Well…you can’t do both.
Every year, about this time, I get a few letters from students asking for advice on how to pursue a career in radio production. Well, I’ve never been one to be shy about giving my penny’s worth of advice, even though I know you can’t make change. Today’s letter came from a 17-year-old high school student who is debating whether to go to college for a communications degree (bad idea), or to jump in, feet first (which is probably worse.) What follows is a slightly modified version of my response.
Just starting, eh? Well, there’s a ton of advice I could give you, but let me emphasize this: Go to school. Even if you only get an associates degree (2 years), this could be the most important part of your career. DON’T get a degree in broadcasting – an absolutely worthless degree...major in business, journalism, political science, or even music. While you’re there, take advantage and learn some basic music theory. You don’t need to become an expert, just someone who can find the downbeat, match tempo and know the difference between harmony and counterpoint. You won’t believe how helpful this will be. Also, get some creative writing under your belt. Don’t worry so much about substance as style. Tell your instructor your intended career and make sure he/she gives you the tools you need to write creatively.
This absolutely does NOT mean you have to go to Harvard or Yale. Honestly, racking up a butt-load of debt for a career that doesn’t guarantee you’ll become a millionaire seems short sighted. Your local community college is more than adequate to give you the things you’ll need, like learning how to be responsible on your own, without any parental nagging. If you can, maybe another town’s local community college would work even better, so you’re not tempted to spend so much time on your mom and dad’s couch watching Netflix.
For SURE, you need to learn to think for yourself. Depending on which school you attend, remember that some of your teachers/professors will feed you a line of BS a mile long. If whatever you hear during lectures sounds in the least bit off, do your own damned research. It’s not hard. There is almost certainly a library on campus and of course, you always have the internet. Just don’t fixate on one idea or opinion and assume it’s correct. If you want to learn how to think, you have to get as much input as you can muster. If you discover something that runs counter to what you think in the classroom, be absolutely certain that you know more than the instructor before you challenge him or her. Otherwise, you’ll get marked down or even failed if you don’t simply parrot what he or she said from the podium.
I don’t want to go into a political rant here, but the liberal/conservative dichotomy is definitely something you’ll run into quite soon. You’re young and are still under a heavy influence from what you’ve been taught growing up. In 1875, the prominent French jurist and academician Anselm Batbie said, “He who is not a socialist at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.” This sentiment has been repeated many, many times since then. American schools are often a hotbed of extreme liberalism, so you should expect that from your peers and professors, but do not be swayed by any of their rhetoric. Study. Find your own answers. Learn to think for yourself. They might be right, but you'll never know until you research it properly and thoroughly.
A lot of kids turn their noses up at the suggestion that they even go to school. I get that. School basically sucks because so much of it has zero practical application in life, or at least it seems that way to when you’re there. (I still haven’t figured out how to use quadratic equations in my work, but everything else? Yeah.) But school offers you something you can’t get in the real world… experience while still close to the nest. You learn social skills there that you can’t get anywhere else. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn how to really manage your time too. Most importantly, you’ll learn how to learn – something I know I missed early on. It’s really not about the parchment. Fact is, I never had any employer ever ask to see mine. (Good thing too, because after 7 years of higher learning, I never got one.) To my way of thinking, school is really all about the learning...both academic and personal.
If school is out of reach financially, or for some other reason is out of the question, start reading – a lot. Books, magazines, and maybe one newspaper a day, even the internet, anything you can get your hands on will help. Read them ALL. Twitter and Facebook do NOT count. They’re full of extreme ideas, on both sides politically and most of what you’ll read there is uninformed or uneducated and often petty and juvenile. The topics you choose read about don’t really matter. If you’re reading a lot, with an eye to far-ranging and thought provoking ideas, you’ll start to pick up culturally significant topics and begin developing your own thoughts and feelings on a wide range of subjects. You’ll also start to understand where the public mind is collectively, because presumably, the public is reading at least some of the same stuff you’re reading.
You need to watch television and go to the movies a lot too. (I know, it’s tough work, but somebody’s gotta do it.) This is where pop culture lives. If you know which TV shows or movies are hot, you have a ‘bridge’ to your listeners that will bring them ever closer to you. If you don’t have a DVR, I really recommend you get one and start using it. Truly successful broadcasters mirror pop culture for their listeners and become a shortcut to the “so-called” real world. Years from now, when you’re doing a VO for The People’s Choice Awards or The CMA Awards, you’d better know how to pronounce every artist’s name, or you’re dead meat.
For example, I cannot begin to tell you how many people (who should know better) mispronounce Rihanna’s name. The way SHE says it is, ree-ANN-uh. But time after time, I hear people say, ree-AW-nuh. It might seem trivial, but I think they sound like total goofs who know next to nothing about her. You really want people to know that you know what you're talking about.
When you’re interviewing Ariana Grande as she hits middle age (it WILL happen), you will really need to know the story behind all of her relationships. Based on her latest hit, she seems to be a sort of ‘serial-monogamist,’ which is kinda weird, but not a bad thing at all. Thank U, Next.
So, go to school. Start reading, whether you go to school or not. Read at least one book a week. Read two or three magazines every week. Go to the movies at least once a week. See the most popular films, even if they don’t look that appealing to you. Watch some television every day. If you don’t watch anything else, watch one of the Hollywood “sleaze” shows like TMZ and some news from a FEW places. Immerse yourself in pop culture. This is the homework you need to complete if you want to compete.
Let me tell you one last thing. Although the radio business is a business, if you’re not having fun while you’re doing it, you’re going to be OUT of business before you know it. Always look for the fun. (Man, this stuff is GOLD! I ought to put THAT in a blog! Oh, wait.)
OK. That’s enough advice. I sincerely wish you the best in whatever path you choose. Unlike many who view every newcomer as more competition, I see people like you as the catalyst that will take broadcasting to a higher plane. When I hear your ideas and how they’re executed, it’s inspiration for me to kick it to the next level.
P.S. By the way, did you know that you could claim newspaper and magazine subscriptions as tax deductions? Same thing goes for your cable or satellite bill – up to a point. You need this stuff to do your job properly. (Make sure you check with a qualified tax preparation person about the specifics before you go off the deep end.) Even the Internal Revenue Service knows you need those things to do your job.