Six Months, Nine Months

sixmonthsby Andrew Frame

I didn’t have to wait it out, but it happened that way on its own. My non-compete, that is. When I was… dismissed… from a medium size corporate entity, I opted to buy out my non-compete. After all, I was a Production Director. And, in my market there were three, count ‘em, three owners of over twenty radio stations. Three owners equals three low-pay long-hour Production Directors that worked weekend airshifts.

I needed to get back into the pipe quickly. Six months, even with my market longevity in the biz, is time enough to be forgotten. I’ve been here since there were more fingers on a pair of hands than there were signals. There was no such thing as a contract. There were no employment applications the size of a small paperback book. You went into a station (everyone knew everyone else), said “Hey, got anything?” and if there was an airshift, or a sales gig, you had a job for as long as you could deliver.

After the obligatory station hopping for the first three years, I found an exceptionally well paying shift at a dying mom-and-pop 5kW AM, the former CHR that ruled the air for as many years. Over a period of seven and a half years I did every airshift, handled public affairs, engineering, more remotes than I can count, oodles of PR gigs, and took home a nice paycheck--no insurance, no contracts, no frills, two weeks paid vacation a year, and a paycheck. My boss was pretty, she was fair, and bought us pizza if she was working a Saturday doing billing. Her husband was the sole owner of the AM/FM combo, a certifiable rocket-scientist genius who learned the business by diving in headfirst in the 1950’s. My co-workers were typical radio weirdoes. We were not numbers. We were people, with families, and for the most part were treated that way.

I learned my niche for production there. I learned to respect the job a good salesperson has and does. Life was good. Eventually, as the 1980’s ended, competition finally removed the station as a “player” in the market, and all of us were let go. I must have made a good impression at some point, because I got three weeks’ severance (not required in Florida), and back vacation pay (also not required). Plus, I was the first one to be cut loose.

For almost two years, I was the only one that was able to get back into radio. Everyone else ended up selling cable television advertising, or working at the Gas-N-Shop. (To show you my state of mind, the morning I was let go, my wife was concerned I was out of work. I was concerned that the free DJ passes to Sea World were gone.)

One week later, I had the opportunity to create and deploy an experimental tourist information format in our market. It passed after six months, but the learning experience was invaluable. The concept has been used all over the country. Also during this time, I was a part time off-air Production Director at a non-competing station. Owners changed, bankruptcy and receivership came and went, and again, as time went on, I became the PD’s right hand man at the number one station in the market, another mom-and-pop (actually pop-and-daughter). Full-time, off-air production, the #2 prod guy in the market working with old equipment--my own equipment--whatever it took to get the job done. The Internet came into being, and I began to develop Web skills. I went through three owners, five PDs, six complete air and sales staffs, and too many prima donnas. I felt like BJ Hunnicut at the end of M*A*S*H, riding his bike around waiting for his turn to leave.

Seven years at the same salary is quite enough, so the cross-town CHR, the undisputed king of the air by this time, beckoned, and I took my CD case back to the top of the hill. And that was the beginning of the end.

By this time, Spring of 1997, multiple ownership had locked its fangs deeply into the market, and was chewing at an astounding rate. Over twenty stations yet three owners, corporate owners. The mom-and-pops were gone. The autonomy of the production department was gone. No longer could I deal with clients directly to work out their production for their best interest. I had to deal with the salespeople only. No longer could I order supplies. I had to go through a budget requisition process that crossed three departments and five people before it would be refused two months later. This bureaucratic morass was totally, completely beyond my experience, but I tried to learn the “program.”

Twenty years of experience meant nothing when I didn’t show up for the hypocritical office parties. Putting my kids safely on a school bus had to take a back seat to dictums for “my” schedule. Bathroom and lunch breaks…scheduled! If it wasn’t for the fact that I worked with some really outstanding (and for radio, modest) personalities, this would have been the worst six months of my career. I still regard the PD as one of my Most Valuable Contacts.

Needless to say, I don’t play politics well. I don’t like GMs with zero operational knowledge of the production department trying to micromanage one, and in short order I found myself out of a gig for the first time in a long time. I will concede that I could have followed the instructions about working slower so I would “appear busier.” I could have followed the obvious hints to be a “yes-man,” and I could have obeyed the clear suggestions to suck-up to upper management in ways that would make a political lobbyist run for cover.

It was not beyond my ability.

But it was beyond my integrity, and it seemed that integrity was all I had left, integrity…and inside information. I am most appreciative to the individuals, whom I shall not name, that were privy to the highest level of corporate detail and kept me copiously informed throughout the entire ordeal. I discovered that my days were numbered at the end of my first month there after I started to clean, organize, catalog, and introduce them into a competitive, profit-minded production department. It seems when the job description said “self-starter,” well, the PD and I had one view of what a self-starter is, and the GM had another.

