Since assuming the role of Michael’s editor in 2022, I’ve jokingly suggested that my background as a funambulist piqued his interest enough to hire me. There’s some truth in that, but I would like to formally clarify that my career path wasn’t a direct leap from the circus to radio; I’ve waited tables, cleaned houses, and got a BA in media from Temple U.
I’m only rattling that off because, although I’m proud of my performance past, it doesn’t wholly define my journey. Nevertheless, I still resonate with many memories of those years. Experiences and lessons that I find still carry weight in my current career. And it’s my birthday, so I thought I’d pick up from last year and share a few more of those stories.
Be responsible with the microphone (why I still get uneasy on the air)
I’m not the best public speaker— especially not when sitting next to pros like Michael and TC. It feels more natural now than where I started, but I’ll still get a shaky voice and forget basic words like “Subject Line” and “Administrative.” But the mic anxiety has an origin.
Between 2015 and 2018, I spent considerable time with two circus companies based out of Philadelphia. The first was a highwire troupe consisting of four main performers. We specialized in large-scale riggings, setting wires amidst natural landscapes, often over water. The second was its sister company, a quaint vaudeville-style traveling show, ideal for kids and families, the sort you’d find at local fairs.
This latter show had been around for decades, maintaining a consistent format: two male jugglers performing tricks and engaging in comedic banter, accompanied by a young female acrobat who primarily played a silent assistant to the hosts. In fact, I only had one speaking part.
After our opening act on the tightropes, the two male hosts, mic’d up, would introduce themselves to the audience. It was a playful exchange of miscommunication about their names.
Host 1: Hello everyone! My name is Walter!
Host 2: And I’m Johnny-Walter!
Host 1: No, Johnny, I’m Walter!
Host 2: Right! I’m Johnny-Walter.
Host 1: Oh, I see; you’re Johnny-Walter, and I’m Walter.
This would end with me chiming in with a cheerful “And I’m Alice!” It’s not the best bit on paper, but it usually got a few chuckles. Then, one of the hosts would invite me to greet “everybody,” which I’d pretend to misunderstand, prompting me to walk into the audience with a mic, shaking as many hands as I could. “Hello! Hello! Hi! Hello!”
The twist came when I would single out one child, look them straight in the eye, and firmly say, “Not you,” before moving on to greet others and then swiftly exiting behind the curtain. This was supposed to segue into the next act, where the hosts would invite that same child on stage as our first volunteer.
But take a moment and put yourself in the tiny shoes of that young, innocent child enjoying a little circus show just for one of the main characters to tower over, humiliate, and dismiss them in front of a laughing crowd for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
Would you want to come on stage? Many of the kids didn’t. Some were okay, but others who managed to brave it out were often visibly uncomfortable.
I detested that part of the act and frequently pleaded with our troupe leader to scrap it, but he insisted I was simply bad at it — wrong tone, too fast, or picking the wrong child. So I tried every which way you could think of. But no matter the delivery, it would always lead to the same moment, mic in hand, watching the happiness drain from their little faces over and over.
Hopefully there was no lasting impact. I’m sorry to anyone whose enthusiasm for theater I may have inadvertently ruined. At least we weren’t dressed like clowns. That could have easily trigged two phobias with one stone.
Anyway, a hundred gigs and a revolving door of sad children later, the troupe leader randomly approached me, theorizing, “You know, I don’t think this bit is working.”
I have this fresh in my mind because I am on month five of what feels like an impossible task.
In the first episode of Netflix’s “Depp V Heard” Series, they play a voiceover from Michael giving context on the defamation case during a scene of the actors driving to the courthouse. It was taken from a SiriusXM broadcast but attributed to “Danny Cevallos: MSNBC Legal Analyst” on “The Smerconish Podcast.” I’ve emailed every department from production to legal; sent a LinkedIn connection to every name on IMDb; got hung up on by every robot that redirected me to seek customer support on their website…
I think Michael would be fine with it at this point if I let it go… but I know they can fix it for him. And I can empathize with being mislabeled.
In late 2017, MTV selected me to compete on a reality competition show called ‘Amazingness.’ It was a spin-off of Rob Dyrdek’s ‘Ridiculousness’ — the show that’s inexplicably always playing on the network where hosts react to viral internet clips. ‘Amazingness’ had a similar vibe, but the premise was more like a scaled-down version of ‘America’s Got Talent.” Performers with varying skill sets would put on an act, and it was up to Rob to choose who was worthy of receiving $10,000.
They gave me the stage name “Live Wire.” I was cast to walk the wire in high heels. Since the shot was just walking from point A to B, the producers instructed me to look slightly panicked and to give them a little danger wobble before I reached the end. I didn’t win, but it was still a really fun time. I made friends with the participants, and it was exciting to tell my mom that I would be on TV.
It aired for a bit in 2018, but the ratings tanked, so it was canceled after that first season. Not long after, it faded into reality TV obscurity— as did MTV’s promise to refund my flight’s baggage fees.
That was until 2020 when a distant friend said the show was still on in France. He sent me a YouTube video so I could hear my voice dubbed over… which I found quite charming as the French woman’s voice is far more elegant than mine.
But they labeled me “Stabitha!”
But in all honesty, I can’t say I was too upset about this mistake. MTV didn’t include any of the participants’ real names in the credits to begin with. Plus, ‘Stabitha’ is the most metal name ever. I’ve been using it as my Dungeons & Dragons character title ever since. Tout est bien qui finit bien!
The heavy lifting often goes unnoticed, and that’s okay.
