This month, I’m going to give some advice that some will find VERY difficult to follow. It’s not earth-shattering advice that will make or break a career. It might end up knocking you off your path a little, if you take it too far. What I am hoping is that you can read through and perhaps adjust your attitude, just a little. The end game here is about the attitude. Bear that in mind as I tell you a couple stories.
I received an email a few weeks ago that will spark some strong recognition in all of you, even if it hasn’t happened to you. It was from a young producer who has the desire to become great, but ‘stuff’ always seems to get in the way of making progress. This producer is convinced of her skills and creativity to be one of the great radio producers and yet never seems to get the break to really move upward into a better market or even to a bigger station across town. In this particular story, she is convinced that her managers don’t think that a woman can be really good at radio production and keep her pinned down in her microscopic market. The story isn’t always about sexism, of course. Often it’s one of a dozen other things that make some managers too stupid or lazy to help young talent realize their potential, but misogyny is as bad a reason as exists.
The real enough angst in these stories comes directly from the young producer’s perspective on the industry. When you’re new to a business, it’s easy to fall into the industrial America mindset: the boss is the BOSS and if you want to climb the ladder, you have to please the boss. If you want to grow in your role at the company, you feel somewhat obligated to do things the way the person who signs your check wants you to do them. This makes sense when you have bills to pay and obligations to meet, but I would suggest that there needs to be a shift in your paradigm. While you DO need to please the boss to keep the paychecks coming, there is a limit. You need to stop thinking of yourself as an employee.
New story: The first time management came to me with a contract, I was stunned. I had been on the air several years at that point, doing my job and collecting my twice-monthly check, feeling pretty good about life in general. Aside from how I earned that check, it was the same model I had worked under growing up as a mower-of-lawns, washer-of-dishes and watcher-of children-with-a-whistle, more commonly known as a lifeguard. It was the same model my mother had worked in as a civilian base comptroller for the Air Force, and later as an accountant for a heavy equipment manufacturing distribution company. With a contract, my term of employment was set out in black and white (2 years that first time), along with hours, vacation, retirement and health benefits and of course, salary. All the stuff that had previously been agreed to with a conversation and a handshake was written down on 5 pages of difficult to read legal language. I hired a lawyer to look it over, make some small amendments and then I signed it, convinced that I was now in the big leagues.
What I didn’t understand at that point, is what I’m trying to impart here. It set me free. I was no longer a simple employee of the radio station. I was an independent contractor, a vendor, a freelancer – with a contract. I was finally in charge of me…mostly. It was truly liberating, at least in my head.
Of course, working in a ‘microscopic’ market will almost never net you a contract, but stay with me here, the lesson has only just begun.
Naturally, the contracts got bigger as I migrated north from Washington, to Baltimore and finally New York. As time went by at Z100, the contracts continued to grow, especially as my skills did and my creativity kept sparking bigger and bigger ideas. Awards from various organizations started to take more and more space in my studio and home, which added a sort of exaggerated importance to my being on the Z100 team.
Side note: One of my all-time favorite awards was awarded by this publication, featuring a pillar of plexiglass with a razor blade trapped in the middle. Today, it sits on my mantle with a small placard next to it that says, “In case of emergency, break glass.” It’s a joke I have to explain to a lot of people who were never in the industry or led a sheltered life in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Every couple of years, management would come around with a new contract with a modest bump in pay. I would dutifully go through the legal mumbo-jumbo, sign it and tell the missus that we were stuck in New York for a couple more years. One day in the late ‘90s, I realized that the contracts were primarily designed to protect the company. It came in the form of a pretty iron-clad clause that prevented me from going across the street to work for the competition. The “Non-Compete Clause,” as it was known, would prevent me from taking a job anywhere in the market for at least 180 days after I was either terminated or quit. I decided to NOT sign the deal.
My PD was pretty upset at first, but then I made a solemn, personal vow. I told him that I would not, under ANY circumstance, go to work for the competition at any time…ever. I meant it. After one has worked in the magic Z100 shop, any other radio station would pale in comparison. I was being adequately compensated. I had great benefits and a generous vacation policy. I further stipulated that when I left Z100, I would be leaving the New York area. Reluctantly, he accepted my new status as an “at-will” employee. I assured him that as long as I was happy, I’d be there in Studio X, making my particular kind of magic. I told him that the day I stopped being happy, I’d be gone.
