It’s 4:00 a.m. inside a smoky bar somewhere in Queens, New York. The year is 1986 and just like a scene straight out of a Martin Scorsese film, a crowd of rough and downright scary individuals with unorthodox ways of making money, have flooded into the after-hours establishment. The bartender, 28-year-old Christopher Gabriel, knew he didn’t need to be mixing it up or getting involved with the type of people he’s serving scotch to. However, the struggling actor needed money way more than he needed a lecture on who to be hanging around.
The former Chicago sports nut never saw his life taking this drastic of a turn. Just a decade earlier, Gabriel was majoring in broadcast journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, with the vision of being an anchor for the evening news. Far removed from the life of getting paid “under the table” to serve drinks in a shady bar. Trips to Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park filled his childhood, but Gabriel’s desired career path didn’t begin with the intent on covering the athletes he grew up watching. In Gabriel’s eyes, the sports business just didn’t seem have the same draw as being a news anchor.
Fate seems to work in mysterious ways. Gabriel would learn that early on at Temple. While hosting his college radio show, a loud commotion came from the theatre office next door, totally throwing off what he had planned to deliver over the air waves that day. In a rage to see what had derailed his show, Gabriel stormed into the theatre office to confront whoever was responsible. What he found, was a woman behind the desk suggesting he would be perfect for the one of the roles in an upcoming show. After initially being caught by surprise, Gabriel agreed to an audition where he showed instant talent. The rest was history.
Gabriel’s change of fate would land him from Philadelphia all the way to Los Angeles to chase his newly found passion of being a theatre major at USC. By the summer of his last semester, he was back on the east coast in New York City where his acting career took flight. From there, Gabriel began to get casted in commercials as well as receiving Under-5 work, meaning he was given five lines or less on soap operas, including a recurring role on the hit show All My Children. A project known as the 1983 Commercial Olympics became Gabriel’s big break as he and the four other actors involved all signed with agents. Soon after, he would be performing in places such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and working on stage with esteemed talent such as James Earl Jones and Julie Harris.
Though he experienced the highs of working as both an actor and in theatre, he also suffered the lows. Trying constantly to make ends meet during his 20-year stint in New York City, Gabriel took jobs as a cook, caterer, bartender or anything else he could to make money. Every day was a grind and it was starting to take its toll.
His escape wasn’t different than most males during the 90’s in New York City. While always keeping his passion for sports, Gabriel became enamored with Mike and The Mad Dog on WFAN. So much so, that the thought of doing sports radio crept into his mind for the first time in his life. A trip to Montreal for a Candiens playoff game would end with Gabriel stopping on the side of the road at 1:00 in the morning to call WFAN overnight host Steve Summers just to hear himself over the radio and to enjoy a few moments of sports talk. Sports on the radio had always been a big part of Gabriel’s life, but WFAN along with Mike and The Mad Dog would fuel a passion for the business that he never had before.
In Gabriel’s words, trying to make a living off being in theatre is truly a grind. The process of getting an audition in New York City would start as early as 5:30 in the morning without the guarantee of even getting an opportunity. After over 100 plays across the country, complete with thousands of hours of auditioning and rehearsing, Gabriel found himself burnt out and needing a fresh, new creative challenge. After a role in Tuesdays with Morrie, he met Mitch Albom, who later invited him to work on a production called “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel” at Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre Company in Detroit. Over a cup of coffee, Gabriel voiced his frustrations about the grind of the theatre business with Albom. It’s then, when Gabriel found fate again. Albom suggested talk radio to Gabriel as a potential avenue to explore and even became a mentor to his success in the business. At the age of 47, Gabriel’s career in radio was finally about to begin.
January 6th, 2006 became Gabriel’s first day as an intern at the formerly 100.3 KTLK in Minneapolis. At the time, the running joke across the station was that he was the oldest intern in radio. That may have been true. However, Gabriel immediately fell into a good situation by serving as a producer for the Pat Kessler Show. Pat opened up the whole world to Gabriel by letting him do a number of things within the show. His big break would come almost two months later on March 5th, as Minnesota mourned the passing of Twins legend Kirby Puckett. As the news broke, nobody was available at KTLK or its sister station KFAN to do a live hit from the Metrodome. That’s when KFAN program director Doug Westerman gave Gabriel his big chance by giving him the assignment on arguably the biggest sports figure in Minneapolis’ history. Not sure if he was ready or even capable, Gabriel was sweating nervously all the way to the Metrodome as he delivered an 8-minute report that turned out to be excellent. From there, more opportunities came along such as being selected by Andrew Zimmern, host of the TV show Bizarre Foods, to produce and contribute on-air for his show.
Zimmern quickly took a liking to Gabriel’s work ethic and on-air talent. When it came time to travel the world to shoot new episodes of Bizarre Foods, the station wanted hosts such as Bobby Flay, Alton Brown or even Rachel Ray to host the show in Zimmern’s absence. But Zimmern fought for Gabiel to host while he was overseas. Management soon agreed and Gabriel now had the opportunity he was waiting on. There was just one problem.
