. I sent faxes. It was brainless, menial labor, but I poured myself into it. And when I had a second of downtime, I didn’t flip through magazines, or take long lunches. I asked the editors if they needed any help, read press releases, and absorbed every piece of knowledge I could. And knowledge was everywhere: recycling bins, file cabinets, staff meetings – everywhere.
Someone must have noticed. Within two months I was fact checking for $15 an hour. Within three months I was contributing to the magazine for the unheard of rate of fifty cents a word!
Rolling Stone, meanwhile, was just down the hall. Word was they were looking for writers for their new online deal with CompuServe. Don’t look for it now – they lost out big to AOL. I grabbed my clips – which were always on hand – screwed on some courage, marched down the hall and stuck out my hand.
“My name is Benjamin Wagner. I hear you need online writers. I’m your man.”
The dude, Matt Hendrickson, was scarcely older than me. He pawed my clips straight faced and said, “Weezer’s playing Central Park on Saturday. Fifty bucks.”
In less than a year at Rolling Stone Online, I interviewed Ben Folds, Ani DiFranco, They Might be Giants, Goo Goo Dolls, Buffalo Tom, Matthew Sweet and a whole bunch of other artists you’ve probably never heard of. I had been in New York less than a year, but already I was in the VIP section at Irving Plaza, and backstage at The Academy. I was being published, but I never saw the results. My 4400-baud modem wasn’t cutting it. And at $50 an article, I couldn’t afford CompuServe anyway. Still, it was exciting.
But it wasn’t paying the bills. I wrote for anyone who’d pay me by the word. I wrote a freelance article on the desert tortoise for Ralph Lauren’s son’s magazine, Swing. I wrote for CD-ROMs. I edited an LL Bean catalogue. Anything. I was still living off of hot dogs and Tang, and barely making rent.
Still, when Lifetime Television – yes, The Cable Channel For Women – called to offer me a job as a producer for their soon-to-be-launched web site, I balked. Me? At Lifetime? It was a full-time job, and they would teach me how to produce for this brand-new thing, The Internet. My mother, bless her heart, told me not to be stupid. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “Take the job, Benjamin.” So I did.
Now, imagine, if you can, a time before The Internet. You were probably about ten years old. No one had any idea what The Internet could do. All we knew was that everyone could be connected, and that we could put pictures and words and links on a computer. There was no ecommerce. There was no eBay, no Napster, no Amazon. There were no MP3s. Shit, there was barely Real Audio – remember Real Audio? At the time, it was basically what we’d now call “brochure-ware.” For a television network like Lifetime, The Internet was brand extension. It was a place to find out about shows, and what time they were on. It was a place to “chat” with stars from Lifetime Original Movies.
More importantly for me, though, it was a place to learn. I was hired to write, and collaborate with coders and designers on what the web site would look like. But I wanted to know how the coders and designers did what they did. I wanted to know HTML, I wanted to know Photoshop, and Adobe Premiere. I wanted to shoot video, and encode audio. And because this brand-new department was about four-people strong, I could do all of that stuff.
In August of 1996, Lifetime sent a few of us to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I was the first to arrive at the United Airlines Arena. I had two laptops, and a digital camera the size of a football. As I found my way to our press box, I walked through an army of young, hip, pierced and tattooed young people with the coolest and fastest computers I’d ever seen. When I got to my station high above the convention floor, I had no idea where to plug in my computer. I turned to the guy standing next to me, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hey, my name is Benjamin Wagner. I work for Lifetime TV Dot Com. Do you have any idea where we’re supposed to plug these things in?”
That guy’s name was Michael Alex, Vice President of MTV News. He’s my boss.
Michael hired me in October of 1996 to produce MTV News Online’s Daily News. As perfect a fit as it seemed, I was reticent to take the job. I loved MTV. My brother claims it’s all I ever watched. But I considered myself more of a PBS or NPR kind of guy. Still, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m now in my tenth year at MTV News, and I still consider myself an PBS or NPR kind of guy.
I don’t really know how to summarize all that I’ve learned at MTV. Hopefully you’ll ask me good questions in the Q&A.
It’s been a real coming of age. I’ve gone from Producer, to Senior Producer, to Director, to Executive Producer. I lived through the Internet Boom — when some of my peers become paper millionaires overnight. And I weathered The Bust — when entire companies disappear just as quickly. With consumer adoption of broadband technology, it’s booming again. I’ve seen technology shift from hand-tagged HTML, to content management systems, XML, and Flash. I’ve seen musical trends change from Girl Power to Boy Bands to Hip Hop. The reports of rock and roll’s demise are frequent, and frequently premature.
I released my tenth CD, “Heartland,” last month. For the last four years, I’ve spent the balance of my allotted vacation time on tour. My music doesn’t pay the bills, but it does feed the soul.
