Do I miss working in radio/TV? Not really

posted by Jeff | Monday, April 19, 2021, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

There was a post on an Ashland University radio/TV alumni group asking about how many people were still in the business, and where all they worked. Few of my classmates, give or take a few years, are still in the business, but those who stayed with it now have more than two decades behind them, which is crazy. The guy who started the thread has more than 40 years!

I wanted to be a radio DJ from the time that I was 10-years-old, and then working for the city's government access channel in high school, I wanted to make television, too (nothing more gripping than televising city council meetings and high school basketball!). I started doing the DJ thing in my second week of my freshman year (poorly), and in my junior year, started working part-time at a commercial station, where I was informed that I was doing it wrong. Shortly after graduation, I landed at a "large market" station in Cleveland to do it full-time, making almost $16,000 a year (about $28k in today's dollars). That lasted a year and change, before a ratings shakeup moved the midday guy to my overnight slot since he had a contract and I did not.

A few months after that, I landed in a suburban city as their first Cable TV Coordinator, charged with building out government and public access. It was everything a know-it-all 20-something could want, with a chance to do the engineering, production, talent, management, all of it. Getting to be a department head, even if it was ultimately only 2.5 people and a budget around $150k annually, was something that I didn't realize would set me up for a lot of leadership roles later, especially when consulting. I ultimately left that gig not because dealing with politicians was hard, but because they weren't interested in legislating me into a pay schedule similar to those of my peers in surrounding cities. That, and it was hard to resist the promise of the Internet, where I was already dabbling in software development and felt like I could go the distance. It was a really good choice.

Leaving the business was only partially a financial consideration, though I can assure you I was not content to live at home on a starter radio salary. I remember my first week as a full-timer thinking, "Wow, so here I am. That was fast. Now what?" It really appealed to my ego, sure, but the job is largely sitting alone in a room answering the phone from 14-year-olds who wanna hear "Macarena" again. My mom had even built up radio personalities as "famous," but if there was any fame, it sure didn't come with fortune.

The TV gig, as I said, was ideal because I could do everything. I didn't have to worry about union rules that prohibited me from doing certain things, and there was no daily news grind. On any given day, I could be soldering some wires on to a connector, doing a stand-up or cutting video (first on tape, then on a computer). This job had a similar problem as the radio thing, where it wasn't clear how I could level up quickly in terms of responsibility and skills. In the job itself, it literally took an act of legislation for a raise, but in the industry in general, most of the jobs were news or freelance, both of which are very lifestyle driven. I usually enjoyed the work, but I couldn't see long-term outcomes.

Fortunately, the intense desire to "play" with computers as a kid, which seemed to be treated as an annoyance to most of the adults in my life, started to resurface after college, in part probably because my "in between" job was working retail at a CompUSA for a few months. Aside from becoming an expert at reinstalling Windows95, there were some basic things like composing HTML markup and writing little Perl scripts to do stuff on the World Wide Web that were exciting to me. By 1999, four years after graduation, I was confident that I could write code for a living.

Do I regret my course of study? No, but it's clearer than ever that college is really not job training. The radio/TV program fancied itself as just that, while my other major, journalism, was more academic. I didn't have particular good grades in any of it because I was bored and felt like I was checking boxes so I could work in the "real world." I could have learned everything specific to the broadcast work from other people, blue collar style. Because of the transition to digital technologies, the shelf life of the technical education was very short. The most valuable thing I got out of college was learning how to live and work with people, and in a few classes, learn how to learn. College was valuable, but in none of the ways it had been sold to me and my generation. It was absolutely not job training.

My general attitude about the value of college is not what it was, and I'll write about that at some other point. Software is surprisingly blue collar in nature as well, as far as experience and knowledge transfer, and for the most part, no one cares if you went to college at all.

The funny thing is that I revisited "radio" for years doing our old podcast, before podcasts were cool. Last year I figured out how to do music radio shows via PRX, and had fun doing that. On the video side, I've messed around doing mini-docs or just video of my kid doing kid things. We've even made some YouTube videos for fun. The deeper appeal to the work was always the act of creation, and especially in the Internet age, you don't need to have a broadcast signal to make stuff and share it. And when you work in my field, you can afford to buy the toys, too, which can be dangerous if you have a gadget fetish.

I don't miss working in those fields. I like what I do now. I can still make things, even if I don't get paid for them.


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