by John Dodge
Forget cash -- time is the true currency in life. And now that we're in the dead center of winter, with plenty of planning time available before the prime moving months of June and July, it's time to seriously evaluate your position with your current radio station and your prospects for growth. Time to ask the tough questions: Is it time to move on? Time to try for the next position at the next station, go for more responsibility, more pay, take the next step up the career ladder? Even if your answer is "maybe," now is the time to put a plan together.
Bill Clinton's right about "embracing change." It's uncomfortable as hell, but you gotta do it. Expect some anxiety, some fear of the unknown, but your alternative is stagnation. Get cozy with the couch and the status quo, and pretty soon you're older but no wiser. So start with a checklist. Do the traditional pro and con columns. Just remember that not all pros and cons deserve equal weight, so your decision is never as simple as, "Eight to six; guess I go." It helps to evaluate your organization like an outside investor. Imagine you're about to buy the business and ask the big questions: Is this company growing or shrinking, adding jobs and properties or consolidating and spinning off, rising in long term rating trends, static, or falling? Is there much movement in middle and upper management? What about employee morale -- how's the hall-talk, the skinny around the water cooler? And how about your position? Have you hit the wall in terms of salary, skills and responsibility? If not, if there's still room for professional growth, why not stay right where you are and ride the company elevator up to the next level? But if the top of your head is flat from bumping against the ceiling, read on.
Target Companies, Cities, and Stations
The trade papers will tell you a lot about which broadcasting companies are on the grow. Radio & Records, Radio Ink, Inside Radio are just a few of the bigs. You need to know who is buying properties in which markets, who is changing formats, who the key players are at the stations you decide to pursue. Be realistic with yourself and don't apply for jobs in cities you wouldn't want to live in. I watched a sun-loving industry buddy take a job in the frozen north just because it was a chance to get into the Top Ten. He was miserable. Get your networking skills together because before job openings ever become public knowledge, people call other people they know and trust and check out leads. Among others, Mike Lee at Brown Bag Productions in Colorado is a champion at production networking, and so is Jerry Vigil here at Radio And Production. But, networking isn't the only way. Great talent is hard to find and dozens of stations take the search public every week. Radio & Records carries the biggest employment section, though I'm pleased to see production openings starting to appear here in Radio And Production. A triumph of good target marketing! While many of the good jobs do get filled through the grapevine, you can get hired from the want ads. Personally, I've gotten two important jobs in my career through the trade papers plus a major market offer from one of those mysterious blind box ads. So, make this a part of your job search plan, too.
In a perfect world, your impressive package would hit the PD's desk the same day his production dilemma hits the top of his "To Do" list. The sad truth is you can have all the talent in the world; you can study your target cities and stations and blitz them with impressive demos, cover letters and resumes; but if the timing isn't right, if they're satisfied with their current situation, you won't get in. At least not now. But you might get on someone's short list of talented people to call. And most forward thinking PDs keep a list like that for emergencies. Job openings typically are not planned, pre-announced situations -- they're complete knee jerks. The morning drive announcer quits and the joint flies into a panic. The producer wins an Addy award and is picked off by the local hot ad agency. And the PD has to keep the station running with a minimum of down time.
When the changes are planned, however, PDs rarely want to make a move in the middle of a strategic book, like fall and spring. That's why there's lots of activity in the summer. (That's why we're planning your move now!) But don't wait until summer to begin and particularly don't expect a fruitful job search in August. Most people go brain dead in August. They're thinking about their vacation. They're thinking about cold beer. They're putting off important decisions until after Labor Day.
Tapes And Resumes
What goes on your demo tape deserves its own article, but for now, let's just say it needs to impress from the beginning. Most PDs separate tapes into three piles based on their reaction to the first thirty seconds of your demo: No Way, Yes Way, and Maybe. Show your range in many brief examples. How long should a demo be? Wrong question. Attention is a function of involvement, not time. Just concentrate on entertainment, on your very best material. Most good Program Directors listen to every tape, or they have someone whose ears they trust help with the sorting. I listen to every demo that comes in the door, solicited or not. To remind myself to make the time, I pretend I'm one of the record execs who missed the Beatles' demo because he was just too darn busy to go through the pile. (Also, the Fabs didn't get their first deal until most A&R guys had passed on them -- proof that even more than talent, you need persistence.)
The cover letter is the most overlooked piece of the package. A brief, snappy, attention-getting cover letter makes the resume that follows more worth reading. It sets you apart from the pack (boy, is this a recurring theme.) It distills the most interesting parts of the resume so that the reader quickly knows what makes you dif ferent and better. Your best ac complishments and attitudes in a nutshell. The resume itself is of less importance than you think. A great tape and a great cover letter and you're in the Yes-Way pile.
Volume is your friend. And I don't mean loudness. Send material to lots of stations, and don't limit your search to any one dream station, city, or even format. Many roads lead to Rome and all that. Avoid the Dreaded Assumptions. For example: you send the tape and don't get a call the very first day. It must mean you suck. Relax. You cannot possibly know what's going on behind the scenes, so don't freak out when the PD doesn't return your call within five minutes.
