Grounded in Fortitude

Radio station staffer Keith Fort shares his story of hardships and healing

https://soundcloud.com/keith-fort-897527298/fortkeith-phyrst-mpulse-on-air

On a typical day when you tune into Mt. Rock, 90.1 FM, the student-run radio station of Mt. SAC, you will hear a variety of random hits, jams from the ’80s to the ’90s, with plenty of top 40 singles in between. There’s a growing team behind what you hear, the ones that spend hours preparing broadcasting content to transmit into the radio airwaves. One individual in particular is Keith Fort, 54, Mt. SAC student and radio station staff member, who is currently the process of achieving certificates in Radio Broadcasting: Behind-the-Scenes and Radio Broadcasting: On-the-Air.

Since spring 2019, Fort has worked in the radio station lab, jumping in where necessary, tutoring students and being a reliable and experienced source of guidance. However, the road hasn’t always been easy for Fort. It’s been a long journey of twists and turns. Still, the lessons he’s learned along the way have shaped him into the respected and resilient individual that he is today.

The Early Days

Growing up in La Puente, Fort was a chubby, nerdy kid that loved reading a wide range of books and comics. His mom was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and raised him within the zealous and rigid church. In between Bible studies, spiritual training and church fellowships, Fort developed a skill for playing music such as the drums, followed by the piano and bass.

At ten years old, he connected with the music of the singer-songwriters of his time. Tunes from Stevie Wonder, Carol King and Billy Joel paved the way for the life-long passion he would have for music. He recollects his first album was “Songs in the Key of Life,” the eighteenth studio album by Stevie Wonder. The title alone fits perfectly as the soundtrack to Fort’s life.

In high school, Fort sprouted to 6 feet 6 inches tall and took advantage of his height by playing varsity basketball for Nogales High School as a center forward. However, he remained musically connected throughout high school by being in the choir and playing in a few bands.

He started attending Mt. SAC in 1983 as a music major. During this time, his perspective began to change in many areas of his life. He told his mother that he didn’t want to be a Jehovah’s Witness any longer, and he would be leaving the church. She was concerned at first, but eventually supported his decision.

By the first semester in college, he wasn’t prepared mentally for the challenges he would face in a new academic environment. He felt overwhelmed, wasn’t asking for help from his college counselor and believed he wasn’t “mature enough” to make school a priority. For three years in a row, semester after semester, Fort would drop out of classes until finally deciding that college wasn’t for him.

Shortly after that, Fort married his high school sweetheart Tracy, had three children and began a career working for a third party distributor of RCA products. As a general manager, Fort was making loads of money, traveling all around the country, but the good times wouldn’t last for long.

It all came crashing in one day, and Fort didn’t know what hit him.

The Breakdown

Fort’s work-life-balance began to collide, and the problems started piling up. He traveled too much for work, so his wife gave him an ultimatum. He would need to choose between his career or his family. He wasn’t spending enough time with his kids, and to add, he wasn’t doing anything creative in his life.

“My marriage was about to end, my kids wouldn’t let me pick them up and my dog would try to bite me,” Fort said.

He had a demanding job, consuming his free time, and his personal life and his mental well-being paid the consequences. He innately knew something was wrong—physically and mentally. His blood pressure was high; he suffered from chronic inflammation and felt like he was going to die. He recalls many lonesome days in which he would leave his office, go to his car and cry as the stress was boiling out of him. He was angry, punching in walls out of frustration and spiraling out of control.

Fort was experiencing a mental breakdown.

His doctor at the time took him off of work to rehabilitate. He was diagnosed with having severe depression with anxiety. Looking back on it now, Fort believes he’s always had a mental illness, ranging back to his early youth, but he didn’t know how to identify it. He used alcohol for years to numb the pain and to manage his feelings up until this time.

“People didn’t talk about depression back then, and I never knew how to manage it before. I think it just caught up with me,” Fort said. “The depression and everything was getting me for decades.”

After his diagnosis, he began taking a cocktail of antidepressants, which he would continue to take for nearly 15 years.

He never ended up going back to his old job. During his medical leave, the company he worked for fired him illegally. Luckily for Fort, he was able to sue for damages, and the case settled out of court. He took that money and decided to follow his dream of producing music.

A New Direction

After bouncing back from a job that nearly broke him, Fort had a new direction for his life. He took the settlement money from his old job to build an at-home studio to establish his new business producing music. He always wanted to make music and move people the way his early influencers moved him.

