By John Pellegrini
Dennis Daniel once started a Tales of the Tape column in RAP with the statement; “Never burn any Bridges. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER burn any Bridges!” I’d like to amend that statement, by saying “ALWAYS BUILD BRIDGES! ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS BUILD BRIGES!” The radio industry is a small one, my friends. The voice-over industry is even smaller. The people you meet during your career are almost always the ones you continue to meet, year after year. The guy who did nights with you back 15 years ago could be doing mornings in the major market you’re working in today. The high school kid who ran the music research for your station at night 12 years ago could now be a rep at a major talent agency or recording label. The PD you didn’t get along with 8 years ago, might now be a consultant to a major station, who got all his old air staff jobs there, except you. This kind of thing happens more often than any of us realize. The impression you leave people with of yourself and your professional manner make a huge difference in your employment every day, week, month, year, and decade.
You know the movie, Six Degrees of Separation, or, for that matter, the game “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon”? Both of these concepts are rooted in the fact that the movie industry celebrity population is small. Well, kids, in our industry, it’s even smaller. In fact, I’d say it’s about 3 or 4 degrees. For example, if you’ve met me, then you’re only one degree of separation from Larry Lujack, Dick Orkin, Stan Freberg, Don Wade and Roma, Roe Conn, Garry Meier, Jay Marvin, Mike Malloy, Art Roberts, Bernie Allen, Clark Webber, Jeff Davis, George McFly, and other famous radio types whom I’ve met or worked with personally. The list of those whom I’m one degree of separation from is even more impressive. And by the time we get to 3 or 4 degrees of separation, I know just about everyone in the business, including you, no matter what country on the planet in which you’re currently residing.
The point being, everyone in this industry can eventually come up with someone who they personally know, or are familiar with, mutually. That’s why building bridges is so important in this industry! Everyone knows everyone else! That means anyone who wishes to employ you can find out all about you without having to talk to you personally. Let me repeat that in bold capital letters. ANYONE WHO WISHES TO EMPLOY YOU CAN FIND OUT ALL ABOUT YOU WITHOUT HAVING TO TALK TO YOU PERSONALLY! And, this is VITAL to remember, they can find out all about you entirely without your control or consent. That PD you didn’t get along with might know other people who may someday come to a point that could greatly help your career, but instead don’t consider you, due to that PD you didn’t like telling them what he or she thought of you. You see, none of us know whom the people we work with know, or will know in the future. None of us have any way of knowing what kind of career changes were made from recommendations made by people, who know us, know of us, or think they do. And it happens without us even knowing about it. For example, the PD at the major market station you sent a tape off to notices on your resume that you worked at a station where an acquaintance of his worked. He or she calls that acquaintance to see what they think of you. What that acquaintance says likely means the difference between whether you get a call, or your tape ending up in the PD’s trashcan without him or her even listening to it.
If I know one thing about radio people, it’s that most who have read this article to this point will suddenly panic, get paranoid, and totally irrational. I hope you’re not one of them, because I still have some vital information for you to understand, and a couple of methods you can apply in case you’re worried about the above.
That’s the reason for the title of this article. Sure, not burning bridges is important, but even more important is the concept of building bridges. Granted, whenever I hear President “Bubba” talk about building bridges it makes me want to call the US DOT for an inspection; I nonetheless believe the building bridges concept is the key to survival in this closed-circuit world of radio. Call it networking, call it cronyism, call it nepotism, or building bridges, the one factor that will seal your fate in this business is how good you are at creating and maintaining professional relationships. “Plays well with others” is what your kindergarten teacher called it, and you’d better be fantastic at it if you wish to get anywhere in radio.
I’ve burned a few bridges in my time, and it has come back to haunt me. But, even more importantly, how many opportunities have I missed because I failed to build a bridge in the first place? I had many chances in the past to meet, and schmooze some major players in radio, and failed to do so. What could have happened had I been more professionally minded, and built those bridges? Of course, I don’t sit around and get all depressed about failed opportunity, at least not like I used to; however I do keep this in the back of my mind, to serve as a lesson to me whenever the opportunity arises to meet other industry people. Here’s a classic example of missed opportunity from my past, which I’ve detailed before: while living here in Chicago, in the mid 1980s, I was offered a chance to work part-time as an assistant engineer at one of the major recording studios in town. I turned it down, because I wanted to be an “Actor” and didn’t want to waste my time learning “studio stuff.” I look back on this now, and realize that I could have been working along side some of the best people in the advertising industry 10 years earlier! I could have learned amazing things by being in on recording sessions with the top voice-over talent and the top advertising agency Creative Directors. However, I wouldn’t have met my wife, and probably would not have been as mentally ready for the challenge as I am today. I like to think that perhaps I even subconsciously knew I wasn’t ready mentally for the challenge, which is why I turned it down. Plus, I have even better contacts in the industry now, than I did then, and there are all kinds of other benefits to being here now instead of then. Still, I’ve never forgotten this mistake and have tried to use the example to gauge how my relationship building efforts are going today. Incidentally, when I came back to town, I found out that the partners in the studio sold it for quite a hefty profit and have all retired. I could have been there, myself, because they were also talking about the investment into the studio when they were making overtures toward me. Easy for me to kick myself over it now, but what would YOU have done in the same situation?
