Plan B? What Plan B?

SurpriseBy John Pellegrini

This article is not about all the negative things going on in radio right now. There has been far enough negative press on radio already as it is. Nor is this article intended as a criticism on those who might be deemed responsible for creating the negative situations in radio right now. There has also been enough press on that as well, and as far as I can see those who are responsible couldn’t possibly care less what we think so why beat a dead horse (aside from the sheer pleasure of beating one)?

No, this article is about you and all of the dedicated production pros who are still working in radio. First off let me say this: if you still have a job in radio that you love – Bless You! And I mean that with genuine admiration! You are beating the odds and you are (so far) still winning.

But you do need to remember that it may not be for long. I sincerely hope that you can stay in radio for as long as you want. However the big problem is you will likely not be the one to decide how long you get to stay… along with the fact that your performance and dedication to your job and the company you work for will have nothing to do with your longevity. The only thing that matters anymore is salary. Can the corporate bean counters find people who are willing to do your job for a lot less than you are? If that’s the case, then your days are numbered. Of course if you’re willing to take on more than one job (say 3 or 4) without an increase in salary, then you may have some breathing room.

Again, I’m not going to go negative with this article because you have enough of that facing you every day. Even if your job is going great there are always negatives. I’m just stating some well-known facts so that we understand where you might find yourself in the near future. But I’m not going to bemoan or gloat.

Instead I’m here to suggest ideas to you that might prove useful. Ideas that you could have in your Plan B. You do have a Plan B, right… an alternative career option? Something you could do if radio does accidentally collapse under you?

We used to think that there was an option for old radio production folk to perhaps enter the world of recording studios. Bring your knowledge of broadcast and audio production to record musicians, bands, and even commercial audio for radio and TV. Not so much now. You might not believe what I just read about, but there’s a band called “The 88” (never heard of them, but I’m not up much on what the kids are listening to anymore)  that just recorded their entire new album on the new iPhone 4-track App. You read that right – they recorded their entire album on an iPhone using a 4-track recording app, and then loaded the recordings on to their Mac laptop to finish the songs. Then they released them on iTunes. Goodbye recording studios, and music labels, as we know them. These days, if you want to be successful as a new recording studio owner, you have to have at least a top ten hit single. Otherwise, you have to be working for a massively established studio with at least a decade of successes. If not, no one will listen to anything you say. American Idol helped make this situation too. You have expertise? Great ears? Amazing mixing skills? So what? The bands can now make their own albums and videos as well as you can and get it on the Internet and sell it faster than you can.

Fortunately there are some places where you can still apply your skills and knowledge, and if you are persistent and dedicated you can at least make as much as you are currently making in radio, perhaps more.

Content continues to be demanded. Got a lot of comedy bits? Got a lot of funny characters? Got some interesting story ideas for radio bits that you never were able to develop? Find someone who can animate them, or do it yourself and get it up on You Tube. The game industry is huge right now and they’re looking for people who can create and develop exciting new game stories. If you can add storyboarding or even basic animation, you’ll find work. One interesting tidbit – on game job boards, I keep seeing these companies saying the following in their job postings (or something similar): “We’re not interested in how cool you are at graphics because we already have that. We want to see your passion and your creativity.” Many colleges and universities are now offering degreed programs in video game development, and you need to know at least the basics before you can start – but you can definitely start now!

Think those comedy bits might be better as cartoons or animations? That industry continues to be hot right now as well. However, I’ll let you in on one secret. The sure-fire fastest, absolute guaranteed way to get work as a cartoon voiceover person is to create, produce, and get on the air your own animated TV series or movie release, and cast yourself in as many of the roles as you can pull off. That’s how Seth McFarlane did it with Family Guy (and that new one he has whatever it’s called). Ditto Mike Judge with Beavis & Butthead and King of The Hill (and that new one he has whatever it’s called). Going way back that’s how Bill Scott did it with Rocky & Bullwinkle. Jay Ward was the producer, the money man who lined up the sponsors (he couldn’t even draw). Bill Scott wrote the shows and got the storyboards done and was Bullwinkle J. Moose, Peabody, Duddley DoRight, George of the Jungle, and dozens more.

