By Dave Foxx
Several years ago now, the first time I ever gave a lecture about radio production at the Dan O’Day Production Summit in Los Angeles, I used the sub-title “How To Get My Gig.” Nobody has taken up the challenge yet, but I’m fairly certain it will happen one day. Of course, just like real life, radio life demands you pay your dues by starting low and slow, and that is the topic of this month’s installment of Production 212.
I got started (again) on this topic with an email from a young, still with the cello-wrap on, fresh out of college broadcast major who wanted to know what he’s supposed to do now that he has his sheepskin. After I told him to frame it, I passed along some of my sage wisdom, (maybe it was sage seasoning) most of which is contained here.
First of all Eric (not his real name or even gender), my best advice is to run. Run as fast and far as you can from radio. The pay is generally crappy, the hours will kill your social life and a lot of the people you meet are mean-spirited, dog-eat-dog types who would just as soon step on your head to push themselves up the ladder as not. I don’t really think Dante was referring to the radio industry when he first said, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” but as a (not quite) newbie to this business, I can guarantee you that there will come a time when you’ll think you are in the Inferno. However, I also understand that when the broadcast bug bites you (it’s a vicious little critter), it’s already too late. Once bitten, it won’t matter if you’re beaming to 100 people or 5.7 million people, when you’re “broadcasting,” there is no other place you’d rather be. As a long-time veteran of the radio industry, I can say with absolute certainty that it is a little slice of heaven.
Whatever your particular skill set includes, let me explain some insider secrets that they never teach you in school. The school probably did not tell you that the radio junk you learned there is not terribly useful to your career. That’s not to say you’ve wasted your time and money getting your degree. It’s amazing how much you learn about life when you go through school, and those are your most important lessons. But, most of the “radio” stuff you get in school is outdated by the time you actually find a job. They also never tell you that your degree is mostly pointless to a career in broadcasting. I don’t think I have EVER seen someone hired because they have a degree. The over-riding factor in broadcast hiring is performance. What kind of ratings did you post in your last gig? How did clients (the advertisers) feel about your performance? Obviously, when you’re just getting out of school, you don’t have much in the way of numbers to show, no clients to brag about, but it is the first real barometer that prospective employers look to when you ask for a job.
Your first real step is to start marketing yourself. T&R is the operative phrase. Tape and Resume is what you need to reach out. I know, you’re thinking yours is so slim, it is almost non-existent. I can guarantee you that a T&R (no matter how accomplished) probably won’t actually land the gig either. Personal contact will do it almost every time, so consider your T&R, slim as it is, as a great way to introduce yourself. Once you reach out, maintain contact. Don’t be a pest. Don’t make the prospective PD wish he/she had never heard from you, but stay in touch. Drop an email every few weeks. If you’ve exchanged phone numbers, drop a call every few weeks. (Be extra careful not to alienate him or her.) The way it almost always works is, the PD finds out his overnight guy is quitting, or his afternoon guy was caught sleeping with the boss’ wife, regardless, he needs a warm body to man a shift. The phone rings and there you are!
The odds of that particular scenario happening might seem pretty slight, but that is how it usually works. If you’ve been swimming around the Program Director’s awareness for a couple of months and he or she needs a round peg for a round hole, you’re it, even if you’re not “completely round” yet. And yes, the hours (and pay) at this point in your career will make you want to train at Burger King™ as fast as you can, but it’s how you pay your dues. Believe me, if you have any skills at all, your fortune will rise quickly. You’ll transition to evenings or mid–days within a few months, perhaps even weeks and the pay will go up. Once that happens, count on air-checking everything you do so you can start building your next tape. (Well… digital file, I guess.) Chances are, the guy you’re replacing is simply moving on to a bigger market, just like you will do, eventually.
Radio is now and always will be “on-the-job training.” You will learn something new every day of the rest of your life. The day you stop learning wherever you are is the day you start looking for a new job in a bigger market. In the bigger market, you’ll get more and better training and experience, and so the learning continues from other people. By my observation, the average life expectancy (job-wise) of radio people is about 18 months. At that point, one can assume you’ve learned everything you’re going to learn at that level. By the time you’ve moved “up” 4 or 5 times, you’re working in a Major Market (Top 10.) Then, the learning comes strictly from experience.
