There is a lot of talk, especially post-pandemic, about the value of that piece of paper one receives for completing the requirements necessary for a Bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. As the minimum wage rises, and as employers simply cannot find workers, it is perhaps easier than ever to find a job, regardless of what your resume says.
Then there's the gnarly issue of college loans – and the enormous debt so many are buried under. The Biden Administration has attempted to find a fair solution for this problem, but there really isn't one. Even if those truckloads of debt are excused for some college graduates moving forward, what about the millions who scraped and saved to pay it off over the past many years?
In a blog post published yesterday – “No College Degree Required” – blogger, lifelong radio guy, and college educator, Dick Taylor, makes a compelling case that radio is more of a skill than it is a science or a discipline. He points to a number of massively successful radio stories – Ryan Seacrest and Sean Hannity among them – who have achieved unthinkable fame and wealth without the benefit of a degree.
That's also the case in pro sports. It is about your innate ability, first and foremost. For NBA players who stuck it out to get that degree, there's LeBron James who apparently did not need to sit through poli sci or algebra classes to achieve his greatness on the court.
But even in our changing world of technology and innovation, many of the best-known entrepreneurs and game-changers did not earn a degree. The list includes Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and more – all geniuses who knew that college football games and fraternities weren't in their futures. They were all better off honing their crafts and concepts in their families' garages.
Dick's bone to pick with radio is that the industry's entry level pay scales are no longer competitive with those of many basic businesses, including the fast food industry. And he implores the RAB to focus its efforts with its newly acquired Radio Talent Institute at the high school level. Given the image of radio among high school students, it's hard to argue with his logic.
He also argues that radio companies requiring college degrees is wrong-headed, and that radio would be “better positioned as a trade, one best learned by doing.”
For radio jobs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s (sounds like a positioning statement, right?), Dick's description may be an accurate one. Many of the smartest people I've worked with – on and off the air – did not graduate from college. Many went right into radio from high school, snapping that first job and never looking back. And they went on to become brilliant programmers, marketers, and in some cases, executives.
But we're not in Kansas anymore. The radio industry as we knew it, no longer exists. We're competing against young bootstrap entrepreneurs, savvy startups, and tech companies with access to the best and brightest – not just grads from state universities but from ivy league schools.
That's no guarantee they're any brighter than those doing morning shows, cutting promos, or selling radio time. But their educations complement their intelligence, allowing them to create the next levels of media and technology.
Think about the past twenty years. How many true media innovations – even in the radio business – can you think of that were game-changers or even industry-changers? Radio has been playing defense at best, catch-up at worst. And it has fallen behind.
We have long been at that point where great execution is no longer enough to generate larger audiences and greater profits. It's about innovation, and the ability to invent new futures for old businesses.
And I would argue that while an education sure doesn't hurt, it may not guarantee success. The human and talent factors loom large, of course. But when you take someone who already has great broadcast chops and you provide him or her with a great education, look out.
I met that person last week at the Canadian Music Week conference. His name is Tobias Nielsen (pictured) and he's the Director of Premium Projects and International Lead Content and Music for the Bauer Media Groupo, Europe's biggest commercial broadcaster.
I was fortunate enough to introduce his keynote, and then participate with him on a panel that included broadcast executives from North America. I've also gotten a chance to know Tobias over the past few months.
Like many of you, he started on the air. As he told me, he was the “evening presenter” on a small hometown radio station in Denmark where he was born and raised. In other words, the night guy. And he worked his way up through the ranks, from programmer to manager to COO of a broadcast company.
His claim to fame? He has started up a premium subscription service for Bauer's best commercial radio properties. And in order to convince his bosses of the efficacy of this bold plan, Tobias went back to school to gain the knowledge and discipline necessary to pressure-test his idea. He pursued and received an Executive MBA from the Copenhagen Business School.
Over coffee, I asked him about the value of his education as he mapped out Bauer's new path as a media and entertainment company. Without batting an eye, he told me how essential the structure of his MBA program was to honing his concept for a subscription radio service.
In a blog post he wrote on LinkedIn, Tobias explains:
“The MBA definitely played a big part in getting me here and – aside from the educational value – it showed me the value of being challenged and of trying something new. To come here and be faced with a blank sheet of paper would have been intimidating a few years ago, but now I can recognise the opportunities and I have the training to establish the team, perform the analysis and make the necessary decisions that will drive the project forward. It’s reassuring to know that you can rely on that business skillset.”
Is radio a “trade?”
Clearly, to run a board or edit audio (or video), it doesn't necessarily require a four-year degree. I could argue that many colleges and universities have their own radio stations, ones that we strongly supported this past spring during Vinylthon 2022 in collaboration with the College Radio Foundation. You won't find a better environment in which to “learn radio” and receive a higher education.
In recent years, we've seen some of the growing pains when air personalities are asked (much less required) to write blogs or social media posts. Some do it splendidly, of course. But others may be hampered by a lack of writing skills that make it more challenging to perform these tasks.
How about podcasting, an audio artform that requires writing, organization, and much editing? Or public radio, a corner of the industry where one college degree is table stakes. A majority of public radio core listeners in our PRTS surveys hold advanced degrees. If you want to inform and entertain them, you'd better have the goods.
When it comes to a college degree, “your mileage may vary,” of course. So much depends on who you are as a person, and your long-term goals in the industry. As Tobias Nielsen discovered, his original education and experience only took him so far. He needed those MBA teachings and disciplines to get to that next level.
For the record, I have two degrees. A Bachelor's in something called General Studies from the University of Michigan, and a Master's in Telecommunication from Michigan State University. Rarely a day goes by when some piece of that education or experience doesn't bubble up as part of my role as a consultant, a researcher, or an entrepreneur. But hey, that's me.
If radio is to survive and thrive in the years ahead, it won't be as a “trade” filled with journeymen and women. Succeeding in radio is not akin to driving a truck or installing a furnace. It is an art that can be best complemented by learned skills that can bring out the best of us. And to solve the complex problems we're already facing as an industry, we're going to need all the education we can get.
If you can afford it, get that degree.
Coming soon – AQ4 – our industry study of air personalities in collaboration with Morning Show Bootcamp. And yes, we'll be asking a question or two about education. – FJ