A new year gives us a new chance to imagine the dreams we'd chase if we had no fear, or mortgage payments.

Then the alarm goes off, reality shoves us out of bed and off to work we go.

That's why it's nice to write about folks who swim against the tide of expectations and are far happier because of it.

Readers may remember Christopher Gabriel, 54, from his acting work in the Twin Cities in the early 2000s, on the stages of Park Square Theater, History Theater, Old Log Theater and others.

But after 26 years and 105 plays, the classically trained actor, who also worked in New York, England and Scotland, decided he wanted to have his own talk-radio show. It didn't matter that he'd never actually done radio.

"If I want someday to be a radio host," he told himself, "I need to walk away."

And he did.

In June 2006, the 48-year-old Gabriel became what he says was the world's oldest unpaid intern, at 100.3 FM.

Seated in a studio early on, Gabriel remembers a radio personality walking by and sticking his head in. "Dude," he said to Gabriel. "I don't mean to be rude, but what are you doing here?"

Gabriel hung in there, learning everything he could about the workings and pacing of radio. WCCO's veteran political reporter Pat Kessler, who was producing his own show on 100.3 at the time, took notice.

"He came out of nowhere, but he had this dream," Kessler said, "this idea that 'I can do this and I can make myself into who I want to be.' It was very surprising, because he was a man of a certain age."

He and Kessler teamed up, drawing on Gabriel's vast theatrical background and voice characters to produce an eclectic, sometimes goofy, three-hour show. Gabriel could talk football and the Royal Shakespeare Company, said an awed Kessler. He created fake commercials and recited poetry based on Donald Rumsfeldisms, set to music.

Soon Kessler wasn't sure who was working for whom. "Christopher inserts himself into the role and takes it over in the best possible sense," Kessler said. "He became somebody I depended on."

Gabriel is equally grateful. "Pat opened up the whole world for me," he said. "He enabled me to rise pretty quickly."

Twin Cities singer and actor Joel Liestman was working in sales for the station when Gabriel showed up six years ago. They, too, began producing some playful on-air bits. Liestman said it was obvious that Gabriel would succeed.

"A lot of his theater roles were really affable guys, the kind of people you like being around," Liestman said. "What he brought to a role he brought to his radio show."

The show was short-lived, but Gabriel stayed on, producing two other shows, including foodie Andrew Zimmern's "Chow Hounds." One day, Gabriel got his wish to sit in front of the mike when Zimmern was out of town. He remembers hearing a voice in his headset saying, "You have to talk now." It was, Gabriel said, "horrifying."

But no deal-breaker. When Zimmern moved to 107.1 FM, he brought Gabriel along. After Zimmern left that station, Gabriel decided it was time to stop being seen as a producer. He began sending his tapes out to stations around the country, making ends meet by guest-hosting, teaching theater classes and doing voice-overs. "We were getting by," he said of himself and wife, Wendy, a Twin Cities-born freelance writer, "but, boy, was it tight."

After 17 long months of waiting, Gabriel was offered his very own show on WDAY-AM in Fargo, N.D. The date was May 20, 2009, his 51st birthday.

"The Christopher Gabriel Program" airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (You can hear him at www.wday.com). The show is family-friendly, fast-paced and slickly produced, featuring a range of guests unusual for a small market: Mitch Albom, Bob Woodward, Bob Costas, Andrew Young, Jeffrey Sachs.

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer was on his show recently discussing climate change. Barry Weiss, from A&E's "Storage Wars," dropped in, too.

Gabriel also draws heavily from the local well. Sigurd Johnson, director of North Dakota State University's athletic bands, joined him last week, as did a spokeswoman from the sporting goods store Scheel's, "with updates on Bison championship gear for fans!"

Whether national or local, Gabriel refuses to indulge in "angry" radio. "There's a place for respectful debate in talk radio," he said. "That's the tone we're setting."

The formula is working. In November, Gabriel was named best local celebrity in the Best Bets poll run by the High Plains Reader, Fargo's alternative weekly.

Moving toward his 1,000th show, the father of two daughters, ages 9 and 5, loves this life.

"Stay with your convictions," Gabriel said. "You cannot let other people validate your worth. I hope I can do this till I can't get out of bed."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350