Freelancing For Fun & Profit - Part Two

by John Dodge

This is the second in a series of articles on freelancing in radio production. There's a lot of ground to cover, so let's jump right in. For now, I'm going to assume that you're a Production/Creative Director somewhere on the planet and you want to get a business going on the side. You've spoken with station management about this, detailing your loyalties and priorities, and they've given you permission to use the studio during off hours. Let's go from there.

The Importance of a Plan

If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. Most successful businesses have a plan that lays out, like a road map, what the goals are and how they're going to be achieved. Draw up your own basic plan that details who you are and what you do, how you're going to find business, what kind of clients you want to specialize in, how you intend to advertise, and what your fee structure and payment policies are. It doesn't have to be a perfect legal document, but you should definitely write it down, because when it's written, it creates a certain focus and momentum of commitment. By the way, if you've always "hated sales," now's the time to change your 'tude because you've just been promoted to head of sales for your new company.

Finding Business

Let's say you've got your style down, your strategy is defined, e.g., "I'm the new Bill Young and I'm going after regional concert spot business." Now you're ready to go fishin'. But where are the clients? They're literally everywhere -- on the radio, of course, but also in the newspapers, local magazines, cable TV. Many are just now making their first decision to advertise and don't know just how effective and efficient radio can be. They might be in other markets and looking for that fresh, new sound that you could provide. For inside radio information, your best source is the Traffic Director, not just at your station, but at all the other stations in the market. If you ask professionally, they'll likely tell you who produces what and what comes from where all over town and country. Make it your business to learn which advertising agencies in your market are active in broadcast and who the Creative Directors are. You need to know which accounts are tied to which agencies, which accounts are "direct" with the station, and which are in transition and open to new ideas and associations. Most of the smaller agencies have no radio specialists, and virtually none of them have their own studios. So start making friends. All business is based primarily on relationships, and your good tape combined with a personal rapport can mean money in the bank. Other sources of freelance business include media buyers, people who represent clients and negotiate station rates for them but do little else. These folks often work solo and would welcome the chance to hook up their clients with excellent creative. "Paper agencies" are guys with a closet for an office who somehow wrangle a 15% discount on their radio time bill, often with no more than letterhead as proof of their status. Value judgements aside, these guys need spots! And don't forget to look in your own backyard. Your station's existing clients -- people whom you already serve "for free" -- might be willing to pay you extra for superb or unusual work. If they buy other stations in the market, you can negotiate even more. After all, you tell these clients, consistency is crucial to getting the message across.

What's in a Name?

Everything. Choose your identifier carefully because it has more impact than you know. Should it be straight or humorous? Descriptive or offbeat like a Steeley Dan lyric? Your name telegraphs your image and position, so give considerable thought to your choice. I use "John Dodge Creative Radio." Descriptive, sure, but not very original. If I had more time, I'd think of a better name. But if I spend time on that, I might miss the deadline for this article. And so it goes.

It's Only a Demo

Never overestimate a client's imagination. You have about fifteen seconds to kill, and if you miss that window, it slams shut. Next tape, please. Your absolute best material goes first, and that's the gospel. Show your range, but edit ruthlessly. It's not necessary to play a full spot to demonstrate that you can do a great character or impersonation -- ten seconds will do fine, then on to the next bit. Think about multiple versions of your demo so you can target different segments of clients -- music, comedy, straight voice, corporate/industrial -- it's good to customize to the situation.

If Looks Could Kill

Spend time on your package. Take a graphic artist to lunch. When I was "on the beach," I routinely spent extra for FedEx so I could create a point of difference -- hey, this guy must be Priority One! A hand-scrawled label stuck crookedly on a bargain bin cassette with no thought to packaging sends a very different and distinct message: Don't Hire Me. I'm Not Only Cheap, I'm Careless! For an easy example of the power of packaging, take a walk through your local supermarket. Observe which stuff screams "Buy Me!" and why.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Don't waste time sending unsolicited tapes. Get contact names and set up your mailings with a phone call. If you can't get through, write a brief business letter detailing your service and your desire for a moment of phone time. Specify the day you'll call to follow up. Once you've had voice contact, then send your tape. Set up, follow through. Just like tennis. If they won't take your calls no matter what, think of something creative. Unsolicited, blind mailings have a limited chance for success. Think about what you do with your mail at home.

Me, Me, Pick Me!

Competing with other producers should be handled courteously and professionally. This is a pretty subjective business, after all, and the difference between you and your competition often comes down to a matter of style or tone. It's a small business, too, and to quote the late, great Lowell George of Little Feat, "the same people you misuse on your way up, you might meet up with on the way down." Sell negatively against your competitors or undercut their price by a nickel, and they might pick off your best client just for spite. Better to have a sterling reputation than to have one extra client you got with a cheap tactic. I even refer my competition when the job's not right for me. Having said that, fight fair for all the business you can get!

Money Changes Everything

The market dictates prices. Even if you're the Voice of God, you're not gonna get a thousand bucks for a voice over in Abilene. (No offense -- it's actually the prettiest town I've ever seen. People there don't treat you mean....) If you're in a union market, that affects rates. Do espionage; you'll find out what people charge. First, go back to your "position," the business you want to target and how you want to be perceived. If you want to "stack 'em deep, sell 'em cheap," then you should be fast and versatile, because you're gonna hit anything that moves and depend on sheer volume for your success. On the other hand, if you're a custom-crafter, a niche player, you need to charge more because the amount of time you put into each project will limit the number of jobs you can take on. Be flexible - if a client buys a group of ads, offer a discount. If they advertise continually, consider a retainer, a set fee that you get each month regardless of the number of spots you create. Keep track of your time so you'll know what your real hourly rate is. We often love our work so much that we'll spend an extra six hours on a project just to ace it. By all means, keep creating excellence, but don't kid yourself -- you just made less money. It takes time to learn how to size up a project, make an estimate of how long it'll take you to complete it, and then charge accordingly. But practice makes perfect.

Next Time I'll Write a Book

I know there are details hanging all over the place, but we're hitting the highlights here, folks. I'll cover the paperwork aspects of freelancing in the third and final installment of this series -- contracts, invoices, record keeping, home offices and studios, the IRS and the rest. Did you know that freelancers can legally deduct dozens of things that are off-limits to "employees?" Learn about this and more next month when we RAP up "Freelancing for Fun and Profit." Have a great June.

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