I still go to shows, still go to movies, and still buy CDs. I still seek out new music: Matt Pond PA, Augustana. The Hidden Cameras’ “Music Is My Boyfriend” is currently in heavy rotation on my Ipod.
I still write every day. I’ve been posting stories, songs, and photos to my website, Benjamin Wagner Dot Com, since before I knew what a Blog was. It’s been good for business – I earn a couple thousand dollars a year from iTunes and CD sales – but mostly it’s been good for my soul.
I don’t write for MTV News very often anymore. Every so often, I come out of retirement to interview my heroes — Michael Stipe, Aimee Mann, and Cameron Crowe. And I don’t actually produce the web site anymore. I manage the News and Movies area like an air traffic controller, landing major projects on time and under budget, and sending new initiatives off into the ether. I manage aesthetic, editorial, and quality standards. I motivate my team to make great content for the greatest audience in the world. I remind them to remember what it feels like to be a fan. All I have to do is think back to those afternoons I spent in headphones reading Rolling Stone. I couldn’t get enough then, and neither can our millions of users and viewers now.
Which is a tremendous responsibility, really. We like to think of our audience as our younger siblings. We tell them what we think they need to know, whether it’s what their favorite rapper is up to, what’s happening in Washington, DC, that affects them, or what the troops in Iraq are enduring.
It’s easy to think of MTV News as just one big college paper. Most of my colleagues are young. They love to stay out late and see shows. There are posters on the walls, and desks crowded with CDs and DVDs. But the longer I do it, and the further I get away from the age of our 18-24 year old audience, the more seriously I take it. One guy in particular helped me really understand the reach of this little job of mine.
Mister Rogers was my neighbor in Madaket, Nantucket. He summered with his wife there in a beautiful clapboard home — The Crooked House, they called it — on Smiths Point. My family rents the house next door.
The first time I met Mister Rogers, I was nervous like a little kid. It was a hot summer day in September 2001. I trudged across a sandy dune towards his house with my acoustic guitar slung over my shoulder. He answered the door, wearing glasses, a white golf shirt with a sailboat on it, a pair of slacks and slippers. He was smiling, his eyes like slivers of the brightest, most star-strewn sky you’ve ever seen.
We sat in the living room, there in the back overlooking the sea. It was wood paneled, and strewn with photos and art: there was Lady Elaine, King Friday, and Trolley.
We sat and talked a while about New York — he had an apartment a few blocks from mine – and about my job, my plans, and dreams. And then I sang a song called “Summer’s Gone” for he and his wife. I was nervous. Playing for half a dozen people is always more difficult than a hundred. And one of them — his wife — was a concert pianist; the other was Mister Rogers (an accomplished musician in his own right). I finished, they clapped, we drank lemonade, and smiled. It was pretty cool.
He took me on a tour of the house. There were doorways to duck through, narrow staircases, and surprise little rooms around each turn. While there was evidence of many summers spent there — fishing rods, foul weather gear, boots and hats — it was a sparse, almost ascetic house.
In one small room, next to a twin cot where he snuck the occasional catnap, was a pair of his blue Keds — just like on TV.
Later, we stood on the back porch staring out at the water. He asked me about my job at MTV. I told him what I did, how much I loved my colleagues, and music, and reporting on youth culture.
“There is no shortage of media – television, radio, movies — that are shallow and complex,” he said. “We need more television, more movies, more art that is deep and simple.”
His show, “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” like Mister Roger’s himself, was pure, unadulterated goodness. It was unfettered by extraneous language, bright colors, or complicated drama. He spoke straight, told the truth, and didn’t worry about being cool or contemporary. He was deep and simple, through and through.
I invited Mister Rogers over the following September. Despite a torrential downpour, and two other commitments elsewhere on the island, he came. He sat next to me on the couch, and watched me open a few gifts: like a tiny book with a mirror on the front and a ribbon bookmark with Trolley on the end of it called “You Are Special.” Inside he had written “Happy Birthday Benjamin! From your neighbor Fred Rogers.”
Sitting there with him, a storm raging just outside the window, I told him how often I thought about our “deep and simple” conversation, and how often I told others the story.
“Spread the message,” he said. “Spread the message.”
So that’s why I’m here tonight. That’s my message to you. Put your shoulders back, stick your hand out, and introduce yourself. Make sure it’s a solid handshake. Look ’em in the eye. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And when you get your shot, work harder than you’ve ever worked before.
You can be anything you want to be. Odds are, you’re going to be exactly who you’ve always been. It might be a long, circuitous path to get there. And when you get there, it might not look like you imagined. Plus, it’s gonna constantly change. But keep it deep, keep it simple, and you’ll get there. Take your time. Relish the journey.
Because I know that, right now, it seems like it’s all about being there. But trust me on this: it’s all about getting there.