Learning From an Intern

by  Darren Marlar

I had just given Nikki the intern forms to fill out. I had made a copy of her driver’s license and social security card, and I had begun training her on what would eventually be her shift on the board. Nikki was still in college and majoring in communications at the local university. She seemed very intelligent and she even impressed me a couple of times with how easily she was able to count by 60 rather than 100 (a very useful technique for us radio people—despite the fact that it really screws up our checkbooks).

“It’s amazing how quickly she’s learning,” I thought to myself. “I must be an awesome radio manager!” I was soon to discover that my lack of humility was unwarranted. We were four hours into her training when Nikki asked me, “You’ve mentioned several times that I should cue up my next program… what exactly do you mean by cue?”

“What do I mean by cue?” I asked. “What do I MEAN by cue?!?!? I MEAN you should CUE up your PROGRAM!”

Actually, I only asked “What do I mean by cue?” only once, and I said it very politely and with patience… as I thought a good little radio manager should do. The rest of it was only in my head. But according to the look on Nikki’s face, I felt sure she had heard me thinking how stupid the question was. My wife tells me she can hear what I’m thinking because of the “giant cavern between my ears that amplifies the sound,” but up until this moment I had always thought she was joking. Never before had I been asked a question where, to me, the answer was so blatantly obvious. What else could “cue up the program” mean other than to CUE UP THE PROGRAM?

I then began to realize that for the past four hours I had been speaking a language that my new intern had never been exposed to. It would be, to me, like sitting in a seminar on how to build and program my own computer. Some of the words I would hear might sound slightly familiar, but I would have no clue as to what they meant and even less how to use them in a practical sense.

We radio people have a vocabulary that is unique to our surroundings, and although we all know this on an intellectual level, to try and leave those industry terms out of our conversations is like trying to separate the red Play-Dough from the blue Play-Dough after a three-year-old’s birthday party. For the past four hours I had been using terms like “cue” and “pot” and “VU meter” and “monitor” and “back-timing” and “cart” as if I were describing items from a Denny’s breakfast menu. Not once did it ever occur to me that these terms (as familiar as they are to me) had absolutely no substance or meaning to my new intern.

For the rest of the afternoon I attempted to censor my language to only words that I knew Nikki would understand… and I continually failed. It was embarrassing. I was in the communications business and I was used to talking to thousands of people at a time over the air, but I couldn’t relay a simple thought as to how to do something in terms that a layman could understand. The entire afternoon the conversation was filled with “er…” and “uh…” and “I mean…” and “let me put it this way…” and “in other words…”

I was suddenly aware of how often I used radio jargon with new recruits who had likely never been exposed to it before coming to me. Do these students not take broadcasting courses in college? Is there not a part of these course curriculums that explain radio terminology? Guess not!

In my handful of years in radio management, I oversaw production departments, air staffs, operations departments, and communicated with traffic departments on a daily basis. In looking back at every memo that I’ve sent out during my radio management career (yes, I’ve kept them all—sad, huh?), I noticed that they all had been filled with language that an outsider wouldn’t have been able to decipher even with the help of a Dick Tracy decoder ring.

In the act of training my intern, the intern had taught me that not everyone who comes through the radio station’s doors is accustomed to the world in which I live. And if I were going to become the best radio manager that I could be, I’d have to begin seeing things from someone else’s perspective other than my own.

In the course of only a few short hours, I began to see my position in a different light. I was suddenly a mentor as well as a manager. I was a teacher as well as a disciplinarian, an encourager as well as a source of information.

I may be annoyed today at someone for not knowing what a “pot” is (it’s that knob you turn to make the volume get louder, Nikki). But I will get past my stupid little pet peeves and do, to the best of my ability, the job that this sad-eyed, naïve intern expects and needs of me. I will strive to be a great manager, training her with patience and understanding, and encouraging her when she fails. I’ll act with professionalism when needed and with light-heartedness when the moment calls for it. I’ll let her know that to err is human, to have an error free shift is next to impossible, but to strive for one anyway is the sign of a true radio professional.

I will be the manager that I met almost nine years ago who took in a kid whose only knowledge of radio came from a late ‘70s TV show and what he heard every morning on the local Top 40 station. I will strive to be the manager that smiled and patiently answered the question I myself asked that very first day on the job, “Why do you use 8-track tapes to play commercials?”

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