That Time I Gave a High School Commencement Speech

And then someone asked me to do it again 25 years later for his coworkers.

I have an annoying weakness. I like to tell stories and tend not to notice when others aren’t in the mood to sit through them. Fortunately, my career in radio allows listeners an invisible escape when they’ve had enough. I’ve also enjoyed the occasional public speaking engagement, which is the exact opposite—everyone is forced to sit there and hear my stories all the way through. And here’s a good story about that.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

In 1994, I had the honor of giving a high school commencement speech. The perfect captive audience! The seniors, I was told, had chosen me as their speaker, which in a way was no surprise. After all, I was their daily after-school companion playing Nirvana and Pearl Jam on WEBN, Cincinnati’s top-ranked radio station at the time. But here’s something that surprised me a lot: A person who’d attended that ceremony—the kid brother of a graduate—contacted me last year. He was now president of a large Cincinnati ad agency and said he’d always remembered my speech and its message. So he wanted me to come to his agency and give the same speech again, this time to his employees at their annual day-long motivational event.

Wow. We’ve all seen enough commencement speeches to know that they can be worse than a drunk Boomer relative reciting every word of “Alice’s Restaurant” at Thanksgiving. I guess I did better than that, because someone now wanted to pass my message along to another generation. Considering that most of the speech had been about my own personal failures and regrets, though, I was wondering exactly how inspirational I had been.

I decided in 1994 that my commencement speech should reprise my role as a disc jockey, so I actually played some tunes, arranging with the school for the proper technology. The recordings weren’t popular songs; they were 60-second commercial jingles I’d created during my parallel career as a jingle producer. Yes, I’ve made many of those little ditties on the radio that interrupt the music you’d rather hear. But I didn’t play the familiar commercials everybody knew; instead, I played the rough demo tapes of jingles that my clients had rejected. These were songs I’d worked hard composing and recording that had never been heard by the public, thanks to a bunch of stupid and fearful marketing executives. What a glorious opportunity this was now, to force several hundred people to finally hear them.

As I played each demo and told its story, the speech seemed to be about shaking off rejection and forging ahead. Just what I wanted everyone to think. My real message was hidden and would pounce at the end.

Here are the six demos I played, with links for you to hear them. Warning: Demos are primitive. They mostly feature just me singing, because I’m all I can afford at that early stage. Instrumentation is sparse. The client is supposed to evaluate only the song and its marketing strategy, not Jay’s performance. Could they? Can you? Let’s find out.

Marge Schott Buick. In the early 1980s before she was a baseball mogul, Marge sold cars. With sales of foreign models kicking America’s ass for the first time, she was screaming for everybody to Buy American! You’ll hear my singing slogan, then an instrumental section where the announcer would go, and then the final reveal of the jingle’s melody (if you haven’t already noticed). I was stunned that Marge passed on my patriotic idea. Maybe she figured out that I’m Jewish?

Husman’s Potato Chips. Every rejected idea here was later used by others, to my great frustration. I actually yelled at my TV when I saw a commercial for Ruffles with my slogan. This demo also featured Monty Python-ish characters who so stuffed their mouths with Husman’s chips that, well, you’ll hear. At my presentation, though, I was told that something must be wrong with the tape, because “we couldn’t understand the lyrics.”

Cincinnati Gas & Electric. Duke Energy’s predecessor wanted to reinforce the idea that you can always depend on their electricity to be there (except when you can’t, but we don’t do commercials about that). Take note here of how a 60-second jingle is usually constructed: It’s really a pair of 30-second pieces, each able to stand alone and each allowing for a version that’s mostly instrumental until the end, where the sung slogan follows the announcer. I thought my lyrics suggested lots of good imagery for TV spots. Oh, well.

Riverbend Music Center. Not a jingle. This was the announcement of Cincinnati’s brand-new concert venue. The client, typically, wanted too much information stuffed into 60 seconds: Explain how Riverbend is a new structure, mention the large outdoor-but-protected seating, and cram in a full laundry list of the entire summer’s calendar, pointing out that there’s something for all ages. I thought my idea solved the cramming problem (and you’ll be surprised at the percentage of artists who are now dead). I even went to the risk and expense of producing a finished commercial. Still, they said no.

Coca-Cola’s famous song! In 1990, Coke celebrated the 20th anniversary of its iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial—the one that appeared yet again in the finale of Mad Men. As a joke, I decided to make a parody version for WEBN. In all my years of getting away with outrageous stuff, this was the first time the station flat-out stopped me. Coca-Cola was too important an account to risk it. I was furious. Just listen to how much trouble I went to creating that instrumental backing! And those are my own kids in there!

Then there’s the demo with my speech’s real message. Sharing this experience was not an easy thing to do in 1994, or at the ad agency in 2019, or now. There was once a TV sitcom you never saw called You Can’t Take It With You. Even though it starred Harry Morgan from M*A*S*H and Richard Sanders from WKRP in Cincinnati, it lasted less than one season. Like most sitcoms of the era, it required a heartwarming song during the opening credits, which hopefully could become as familiar as the themes from Cheers or Friends.

I had an amazing stroke of luck. While the sitcom was in early development, I stumbled into contact with its executive producer, a guy from Cincinnati who was completely open to hearing theme song ideas from a stranger who had only done commercial jingles. I wrote a song that laid out the show’s premise. You Can’t Take It With You, adapted from an old Broadway play, was about a banker who’d walked away from the craziness of Wall Street so he could embrace life’s smaller treasures. My lyrics, then, were about leaving behind your professional obsessions and enjoying life. At last, I was writing a song that wasn’t about a car dealer or an appliance store. I think it’s among the better things I’ve written. My singing wasn’t too bad, either.

Now, to send in the demo tape and see what happens. And it is here—all you 1994 graduates and parents, all you 2019 ad executives and employees, all you 2020 Cincinnati Magazine readers—where my tale of frustrations and regrets takes a turn. This time, it wasn’t the client who failed to have faith in me. This time, it was me. I never sent that tape. I was scared.

I’ll never know if I was more scared of failure or of success, but I do know one thing for sure: Of all the frustrations and regrets I carry—it’s a much longer list—this is the one that stings the most. Take the chance, I begged the high school seniors. The pain of failing will always be less than the pain of flinching.

I’d ambushed them with my real message, hoping it would sink deeper. And maybe it did. A few years later, I was approached by a young woman who said she’d graduated that day and was agonizing over two possible futures before her; one was safe, the other closer to her heart but highly tentative. My speech had helped her choose the rockier path, and she was delighted with her life. Then, a quarter-century later, I was approached by a successful ad agency president who wanted to share my speech with his employees, because it had mattered so much to him as a teenager.

Now I’ve told my story again to you. Whatever age you are, I hope it sticks. Thanks for listening.

Facebook Comments