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A Career in Radio

It’s ironic that the same day a veteran in our building gave me his theories on working in radio and how he has made it so long, that my oldest sister texted me about switching to a major in communications. She’s meeting with her counselor this week and I’m sure a big brother phone call is coming this weekend, but what do I tell her?

I was lucky to get the start I did in my broadcast career because my high school and college both had radio stations that I worked at. In fact the reputation my high school Radio (WJEF) and TV program has got me my part time job working NPR (WBAA) at Purdue University. That said, with Utah State here in Logan we get asked all the time how I ended up working at VFX. The interesting thing to that is that McCall and myself have two entirely different paths.

I actually went to Purdue, and graduated, with a degree in Film. I have since done nothing with that degree and can honestly say that I’m not sure it has really aided me in my radio career. What I usually tell people is that it if there’s a tie between myself and a potential candidate then it maybe breaks the tie but I’m not sure it has ever moved me up the pile. Don’t get me wrong, I think college provides a lot of great experiences people should strongly consider, BUT a degree isn’t relevant for all career paths.

The truth is, in broadcasting it’s a lot more about actual experience and who you know. Doing radio in high school and college got me my first internship, but most radio stations are happy to accept interns. If you have the desire the start isn’t hard to get, it’s just what you do afterwards. Both Producer Butterz and I started our paid radio careers as board ops; pushing buttons for live broadcasts, remotes, etc. What helped us be successful is the desire to want to know more and always striving to learn more and take on more responsibility.

We’ve had several interns while I’ve worked at VFX and none of them have panned out. The problem is everyone focuses on the ‘glamorous’ part of being on air. But almost no one gets to walk off the street and gets an air shift. There’s a lot more that goes in to it then just hitting a button and saying something, but you have to earn trust and show reliability before you get that shot. We’ve even explained that to our interns, it takes time, yet the all end with frustration because it doesn’t happen fast enough for them.

I interned for a fall doing some sport updates, not live, and then was hired part time as a board op. It started as just a few hours before I became a very reliable member of the team. I interned for a semester during the fall of 2008 and then interned as a part-timer from fall of 2009 to January of 2013 before I got my first air shift. It took that long proving reliability, being in the building petitioning and then finally convincing someone to give me a chance.

I had a combined six plus years in on air experience, from high school and college, before I finally got that shot. After I got the nigh shift on WAZY I had immediate success but even still I didn’t get a full time job until the fall of 2014. In that time I did the Morning Show on WBPE, afternoons on WYCM, was the co-host of the Purdue Countdown to Kickoff, lead board op and Sports Director for the entire cluster. It’s not a short process to achieve success in this career. Even then I only got the promotion because someone left AND I finally finished my degree.

I’m now on my third full time radio job in my third state; I’ve left a job and been let go from another. Both of them I was miserable and contemplated being done with radio for awhile. My normal saying is ‘The worst days in radio are still better than the best days in most jobs.’ because it really is a fun job, but just like any job there are going to be ups and downs along with challenges. If you want to be good at it it isn’t short days and it takes a lot drive and desire. There’s a lot of no’s you have to persist through and plenty of ‘better to beg for forgiveness then ask for permission.’

My advice to my sister, and anyone, who wants to pursue a career in radio is actually four pretty simple things. First of all, intern. You have to get your foot in the door and start to work on your craft. Once you have a start your will and desire to be there will help you shine and climb to where you want. Second, listen to radio. There are radio stations everywhere and a real easy way to improve at any craft is to observe others doing it. It will help you get better, it will inspire you and give you ideas and it will also help you understand content; what goes on a break, what works, how to tell a story, all the essential things to be good.

Third, start a podcast. One of the biggest challenges to being good in radio is finding your voice. Everyone has a unique perspective and voice, but you have to find how to express it and how to share you observations through that lens. Podcasting is become bigger and bigger and you can also start to figure out how to be on air with the freedom of your podcast. This is especially key when your on air opportunities are limited early on. There’s a really great morning show up in Seattle that got that job because of the podcast they did. Also, listen to other podcasts for the exact same reasons you need to listen to other radio stations.

Finally, figure out social media, video and blogging. Radio has evolved in to more than just what’s on your dial. Because of YouTube, TV and technology, attention spans are shorter and you need to create as many touch points as you can. The AJ & McCall Show has drawn audiences from more than just 94.5 and 98.3, there are plenty of people that found their way to our show because our videos we create or the fun stuff we do on our own social media, especially McCall’s make up videos. It makes you more diversified and is becoming a more and more important skill to have.

Those are my four keys to starting a key in radio, but along with those are the important things for any job. If you want to be successful you have to work hard and show the desire to want to be there and improve. I got all those responsibilities at my first job because I was available and always wanted to learn more. That made me more valuable to my company and improved my resume to get a full time job and then my next jobs.

Time is precious for everyone but you show what’s important to you by what you devote your time to. Several of our interns haven’t panned out specifically because they didn’t want to commit to being available and devoting the time to get to where they wanted. Speaking just for myself, if I don’t see that you have the work ethic and drive like my own then it’s not worth my time to teach you. It’s insulting to me to say you want to get to where I am, and I’m still have a very long way to go, if you don’t show you’re going to do what it takes.

I had a conversation with a parent this week about a new project I’m undertaking. The first question they asked was ‘Are you going to get more money for this?’ The answer is no and they scoffed at that. Don’t get me wrong, you have to keep your value in mind and you always want to make as much as possible but it really comes down to two choices. I either do it for free, kick butt at it and show the value to it so I can eventually turn it in to profit, or I don’t do it all. Now, maybe it’s something you don’t want to do for free, but just like an internship, if you don’t get your foot in the door then you’re not going to get anywhere. You have to take the first step before you can make it to the top of the mountain.

I truly believe that if you work hard and take on more and more then you will be rewarded for it. In business now that may sometimes be a naive belief, but let me share another conversation I had with that same parent. ‘My place of work doesn’t promote or give bonuses so I’m going to do just the bare minimum.’ That may be true, maybe they’ll be stingy and refuse to reward you for your hard work, but you now how you’re going to guarantee you never get a raise? By not busting your butt and showing your value. At the end of the day you have to be able to live with yourself and the work you put in and I promise someone will take notice of the value you bring.