When it was over, I spent my contractual severance pay to buy out my non-compete (another idiotic corporate load of kludge that ignores people that live a very long time in the communities where they grew up and work). I was in the same shape as a lot of my radio brothers and sisters--mortgage, three kids, car payment, and no job.

I did the paper route with my wife for a while, 300 papers bagged and delivered seven days a week at 4 a.m.. I delivered telephone books, too. (That cost me a transmission in the truck.) I repaired computers, gave some lectures, did some tutoring.

And somewhere in the final months before I was fired, I realized I couldn’t go back to working for someone like this again. Why should I exist under fluorescent lights for a token salary, when I could be in the sunshine and have the whole enchilada? Of course, with the meal come the risks, all of them. No more steady check from week to week. Putting on a tie and pounding the pavement for orders. Working oddball hours is the norm. Taxes. Licenses. Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh, my!

But all the past experience came back to play. The autonomous atmosphere of my former playroom taught me time management. (I’m an obsessive compulsive all by myself.) I’ve had some excellent salespeople take the time to explain to me how and why a client is to be treated. PDs that would explain the “why” as well as the “how.”

It was time to put it all to work. But, what was I supposed to do? I have a very limited number of marketable skills. When there are only three low-paying long-hour prod jobs in a TSA of almost one million people, there’s a long line. And I’m 36 and don’t remember a bloody thing about my life for the last decade because I spent it working for people who would pay me a token and eventually reap an enormous windfall in the millions of dollars bracket when the stations were sold like beef at an auction.

So my first week at home, I cleaned out my computer, printed up some business cards on my laser printer, and went into business for myself.

Day one. Phone book open. Start making cold calls. One appointment that bombed.

Day two. Do it again.

Day three. Again.

And again, and again, and again. Do the very things we production geeks spend years busting salespeople about. (Uh-oh. This sounds like one of those “shoe’s on the other foot” scenarios… and it is.)

Then, the first order came in. A 46 page catalog Web site. It paid the mortgage that month. Nothing else, but I had a place to sleep and work for another 30 days. Then, the local TV station with an ISP department puts me under a tiny, but annual contract to handle their overflow Web work. A production music company wants to barter--they want a site, and I need a prod library! A video producer has an unused mike processor and needs some audio edited for video. Some cash deals, some trade deals, and old copy of MS-Money keeping track. Then another Web site. Then the annual overhaul of the RAP Web site, one of my “flagships.” Then an old friend, now a national voiceover artist, needs a producer for sweepers, and I can work at my home studio.

Six months later, when my no-compete would have ended, I was dead broke, still living off savings, trying to maintain the self-discipline required to run my own shop, having a weekly anxiety attack about getting the bills paid…and one month of work lined up. The “late-pays” were bankrupting me.

My family never adjusted to the concept of  “even though I’m at home, I’m at work.” So, I ended up doing much of my work after they went to bed. But, I get to see my kids every single morning and every single afternoon. I can go to lunch with them at school, go on field trips, be a dad again. I see my house in daylight!

But, even with all the ambition, know-how, and determination, if you don’t have the right widget, you’re going to go nowhere. And that’s exactly what happened. Building Web sites share a major kinship with production. And they share a major problem. “Why should I pay you when I can get it over there for free (or a lot cheaper)?”

Trying to explain the difference between What You Get From Me, and What You Get From Them brought back nightmares of trying to explain to GMs, SMs, and salespeople why we should be charging for production.

So, after nine months of swinging, I decided to quit losing cash, and find a “real” job. The local Clear Channel group came through, and I’m back in the air-chair for the first time in almost a decade--part time, and the easiest job in the world. No responsibility, no decision making, no stress. I forgot how drop-dead easy it was to be a jock.

Did I bail? You bet. Like many of you, I have a family and serious financial responsibility. I “lost” over ten thousand dollars, and even had to borrow to follow this particular dream.

I was fully prepared to go back to a nine-to-five existence if necessary. I don’t look back on it badly. In some aspects the experience paid off in spades. I got control of my life again. I got reacquainted with my kids again. But, I still haven’t figured out why my meatloaf is drying out.

Don’t you ever take a day off from work just for clearing your head? I called them “mental-health days.” I wasn’t “sick, but I was trying to prevent from being sick…mentally. Unfortunately, many companies foolishly do not recognize this need in humans. This nine-month break, even though I worked eighty hours a week, was that head clearing I needed. Now, it’s time to move to the next step on the Yellow Brick Road.

Many of you have gone through this. Many of you have yet to, but you might. If your life is your job, and that job is profiting someone else, then take a moment and ask yourself: how much more of your life do you want to invest in someone else’s bank account? Can you be your own boss in a year? Two years? Five? Set the goal, work towards it, and make yourself reach it. Get your life back before it’s gone! Or, you could do it my way and just get yourself fired. I did it before I was fiscally ready, and I lost my butt. Period.

Will I do it again? Absolutely.

Hang in there.

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