Since Fort collected audio equipment and instruments throughout the years, there wasn’t much to do but to install soundproofing equipment and buy a mixing board. The gamble was huge, and this made him nervous, but he knew that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He started his multimedia company Phyrst Mpulse, which he still manages today.

In the beginning, he produced music for up and coming artists. Eventually, to keep a steady income, Fort began shooting music videos and renting out his studio for recording sessions.

But as things began to move along, reality hit once again, so both Fort and his wife found additional jobs to ensure they could provide for their young family.

After applying to what he calls “every job listed in the newspaper,” he found a job that he couldn’t refuse. It would pay him lucratively, and he only had to work a few days a week. Fort began the next phase of his life, working as a bouncer at a strip club, which he would come to regret.

The Darkest Of Days

Fort was in his 30s and working for a well-known strip club in La Puente. He had many reservations and twice as many concerns. The music was loud, the lights were intense and half-naked women pranced about while doing “the rounds” soliciting lap dances. Fort remembers the club as an explosion of sensory overload and remembers continuously having a ring in his ears from the nightly commotion.

He was concerned about the stigma that would follow him. As someone who believes in karma, he worried that this period in his life would follow him like a dark cloud hanging over his head. He imagined—like some cosmic payback—that his daughter would fall prey to the very same lifestyle and environment.

Fort marks this as the worst time of his life.

“It’s wasn’t because of how I felt, but because of how people look at you when you work in that environment. [People] think you’re a deviant or that you have loose morals,” Fort said. “And that the environment defines who are.”

The decision of whether to stay bouncing was a difficult one. Fort made up to $1,400 a week, working a few nights a week. The money that he was making was providing for his family, paying for his kid’s education and allowing them to play sports. As the years progressed, his wife began to disapprove and desperately pleaded with Fort to move onto something else. It was just too dangerous.

Near the end of his time working in this environment, he took on side jobs doing contract IT administration work. Going in this direction seemed like the next best step.

Throughout the eight years of working—then quitting, then returning—to the club environment, Fort was shot at twice. And on two separate occasions, disarmed individuals who brought a gun into the club. But the altercation that prompted Fort to quit working in clubs altogether was the time a man was shot and bled out right in front of him.

Fort has always been open and transparent with this area of his life with family, friends and colleagues.

“I don’t deny it to my kids; they know where I worked, they know who I [really] am. I’d rather me tell them than someone else,” Fort openly admitted.

“I have no regrets about the people that I worked with. Some of them were really nice people. I [just] regret that I put myself in danger,” Fort said. “Putting myself in that kind of toxic environment, no matter how hard you try, it’s going to affect your health. I know it did. I wish I had never gone to work in those clubs.”

After years of retrospection, his mindset has changed—he’s made peace with this time in his life.

“Don’t allow what you have to do define who you are. Be who you are and let that shine through,” Fort added.

A Time For Change

Seven years ago, Fort had to confront his life head-on, and the push was coming from an unexpected direction: his daughter Sydney, who was 15 years old at the time.

After picking Sydney up from school one afternoon, he recalls her bravely calling him out while sitting at the dining room table.

“Can I tell you something, Dad?” Sydney said. “You don’t take care of yourself. We’re gonna grow up, leave, and you’re gonna die, and mom’s going to be alone. All you do is eat and sleep.”

This heartbreaking revelation would stay with Fort forever.

“I wasn’t mad … I was sad that I had gotten to a position where my kids saw me like that,” Fort said. “So, I had to start checking myself.”

At the time, Fort was 425 pounds, entirely unhealthy and depressed. He was numb from all the medications, and some days could barely get out of bed. After the hard reality check from his daughter, he started to wean himself off of antidepressants, even though his doctor wanted him to continue taking them.

“I was a junkie. Not that I was abusing them, but they’ll make you a junkie,” Fort pointed out.

He recalls that period of being doped up on medications as lacking any real feelings.

“Prozac or any other serotonin inhibitors still allows you to feel anger. You can feel the beginnings of the emotions swell up, the anger, the fear whatever. Then something washes over you, and you get numb,” Fort said. “You sit there angry on the inside … seething, but you’re just numb.”

He started practicing yoga and meditation, which has allowed him to balance his emotions, which he credits to saving his life.

It wasn’t until six months after discontinuing the medication that he finally began to think for himself. He became a little more organized and started thinking about day-to-day things that needed to be taken care of, such as exercising and eating healthier. Within a year, Fort began thinking about what he wanted to do going forward with his future and career.

“You can feel your emotions reigniting … but it took a long time to get to that point,” Fort said.

