MazeBy Tom Richards

The mood was grim as the programming brain trust gathered in the Philadelphia production studio, lamenting their station’s acquisition by a company known more for appliances than for broadcasting. They shook their heads and stared at the floor, each one wondering, “even if I get to keep my job, where does it leave me?” Finally one spoke. “They just don’t get it – they’re not even radio people.” “Yeah,” agreed another, “they’re nothing but” he paused before he spat out the word, “…salespeople.”

Thanks to deregulation, today’s radio ownership consists of huge groups – Clear Channel and Infinity have become the Coke and Pepsi of radio. Never have so few owned so much. So where do you fit in? How can you break through the clutter among dozens of colleagues scattered across the country, all doing the same thing that you do?

The Silver Lining

Panic? Okay, if you must. But think: you might be better off. A small Midwest software company wasn’t hitting the numbers they needed, and after some deep layoffs, they announced that they were looking for a buyer. Morale was low, with workers spread too thin by having to wear too many hats. As it turns out, a huge communications conglomerate announced plans to not only buy the company, but to keep the entire staff. After such a stressful period, one said, “I’ll be focusing on one thing now, and that will be a welcome change.”

Radio people have grown accustomed to such uncertainty through format and ownership changes, sometimes not with such a cheery conclusion. So the question remains, if you don’t lose your job altogether, how do you find your place after being “adopted?” It’s a challenge that many have faced before, and the good news is that there are proven solutions and resources to help you make your way – after all; big broadcasting groups weren’t the first mega-firms on the block.

The Longest Journey…

Start by knowing what you want. A career coach can help. “You have to develop explicit career goals,” says Christine Kurz, COO of Business Coaching Essentials in Wilmington, DE. “Most of us don’t. If we do a good enough job, we hope we get recognized and moved to whatever the next rung of the ladder happens to be.” But such a passive approach relinquishes control of your career to people who are… well, beyond your control. Instead, dig deep. “You have to really sit down and do some serious self-assessment – not only about your strengths and weaknesses, but also about your value system. What drives you? What makes you happy in life? And are you actually able to capture those motivators in your job or in your company?”

Bobby Rich of KMXZ Tucson accepted the challenge. After years of high-profile on-air and programming gigs in New York, LA, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Diego, and more, “my wife and I discussed why we were living in these huge cities that we really didn’t like living in, and realized it was just because that’s where the next job took us.” For Bobby and his wife, the major market grind wasn’t worth it any more. “We just never thought about actually choosing where we wanted to work first and then going to find a job there, instead of the other way around.” Kind of the career equivalent of tearing up your credit cards. They listed the qualities they were looking for, identified cities that met them, and then started visiting them. “Before I knew it, we were driving into Tucson, and I fell in love with it.” He’s done mornings at and programmed KMXZ 94.9 MIX since 1993, with no signs of letting up.

Next Step:

Self-assessment’s good, says Kurz, but “sometimes our self-perception isn’t necessarily the perception other people have of us, so you’ve got to go around and talk to a few and see if you can get some honest feedback.” And no fair going just to your “inner circle.” Nope, Kurz says you’ve got to include some who aren’t entirely crazy about you, too. That way “you get a variety of opinions, to fill in the blanks.” But, depending on where you work, that might be risky. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to do that in a work environment, where you may not be that comfortable being as honest as needed, with your associates,” says Jim Rohrbach of Mentor Networks USA in Palm Beach, FL. In that case, “just be observant and really honest with yourself. Are you getting the results that you say you want? Or does the reality of your situation look consistently different?” If so, you might want to try that honesty part again.

And your company can help. “Big companies tend to have pretty formal processes for spotting people who they call the ‘high flyers’,” says Raymond Smith, a retired 35-year veteran of Dupont Chemical Company. What do they look for? “Eagerness to take on responsibility; to show initiative; to not wait to be told what to do and how to do it.” People skills are also important, particularly when dealing with clients. “The hardest is leadership. It’s a combination of confidence, competence, and a belief that you can set the target and hit it.” Smith continues to share his experience today through SCORE – the Service Corps of Retired Executives, who offer free business advice. They’re a potent resource available to all. To locate a chapter near you, visit

Leaders Are Born

Don’t underestimate people skills. Says Rohrbach, “many times people are hired for technical expertise – an accounting degree, for example – and as they get promotions, eventually they get to the point where those technical skills are not as important as personal skills, management skills, and leadership skills.” And those can be a killer. When I was a Production Director, I once had a PD who, in addition to having great programming sense, also had a way of getting everybody on board, pulling in the same direction. When he left for a bigger market, his replacement couldn’t elicit the same performance, and he became exasperated. “What do they want?” he asked me. “Leadership,” I replied. “We need you to gather us together and tell us your vision for the radio station – where you see us going, how we’re going to get there, and what you need from each of us.” He looked at me as if I’d just climbed down from a space ship. He hadn’t learned how to lead, and as a result, quickly lost respect. “If a person has a problem being a leader, that’s going to show up in other areas than just at work,” points out Rohrbach. Sound like you? Try observing leaders in and out of your work environment and see if you can develop the qualities that enable them to lead. If not, you may be better off developing your skills in the rank and file.

