By Dave Foxx
Every year, about this time, I get a letter from a student of broadcasting, asking for advice on how to pursue a career in radio or television. Well, I’ve never been one to shy away from giving my 2-cents worth, even if it’s only worth half that. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ve already read me spouting off about most of this, so this month you’re allowed to skim. It’s a kind of “Reader’s Digest” version of several columns.
Today’s letter came from a 17-year-old high school student who is debating whether to go to college for a communications degree (bad idea), or to jump in, feet first (which is probably worse.) What follows is an edited version of my response.
Just starting, eh? Well, there’s a ton of advice I could give you, but let me emphasize this: Go to school. Even if you only get an associates degree (2 years), this could be the most important part of your career. DON’T get a degree in broadcasting – an absolutely worthless degree. Major in business, journalism, political science, or even music. While you’re there, take advantage and learn some basic music theory. You don’t need to become an expert, just someone who can find the downbeat, match tempo and know the difference between harmony and counterpoint. (You won’t believe how helpful this will be.) Also, get some creative writing under your belt. Don’t worry so much about substance as style. Tell your instructor your intended career and make sure he/she gives you the tools you need to write creatively.
If you’re anything like my own kids, you might be turning your nose up at the suggestion that you go to school. I get that. School basically sucks because so little of it has any real practical application in the real world, or at least it seems that way now. (I still haven’t figured out how to use quadratic equations in my work.) But school offers you something you can’t get in the real world — experience while still close to the nest. You learn social skills there you can’t get anywhere else. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn how to manage your time too. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to learn – something I know I missed when I went through middle and high schools. It’s really not about the parchment. I don’t recall any employer ever asking to see mine. (Good thing too, because after 7 years of higher learning, I never got one.) To my way of thinking, school is really all about the learning — both academic and personal.
If school is out of reach financially, or for some other reason is out of the question, start reading – a lot. Books, magazines, at least one newspaper a day, anything you can get your hands on will help. The topics don’t really matter. If you’re reading a lot, you’ll start to pick up culturally significant topics and begin developing your own thoughts and feelings on a wide range of subjects. You’ll also start to understand where the public mind is collectively, because presumably, the public is reading at least some of the same stuff you’re reading.
You need to watch television and go to the movies a lot too. (I know, it’s tough work, but somebody’s got to do it.) This is where pop culture lives. If you know which TV shows or movies are hot, you have a ‘bridge’ to your listeners that will bring them ever closer. If you don’t have a TiVo, I really recommend you get one and start using it. Truly successful broadcasters mirror pop culture for their listeners and become a shortcut to the so-called “real world.” Years from now, when you’re doing a VO for MTV, you’d better know how to pronounce every pop star’s name, or you’re dead meat. When you’re interviewing Lindsay Lohan as she approaches middle age, you really DO need to know the story behind the poor relationship she had with her father when she was a teenager. (That’s assuming a lot, I’m sure, but you get the idea.)
So, go to school. Start reading, whether you go to school or not. Read at least one book a week. Read two or three magazines every week. Read at least one newspaper a day. Go to the movies at least once a week. See the most popular films, even if they don’t look that appealing to you. Watch some television every day. If you don’t watch anything else, watch one of the Hollywood “sleaze” shows and some MTV or VH1. Immerse yourself in pop culture. This is the homework you need to complete if you want to compete.
Let me tell you one last thing: although the radio business is a business, if you’re not having fun while you’re doing it, you’re going to be OUT of business before you know it. Always look for the fun. (Man, this stuff is GOLD! I ought to write it down.)
OK. That’s enough advice. I sincerely wish you the best in your chosen path. Unlike many who view every newcomer as more competition, I see people like you as the catalyst that will take broadcasting to a higher plane. When I hear your ideas and how they’re executed, it’s inspiration for me to kick it to the next level.
P.S. By the way, did you know that you could claim newspaper and magazine subscriptions as tax deductions? Same thing goes for your cable or satellite bill – up to a point. You need this stuff to do your job properly. (Make sure you check with a qualified tax preparation person about the specifics.) Even the Internal Revenue Service knows you need these things to do your job.