The Phone Call
Ring. "Hi, it's Joe Doakes at KXXX. I really like your material." Holy smokes, this is it. Don't panic and don't blab -- he called you with something in mind, so let him lead the conversation. Besides, it'll give you a moment to breathe and balance the rush of adrenaline. Your one and only goal in this phone conversation is to meet this person face to face so that you can work your killer charm. Unless he's called just to feel you out or to request more material, bring up a meeting early and often. It may be across town or across the country, but when you're asked to appear and interview, it's a sure sign you're in the semi-finals. It's show time. Don't forget to put on a tie, or a business dress/suit if you're female. There's an unwritten code that the interview uniform is slightly dressier than normal, and being underdressed is worse than being overdressed. So don't second guess this, just do it. If there are expenses involved in your trip -- plane tickets, hotel, meals, etc. -- make sure it's understood up front who picks them up. It's common practice that the prospective employer, the "inviter," reimburses all direct expenses, but don't leave it unsaid. Refer back to "Dreaded Assumptions." If it's just parking in a crosstown garage, you pick it up or you'll risk looking cheap.
Forget reading "How To" books and preparing stock answers to stock questions. That's dangerous. Better to know your strengths, be honest and speak with "planned spontaneity." More on that after a quick story. There's a hysterical interview scene in a Simpsons episode where Homer is among three guys up for a new job. The boss says, "Tell me about some of your faults, your shortcomings." Homer looks up dopily and says, "Well, I take long coffee breaks, I eat a lot of donuts, and after I've been on the job for a while, little things start to disappear from the office like pens and paper and stuff." The interviewer turns to the next guy with the same question, who says, "Gee, Boss, er, I mean Mr. Dexter, I suppose you could call it a fault...but I just don't know when to stop working. I work sometimes ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day!"
The point is, don't show your warts, but don't try to bull your way through an interview by telling the person what you think he wants to hear. Get a few brief stories together that demonstrate real accomplishments and rehearse them until they flow naturally. You instituted a new spec spot program that increased local billings by 9% last year. You wrote and produced a documentary about the California Earthquake of '94 that won a prestigious award for the station. You helped the PD and the traffic department set up a rotation system for your new series of hot image promos, and TSL (time spent listening) went up by 40%. Talk results. When you're asked some generic question like, "So, tell me about yourself," resist the urge to go into your favorite sports and what you like to eat.
Remember the mantra: What's the benefit? Connect every answer you give with your job performance and how it could help the new company. "So, John, tell me about yourself." "Well, my dad was a career Navy officer, so we moved around a lot, which made me really versatile and able to quickly adapt to changing situations without getting fazed. Perfect training for radio, really."
The truth is there are only three things an employer wants to know: 1) Can you do the job? Do you have the skills and the depth of experience to excel in this position and make me look good? 2) Will you do the job if I offer it? Will you show up early, leave late, work your butt off and make me look good? And 3) Will you fit in with the group? Every company has a personality, a "corporate culture," and I need to know that you'll be a positive addition to our family and make me look good.
Some good questions to ask a PD during a job interview: What are your needs for the production department? How could I improve on the current situation for you? Where do you want to take the radio station? How many salespeople do you have? What's the GM like? The LSM? (In fact, make a point to meet these people -- you'll be seeing a lot of each other.) Beyond maximizing profits for the sales department, what are your ratings goals and how does production fit it? Notice how these are all concrete questions aimed at determining needs. You're performing a Consultant Sell here. Don't go straight for the cash without the prerequisite foreplay.
Talk of money, terms, benefits, vacation, etc., should wait until you get a clear signal that the company is interested in you. It's inappropriate before that. An obvious sign would be, "When can you start?" A more realistic one might be, "Do you have any questions?" Never say no! It proves you didn't do your homework before the meeting. There are all the questions in the preceding paragraph plus a thousand others about the station, the new city, the weather, the transportation system, the local paper, the best restaurants and clubs.
Enthusiasm Equals Passion
Who gets the job? Among equally qualified candidates, it's the person who wants it the most, the person who generates the best combination of enthusiasm, passion for the profession, and personal chemistry with the interviewer. They have to live with you, after all. There might be a second interview. That doesn't mean you made any mistakes the first time, only that they are down to a short list and want to make a good decision. It's good form to follow up with a thank you note. "Enjoyed meeting with you, and I'm really excited about the great work we can do together." It's another move that will set you apart and above.
You get the job, and you're on your way up. That's great, and I share your excitement. But, before you move forward, make sure your exit is professional. Always leave on an up note so that everyone calls you a "class act" after you're gone. That means resisting any and all urges to tell that particular jerk where to put the grease pencil. Never give less than two weeks notice and try to make it four if you can. Your new employer might complain, but if you pitch it in terms of professional cour tesy, they'll accept. After all, it could happen to them next.
The "X" Factor
One last story. Some years ago a major company flew me from Boston to interview in San Francisco, one of the cities I grew up in and one of my favorites in the U.S.. They told me beforehand that my demo was the best they ever heard. I had "good phone" with the PD. I interviewed for over three hours and thought I said all the right things. I met the jocks, the Sales Managers, the Promotion Director, the receptionist, everybody. I walked out exhilarated, certain that the position was mine. To congratulate myself, I had lunch in Chinatown. Afterward, I opened my fortune cookie which read, "Pack your bags, you're headed for an exciting eastern city." You guessed right. I didn't get the job. And I never understood why. My story demonstrates what I call the "X" Factor, a variable in the equation of business and life over which you have absolutely no control. You can have the talent, the energy, the looks, the personality, the timing, the whole banana; and without the "X" Factor, you can still fall short of your goals. It's exasperating as hell, but that element of chance makes life exciting at the same time. So, gamble on your story, and best of luck to you.