I’ve been writing this column since 2003. In the 16 years since, I’ve written a few articles that are in the ‘repeat category,’ but each time they have turned out to be substantially different. Hopefully, that’s a sign that I’m still learning. This month, I’m taking a break from the Beginner’s Guide to ***** series and revisiting a topic that is incredibly important to some of our younger brothers and sisters in the audio game: Higher Education.
Just about every year in the fall, I get letters from producer wannabes wanting to know what they should study in college. The last couple of years, I’ve simply answered each one personally and let it go, but this year I got a really emotional email from someone from an Eastern European country, who I’ve been coaching for several years and is in his first year at University in the UK. Yes, he is young. VERY young, in fact. I started working with him when he was 15, all by email and Skype. He is, without question, one of the most gifted young men I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He has a natural skill for production that is almost supernatural.
It’s not like he’s a prodigy exactly, because his father is also in the radio business and has obviously taught him quite a bit about imaging and radio in general, but this young man is miles and miles ahead of where I was at his age. Even better, he has zero attitude, given all his abilities. He is always eager to learn and put into practice everything I’ve ever thrown at him. To say I have high hopes for his success in broadcasting is a gross understatement. I truly believe he will be a colossus one day.
I would tell you his name and broader circumstances, but I think he would be embarrassed and I’m pretty certain that within a very few years, you might know who it is anyway. Really.
A couple of weeks ago, I was traveling to the East Coast for a wedding when he begged me for a Skype session because he was very distraught about a situation. Sadly, I didn’t get his request soon enough to be of help, so I wrote an email suggesting we chat when I got back. Instead, I got an email back a few days later in which he explained what was going on…why he was so very upset.
It seems his father, who is paying for this young man’s schooling, insists that he study computer science instead of radio-television. He’s fully enrolled and going to class, but he’s really NOT happy about it and made it plain to his dad.
He actually visited the RTV school at his University and as he was touring the facilities, he was able to sit down and show a young lady how to begin using a DAW, like it was simple as could be. She, the professor giving the tour and the entire class were all suitably impressed with his knowledge. He went back to his father and begged and pleaded, all to no avail. His dad is adamant.
I replied first that my heart was breaking for him, knowing his passion for radio was so deep and abiding, then continued:
Let me give you the same advice I have given countless others over the years. The SAME advice I gave my youngest son when he started University.
A degree in broadcasting is quite simply...useless. There is not ONE successful broadcaster I have ever known who had a degree in RTV (Radio/Television). To my knowledge, not one! Many of them don’t have degrees of any kind as they started working right out of high school. Others had degrees in history, music, theater, journalism, political science, even computer science. Conversely, many people I’ve known who DID have RTV degrees languished in small to medium markets, making very little money and wondering where they went wrong. I personally believe they went wrong in their choice of studies programs…and I know why.
My own studies were unsettled because I kept changing majors from theater to marine biology, microbiology to journalism, back to theater and finally to RTV. (There were a couple of others, including computer science for about 5 minutes.) After almost 7 YEARS, I settled on RTV and came to a realization: You absolutely do NOT need a degree to work in radio or television. The reason is simple. The things you would learn in RTV courses can be taught in weeks, not years. Granted, one won’t be very good at them when learned, but that will improve over time. I LEFT University, without a degree, once I knew this and have never regretted it.
A part of that realization came from a conversation I had with another student who was working with me at the campus radio station. Brian said, “It’s all fine and good for students to learn how to cue up a song and crack a mic, but what will they say, once it’s on?” THAT, my friend, is the big, BIG question. If all you know, if your expertise is just radio, what are you going to talk about? How are you going to relate to your audience? Are you going to talk about radio? BORING, at least to most people. Are you going to talk about the music or artists? That can carry you a certain distance, but not all the way into the hearts and minds of your listeners.
If you truly want to influence people, have an impact in their lives and be truly successful in broadcasting, you MUST connect with your audience on a meaningful level, something beyond the last song or the next. They need to feel your anger when gas prices skyrocket, they need to feel your love when you ask them to adopt a shelter animal, they need to feel your pride when a community (or state) leader does something truly worthwhile.
To be perfectly candid, you already know MOST, if not all, of what that radio student you helped is trying to learn. You’ve been in the business for years already! How much is there left for you to learn? Precious little, I think. Knowing how to operate an unfamiliar playback system is something you can master in minutes. Knowing how to relate to an audience is the key to REAL success and that can take a long, long time. It’s much more important that you learn more about life.
Do NOT think I am trying to convince you to quit school. Just the opposite is true. I think school is the absolute BEST place there is for a young man or woman to learn about life; how to interact with others, how to cooperate with others, how to manage your time, how to manage your personal finances…the list is quite long. It matters little what you study at school. What is MUCH more important is what you learn! Maybe computer science isn’t your cup of tea, but it WILL help you in your radio and television ambitions, so it’s not such a bad idea. Perhaps you would feel better about statistical analysis, as that would help you understand and interpret ratings. Maybe music is a better fit, perhaps electrical engineering or even political science. There is one added benefit to finishing school. Just having a degree tells potential employers that you can follow through on what you start.
I must add one more thing, however: in every job interview I have EVER done, not ONCE was I asked to show my diploma. In radio, the ONLY thing managers and programmers will care about is your skillset. Can you deliver the ratings? Can you create amazing radio imaging or perfect commercial work? It’s never been about what I know about radio, it’s always been about how I can help them succeed.
So…I hate to break it to you, but I think your father is right. Maybe the specific major study program is off a bit for you, but he is absolutely right that you should NOT study radio and television. You already know most of it. You don’t need a piece of parchment to prove it. Trust me…I know.
I hope you’ll accept this in the spirit it was given. I know you love radio and have already decided it is the life you want, but I would hate to think you would end up in a small market, wondering where you went wrong. I want nothing but SUCCESS for you. You are the brightest young producer-programmer-presenter-person I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and knowing. You deserve to be a giant in radio, and I think you will be.
Right about now, there might be several teachers/instructors/professors who are getting set to flame me, but I will stand by this absolutely. Does that mean I think RTV students should switch majors? Probably not, especially if you’re more than halfway through, but if you have time, grab some classes in other stuff. I wonder if they offer a degree in tiddlywinks?
A short post-script: Since I wrote to this young man, he asked my help in getting him into an internship program at one of the major broadcast chains in the UK. I did and he’s starting to fret because he hasn’t heard anything back yet. I reassured him that the typical life of broadcasters is full to the brim of OTHER stuff and making a reply to someone asking for an internship probably doesn’t get much priority. I worry though that his youthful impatience will sour him in some way. This would be a real shame because he is incredibly talented and I would hate it if he turned away from the biz. (I know, it’s not likely, but still….)
Let me say to anyone getting requests like this, please…for the greater good of this business we all love so much, don’t discourage young radio wannabes by being so slow to reply, even if it’s just a “We have your letter and will consider it” kind of response. You just never know when you’ll end up being like the Decca exec who told the Beatles that four guys with guitars and drums are just not the future of popular music. (True story.)
Oh, and my young production paladin friend has buckled down to chase 1s and 0s, at least for now.