The-Dream-GigBy John Pellegrini

Many people have asked me, since I came to the Big 89, “how did you get that DREAM GIG?” Simple, I didn’t think I was going to get it. I’ll explain: When I was still in Grand Rapids, at WKLQ, I realized that, after 6 years at ‘KLQ, and 2 previous years at another GR station, I’d pretty much done all I could do with the “standard” Production Director’s gig in that market. My wife and I spent a few long nights discussing what we thought would be good places to live, seeing as how we probably were going to have to move in order for me to get ahead. We settled on Los Angeles or Chicago. Chicago because my family is in Wisconsin and her family is in Michigan; the perfect halfway point. Los Angeles, because we have friends out there, and we love the town. So I put together a demo, and mailed out 20 copies to stations in each city (40 total). Three months went by, no calls. So, I decided to think of other options.

I was working on some ideas that I thought would be exciting, and was in the process of putting it together when WLS called—the only response I got from the 40 tapes. Sure, moving to Chicago was great, but if they hadn’t called, and what I had been putting together in Grand Rapids had come about, I wouldn’t have minded staying, because I was pretty excited about the prospects of that project, too.

Well, enough about me. Now, it’s your turn. What I did to get here won’t necessarily work for you, and what you do to get your DREAM GIG won’t necessarily work for me. Because, only you know what your DREAM GIG is, don’t you?

You see, the most important tip in finding your DREAM GIG is figuring out exactly what that DREAM GIG is supposed to be. Not just some station, by the way. Sure, working for WLS is great, and I’m surrounded by some truly great people, but I’ve also heard from colleagues who work at other famous stations where the job blows chunks, and the people are unprofessional jerks. So, believe me when I tell you, don’t limit your dream to just one station, because it may not necessarily be the right place for you.

What is your DREAM GIG anyhow? Should it be solely based upon one set of call letters, one format type, or one market? Or should it be a broader definition? Should it even include working in radio at all? Do you truly see yourself doing what you are currently doing five, ten, twenty years from now? What do you hope to accomplish with this DREAM GIG? Where do you want to live? How much money do you want to earn? Is money your primary goal, or is it recognition, prestige, or something else? Are you looking for opportunity outside of radio? Free-lance perhaps? Voice work? Independent producing? Will moving to this new job be lucrative enough to offset the cost of living increase that comes with every major market? And, for that matter, what is the cost of living in that new Market?

These are all questions you should think about each and every time you send out a tape and résumé. Unfortunately, most people in radio only send out tapes and résumés when they’re in a hurry to find a new job, such as getting laid off, or format changes, or new bosses, or the usual reasons. But, if you’re ever going to get that DREAM GIG, you’ll need to start being picky about your job searches. You see, just because you might land a job at a famous station in a major market, doesn’t mean you’ll make it huge. There are all kinds of mitigating factors that need to be considered; i.e. those very questions in the previous paragraph.

One of the biggest considerations you need to remember is free-lance. Many stations, especially in the majors, require you to sign a contract that says everything you do, they own, and you may not do any free-lance work that they don’t approve of, first. Do you want to have your free-lance work decided upon by your station managers? Sure, you can negotiate anything when it comes to contract time, but be sure you know what you’re willing to put up with before you sign, and don’t be so desperate to work somewhere that you screw yourself out of opportunity. I wouldn’t call that a DREAM GIG.

To me, the second most important factor in considering a DREAM GIG is salary. Let’s face it; it’s expensive as hell to live in Chicago. It’s even more expensive to live in Los Angeles and New York. Not just apartment rentals, your car insurance and property insurance doubles. Just about everything connected to daily life increases in expense. Plus, plan on having to pay for parking EVERYWHERE including where you live, and if you can’t afford to park where your station is, you’ll have to pay for public transportation. Sure, you can live in outer suburbs of Chicago and other major markets cheaply, but you’re going to have to spend an hour (or more) commuting from your home to your job one way. Does the idea of adding an extra two hours a day or more of work time for commuting appeal to you? Not to mention that the further out you live, the harder it will be to do free-lance requiring you to work extra hours either at your station, or elsewhere, because even if you do free-lance at home, an extra two or more hour commute seriously cuts into your free-lance time. And if you’re taking public transportation for commuting, it will make getting to auditions more difficult. Taxis are available, but also expensive.

All of these factors should be considered when you’re thinking about your DREAM GIG. You probably already are thinking about such things. However, none of these factors cannot be addressed, and dealt with. This is why it helps to really think about what you want, and plan for it.

There’s more. If your DREAM GIG is in another city, make sure you find out all you can about that city. We had an example recently of a colleague of ours who moved here, but didn’t know the city very well, and without asking anyone’s advice, moved to a rather rotten neighborhood. Sure, it was close to work, and there were loads of cool nightclubs in the area that stayed open until 5 a.m. that made the area seem like a hip place to live. But the constant noise of sirens, street traffic, drunken brawls, and occasional firecrackers or gunshots (he wasn’t sure which it was) kept him from getting a decent night’s sleep for nearly a year until his lease ran out. A cool neighborhood to visit, but hell to live in, was what anyone could have told him, had he asked. Make sure you know exactly what your living space is like day and night before you move in. Talk to people you’re going to work with about where the best and most affordable areas are to live. This, by the way, means to exclude asking salespeople. They’re always trying to impress clients, and I have yet to meet a salesperson who didn’t deliberately live in the most expensive and exclusive sections of town. You could wind up losing money by taking their advice on housing.

