by John Dodge
Since May we've been exploring various aspects of freelancing in radio production, mostly from the angle of doing work on the side while you maintain your regular position as radio Production Director. But some of you are going to get so good at this game that you'll be tempted to leave the radio nest and go into business for yourself. Personality has a lot to do with this decision -- maybe you're so independent that the idea of having a boss, even a good one, makes you ten minutes late for the door. You could be growing weary of the U-Haul Adventure that a radio career can be. Or in a world of LMAs, duopolies and megamergers, maybe you've been "downsized." This is good. This is the drive that fuels a zillion small business start-ups every year. Right behind home ownership, this is what the American Dream is all about: Going Into Business For Yourself! (Cue rousing fife and drum track here.)
Let's do some quick pros and cons, shall we? First the upside: 1) Forget about the much ballyhooed small business failure rate -- if you're any damn good and you run your freelance career like a business, you'll make money. 2) You can call your own shots, pick your own projects, set your own pace and plan your own time. 3) Nobody can fire you; you're the boss! 4) The sense of fulfillment is unbelievable. 5) No peach fuzz PD to tell you what to do or when to do it. 6) You get all the credit for your creativity. 7) You can work in other fields at the same time. 8) No more business hours, no more rush hour! You can go to work at 7 p.m. and quit at 4 a.m., if that's what you want. 9) The sky's the limit on your income potential, depending on your talent, time, commitment and good fortune.
Sounds incredible, doesn't it? Let's look at the flip side: 1) You don't know what long hours are until you go into business for yourself. You're now free to work nights, weekends, holidays.... 2) You're the salesperson, bookkeeper, and collection agent now, so welcome to the jungle. 3) You need more discipline than you had before -- nobody to crack the whip. 4) Freelancing can be a lonely experience. While your old workplace might be a zoo, it provides regular society. 5) No regular paycheck. Your bills will arrive on time, your checks may or may not. 6) No medical, no dental, zippo. You buy the benefits now. 7) The buck stops on your desk -- nobody to share responsibility for mistakes.
Just as none of the pro points are designed to get you to quit your day gig today, neither is the down side meant to scare you into staying in a situation that is stifling, unfulfilling or a dead end. This is a reality check, that's all. Let's continue checking.
For better or worse, we're in a business that requires expensive tools. Thanks to the digital revolution, recording equipment is cheaper, better in quality and more versatile than ever, but still, it's high for the average guy. If I'm a writer, I need a typewriter, but if I'm a radio writer/producer, I also need a studio to actualize my ideas. If you work for a station, walk through your production studio and make a list of every single piece of equipment you use on a regular basis. Add to it the gear you need to create excellence but the GM is too cheap to spring for. Don't forget the zillions of miscellaneous items like tape, boxes, labels, cassettes, blades, splicing tape and grease pencils. There's a computer and software if you word process or use MIDI. There's the studio space itself. It may not be acoustically perfect, but chances are it's been treated for sound at some expense. In short, make a list of absolutely everything you see because you're gonna have to pay for it now.
An obvious alternative is renting a studio -- much cheaper because you only buy the time you use, and the owner pays for the time the joint just sits there. But if you go this route keep two important things in mind: you really need three studios to choose from because some weird business law dictates that your main squeeze will be busy when you need it most. Also, if you're the type who uses the studio as a creative tool, walking in with unformed ideas and letting the gear and the effects and the CDs give you inspiration as you go along, you're gonna pay through the wazoo in studio fees, and your profits will suffer.
You could lease the gear or take out a loan, but that's a subject for another article, one I'm unqualified to write. I'm genetically averse to borrowing money -- the Old Man taught me that Kash is King, so I want the bank to work for me, not the other way around.
Here's the cold shot -- unless you've got mucho dinero lined up and a long list of committed clients and a nice building in a good commercial location (to avoid potential residential zoning hassles with your basement studio), I recommend starting off lean and growing slow. Own as little as possible in the beginning. After all, technology is flipping so fast that if you postpone your purchase for another six months, that virtual reality "studio-in-a-helmet" thing ought to be at your dealer and ready to rock. Seriously, if you leave the radio station, you'll want to have a stash of cash just to get through the transition period -- up to six months' living expenses would be smart -- so it's better to go into this enterprise debt-free and flexible.
(SFX: major groans of disappointment)
I know, it's extremely cool to be able to stroll into the studio and create on impulse, to seize the moment, to ride the muse or get bucked off in the process. And I believe the shortest circuit between the inspiration and the final product makes the best art, commercial or otherwise. But it's instant gratification you can do without while you see if this brave new world of business ownership is for you. Besides, fully working out concepts in your head or on paper is a good discipline that can make your ideas tighter and more effective. Keep the personal studio as a goal and earmark a percentage of your income toward it. Put $50 a day into a money market fund and in one year you'll have enough for a modest set up. If you decide you don't like the business after that time, you've got enough dough to buy yourself a Jeep.
Hardware issues aside, the question really boils down to this: do you want to jump? Here are some more questions. Does your market use enough radio advertising to support a "Steve's Spotworks?" If not, you may want to enter multiple markets with a syndicated approach. I call that "800" business. Take the club spots, auto spots, whatever your specialty is, and make one strong generic framework that you can modify for any client in the country. If you love your small town, even though there's not much writing or production business, you may need to supplement your income with different kinds of work. Alternately, you can move to one of the top 20 markets and duke it out with everyone else!
In the end, the biggest determiner of your success as a freelancer will be your personality. If you're prone to insecurity, don't leave the company. Ditto if you're indecisive or you don't self-start. Weird as it may seem, broadcasting is full of introverts -- if you're one of them, freelancing will alter your personality or make you crazy. It's no sin if you can't handle pressure, just don't go into business for yourself. If you're really considering this move, get out the truth serum right now because it's about much more than having good ideas. Creativity is a prerequisite for success, but all by itself it's insufficient -- you need drive and vision and a plan and a dream. You gotta believe.
Don't let anything I've just said discourage you. Freelancing can be the most rewarding thing in the world. It can open doors you never had the time, the energy, and the opportunity to go through before. And you'd be in good company because there's a definite trend in American business away from the Fortune 500 megacompanies and toward small business and entrepreneurship -- away from big, slow and faceless and toward small, friendly and flexible. If you think this is for you, don't wait. Start to plan your move today.
I hope this four article series on freelancing has been informative and thought provoking. Let me recommend three books I've gotten ideas and inspiration from: A Complete Business Plan for the Small Studio by Al Stone, Successful Freelancing by Marian Faux, and Growing a Business by Paul Hawken, co-founder of Smith and Hawken, the successful California gardening catalog company. This last book is as spiritual as the first two are practical, which I think makes for good balance. After all, if your work is your life, the time you spend working should be rewarding in more ways than one. Whatever you do, stay with the company or strike out on your own, I wish you success from your efforts and the very best of luck. See you in September with something new.