I was 30 years old when I was fired from my position as the Program Director of WBRU in Providence. Before taking the job, I was incredibly passionate about the medium. Somehow, my brain was able to lock in on the concepts involved in radio programming in a way that it was never able to master mathematics or engineering or a foreign language. Radio was in my blood.
But over the course of my tenure as a Program Director, I watched the industry change. Howard Stern left terrestrial radio for satellite radio, leaving in his wake a trail of legendary stations that would never recover from the loss. Elliot Spitzer, the Attorney General of New York, was pursuing record labels and radio stations for payola to burnish his reputation as a crusading reformer. As a result of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's “Nipplegate” fiasco at the Superbowl, the country had grown sensitive to indecency, and the FCC and corporate managers were cracking down on radio talent that pushed the envelope too far. And, of course, there was continued corporate consolidation: I watched as radio companies now asked their employees to take on two or three different jobs for the same amount of pay.
All of that, combined with personal factors, left me burned out. As I surveyed the landscape, I thought that my only move up was to oversee six stations and play Nickelback on all of them. After programming a stand-alone mom-and-pop station that gave me a lot of creative freedom, this didn't interest me. I convinced myself that I would need to switch careers at some point, so I might as well do it now. After all, the radio industry wouldn't survive much longer.
That was in 2006.
With the restructuring of our industry's largest company this week, many of you or your colleagues are probably thinking similar thoughts. Some of the fallen will be able to find other jobs in the radio industry, but common sense tells us that there's no way all of them can be absorbed by other broadcasting companies. The elder may retire; the rest will be forced to transition into other careers.
I'm reminded the character of Tim Riggins from the television show Friday Night Lights. Tim was the star running back of his high school football team, making him a celebrity in his small Texas town. But when he graduated, his fame faded, and his skills on the field didn't translate into other arenas. Where success once came easy to him, he struggled and lost direction.
My transition away from radio felt a lot like that. No longer getting wined and dined by record labels or partying with rock stars, I bounced from cubicle job to cubicle job, never finding one that matched my talents the way that radio did. A friend described my struggle as “a search for the You-Shaped Hole in the Universe.” But the problem was not that I couldn't locate the hole; the problem was that I believed my hole had closed.
I wandered for nearly a decade before ultimately finding my way back to radio by landing my job here at Jacobs Media. I never planned on returning to radio, but when I did, I found that it invigorated me in a way that I once thought was no longer possible. I learned a lot during my time away from the industry — most notably, the digital skills that I now teach to broadcasters — but gaining that knowledge was a hard and humbling road. I wouldn't wish the things that I went through upon anybody else. Nonetheless, some of you are about to go through them.
For those of you who are now transitioning into a new phase of your life and career, you may be in for a rough ride. Having been there, here's the best advice I can offer:
1. You know more than you think you know.
When I left radio for other industries, I assumed that I would have to start at the bottom and work my way back up. In retrospect, not only was this not true, but it was counterproductive. Sure, my abilities to do a tight backsell and schedule a day of music on Selector are useless in other industries, but that wasn't all I knew. In fact, many of the principles involved in radio programming are the same principles used in other industries. For example, if you understand how record label reps try to get their music played on radio stations, then you understand how pharmaceutical reps get their drugs prescribed by doctors, or how liquor distributors get their products stocked behind the bar. You may have experience with public speaking, writing, budgeting, managing staffs, and more. When you step back and look at the broad skills and principles involved in radio, you will find parallels all over the place.
Don't tell yourself, “The only thing I know how to do is radio.” That's not true.
2. You will have to overcome your resumé.
Even if you recognize that you have skills that are applicable to other industries, convincing other people will be a challenge. If the only thing you've got on your resumé is a list of call letters, potential employers are going to view it with skepticism. On paper, you're not going to look like a good match for many jobs. This will discourage you, but hang in there. Use job-recruiting websites, but don't rely on them. A job that you get through a personal relationship will probably pan out much better than something through a website, so invest your energy there.
Beyond that, take control of your digital presence. Shape it for the direction you want your career to take. Blog or podcast or create videos that showcase your skills and expertise. A year before I came to Jacobs Media, I started blogging about digital strategies for radio stations on both my personal website and for All Access. I met Fred Jacobs when I interviewed him for a podcast at the Worldwide Radio Summit. The door here never would have opened for me if I had simply submitted a resumé through a website. I had to create the opportunity, not just wait for it to come along.
3. Tend to your relationships.
Wandering through the desert looking for your True North can be an isolating experience. Some of us, including me, have a tendency to keep our struggles to ourselves. I disconnected from people. I lost touch with former colleagues, and it took a toll on my personal relationships as well. In retrospect, keeping everything inside was a mistake.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking you're all alone. If nothing else, just look at the size of this latest downsizing: there are dozens if not hundreds of other broadcasters going through the same thing that you are. Talk to them, and let your friends in as well.
4. Don't make big decisions quickly.
In poker, there's an expression: “Playing on tilt.” It's when a player suffers a bad beat, then using poor judgment, tries to make up for it with an over-aggressive play on the next hand. Right now, you're on tilt. Truth is, you may be for quite a while. Recognize that this may affect your judgment, and take extra caution when making big decisions. Don't rush to judgment, don't make decisions without discussing them with other people that you trust, and don't convince yourself that you don't have any other options.
Or, to put it in terms of another sport, “Don't try to get back into the game with one swing.”
A lot of you are about to go search for your You-Shaped Holes in the Universe. It's not going to be quick, and it's not going to be easy, but you'll get there. There is life after radio. Good luck.
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