As you’re climbing this virtual career ladder, keep one thing in mind. You will likely run into the people you meet on your way up, over and over again. DON’T burn any bridges… EVER. Just because you’re ready to move up to market 67 from market 94, doesn’t mean your PD can just replace you any time. Help them help you move up. Sometimes it’s a really good idea to give them a heads-up when you’re knocking your head on the ceiling, so they can start checking out the T&R from the next guy in line. Don’t ever just pop into his or her office and inform them that your last day is in 3 days. You will create bad blood that won’t go away. Remember that your PD is likely doing the same thing you’re doing, searching for the next bigger market to program in. If you move up after burning the PD and then several months later he or she moves up, you could find yourself needing to ask him or her for another job, only you won’t have any chance of getting it. Walter Winchell (long-time veteran of broadcasting during radio’s “Golden Age”), is generally credited with saying, “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up, for they are the same people you meet on the way down.” Smart guy.
Now, a quick time out for a sanity check: People get to a certain point in this progression and find a really happy, comfortable spot. If your original goal was to work afternoons at a Major and you’re still in market 104 (by definition small market), you should take the time to decide what’s important to you. Was your original goal really to work afternoons at a Major? Or was it simply to be successful? Just know this, there is successful and then there is successful. I know a LOT of people who have mad skills and could work anywhere they want, but know that what they’re doing and where they’re doing it is making them happy. One friend is doing mornings in a medium sized market and loves his job. He could easily snare a job at any number of radio stations in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. I asked him why he stays there and he started by talking about how his kids (2) and wife all loved it there and how he had become a recognized celebrity in town, then he stopped and said, “Because I’m happy.”
There is nothing wrong with happy.
If that doesn’t appeal to you and you simply must hit the bigs, then keep doing what you’ve been doing. Keep building new files and adding to your resume and trust me… eventually it will happen. There is actually a point in your career, at which your T&R become superfluous. The longer you work in this business, the bigger your reputation grows. You’ll start getting job offers without even expressing an interest. At one point in my career, I was getting three and four offers every month. When this starts, you are tempted to believe that you have finally arrived… but you are wrong. You have arrived when the unsolicited job offers stop coming. That’s the point at which people don’t even try, because they assume you’re at the peak of your career ladder and anything they offer would seem like a step down.
One last caveat: There is a chance that your best skills are not Major Market worthy. It’s almost impossible to pinpoint what some people’s talents are lacking. For a production person like myself, it could be what is called a tin ear. Some people just cannot distinguish one note from another, a decidedly impossible situation when so much of what we do depends on the music we use. For an on-air personality, it might be a lack of filters, which keep them from saying things that are inappropriate -- a sort of Tourettes Syndrome for disc jockeys. A lot of these shortcomings can be overcome with training and guidance, but need to be spotted early in the career path so the appropriate education can happen. If that education does not happen or the shortcoming proves insurmountable, you could wind up stuck in a medium or small market.
The downside of all this “trading up” is that many people will actually rise to their own level of incompetence. I can’t tell you how many great Jocks I’ve known over the years have left a major market gig to become a PD in a medium or large market, only to discover that they really suck as a Program Director. Once that happens, they’re kind of screwed because they’re not on the air any more and word has already gotten out that their managerial skills are, shall we say, “lacking?” Everyone wants to transition from on air to something else, eventually. For me it was production, and more specifically, imaging. When your time comes, think long and hard about it.
There is one more upside, by the way: if you’re going to have to work all the time, make sure it’s something you love doing! Crappy pay, weird hours, no social life and mean-spirited people notwithstanding, if you’re having a good time doing it… who cares?
So let me end with a plea. The hardest work to do sometimes is the preparation. Make sure you are prepared. If you’re even remotely interested in production take some music theory courses, take piano lessons, then, if piano bores you, take lessons on some other musical instrument. (Do the piano first… it’s essential.) Take some writing courses. Concentrate on writing dialogue. Take some speech and dramatic arts courses so you can learn to read without sounding like you’re reading. After you’ve done all that, if you discover you’re still hungry for more, then take some courses in audio engineering. Once you are truly prepared and have a toolbox full of really sharp and well-oiled tools, you will most definitely be ready for the Majors. The only remaining question is, “Are the Majors ready for you?”
For my sound file this month, I’ve chosen one of the simplest pieces I’ve done in the last few years. Simple because it’s just my voice and a string of promo tracks from Production Vault® pulled together to make a rockin’ little piece pre-promoting the Z100 Top 100 of 2010. We run polls on our website during the weeks leading up and through the end of the year. Then, each time the show airs (beginning Christmas Eve) the current standings are given, with a final tabulation announced after the first of the year. (I guess by the time you’ve read this, we’ll all know which episode of Glee was voted most popular.) The mechanics of this little stunt are really interesting from a tekkie point of view. I’ll tell you how we produce a breathing, flexible Top 100 in the next column.