What Are You Willing To Do?

He’d determined that a station in a major market would hire him, and he would spend between 2 to 3 hours per day discussing his views upon various subjects, and take phone calls from people who disagreed with him, and proceed to enlighten them on how wrong they were. According to his letter, he lived in a small town in Iowa, and never worked in radio before. But, he apparently felt that because his goal was so exciting to him that he should be given this opportunity by a major market station, and he was asking Dan for advice on which major market station would be worthy of his talent.

Dan patiently explained to him in reply that getting a job with no experience in a major market is highly unlikely and that the letter writer should try starting with stations near or in his small hometown in Iowa. Although there is no posted response from the letter writer, I can imagine how well that advice went over.

The second instance came in the form of a Monday Morning Memo from Roy H. Williams in which he relates the story of a guy who dreams of being a highly-paid motivational speaker, yet isn’t even willing to teach a Sunday School class. Volunteering to work in front of a group of kids is beneath this guy, who is only looking for the “big break” to get in front of the crowd of people who have paid large sums of money to hear him pontificate. The third instance I’ll relate later.

Both men, the letter writer to Dan O’Day, and the person Roy H. Williams refers to, are suffering from delusions of grandeur. They think themselves to be worthy of instant success, but aren’t willing to do anything to prepare for their dreams. Roy writes, for big dreams to come true, you have to be willing to work small. No truer words have ever been uttered on this planet.

When I first decided to get into radio, I went to a crappy little broadcast school in Milwaukee called The Institute of Broadcast Arts. Don’t bother looking for it, the State of Wisconsin closed it the year after I “graduated” for faulty practices. All of us who attended this school wanted to be big-time disk jockeys like our heroes in Milwaukee and Chicago radio. All of us wanted to work for stations in Milwaukee or Chicago. During the year that I attended the school, 100 students went through the course and graduated. As far as I know, I’m the only one who put together any kind of a career in this business out of all 100 students. How do I know this? Because, after making this claim publicly for the past 15 years, no one has ever challenged me on it. I’ll be happy to retract the statement if someone out there did the same.

To get back to my story, why was I the only graduate of the school to put together any type of career? Was it because I was far more talented than the other students were? Heck no. There were others who were far funnier on mike and much better at posting and talking up the ramp than I was (not to mention making sure the record players were set at the correct speed—remember that problem?). There were also many students who understood the FCC licensing tests better than I did. Truth be told, it took me 3 tries to get the “Broadcast Endorsement” section of the old 3rd Class License exam. I’m not exactly a whiz when it comes to electronics. I also had to go to Chicago every time I tried to take the test, because they only gave FCC exams in Milwaukee every 4 months back then, and I didn’t want to wait that long between attempts.

So why did I make it, and the others didn’t? Because I was willing to do whatever it took to get in radio (such as the above example of taking the train all the way to Chicago from Milwaukee just to get the damned license). The school offered job postings, and most were for remote little town stations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. (Mostly these were nothing more than mimeographed copies of the classifieds in the back of Billboard Magazine. Radio and Records did not exist at that time, or if it did, the guys who ran the school didn’t use it.) When it came time for me to graduate, the school posted an opening at a little station in Watertown, Wisconsin (pop. 1200 back then), which was only an hour and a half drive from Milwaukee. I went out to interview for it. When I got back, I asked some other students if they were going to interview there (not so much for encouragement, but to see who I would be competing against for the gig). To my surprise, and delight, only one other student I talked to considered it worth his or her time to go out to Watertown and interview at the station, the general consensus being that Watertown was beneath the rest of them. They were all waiting for that big opening in a Milwaukee or Chicago station. And you know what? Most of them probably still are waiting for that big opening twenty-two years later (at least those that haven’t given up yet).

Many people have asked me over the years as to why I chose not to go to college to get a degree in communications, as if this would have guaranteed better results far earlier for me in my career pursuit. The answer to that question is simple. I explored the college option and decided against it because, back in 1976 when I got out of high school, the closest Universities to me offered nothing of any help in radio. The University of Wisconsin, West Bend, was a two-year campus with no broadcasting program. The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee had a radio program, but students weren’t allowed in the radio station. You read that right. Absolutely no students were allowed within the walls of their hallowed campus station. Only grad students and professors were allowed to do any work in the campus stations. I decided I didn’t want to wait 4 years, when I could go to a cheap broadcast school, and six months later get paid to learn at some small town station. Incidentally, I knew some kids in my high school days that were also interested in radio, but went the college route. As far as I know, none of them ever went any further than that.

