The road not taken.
You might have heard or read the poem which Robert Frost wrote more than a hundred years ago, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference. “
Has someone ever asked you for advice? Should they move from this company to that one? From one career to another? From one city to another? A dear friend of mine has these questions looming large. Thinking about her choices at 3 a.m., suddenly I remembered several forks in the road I had taken. I had not known what they would mean. But they made all the difference.
I thought about the decisions I made that I did know would change everything. Emigrating to New Zealand would make all the difference, I just didn’t know how. I knew leaving the morning paper in Wellington to be a TV/radio reporter was a turning in the road. I didn’t know what difference it would make.
After two years working in London, lucky enough to be working for a wire service on Fleet Street, the job of my dreams came up. In that era, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the government-
run broadcasting network, controlled radio and TV news. Like New Zealand, the journalists worked as civil servants. Formal, absolutely government-controlled — even demanding announcers wear evening dress to read the news.
But the 1970s, Parliament changed British broadcasting forever and passed an act that allowed commercial radio broadcasting. That allowed an all-news and current affairs radio station and a commercial radio news network. London Broadcasting and Independent Radio News were broadcast across Fleet Street and down a little alley from where I worked. With my “God’s gift to journalism” self-image and my New Zealand broadcasting experience I thought they needed me.
By then I had already done some work for the BBC World services, which tied the old Empire to the Mother Country. I figured the World Services could tolerate my American accent.
Scary? Imagine cold-calling Eton- and Oxford-educated producers who were barely out of the era when their news readers wore evening wear!
How to do that? After listening for hours, I picked out a show that I thought might want a creative feature. I got a story idea, wrote a “pitch.”
No email. No cell phones. No landline in our cupboard of a flat. So I got a small sack of giant two-pence coins and picked a nearby phone box. I called the BBC until finally someone took my phone call. I still remember — his first name was Adam. He agreed to risk one piece. I bought a used reel-to-reel tape recorder and microphone. I lugged it. Finally the BBC bought two features. Not enough to buy fish and chips for dinner but definitely on my way to fame.
But I knew about that commercial all-news radio station and news network. Since my cold-calling technique had worked with the BBC, I tried it with the upstart station ait did work. One night a reporter called in sick. They needed someone who could rush out to cover a story. And even better knew how to edit the tape so it was ready for the popular AM morning show. I dropped everything, grabbed my 10-pound recording machine and headed off to interview one of the most famous actors of all times — Richard Attenborough — later Sir Richard. Shouldn’t he have scared me? Not sure why he didn’t, but maybe it was because I was so embarrassed about my dress. Long but definitely not evening attire.
More like a maxi with sensible shoes.
After more of these calls when I would rush out and come back with a ready-to-go story about people like Keith Richards and Jethro Tull, a producer told me to apply for the reporting job that was going to
And I got the job. At least I thought I had. My first day of work I showed up in the newsroom with my tape recorder, sensible shoes, and notepad, ready for my first assignment. Another woman with the same equipment, same height, even same hair color arrived too. Ready for her first day as a reporter too.
Suddenly our dreams were shattered. We stood pencils poised for our first assignments. The news director who hired us today told to put our tape recorders down. Someone made a mistake.
“You two are producers — not reporters,” said the news director.
Not the same job at all. Rather than rushing around interviewing Prime Ministers, voice-broadcast to the nation, we would be sitting in a windowless, airless studio, behind the scenes. Telling reporters where to go, what to do.
Forced to make a decision on the spot — without Frost’s time to think about which fork to take — I just did it. Years later I realized what I had done. That on the spot decision did make all of the difference.
I had already quit my other job. I couldn’t afford to lose this job. My counterpart dug in her heels. Said ‘I am a reporter or else.’ The news director looked at me and said ‘you are a producer or else.’
I didn’t know that once I took that fork I would never be a reporter again. Not what I had planned for my life. But I was scared. I couldn’t lose this job. I still had my dream ahead of me. I wasn’t going to give up a job at London broadcasting. I could still be famous.
I didn’t understand that this fork would change my whole life and that it would be the right turn. A long story with more turnings.
But my friend whose dilemma wakes me in the night — what fork will she take? It will make all of the difference. Will it be the right turning in the road for her?