Freelancing For Fun & Profit - Part One

by John Dodge

This is the first in a series of articles on freelancing in radio production. In the coming issues, we'll go over the pros and cons of freelancing, how to get started, the finances, taxes and the IRS, the art and science of selling yourself, how to set fees, why you should put everything in writing, and when and if you should go solo. But first, let's get the Big Picture.

You may be already aware that the industry puts a bit of a glass ceiling on your income as a Production Director. You folks talented, hard-working, and fortunate enough to be making $75K+ as a Production Director are in such a minority you should start every day with a prayer of thanks to the Radio God! In a perfect world, the market would value your services more highly than it does, tied as they are to generating ratings and revenue; but in radio, the big bucks seem to flow to drive talent and sales management. Rather than rail against that, for the time being let's just accept that we're in radio production because we love it and not because we want to get rich quick. But you can get rich slowly -- by freelancing.

There are two basic ways to pull this off -- going solo and freelancing while you're already working for a radio station. Having done it every which way, I prefer having a business on the side while being the Production Director of a station. You have regular access to a studio that would cost you money to rent or bigger money to replicate. (Have you got twenty grand lying around? And that's just for starters.) You have the reputation of the station to back up your credibility and provide an ongoing showcase for your work. And you have a paycheck to equalize the sometimes radical ebb and cash flow of the freelance lifestyle.

First ask yourself two important questions: 1) Do I have any "spare time?" Working eighty hours a week may have been the corporate red badge of courage in the 80s, but in the more sensible, balanced 90s, it's a prescription for wasting the rest of your life. And 2) What kind of boss do I have? If your GM or PD is Mr./Ms. "Take Care of Me and Whatever Else You Do Is Cool," then you're set. But beware if he/she is Count Dracula in disguise -- the bloodsucker type who feels that, by virtue of paying your salary, they own every drop of creative juice you've got. Even if they're typed somewhere in between, keep this first commandment: "The Station's Needs Always Come First."

As every generalization isn't worth a damn, neither are most assumptions. Never assume that, because you're the Production Director, freelancing with the station's equipment is your right. Always have a clear understanding with management. It doesn't need to be in writing -- verbal contracts are binding, too -- but it should be explicit. Example: "Do you agree that, if KXXX always comes first, if the station's production needs are always met and often exceeded, that I can use the studio, the tape, the CDs, etc., for freelance production after hours and on weekends?" If they say, "Sure," you're golden. And most will. I mean, what the heck! Their costs in the equipment are fixed, and it's extra money they don't have to pay you. It's a win/win situation when it's handled correctly. But if you pop that question, and they waffle or hedge, watch out. Grab your garlic necklace because Count Dracula is lurking.

Okay, so you're in agreement with your boss, and you have some spare time to develop your freelance production business. Now what? You might think that finding clients is the next step. That's logical. But not so fast! First, assess your strengths and weaknesses -- I've got great pipes, but I can't think; or, my ideas are excellent, but my sound is wimpy. Congrats if you have a versatile, expressive voice, an imagination to match, and the energy to hustle. Now, let's make some money.

The more you treat this venture like the independent business that it is, the more successful you'll be. Some guys just catch whatever work comes through the door; they just open their mouth the way whales eat krill. But if you get strategic about this, you'll go farther. Decide on your position as a freelancer. Do I crank 'em out, stack 'em high and sell 'em low, Wal-Mart style? Or do I want to be known for custom, boutique, expensive stuff? You might object and say, "I'm good at everything; don't pigeonhole me." But, I strongly suggest you get a specialty, a niche, and dominate that position. Look at retail for a model. There are a few successful department stores that offer everything for everybody, but the smokers, in this business cycle at least, are the specialty shops that offer a certain look, a certain style. They own the niche. Take their lead and concentrate on your long suit, your often imitated, never duplicated signature style.

In the coming months we'll look for clients. We'll compete with other producers. We'll advertise our services. We'll talk about making spots that are special enough to sound custom-crafted and just generic enough that they work for other similar advertisers in other markets. We'll talk about the importance of contracts and good record keeping. We'll talk about how the IRS actually favors freelancers over employees. And we'll see if you've got what it takes to go it alone. All that and more next time in "Freelancing for Fun and Profit."