He still has moments of depression and anxiety. But he knows what signs to look for and what patterns to avoid. When this happens, he knows it’s time for him to do something creative or productive, like playing music to unwind or working on audio productions for Phyrst Impulse Multimedia.

Fort has always found importance with being open about this aspect of his life.

“You have to be open about it, if only for the next person who’s going through it.”

Getting Back To Basics

In 2016, he returned to Mt. SAC to further his skills in audio production to grow his business. Fort’s wife inspired him to come back to school because she was in the process of pursuing her own advanced education.

At the time, Fort had one goal—to take one audio production class about voice-overs.

“I wanted to take a voice-over class because … I wanted to learn more. I just got hooked into the program here,” Fort said. “Because it teaches everything you need to know. Any type of audio you want to do. Shy of writing music. ”

Nearly 30 years after his first attempt in college—Fort had found a new interest in school and enjoyed attending class.

As soon as he opened his mouth and spoke in a smooth and sultry tone, he was pulled aside by the department chair at the time, Tammy Trujillo, who told him that he had a gift. Trujillo suggested he take a radio broadcasting class. He recalled the groundbreaking conversation with Trujillo.

“She told me, ‘You’re where you need to be, you just need to trust yourself and your talent,’” Fort said.

Fort decided to extend his education past the one class and begin working on the radio broadcasting certificate program. After a couple of semesters tutoring in the Design Lab with students on Adobe Audition, Fort became a staff member for the radio station lab.

A typical day for Fort includes coming into the station and ensuring that the signals for both Mt. Rock and Audio8Ball.com are broadcasting appropriately. He preps the audio booths for students who need to produce their radio show for an RTV class. And in between those activities, Fort works on production activities that include promos and “liners” that play in between playlists.

Sitting in front of a microphone and soundboard can be intimidating and overwhelming for some. Fort is there to support the students through their first few runs inside of a station booth.

“I think about how I would feel sitting in a room by myself doing something that can be terrifying,” Fort said. “I’m trying to be that person that can answer technical questions and anything that comes up.”

Looking Towards a Bright Future

At the end of spring 2020, Fort will have received his two certificates in broadcasting. He wants to segue himself out of the world of contract IT and get back into a creative space.

“When you’re a creative person, and you lay that down for whatever reasons … a part of your soul dies,” Fort said. “When you start again, and those juices start to flow back, there’s nothing like it. It’s like being reborn again.”

After certification, Fort’s career goal is to work in voice imaging. Voice imaging is a term used to describe the sound effects that identify a particular market or brand. Examples include voice-overs, jingles or promos that act as an introduction or signature for a program, network or brand.

“This is CNN,” Fort says in a radio-type baritone, then proceeds to laugh. “Nobody knows your name, but everybody hears your voice.”

In addition to voice imaging, he wants to have a storytelling podcast similar to “This American Life.” One of his first projects includes a documentary that he filmed 10 years ago titled “Gang Life To God’s Life.” The film follows a group of ex-gang members, some of which are now pastors, working in the community running outreach programs. Fort is currently in the process of reformatting and editing the film for audio.

“There’s so much storytelling moving towards audio now; it’s not just music-driven. So that’s where I am focusing my studio work towards,” Fort said.

Here’s an example of Fort’s on-air demo that he did for Mt. Rock 90.1 FM.

A Life Full Of Lessons

The most crucial aspect of his life has been raising healthy, happy and independent children. He considers this as a marker of success.

“I did the important stuff already,” Fort said. “Anything [good] that happens after this is the icing on the cake.”

Though the road has been full of ups and downs, Fort maintains a sense of joy and self-awareness; that could only come from the experience of both the good and bad times. These experiences are also learning lessons that have helped to shape the development of his children.

“If you prepare yourself in the beginning, you can avoid some of the situations that are going to present themselves later on in life,” Fort explained. “If I had gone to school in the ’80s instead of dropping out three times, maybe I would not have had to go through that period in my life. When I had to work through all that crap.”

Fort added that the second lesson he teaches his children is “Don’t ever be ashamed of what you have to do to feed yourself. But [don’t] let it define who you are.”

He believes that most of the trials and tribulations he’s been through have built character and wisdom. He’s thankful, grateful and makes an effort to stop and smell the roses.

He hopes that his story resonates with someone else out there. He wants that person to know they are not alone and show them that anyone can bounce back from the bottom. More importantly, that no matter what, it’s never too late to pursue a passion.

“All you can do is stick with it; it will pay off.” Fort positively said. “I’m now getting a chance to do what I like in life.”