Wait, there’s more. My “audition” consisted of going into the stations’ alleged prod room and reading news copy cold onto a reel-to-reel tape. I was so bad on the first tape, that the Sales Manager of the station called me back the next day and coached me (I guess he was desperate to get someone on—that and he liked the way I could cuss in a Donald Duck voice) through it, and presented it to the owner who then said I was okay enough to work there. My job was officially titled as nighttime disk jockey. I was paid $95.00 per week. This was in 1978, and despite the lower cost of everything back then, $95.00 per week was still pretty crappy wages. In fact, I had quit my job working in my Dad’s steel fabrication business, which paid double that amount, in order to take this radio dream job. My responsibilities were as follows: report to work by two o’clock each afternoon, Monday through Friday, and by four o’clock PM on Saturdays. From two o’clock until 4:45, I was to write and produce commercials. At 4:45, I was to prepare the news hour, which I anchored from five o’clock until six o’clock. The station ran Mutual News for five minutes at the top of each hour. Then, I did a fifteen minute local newscast, while simultaneously taping a fifteen minute Mutual Network program which was to be played back later in the hour. Then, the sports guy (who was also the afternoon disk jockey) did a ten-minute sportscast. Then, I played back the fifteen-minute Mutual News program. Adding in a pre-taped state news program, which aired live from another network, promos, commercials, PSAs, and weather, it came out to one hour. All this was done with two exceedingly old Ampex tape decks without remote start buttons, and three cart players, and a 1950s era Gates big-knob board.

Then, after the six o’clock Mutual News, I was allowed to play rock music, but I had to furnish my own albums. The station owner, who was also the town mayor at that time, refused to purchase rock records (he loved only polka, Percy Faith, and Mantovani), and threw any rock records that the record companies sent (about 2 per year) into the garbage.

So I wound up having to spend most of my paycheck on records. I eventually managed to work a trade deal with a local record store, but it was quite expensive to work there. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment in Watertown, just on what they were paying me alone, never mind what I was spending on records, so I had to live at home, which was an hour and a half drive one way, twice a day. I found out shortly after being hired that the main reason why I was hired by the station was that I was the only one out of all the applicants (2 others–the guy from the school and a local high school kid) they talked to who was willing to pay for records out of my own pocket. The owner really didn’t want a night time rock ’n roll show, but the Sales Manager convinced him that it would be more profitable than the beautiful music show that they had been playing. The owner decided that the best way to insure profitability was to require the host of the show to furnish his own records.

There’s more! On weeknights, my show was from six o’clock until ten. On Saturdays, my show was from six o’clock until midnight. I had to meet the Mutual Network newscast every hour on the hour (which meant no long songs after the 50-minute mark each hour). Since my show was the last program each day, at the end of each show, I had to sign off the station complete with playing the national anthem, then empty all the garbage cans, change the ribbon on the UPI teletype and make sure it had plenty of paper for the night, and lock the place up. After a couple of months, they raised my salary to a whopping $105.00 per week while demanding that I come in at noon each day (2 extra hours) to write more commercials. By the way, the station had UPI because it was free, and they ran Mutual because they were the cheapest of the trade networks. The receptionist even had to hand type the logs every day on an IBM Selectric Typewriter with no correction key! For even more fun, shortly after I quit for good, UPI started charging for their service, and the station dropped it. This went over well with the jocks that still had to come up with a fifteen-minute newscast every day, twice a day, but I digress.

Sure it’s easy to say today that I was foolish to waste myself in that situation. It’s easy to laugh at the crap this guy who now works at one of the most famous stations in the country had to put up with when he was starting out. But guess what kids? That’s what it took for me to get here. That’s how I, with no experience in the business, got started. That’s how I gained experience. I wasn’t lucky enough to be born in Chicago and attend the right schools here that would have given me the opportunity to intern at the stations here and from there work my way into full-time jobs here. I came from small town Wisconsin, and worked my first jobs in small towns. The point being that my career happened because I didn’t wait for the big breaks. I took little breaks, and turned them into opportunity. When I first went to the IBA School, I told myself that within 10 to 20 years I wanted to be working at WLS. Exactly 19 years after I enrolled at IBA, I signed the contract with WLS. Sure it took a long time, longer than I would have perhaps cared for when I was first starting out, and I’ve had a lot of detours in my career, including two complete changes of careers, but I’m still where I said I would be, within the time frame. I had hoped it would be sooner than it took, but there you are.