Wanna do audio for video games? That’s a bit tougher. Most of the game companies want people who can write audio delivery programs and who can reprogram existing audio delivery. Also the video game industry still hasn’t quite figured out the idea of postproduction as it applies to the film industry. Most video game audio is done on the fly as the game is created. Why? There’s just so damned many levels to these games that it is too difficult to bog down with secondary work. If you’ve noticed that many video games tend to sound alike, it’s because the game audio people rarely have any time to mess around much with the sound and make it different.

That said, music for video game is an area that’s really exploding, and there are massive needs for musicians who understand how to write music for games. What you have to be good at is creating multiple (10 to 20 at least) arrangements of the exact same song. Kind of like production music library mixouts in reverse. The same music runs during the game, but as the players get into higher levels, the intensity of the rhythm track gets stronger, and sometimes faster, and sometimes even the theme or melody can vary somewhat, but not much. If you’re great at doing music beds like this that also can lend themselves to being looped for ten to twenty minutes on end, then you could get work in video game music.

As Ty Ford also proved in his interview in the August 2009 issue of RAP, audio for film is a growing area, and radio production folk can definitely find a home in this industry. Transitioning from digital audio editing to digital film editing is something that isn’t as difficult as it first seems, and while you may never win an Academy AwardÔ, you can make a living right in your own home town with that ability. Many universities and colleges are now offering film schools with degreed programs as well. There is a lot of film editing to be done for industrial and corporate use as well as educational and government film work. Research it.

Another area that’s coming into its own is Podcasting. And here is where many radio production types might have a major future. I know of a morning show that used to be, but are no longer, on the air here in Midwest who just started their own Podcast. Fortunately, they were smart in that they saved their email database from their radio days, and with some minimal outside promotion, in just their first four weeks, are now getting over 9,000 downloads of their daily podcast. They even have a few local sponsors to their show, and they’re maintaining their income fairly well. Advertisers love the idea of podcasting too! Especially those advertisers who want to get younger demos who aren’t listening to radio.

One great thing about podcasts – no FCC or governing body to tell you what you can or cannot do. No Program Directors no general managers, no sales managers or sales reps… which is also the drawback. You have to do all those jobs yourself. You have to figure out how to monetize your output, and you have to find your own clients. But look at it this way: that’s kind of how Paul Harvey did it. Paul Harvey didn’t become a multi-millionaire because he read the news. Paul Harvey became a multi-millionaire because he owned his news program and sold all the advertising on his show to his clients by himself and sold his news show to the ABC Radio Network who paid him massive fees for the broadcasting syndication rights. Talk about making your own national news!

Of course web development continues to be in demand even with the low-ball low-bid tactics that are plaguing free-lance production people. The good news is quality still tends to win out, especially with major corporate clients. You’ll still find the “I can pay a kid ten bucks to do my website” mentality, but those clients are easy to identify without even talking to them (their websites say it all), and if you simply don’t talk to them you won’t have to worry.

The bottom line is there still are numerous ways for an experienced radio production person to find legitimate work outside radio using the skills they already have with some possible re-education needed. But understand this point well: the idea that you will be able to continue to work in radio as a full career is getting less and less possible or likely with every passing year. Keep in mind too: all these career options I’ve listed likely will not lead to full time employment at any one company. The catch phrase that’s bigger than all else in the media and entertainment industries (which we are a part of whether we want to believe it or not) is “contract work.” Your ability to survive and prosper in the future will be based entirely on how good you are at getting free-lance gigs, and will be pretty much that way for the rest of your life.

Writing, producing, acting, engineering… the good news is there are lots of areas that need you. All you have to do is apply yourself and come up with your Plan B – hopefully sooner than later. Remember, no one else is going to do it for you.

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