There are countless examples of people who never learned this vital lesson, and have ruined their careers because of it. Whether it be ego, immaturity, unprofessional attitudes, or all 3 factors, the world is full of former “radio stars” who never made it, or burned themselves out of a career because of missed opportunities in bridge building. In the small community of radio, it’s not just who you know; it’s what kind of impression those people you know have of you that’s the vital factor.
Now, we all know that there are some true jerks in the management end of this business. You may be working for one right now. What many of us fail to take into consideration is that we ourselves may be considered to be jerks by others. Arthur Godfrey once said, “every man’s an asshole to someone,” and he was absolutely right, even including women. Being perceived as a jerk is the result of many factors, some nothing more than simple misconceptions and poor judgment, which can be overcome by simply asking for clarification. Other times, though, jerks are just jerks. So before you decide that you hate the people you work for, try and figure out why they are the way they are. Remember, even the worst asshole can still be a nice person, under the right circumstances and setting. Here are some tips to win even the worst jerk over to your side.
My wife works in a retail store in a section of Chicago that is well known as having the most difficult customers in the Midwest. No, it’s not on Michigan Avenue. She’s worked retail for many years, but she tells me this store is the worst. The store is part of a chain, and even in the hierarchy of the corporation, it is well known that the particular location she works for is a magnet for customers who are jerks of the highest nature.
The store can be full of people standing in line at the check-out counter, and there will be inevitably some jerk walking right up, pushing their way past everyone else, and demanding that they be served immediately. How does Sarah handle them? She kills them with kindness. No matter how rude or obnoxious they get, she smiles sweetly and tries either to placate them for a moment or two, or suggests that if they’re feeling stressed, that they should take a moment and relax in one of the store’s comfy floor model chairs. She has various other techniques designed to throw the jerk off balance, while making it clear that she is being thoughtful and the jerk is being, well, a jerk. This usually does the trick, however there are, of course, those who will always be jerks no matter what. She usually turns them over to someone else, or gives up. But she always decides that it’s their problem, not hers. As she has said to me before, “these people must live extraordinarily pathetic lives to be so angry for no reason.”
Now, if your boss is a jerk, you’re at a disadvantage, because unlike a retail customer, you have to deal with the jerk a little more often. However, it is vitally important to keep in mind why someone acts the way they do, at any given time. No one person stands alone as an emperor in this business any more. The days of the owner/autocrat/dictator are over as far as most radio stations are concerned. Therefore, the root of any boss being a jerk has to be more than just superficial. Time for a little self-examination. Has your behavior up till now as an employee had any factor in your boss’s treatment of you as a professional? Are you as professional as you can be in your job? Or do you just show up, put in your time, complain about equipment problems/lack of this or that, and leave? The Golden Rule definitely applies to professionalism. Treat your boss the way you’d like your boss to treat you.
I know some of you are surprised at what I just wrote, but the truth is, if your boss acts like a jerk towards you, it just may well be because you deserve it. Granted there are some true psychos out in the world of radio, but most of them have been promoted to corporate management positions by now (heh, heh, heh). And experience shows that the majority of those bosses who are jerks are not considered to be so by a bigger majority of their employees than the ones who think they are jerks. Which leads us back to the self-examination. What are you doing wrong with your professional relationship with your boss, and how can you fix it and improve the way your boss views your efforts?
I can’t answer that question, only you can. If you have more than one year in this business then you should know by now what’s expected of you from day to day. And, you should have a pretty good idea of what professional behavior is supposed to be at your place of employment. That’s pretty much what it all comes down to: maintaining professional standards in every employment situation you’re involved with.
Now, there will always be disagreements in management style, and you may still think your boss is a jerk. That’s your deal. But, no matter what, don’t ever give the people you work for or work with the opportunity to think the same way about you, because that’s how you ruin your reputation in this business.
Think about the current World of Radio long and hard. We are currently going through what most of corporate America went through back in the 1980s. No matter what your political beliefs are regarding the pros or cons of Reganomics, the fact remains that we are winding up with a handful of companies owning everything. Which means, every time you fail to build a bridge, you blow it with a greater and greater group of people who could do good things for you in the future! Management in the radio universe is getting far smaller and further in-bred. Piss off one manager at a station, and it could mean 38 stations or more that you will never work for in the future. Have bad karma with three or four managers at different places, and you may have to move to Qatar to get another gig.
The choice is yours, be a professional, or be an idiot. Just remember that idiots don’t get much of a paycheck anymore, unless they run for public office.