At the same time, consider the possibility that your company may actually want you to grow. “I’ve been treated really well,” says one West Coast Clear Channel Creative Services Director who’d rather not be named. Dan Kelly agrees. As CSD at Disney ABC’s WPLJ New York, he gets what he needs. “I think it’s an advantage to work in a large company,” he says. “You just have to have a little patience sometimes with things like budgets, but the benefits by far outweigh the debits. I mean, look at all the resources we have to draw on.” During Gulf War II, WPLJ had the opportunity to draw on ABC News for updates. And when working at Clear Channel’s Philadelphia operation, Dan took advantage of CC’s production website, where ideas and audio are exchanged freely among sister stations.

Meanwhile, back at the Bottom Line…

That all may be fine, but eventually the fraternity wears thin. “The person who’s going to get you hired in the bigger market isn’t the person you’re working for now,” claims Julian H. Breen, veteran programmer and ratings consultant. “If you’re a manager in a medium or smaller market, you can take one of two points of view. You can either say, ‘Well, it’s really good for my people to move up, because then we can show there’s mobility, and somebody who comes in here has a path to a better job in the company.’ That’s a forward-looking view. Unfortunately, the view that’s most often shared is, ‘let’s keep this person a secret, and keep him here as long as possible.’” Because he makes the manager look good? “Exactly.” So how would that person break through that? “The same way that person always breaks through: send out the CDs, bang on the doors, all that kind of stuff.”

Don Elliot, most recently commercial Production Director at Clear Channel’s KFI-AM Los Angeles, says, “the key is deciding whether you want to be noticed, or ‘hide under the radar,’ because if you’re making more than scale, they’ll find you; the dweebs of accounting will ferret you out. Or else you can make as much damned noise as the other guys do, and celebrate it, enjoy the gig, shoot as much publicity your way as you can, and ride the crest of the wave. What other way is there to live? What are you doing in this business if you don’t do it that way?”

Isolation bad…networking and mentoring good!

And while you’re banging on those doors, it helps if you have an idea of what’s happening on the other side. “You’ve got to identify the power centers,” says Christine Kurz. “You’re looking for decision-makers and influencers – you want to understand what those people are like, and, in fact, do you want to be a part of that team? Try to determine some of the unwritten rules and values, and whether they reflect who you are and what you want to be.” Raymond Smith agrees. “Try to understand how the corporation works,” he says, “and try to join them – because you’re not going to change them from the bottom up.”

That kind of understanding comes from relationships developed through networking and mentoring. “Ugh,” said one IT guy I worked with, “I hate networking – it’s so phony.” Perhaps. If you’re interested only in helping yourself, people will catch on, and avoid you. But the exchange becomes different when you offer something in return. “Hey, I really appreciate that. Is there anything I can do for you?” The offer may be accepted or left open-ended, but it shows that you’re gracious enough to reciprocate, and leaves the other person feeling that he got something out of the deal, too.

Mentoring involves a different type of relationship, where the mentor – usually older, sometimes even from a different company – guides his protégé over several career moves. Dan Kelly understands the value of a mentor. “If you’re on your own and nobody ever tells you anything,” he says, “you tend to sometimes not get any better, and you get stuck in a rut.” John Rohrbach agrees. “I think that’s the number one thing that a mentor or coach brings to the table – the ability to offer objective feedback and develop a relationship of trust.” The depth of the relationship is up to you. Christine Kurz says, “you can make it very explicit and say, ‘I’m trying to learn the ropes,’ or ‘I admire you because you’ve been successful.’ Or you can just choose people from afar, and they never really know that they’re your mentor, because you’re just observing their behavior, you’re seeing how they act in public, you’re seeing what their communications are like. So it’s everything from the very informal to the very formal.” And, as in networking, it’s good to give back, too. Dan Kelly says past interns have kept in touch with him, “people that actually – scarily – look to me for advice, and I try to guide them in the right direction. I actually enjoy that.”

Your Move

But ultimately, it all comes down to you, and how far you want to extend yourself for the sake of your success. Don Elliot’s wife, an entertainment lawyer, had been invited to Clear Channel headquarters in San Antonio to talk about a position with the company. Don, having his wits about him, came along, and wound up meeting the Mays family and having a great time. Enough to make the trip worthwhile, right? Sure, but there’s more.

It happens that on that day, CC had just acquired WAOI-TV in San Antonio. “Now, I like putting myself in the other guy’s shoes, and I realized it gave them every medium – AM, FM, billboards, web, and now TV – represented in their home base, and I thought, ‘that must be really important to them.’ Sure enough, I picked up the newspaper the next morning, and there it was, front page. So I had it framed in a giant frame, and signed it in memory of our visit, and how nice they’d been to me. And I took it into Mr. Mays’ office the next day, and he put it right up on his wall. It was a nice ribbon on the package as we left town.”

And there’s a coda to the story. “I brought a Texas flag home with me and put it on the wall of the production studio. Later, when Randy Michaels came to town, he toured the studio, and when he saw that flag, he said, ‘Omigosh! It’s the Clear Channel flag!’” Talk about breaking through…

Do we all have the chance to get up close and personal with the most powerful people in radio? Probably not. But can we always stay alert for opportunities as they arise? You bet. Mega-group, medium, or small, says Bobby Rich, “it’s still basically the same. If you’re great at what you do, and you’re passionate about what you do, and you’re lucky enough to get in a decent working environment with a good company that takes care of you and loves you, then you can be there as long as you want to be.”