How High a Flame Burns You?

flamesby Craig Jackman

A while back I got flamed on the Internet, not really surprising, but annoying. Some say I deserved it; some backed me up, though I still haven’t made up my mind on the argument as a whole. While I see the point that others were making at my expense, I don’t think that they saw mine. The post that started it all was a typical one, one that I had seen and responded to many times before. “How do I get started in radio production?”

I secretly wince every time I get this well-intentioned question, mostly because I’ve been so fortunate in how I got my start. My stock initial response is a simple one: don’t! I don’t encourage people to get into this gig not to cover my rear, but because I’ve seen too many eager young faces start out with great gusto, only to wind up bitter and fed up with the B.S. that occurs all too often.

Face it; we in Production are always going to be the skinny end of the radio Creative food chain funnel. What with sales reps, clients, programming and others shoveling into the wide end, it’s no wonder that some days it feels like I’m just churning out sausages. What matters is getting the client’s cheque cashed. What doesn’t matter is just about everything else. If you come in caring about every little detail, it’s no wonder that it’ll start making you bitter. I get around it by trying to find just one thing to feel good about at the end of the day, be that a spot, promo, or imaging piece. It took me many years to put work in its proper place in my life.

Most people who ask my advice just assume that they’ll be able to walk into their favorite station in their favorite city and start at a great salary because they don’t know any better. Naturally they’ll have nights and weekends off, and their workday will be highly flexible. The reality is that unless you are extremely fortunate, you are going to have to start small and move around, working nights and weekends just as if they were any other day. I’ve often wondered how someone born and raised in New York, or LA, or London who wants to get into radio and stay close to their family does it. Of course with consolidation there are fewer and fewer places to start in small markets. How do people wanting to get in get a start then?

When someone asks me how to get started, I want them to have some idea of the sacrifices they are going to have to make. Besides the moves, and the funny hours, they are going to have some surprises every other week in their pay envelope. I’ll never understand radio pay scales, but I’ll concede that my point of view is just a little biased. You can’t begrudge anyone else what they make, but for an area as important as Production, why are we paid so poorly when just about every dollar a station earns passes through the Production Department at least once.

In addition to the pay issue, and the moves, and the hours, in the early stages of your career, you might as well be invisible. Even if you have the answer to the question, or know instinctively that your solution is exactly the one that the client needs to get the results they want, you’ll just be “the new guy.” You have to prove yourself over and over again. It’ll be quite a long time before your opinion is sought early in the process, or is accepted as a basis for solution.

But, and this is a but bigger than J-Lo in one of those curvy mirrors at the county fair... there are those dedicated and passionate enough about radio and radio production, that all of that can be set aside. They are the kind of people that can’t wait to get to work when they get up in the morning. The kind of people who secretly chuckle to themselves every payday because they can’t believe that someone will pay them to do this AGAIN! Every so often someone brings in new toys to play with, and it’s not even Christmas or a birthday! There are people like that. I know as I am one. For others who get into radio production and find out for themselves that they are one too, I have a hearty handshake for them. I will also offer apologies for trying to scare them off of a career that they find as rewarding as I do.

For those that aren’t sure where they stand in regard to either side of that but, I offered what I thought was sound advice. They could try volunteering for cable access TV, or volunteer their time at campus radio stations. With a minor investment in software and hardware, they can start playing with audio where they are now, start doing commercials and promos for real or imaginary clients, and then start sending out CDs like bait until someone bites. Of course the best way would be to go to a broadcasting school or a broadcasting program at college or university.

Apparently that “but” wasn’t enough for some people. They were astounded and disgusted that I would do anything to discourage anyone from getting into radio production. I should be giving more advice to encourage everyone who wanted to do it, that they could. While good, my advice of post-secondary education would be less valuable than any job in any kind of media including print.

In response I feel that anyone working in radio or TV already would have access to an audio production professional that would be suited to answering his or her questions. They would also have some idea just being in that environment, what the workload and demands would be. I can see the possible transition from print journalism to broadcast journalism and news, but I don’t see how working in print would prepare anyone for radio production, other than being a small part of a bigger team, or working in advertising and having a well exercised creative mind. If they were in advertising already, wouldn’t they go the agency route instead of the poor bastard stepchild of radio?

It was rightly pointed out to me though, that my comments were biased by a North American point of view and that the forum discussion was taking place in hyperspace — basically everywhere around the world at the same time. That may have been the best point made in the argument, and one that I had never considered before.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I say. Some of the things I voice here and elsewhere are at best, there to start a discussion. I believe passionately in what I have to say, and that this is a business that is done best by people passionate for it. One thing I learned long ago is that it’s just easier to be the first to stand up and admit when you are wrong, and when I am wrong I will and do. However when you do disagree with me, please make your argument in a way acceptable to the location it’ll wind up. There’s nothing worse than having a user forum moderator edit or remove your post, because you’ve front-loaded it with bile in a personal attack. Let’s all keep it above the belt, and argue ideas on merit shall we?

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