For YEARS at Z100, I had a reputation for being a grumpy old man, long before I even got old enough to be considered an old man. The grumpy part was absolutely true though. There were, over the years, several AEs I never met because they had been warned by others, “Don’t go in there unless you want your head chewed off.” It wasn’t until I’d been at the job for several years that I discovered how much fun the whole radio station was outside my studio doors. OK, maybe I’m laying it on a little thick, but I’m making a point. The first several years I worked there, I was constantly crushed by the workload and hadn’t figured out how to manage my time. I really was pretty grumpy and I missed out on a lot. Thus, this blog.
I got a little concerned about my grumpiness and wondered why my predecessor in the creative chair at Z100, the late JR Nelson, didn’t have the same reputation. For a long time, he was a part of the morning show, so he was always in the station by 5:30am. By 2pm each day, all you could see of him was a cloud of burnt rubber in the parking lot when he split for home to light up a joint the size of your forearm. (True story.) But from 10am each day until he pulled his disappearing act, he was generally cordial and took everything in stride. Oh, he did not suffer fools, to be sure, but everything seemed to get done in a fairly friendly atmosphere. (Maybe it was the cannabis?)
So why did I have the ill reputation?
You know how some days you just want to go postal? Every stinking AE on the planet has an emergency with a client demanding more creative copy; the morning show has a gazillion requests for new stagers and sweepers and the PD wants a new promo to go on the air immediately. While you’re busy putting out forest fires; you don’t have any time to get really creative. You can’t get any momentum going and before you can blink, it’s 9 o’clock…at night. You always seem to have two or three projects fall ‘between-the-cracks’ every week. Your spouse threatens to leave you if you don’t get home right now. You feel like the quality of your work is circling the bowl. You start to think you should have sold insurance for a living. Lighten up.
I used to have a lot of those days, until I decided I wanted to learn to fly. The flight school was only open from 8 to 5, which meant that I’d have to take my lessons on the weekends. It would have taken three years to finish instead of the usual 8 or 9 months. So, I had an idea. I went to my PD and suggested that I could start coming in with the morning show (like JR did), making my services available to them for last-minute production. He was lukewarm to the idea, to say the least. After what seemed like way too much begging and pleading, he finally agreed to a ‘test’ period. After a few weeks of coming in at 5 and leaving at two, if everything got done on time and there weren’t any major problems from my not being there later in the day, he would agree to let me continue until I got my pilot’s license.
Well, the first week, something bizarre happened. I finished everything I had to do that week by Thursday morning. I was actually looking for something to do! As long as I’d been there, that had never happened before. By the end of two weeks, in addition to getting everything done by Thursday, I also felt that somehow my work was improving in quality. I sent off a few pieces to people whose opinion I valued and they all came back with big thumbs up. One friend said I was at the absolute peak of my game. By the time our ‘trial-period’ was finished, my PD was sold.
Seven years later, an experienced, licensed pilot with hundreds of hours in flying time, I still went in every morning at 5 and home at 2 (sometimes 3) and never went back to the way it had been. Some people thought I was crazy, but I have to ask, what would you do with three to four hours of complete ‘creative’ time every day? No phone calls, no emails, no more impatient, overwrought sales people or program directors banging on my door, no more never-ending interruptions to screw up my rhythm; all of the things that made some days intolerable no longer existed. By the time 9 or 10 in the morning rolled around, I’d already gotten everything that I needed to get done that day – done. I actually smiled when I see an AE stroll in, because instead of tormenting me when I was trying to get work done, they were interrupting something that was of little or no time critical consequence, like combing through a production library for new ideas. (I actually got to be good friends with several folks on the Z Sales team!)
It might not have been as therapeutic as JR’s afternoon remedy, but it really helped me be a better producer. Ol’ JR had a good handle on things all the time, and with my early arrival and early departure, so did I. My grumpiness was a thing of the past.
Aside from the practical nature of these working hours, I was also doing something even more valuable. At 2 o’clock, I began living life like a listener. I’d come home and take a nap some days, naturally, but other days I was out doing STUFF…just like my audience. I’d go to the movies, sample the nightlife, coffee bars, new restaurants, sporting events, even high school football games. I did the same stuff my audience did. HELLO! That is how I fill my creative well.
Think about it. If all you do, day after day, is sweat over a hot console, attend meetings and hang out in a radio station, how are you going to relate to the audience? You can’t! They don’t give a butt-nugget about radio. They care about movies, nightlife, coffee bars, new restaurants and sporting events like high school football. And trust me when I tell you that your creative well gets fed exactly the same way. If you have the same kinds of experiences your audience has on a daily basis, your humor will have a TON more meaning, your commiseration will feel much more sincere and every piece you produce will have the ring of truth to it, which is far more compelling than the coolest sound effect and music beds will ever be.
OK, maybe you just can’t drag yourself out of bed every morning at 4 to be at work by 5, some people just aren't built that way. More likely, you’re doing more than one job and you have to be there later in the day. I’ll counter those things with a similar idea that works: block out three hours every day when you will never answer the phone, read an email or even open your door. Let me reiterate, N – E – V – E – R answer the phone or read an email. (Believe me, if it’s life or death, they’ll figure out a way to get hold of you.) This is your ‘creative’ time. Once it’s over, methodically answer every voicemail, message and email. Be a pro and communicate what you are doing to everyone you work with so they know you’re setting up time to do nothing but concentrate on being creative. That IS your job, remember? It really isn’t just being rude.
One other side-effect of flipped hours is; because you can and probably will work ahead, you can almost always anticipate what other people at your station will want or need. You cannot imagine the good feeling you’ll get when an AE pops in and asks for a copy of a sponsored promo for the client and you can have it emailed and waiting on their computer before they even get back to their desk.
We all have the same amount of time every day. Regardless of what you do, how and when you do it will make an incredible difference in how much and of what quality your work will be…unless you actually DO go back to selling insurance.
Umm…good luck with that.