It took some getting used to. I could be fired ‘for cause’ at any time. (I made sure they never had cause.) I could quit at any time. (They made sure they didn’t give me a reason.) It worked beautifully and I had some of the best years of my career that way. I was truly my own boss. I could get up and walk away at any time, and THAT is the golden thought here. After a couple of months under this new arrangement, I was utterly and completely free. He came back a couple of years later and asked again, but I was firm by then and he stopped asking.
For the first time in my career, I felt like there were no limits and my work started to slowly evolve into something so much bigger. I’d slam ideas together with abandon and come up with outrageous things that almost always worked. People noticed too. My PD made me a part of his brain-trust/inner-circle. When we’d all get together, there was almost always a moment when everyone in the room looked at me expectantly, waiting for a flash of genius. It didn’t always come, but when it did, it was usually pretty spectacular. It’s not that I was particularly smart or even insightful. It seemed like I was suddenly thinking in high-definition 3D. New ideas just happened.
To be clear, I wasn’t suddenly God’s gift to imaging or promotions. I just carried an attitude, born of my immense freedom, that allowed me to free associate. When a new idea popped, I was just as surprised as anyone in the room. I’m writing this column with the sole purpose of convincing you that YOU can do exactly the same thing. You just need the right attitude.
Being practically minded for a moment, I know that when you are relatively new to the business, the idea of getting up and walking away is REALLY hard. You might have a new family to support with a lot of bills you couldn’t have imagined just a couple of years prior. However, if you have the mind-set that you can walk away at any time, it will change a lot of subtle things that will truly set you free. When you’re “in the zone,” being all creative and stuff, you’ll be more expansive in your ideas, you’ll take bigger creative chances. Sure, you’ll stumble from time to time, but you’ll get right back up on the horse and do something even bigger and wilder.
Make no mistake, I am not suggesting you pack up and split any time you’re unhappy with your situation. We ALL have days like that. I even had them at Z100 once in a while. You will no doubt have weeks like that, but when those weeks turn into months, it might be time to pull the plug. The question becomes, “How do you know?”
Everyone in radio has two support systems. One is your family. Whether it’s mom and dad, a husband or wife, even kids, it is without question your safe space. When you get home from a hard day of slaving over a hot console, these are the people who will listen, feel and understand your being miserable, even if it’s for a little while. They will always be on your side. This is the support system everyone really needs, whether you’re slinging hot audio or selling shoes at the local department store.
The second support system is your network. Sadly, far too many producers I’ve met over the years don’t really have a network. What makes it sad is it’s really easy to build one. Reach out, my friend. When you hear a particularly good promo, even if it’s from the station across the street, drop a quick email and say how much you like it. When you read about a hot producer on the RAP Mag site, read the interview closely, look for things you can relate to and then respond to the column. You can do it here on the site or send an email directly. Tell him/her how much you could relate to their interview. Don’t go crazy with it, just say something like, “Great interview!” You can do the same to anyone showing their wares on the Soundstage. Jump into one of the several radio production groups on Facebook. Reach out on any of the myriad social media platforms.
This is how just about every pro I’ve ever met gets ahead in this biz, regardless of where they started. Like so many other businesses, in radio, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Your network is your biggest and best chance to move up. Once your network is humming along and people are responding, you’ll discover the same thing I know: This business is full of people who are genuinely nice, and almost always willing to give advice, a hand with a knotty prod problem, or even an employment tip. (Not everybody, of course, as there are some snarky, inconsiderate people too, but they are the exception, thank God!)
Just knowing that you have TWO solid support systems working for you will give you the freedom to do things right. If your boss is a jerk, don’t worry about it so much. Don’t give him or her any attitude, just do it the way the boss wants. Keep your attitude to yourself and know that you’ll learn so much MORE from your network than you ever will from a lazy, good-for-nothing, misogynistic, selfish boss. And when you can’t stand it anymore, you can pull the plug whenever you need and be reasonably certain you’ll land on your feet.
My sound this month goes back 5 years, but stands the test of time really well. That summer, the word ‘Superstar’ was getting a lot of play, so Z100 did a whole series of promos featuring some of the big names in music and tied them all together with a “Superstars” campaign. It was incredibly easy to do ‘interview’ promos because JJ, our afternoon host, was an incredible interviewer. He would disarm the artist with what most would consider ‘silly’ questions and they would always come up with comments that nobody else would get. Justin Timberlake was tooling through and dropped this awesome response to…well, I’ll let it speak for itself.
Have a great month and get out and NETWORK!