Now, a paragraph or two about opportunities in your DREAM GIG. What’s the market like? Is there a lot of need for the kind of opportunities you’re looking for? Or are most of those deals sewn up before anyone gets a chance? Do you have to be well connected? If so, how do you go about getting well connected? Do you know who does the hiring or booking for these kinds of opportunities? Or do you just plan on hitting the streets and knocking on every door when you get there?

One big thing to remember, you shouldn’t necessarily believe what the station you’re being hired by tells you regarding outside opportunity. They may just be telling you what you want to hear in order to get you hired. Many times, the Program Directors and even the General Managers of stations don’t have a clue as to how to get outside work, or who does the hiring, or even if any outside work exists at all. They may tell you that certain employees at the station already do the kind of work you’re looking for, but how forthcoming on advice will they be? Make sure you place some inquiries, or at least find out where to place said inquiries regarding whatever outside opportunities you’re looking for, before you pack up and move. Especially if you expect these outside opportunities to help cover your cost of living. By the way, that doesn’t also mean that you should be doubling your salary, or something outrageous like that. Sure, that would be a plus, but not all job offers from the majors may give you that option. Just make sure your cost of living is covered, and that you’ll have enough extra money to do what ever it is you like to do for a social life, including (if you’ve moved) extra money to go back home for family visits as often as you’d like.

And while I mention that, let me offer a word of advice regarding cost of living. If the salary you’re being offered won’t cover your cost of living, and if you’re told that “you can easily make up the difference with free-lance,” run away quickly! Your job’s salary must cover all of your cost of living. If it doesn’t, then your job isn’t worth having.  Even if they offer to put that free-lance statement in writing, it won’t help because it’s up to you to get the free-lance, not them, and it’s not their problem if none exists. I’ve seen too many decent, but totally naïve people fall into this trap. Do not in any way depend on anything but the salary they offer to cover your cost of living. Free-lance should be nothing more than gravy money, until you’re ready to start doing it full-time. If you’re moving to a new market, and you don’t have any free-lance customers lined up, you should expect that it will take a few YEARS before you get a decent amount of free-lance money coming in. Let me repeat it once again, if the salary offered doesn’t cover your cost of living, the job is worthless, no matter what market it’s in. There won’t be enough free-lance in the entire universe to help you make up the difference. And if the PD or GM says that you can make up the difference with free-lance, trust me, they have no idea how or where to get any of that alleged free-lance. All they’re doing is telling you what you want to hear in order to screw you on a cheaper salary, and once you realize that, you will never be able to believe anything else they tell you. No job is worth putting yourself into that kind of stress over, no matter what market we’re talking about.

This is why it’s so important to figure out exactly what you want in a DREAM GIG. Just because the job is in a major market, doesn’t mean it’s worth pulling up stakes and moving there. You’ve got to look at the entire package, the whole picture. Researching and planning out exactly what you want in a DREAM GIG is the best way to get one. That way, you’ll know exactly whether or not the offer is right for you. And (it bears repeating) free-lance opportunity is an important consideration, so long as you don’t expect it to pay for your living expenses. Because free-lance in a new market can be difficult to obtain, and it may take you several years to get enough to go full-time (if that’s one of the goals of your DREAM GIG).

A colleague of mine just got a DREAM GIG by leaving Chicago and going to a smaller market. You read that correctly, he went to a smaller market for the dream gig. The company is not a radio station; it’s a production house. They’re paying him a lot more than what he made here, and building him a brand new studio with everything he wanted. He’s working fewer hours, and because it’s a smaller town, his cost of living is about half of what it was here, in addition to a better benefits package and more vacation time. He told me that at first, he wasn’t sure about leaving Chicago. But when he tallied up all the plusses, it was too good an offer to turn down simply on the basis of market size.

Another colleague of mine recently left what he thought would be a DREAM GIG here in Chicago because he’d wanted to get back to the city for a long time. He took the job here without fully checking it out, and later discovered that the station’s signal doesn’t get into the city at all. Not a problem normally, except that his bonuses were all dependent on how well his show rated in Chicago and not the suburbs where the signal was. But the station’s studios are here in downtown Chicago, which is what fooled him. The morale of the story, studio location means nothing!

Sure, not all job offers are going to be alike, and sometimes there are mitigating factors that will interest you in taking a job that may not pay as much as you’d like. That’s okay, as long as you have a plan in mind. But, never take a job based on market ranking alone. That’s no guarantee of success at all. Also, make sure you check out what the station’s ratings are like. Is it a start-up? Is it a high ranker? Or has it been tanking in the last few books? Are you going to have to work twice as hard to get the station and yourself noticed? Or will simply going there be the enhancement that your career needs? There are advantages and disadvantages to all 3 scenarios, but only you can decide if it’s the right advantage for you to take. If it’s a start-up, do they have a monster promotional budget for out-of-station promotion? If it’s well established, are they still hungry, or are they fat and lazy? If the station’s been tanking, are they hiring other replacements, or are they just hiring you as some new wallpaper to appease management? Make sure you try to meet all the managers before you agree to anything, too, because you’re going to have to live with all of them, even though you technically only work for one of them. If they won’t let you meet any other staff members before you sign the deal, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad, but you never know. How’s that for comfort, Mr. Paranoia?

Have a little checklist of requirements you deem necessary for your DREAM GIG ready to go for each job opening you hear about and each offer that comes your way. Then, set a minimum of how many need to be fulfilled in order for you to be interested in the offer. Don’t sacrifice too many of them because the more you are willing to give up, the less of a DREAM GIG you’ll have. Call letters, formats, and market rankings alone are not enough. Besides, as you toll up your list of requirements of what your DREAM GIG is supposed to be, you might be surprised to learn that you’re already working at your DREAM GIG right were you are. No moves required. No sacrifices made. Not bad, eh?