Fresh Start Or Dead End
April 23, 2013
When we stop to think about it, we all need and want to know if the job we're currently in represents a fresh start, a dead end or something in between. Here are some facts that may help us to sort things out.
Recently there have been tremendous advances lately in health care, medicine, science and technology. One of the technological advances that directly affects all of us in radio comes from Arbitron in the form of its next generation "PPM 360" device, which eliminates the need for a docking station and sends data directly from the meter itself so it gets to Arbitron faster. So we get ratings results quicker. But for every action, there is always a reaction.
I don't know if you've noticed, but ratings costs have escalated along with gas prices. That's because the costs of running the PPM and even diary services have exploded. Why? Because most households today don't have landlines and reaching potential survey participants via cell phone is more expensive. Federal laws ban auto-dialing. And Arbitron's raising the level of its address-based and targeted in-person recruiting.
Now let's get even more specific and then we'll tie it all together. Picture the radio audience as a deck of cards in the hands of a dealer. Cards (listeners) are constantly being dealt in to the top of the deck, while others are constantly being dropped from the bottom. Radio audiences react in much the same way. It's unrealistic to think that the audience stays around for hours on end for weeks and weeks. They search for mood reinforcement. This mood reinforcement is a class many Urban programmers skipped or didn't really pay attention to. These programmers are not just missing a few steps; they're merely stuck in a phase of awkward pretense. It's all part of what I like to call Urban uncertainty.
Downsizing has displaced some very talented people. Good opportunities are few and far between. The changing nature of our business has caused lots of good people to become victims. And when you do finally get a gig the obvious question becomes, "Is it a fresh start or a dead end?" Added to that, the past few months have seen our industries filled with fear and loathing as company after company undergoes "restructuring." Some companies still use that tired old excuse, "we're going in another direction." Yeah, right. What direction? Are you suddenly going to go all-polkas? I believe both of those terms are phrases dreamt up by the department of human resources to camouflage realities. The same people probably came up with "minor structural defects" to describe an earthquake or tornado-ravaged building. Anytime your boss mentions either of those phrases, it's probably time to check out the want ads.
Unfortunately, many in our industries have had to live with the repercussions of restructuring recently. Since that usually means you have lost your job, those after-effects can linger long after the bomb has dropped. Most of us in radio have accepted getting fired as going with the territory. Unless you're extremely fortunate, get ready because it's going to happen. I've often said this is not an industry for those who are weak, sensitive or insecure. You have to be thick-skinned.
And it's tough. It's tough on you ...tough on your family and friends. When you get fired, you doubt your friends, your ability and yourself. It's tough when you have no place to work, no place to hide and no money coming in. So for those who are under the gun, who feel that you are being loaded into the cannon, you don't have to go softly into the night. There are some tried-and-true methods and a few secrets that may not alter your ultimate fate, but when used wisely, can put off the inevitable or make the time you have left more productive. The first thing you should do is everything you can to convince those in power to see their error. In every meeting, volunteer for something.
If you're lucky enough to find a new job, the first question you have to ask yourself may be, is this a fresh start or a dead end? If you're a programmer or an air talent, often it starts out as a fresh start until the first down book. That can have the same effect as being hit by a car. As a PD, how you handle yourself during those challenging moments will be a deciding factor in your station's ultimate success and yours. The only way to handle a down book is with totally honesty -- and sometimes that may not be enough. If you were wrong, admit it. Don't sugarcoat the repercussions of a bad book. Talk about them. Prepare yourself for the loss of revenue, prestige and increased pressure from sales. It's there. Accept it and attack it. Don't hide or rationalize.
In a business where the value of getting your point across eclipses all else, it appears the lines of communication between ourselves and those we report to at times seem perilously frayed. It's usually a matter of what was promised and what was delivered. In the case of ratings, the GM says, "I know what I promised you, but now my budgets been cut and you have to do it with less."
