My biggest career disappointments have been due to my failure to take risks. Instead I followed the rules, or even worse, followed others. Lame choices led to lame results for decades.
That all changed when I took my first big risk. I was 41, and after a year of being unemployed, I had taken a freelance job at MSNBC doing hourly work, mostly at night. It was a lot of news cut-ins and sitting around “in case of breaking news” during graveyard shift hours that nobody else wanted to work.
But it was a job, and it paid several hundred dollars a day. Plus, I was glad to be back working in the industry that I love.
At the same time, MSNBC's hit morning show ran into trouble. Host Don Imus said some extremely racist things and was promptly kicked off the air. Suddenly, the network had a three-hour hole to fill from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. I didn’t even think to audition. They were looking for men, and some sort of sidekick.
Former Congressman Joe Scarborough, host of “Scarborough Country” was gunning for the slot. He designed a show and pitched it to president of MSNBC, Phil Griffin. The idea was simple: Smart people, talking, for as long as they want. (I could have thought of that, but Joe marched right into Phil’s office and laid out the idea like it was profound! But we’ll save the story on how men exaggerate and win for another day.)
Joe asked if I wanted to try out with him. I thought to myself, “Do I really want to work those hours?” After resisting a few times, I got a call from Phil asking if I would enter the audition lottery for the morning slot. The next day, I found myself sitting with Joe, Willie Geist and his producer Chris Licht and hearing the stage manager counting at down to 6 a.m. to the start of “Morning Joe.” Fun fact: The title was Joe’s profound idea too.
We were all chatting and having fun. We didn’t even really listen to the countdown. The show started with us being kind of like, “Oh, hi! ... Are we on?” The three hours flew by. It was clear Joe was supremely talented and all of us were at the right time in our careers to put ourselves out there in a way we may have been too afraid to in the past.
When we got off the air, Joe was sweating and fretting, wondering if what we had done was good enough to get the slot. “Oh, it’s happening,” I said, calmer than I have ever been in my life. I told him that throughout my 20-year career in television news, I had never seen anything like what we had just done. I knew the show would stick and be big.
And after a complicated and challenging 12 years, the show is still a success — and Joe and I are married now too.
But back then, Joe was seen as a huge risk. He was an outsider – from the South, a state school guy, and worst of all, a conservative Republican! Management liked the show but wasn’t keen on me there. They kept bringing in new women to try out. One NBC vice president pulled me aside and spoke to me as if she was doing me a favor, “He’s really bad for your career,” she told me.
Another major anchor at the network advised me to not to put my future career prospects with Joe and literally offered me a slot on his show, as if to “save me.” Suddenly, I was being courted by the very network that wouldn’t even hire me full time. It was as if there was a campaign to save Mika Brzezinski from having to sit next to the low-rent, conservative guy from Florida.
I was getting tons of offers from the network. “Mika, can you fill in at noon on MSNBC? Mika, do you want to do pieces for ‘Nightly News?’” But I only said yes to freelance hosting “Morning Joe,” otherwise known as “that show” with “that Republican.” I put all my chips into what I believed in my gut was “good TV.”
I even took a risk on the air one morning in 2007 when producers kept trying to make the lead story about Paris Hilton getting out of jail. I ripped the script up on live television and stated that this was “not news.” I then burned part of the script the next hour. In the third hour, I put the other part of the script through a paper shredder.
Management was not pleased and wondered what had gotten into me. I was called in and told to apologize to the producer and to never do it again. Meanwhile the internet was on fire about the “shred heard around the world.”
But it was a risk that paid off, in a way nobody saw coming. Ask Phil, who was sitting in his office. At that point, everyone was watching and the show was getting all the buzz. Even the legendary Tom Brokaw popped his head in to Phil’s office and said three words. “Scarborough, who knew?
I did. I knew. And I took the risk refused to go down the easier paths to career redemption. I did not follow the herd. I stayed in the fight and we made that show a huge success.
It was a risk well taken.