Dreams and goals are okay, but if all you’re doing about them is sitting around hoping for a big break, then I have no respect for you, my friend. Dreams and goals are nothing more than delusions of grandeur unless you’re willing to work on them. Wishing for it to come true, fantasizing all day about it, and doing nothing else is the occupational equivalent of jerking off. Sure it might be fun for you for a while, but it isn’t going to get you anything else.

The other incident occurred over the weekend. I met, through mutual friends, a person who is at that starting point where I was 20 years ago. He lives here in Chicago, and has a job totally unrelated to radio. But, he’s hoping to get his foot in the door of radio, because he loves the medium. He works part-time on the weekends at a suburban station, and also hosts a cable access show also out in the suburbs. Now, there are those who would demean this guy and say things like “cable access is the equivalent of Community Theater” and “spinning records part-time at a suburban station is no where near the big time,” but they’re wrong. This guy is doing what he loves, and I have nothing but admiration for him. He’s got the right attitude, which is that he has a job that he does for a paycheck and he does the radio and cable TV thing for the love of it and nothing else. He’s been doing both of these gigs for ten years and is completely happy. Sure, he could go full-time, but his weekday job is computer consulting, and he can’t afford the pay cut it would take to get going. So, he’s doing what he loves, and of course still imagines that perhaps some day a miracle will occur and some programmer at one of the big downtown stations might hear him, but he doesn’t expect that to occur. He even sends out tapes once in a while, but he doesn’t mind when he gets no response. He’s never missed a day at either gig and is totally dependable and professional. In other words, here’s a true example of a guy who’s got it made. His is a broadcasting success story, because he’s getting far more out of radio than many of us who are full-time can appreciate. Also, the stations that he works for are getting far more out of him than they probably are from some of their full-timers (just guessing, based on the usual amount of burn-out factor that happens at small town stations).

So the question starts and ends with your career. What do you want? Do you envision something greater than where you currently are for yourself? What are you doing about this dream of yours? I’ve met some very talented people over the years, who are sitting in small to medium markets, knowing full well that they are at least talented enough to be in the majors, but are doing nothing about it. They don’t aircheck or get critiques done. They don’t put together demos. They don’t look at the trades. They don’t call Program Directors and try to network. They don’t follow up on leads. They just go into work, do their airshift, and apparently think that someone is going to call them out of the blue and offer them mornings in Chicago, LA or New York. One person I know of who is of this mindset got canned from the morning shift in a fairly decent sized market about six months ago, and is just sitting in his apartment, waiting for the phone to ring with that major market gig. He’s not sending out tapes; in fact he doesn’t even know how to put together a tape. He just thinks that since he was on the air, people will call with offers.

Unfortunately his first two jobs in radio including the one he was just from, were the result of knowing someone and them hiring him without any experience (in the case of his first gig) or auditions (in the case of his second gig). No one could ever tell him that his method of employment was based on two flukes and eventually his luck would run out. I was always amazed that he lasted as long as he did, considering, but I digress.

The only way to make dreams and goals happen is to find out what it’s going to take to get where you want to be, and then go out and do whatever it takes to make them happen. If that means taking a job for half your current salary and emptying out trashcans at night, then do it. If that means moving all the way across the country and back within 6 months, then do it. If that means changing careers a couple of times or more, then do it. Or, if that means just being dependable and professional at two part-time gigs for over a decade, then do it. Your goals and your dreams are your responsibility. Learn everything you can along the way, and never look back. If you aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to make your goals or dreams happen, then your goals and dreams are pretty worthless, aren’t they? After all, if a goal is worth having, then it’s worth doing what it takes to get it. The old saying bears repeating, “No one ever said it would be easy; they only said it would be worth it.”

P.S. to Dan and Roy: Thanks for reminding me why I made the right choices.

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