The on-air light flashed in front of Gabriel in studio as he set to host for the first time. The intro came to an end and…nothing. All was dead quiet. It was his time to shine, but Gabriel didn’t know what to say. He completely froze. That’s when his producer came over his ear and reminded Gabriel he now had to talk. Though he was 47 years old, he quickly experienced his ‘welcome to the business moment.’
Gabriel would host every brokered show that was offered on KTLK. Gardening shows, shows for motivational speakers, he did it all. The drive and work ethic that landed him so many acting and theatre opportunities had carried over into radio. All Gabriel wanted to do was get in front of a mic, learn from his mistakes and get into the business. He was going to do whatever it took to make that happen.
After hosting any and every kind of show imaginable, Gabriel finally had a reel he could send to other stations around the country. In his words, he sent his resume and reel to everyone he could think of, including stations in Guam. He didn’t care where he was sending it, as long as people were listening to it.
One station that was willing to listen was 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. On the air since 1922, WDAY was one of the first 35 stations in the United States. After several days of auditioning in May of 2009, Gabriel was offered a job on his birthday as an on-air host. Though it was a jump to another news talk station, Gabriel spent 6 years in Fargo as he dabbled, amongst many other topics, with North Dakota State athletics and Minneapolis pro sports on his show, which gave him the entry into sports radio.
Gabriel’s time in Fargo came to an end after he was offered a job at a political station in Fresno, Calif., at Power Talk 96.7. However, the fit never matched and the two separated after 53 weeks. Though it was his first set back in the radio business, Gabriel considers it one of the best things that ever happened to him, because it allowed him to fill-in at numerous stations across the country.
If you take anything away from this story, take away what last August proved to be for Gabriel. It’s never too late to chase what you truly love and are passionate about. When 940 ESPN in Fresno came calling, it was a dream realized. From being the kid that listened to every Chicago sports team on the radio to the 30-year-old that escaped his daily problems by listening to WFAN in New York City, Gabriel was now fulfilling a dream. Though it took him 59 years to make his dream possible, the long journey he took to the host seat at 940 ESPN is unlike any other in the business. Not only is Gabriel a success story, he’s an incredible story of perseverance that should be celebrated across the sports radio community.
Today, you can hear Gabriel living out his passion on weekdays from 3-6 p.m. on 940 ESPN in Fresno.
TM: Let’s say you were able to bump into the 28-year-old version of yourself that was bartending in Queens. What do you think he would say to you if you told him in just over 30 years he’d be doing a sports radio show?
CG: He would say, you’re pretty cocky to think you’re ever going to be able to do that. But you better learn some skills on getting in front of a microphone, because it’s not going to be like it is on stage. That’s what he would say. However, I’ve found out there’s not a whole lot of difference. As a sports talk show host, my job is to engage people, to entertain and inform them. My job is to tell stories and that’s essentially what we do in theatre. The only difference, is that I always envision doing it to one person instead of standing in front 1,500 people.
TM: Do you think hosting gardening shows, shows with motivational speakers and other unusual programming helped you out a lot as a show host, in the sense that, if I can do that, I can do anything?
CG: I thought, sure, I can do this. If I can do these kind of shows, then piece of cake. But what I learned is it’s not easy or a piece of cake. I’ve always been big on prep and you have to be prepped for wherever a conversation might take you. When I was doing gardening shows and I was talking to motivational speakers, I thought I was going to get in there and make jokes and entertain…no. This was much more serious than I thought it was. We have a great time and have a lot of fun but it’s much more serious than I thought it was and much more difficult. My respect level for this industry and the people who do it well, it just went through the roof because it requires so much preparation and the ability to think on your feet. Just like on stage, when the other person screws up, you’re the one that has to pick things up and carry it on.
TM: You speak to a lot of groups and classes about your journey. What’s the message you really want to get across?
CG: I really feel strongly that you have to be a person of your own convictions. You have to follow your passions and you cannot let anyone else validate or invalidate what it is you’re doing and where it is you’re trying to go. Only you know the journey you’re on. Only you know the limits you have and how to burst through them. Early in my radio career, I had a person once tell me that I’d never get a daily hosting job, it’ll take at least 10 years. Well, it took 3 years, 5 months and 2 days. That number 352 is inside my head. What I tell young students is that you have to be focused and have a mentality that allows you to get to your desired destination. There’s off ramps but there’s also always on ramps.
Some people don’t, but I look at my age as a bonus. I’ve been able to live in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Fargo and now Fresno. With more age comes more experience and hopefully I’m able to apply that.
TM: What’s the best advice you received during your journey in radio?
CG: It would be from a host that told me, “be selected in your savagery.” What he meant was, you better be careful if you’re the ranting host. If you do that too much, people aren’t going to pay attention. You need to find layers of depth and go further and further. Don’t take the easy way out, find the nuance of the story and really press something out. Ask the questions your guests aren’t expecting. When you feel like going off on every caller – don’t. Be selective on how you handle things. It’s been great advice for me.