Most of the circus isn’t on stage or in the ring. It’s a rhythm of load in, load out, drive, repeat. The sad kid vaudeville show took a few hours to set up with the aerial rig, tech, and all the trimmings. But tightrope installations could take a few hours to a few days, depending on where we were. I was so envious of slackliners who could hook each end of their line to an anchor point and call it a day.
The tension in wire walking complicates things. Maintaining structural stability is a delicate balance with the thousands of pounds of tension cranked into the walk cable. A-frames must be secured under either end, and smaller tension lines (cavalettis) must be anchored to the walk cable to prevent wobble. With every crank of the chain hoist, all these pieces breathe. It’s hours of readjusting, resetting, hammering stakes, and watching the dynamometer (the tension scale).
Water riggings were especially challenging, but none as humbling as the Susquehanna River.
The first year the city of Harrisburg hired us for the Kipona River Festival, this 300ft walk took us three days to rig. The plan was to walk from the bridge piling to the coastline, but the sheer size of the gap and bridge was exhausting.
We utilized every piece of equipment available, shuttling them back and forth in a canoe. Strapping and anchoring the bridge required me to navigate the narrow space around the barge, hugging the wall of tiny spiders, and I used a wooden spoon duct taped to a walking stick to shimmy up the span sets.
The tension lines had to be spaced out more, all attached from the coast, pulling the walk line to a long crescent.
Our one advantage was that the walk line itself floated. Trade secret: we opted for a fishing rope (Dyneema) instead of steel cable for longer walks. It’s strong, light, and is colored a sky-blending blue. Unfortunately, the rope didn’t reach the barge, so the starting point was positioned very awkwardly over the water. No room for our regular pedestal, we ratchet strapped a 40-year-old ironing board to stand on.
After three days of trial, error, and no small amount of bickering, the hirewire was secure… enough. But then, at 9:30 PM, a police officer informed us that we needed to illuminate the line to prevent renegade jet skiers from decapitation. Our leader, ever the compassionate soul, suggested that it might serve as a good lesson for them if they weren’t supposed to be jet skiing in the first place. Nevertheless, another troupe member and I made a late-night run to Walmart to buy up all the Christmas lights. By midnight, the rigging was aglow; no jet skiers harmed.
Of course, it was all worth it in the end. We had three days of performances with amazing crowds.
I’m in a different world working in radio, but the sentiment is the same. Every Smerconish-related production, from the newsletter and website to the radio and TV show, is backed by an unseen symphony of early morning staff working in tandem against the clock (quick shout out to our weekend editor, Austin, on central time who has to wake up an hour earlier). Show notes, research, write-ups, call screening, audio processing, web coding, emailing, booking — Michael and the team are always in a prep mode that resets daily. So whether I’m working to balance in the air or help bring balance to the airwaves, it’s wonderful to see it all come together.
“Surround yourself with people smarter than you are.” — Andrew Carnegie
You might have picked up by now that I didn’t think too highly of our company leader. I don’t want to turn this light-hearted birthday article into a rant about our troupe dynamics– I’ll reserve it for a tell-all book coming in 2050.
But for quick context, there were technically two men in charge as co-founders of the troupe. But all the conflict stemmed from the elder, who was too insecure to accept any genuine partnership. His manipulative, cruel, and often intoxicated behavior cast a shadow over our otherwise exciting adventures. Bad for morale, but eventually the catalyst for the rest of us moving on.
So, I don’t have many circus stories about thriving under healthy leadership. But that still allows the perspective to know what a good team looks like now.
Michael has a strong personality, and anyone familiar with his on-air presence knows it’s not that far from how he is in person. Which can be intense at times, but I’ve never felt disregarded or undervalued. He ensures I have the resources to learn, network, and advance and shows genuine support for my interests. I can’t picture any former boss being willing to step into the pirate ship that is Fire for Effect Athletics, to try the tightrope.
The camaraderie extends to the entire team, even in a largely remote working environment. PJ and the guys at Creative Outfit, phenomenal videographers, are constantly cranking out new ideas. Dan has taught me so much about radio, and we have great conversations about my lizard kin. Austin, the weekend editor, exhibits so much patience and diligence— He also calls me “Boss,” so if he’s reading this, you don’t have to do that! I’ve just never stopped you because it makes me feel cool.
TC is always the first to extend praise and gratitude, even for the littlest things. She takes on a lot of work but still navigates with such optimism and curiosity.
Jo, the helicopter-flying, skateboard-thrashing digital media manager, has become a close friend. Despite only seeing each other in person a few times a year, we talk most of the day about anything from music and work to existentialism and how often the ‘Kars4Kids.com” jingle gets trapped in our temporal lobes.
My love for the circus will always be deep-rooted, and that’s why, for a long time, I was bitter about having to walk away. Performing was so central to my personality; it was challenging to picture myself as passionate about anything else. It took a while to let that feeling go, but I could the more I surrounded myself with interesting and authentic people. My motivation for work, fitness, and friendships are always amplified by the support of a good community.
The Show Must Go On
It doesn’t matter if it rains on stage or the studio loses power. Or if feet hurt from the cable or wrists ache from typing. Or if your circus leader is being an ass or if the day’s news cycle is too devastating to want to read.
In all the chapters of my life thus far, one creed has remained steadfast: There’s no show without the audience.
Like community, the presence of an audience in my life has always been a positive force, helping me remain consistent and gracious.
So to every daily newsletter subscriber, SiriusXM listener, CNN viewer, YouTube Live chatter, and anyone else who’s spent time in the Smercosphere –even if you’ve not had a direct tie or interaction with me, I’m still appreciative of you. I’m happy to be a part of this team and allowed the opportunity to take up some space on this platform to share a little more of myself.