Our business has a real shortage of great teachers and people who are willing to give their time to help others. Now, to be honest, even those who would like to teach are extremely busy watching two or three stations. Many programmers never seem to have enough time to work with their staff. For a lot of new talent hires, it goes something like this: "Congratulations, you've just been hired. Now you're on your own."
Air personalities in small markets get better by emulating talent in larger markets. I don't know if our industry as a whole is to blame because we haven't fostered a lot of personalities or hired the right people to train them. Anyone who has been in this business more than a few years usually starts feeling the wear and tear and can get burned out. Then there are those programmers who became PDs just to keep some jerk who didn't know what they were talking about from being their boss.
Many of us remember having been heartbroken and having our confidence shaken five jobs ago. It was a time of serious mourning, something only a few people can really understand. I have a friend who is currently a PD in a major market. Last year he was given additional duties. He now has to oversee a sister station, along with the AM gospel station. Recently, he had to do one of the hardest things of his life -- resign or get booted out.
Company downsizing and recent rating losses combine to create a jump-or-get-pushed out situation, a scenario many programmers will face in their career. Most PDs will be let go at least twice in their careers.
I can tell you firsthand that after I got fired in Detroit once -- when I was winning
the ratings battle -- I took it particularly hard. I spent several months self-analyzing and healing before I was ready to program again. That's what we go through as program people. This job can chew you up and then spit you out. I did it and I think everybody else who does it, does it somewhat for love. We have a passion to program. But that doesn't mean the hard times don't come at you with a force.
I tell everybody I know that to be a programmer you need to have a big heart and a thick skin -- because if you don't, you're going to get chewed through on both ends. Very few would take a job knowing they will probably be fired in less than three years, particularly if you're a first-time PD. Even fewer would take a job knowing every day would be filled with public and private criticism coupled with non-stop stress. But that's the reality of being a programmer in 2013. In some ways, a programmer is like a carton of milk - a job with an expiration date already in play.
Radio is the ultimate results-driven business. There are no good ways to spin what every listener and owner can hear, or think they can hear. Winning is expected. Winning means success. Losses and falling short in the ratings game can lead to the swift end of a programmer's tenure.
Other PDs jump ship quickly, looking to capitalize on their next opportunity. Who could blame them? But even winning does not guarantee you employment these days. Some companies have decided that to cut costs they are going to replaced seasoned, winning programmers and air talent with syndication or those with little or no experience. Other companies required those programmers who want to remain employed to be responsible for the ratings for three or more stations. In some medium and small markets, these PDs also have to do a full-time air shift or run a board.
Programmers have to know they are hired to be fired and the cycle seems to be happening faster these days. It's becoming a tougher and tougher business as there is less tolerance for anything but immediate and continuing ratings success.
The good programmers have learned that this is somewhat beyond their control and that they need to make sure they have a life or something going outside of their job, or they'll have nothing to hang on to when they get fired or have to leave.
I spoke to a major-market programmer who was forced to accept a gig in a medium market for far less money and lots more work ... just to keep a gig. I spoke to another very lucky programmer who is in a medium-size market and has been in his job since 2005, the equivalent of a lifetime for most programmers. He said he didn't want to jump around from job to job. He has a family and thought it would be good to lay down some permanent roots. "I believe in loyalty. I believe in the notion that if you do the right things good things will happen. Maybe I'm old fashioned and idealistic but today's younger programmers will have to pay some dues. I'm hearing that today's attitude is, you're going to get fired anyway, so you might as well get out before the end comes. I've been very lucky never to get fired, knock on wood. But I hear from my friends that the attitude is that the end is inevitable. So you might as well get out before they get you."
There is stress and risk in the business world and people take that on every day. Radio is no different. If this is what you love to do, this is what you need to be prepared to do.
Finally, the answer to the question, "Is my job a fresh start or a dead end," depends on who you ask. Our advice is to always be prepared. A lot of problems can be solved through preparation. If you're always prepared, you're ready to accept challenges. You're ready for this job, so you're accepting the challenge. You're ready for the future. One of the most fascinating things about the future is that is hasn't happened yet. The real trouble with the future is that it usually arrives before we're ready for it.