Career Day

I got to speak at Career Day last Friday. It was the last day before spring break at one of the local middle schools, and they invited various local businesses and professions to send representatives. I volunteered to take the gig for Mid-West Family Broadcasting.

The kids I spoke to were on the younger side of middle school—fifth and sixth graders—so it’s not as though their career decisions are imminent, but then again, I was in fifth grade when I fell in love with radio. So their questions focused not on the best educational path to take into the biz, but on the nuts and bolts of the jock’s job: “Does your music come from CDs?”  “Why does it take so long for you to play my request?” “Do you ever get nervous?”

I decided to tackle the request question honestly, by explaining that I don’t get to pick the songs I play—that the sequence is laid out for me, and I don’t have room to change it. “If you request a hot, popular song, chances are good that it will get on, but if you want to hear a song from three or four years ago, that’s harder for us to work in.”

That seemed to satisfy them, because hot-and-popular songs are what they usually want to hear. In fact, eyes rolled at my mention of “three or four years,” as if I’d said, “the 19th century.” It reminded me of a conversation I once had with an 11-year-old who liked to tape her favorite songs off the radio. “Do you have a lot of tapes?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “I just use the same one over and over. Why would I want to save a bunch of old songs?”

Why, indeed.

As for the nervousness question, it’s one I’ve been asked by other (and older) people many times. Intellectually, I know that whenever I open the microphone, there are hundreds or thousands of people listening, but I have never imagined them in the aggregate, like they were sitting all together in an auditorium. I see one person in a car here, two people in a kitchen there, four people in an office over there. Until (and unless) you, as a jock, can visualize your audience that way, you’ll never stop being an announcer, and you’ll never be able to start being a personality.

I did a little research while I was there. I polled the kids to find out which stations in our group they listened to. Most said they listen to at least one, but I suspect that a lot of this listening happens accidentally because their parents tune in. It would be a glorious thing if fifth- and sixth-graders were discovering good old terrestrial radio and deciding to stick with it, but almost everything we know about the demographics of the modern audience argues against it—the kids also own MP3 players. The most we can say is that there’s still an upcoming audience to be captured, and that listening to terrestrial radio has not yet become unimaginable to young people. Finding the right way to capture them is the challenge, because we aren’t going to make them give up their iPods or their commitment to downloadable culture. They have never known a world without it.

Recommended Reading: A blog that’s new to me, Birds With Broken Wings, another blog that uses music as memoir. The latest post is a medical marijuana adventure, with a fine selection of early-70s stoner rock from Lee Michaels. And at Barely Awake in Frog Pajamas, there’s a fine selection of 80s power ballads. Rock on.


5 responses

  1. Glad to see you did Career Day, Jim. I was in sixth grade when I took up an interest in radio.

    Sounds like the questions you got were many of the same I got from my students in my radio class… and some of them were seniors. The kids don’t know it yet, but they got a great introduction to “the biz.”

  2. I was in the fifth grade when I realized Casey Kasem seemed to have an awesome job.

    A short time later, I met my first local DJ. Actually, I had known her for a while (she was my Scoutmaster’s daughter) but since she never used her real name on the air and didn’t use the same voice in person, I didn’t realize until later who she was. However, it wasn’t until high school that I actually got to speak with a radio DJ about the job.

    He was setting up for a school dance. I came in early and spoke with him while he was getting his equipment ready. That thing I remember…he made a point of telling me that the business wasn’t as glamorous as I suspected — after all, he was doing a high school dance for extra money. And when I was trying to Wow him with my own knowledge, he let me know that knowing the product is nice…but a DJ really needs to know how to sell a product. “The most knowledgeable guy at a station can be fired in a heartbeat…but the guy who gets advertisers is tough to cut loose.”

    While it seemed like the guy was trying to dissuade me from the job, that turned out to be valuable advice when I began my radio career. They also helped me realize when I needed to walk away from it.

  3. Just curious, how accurate a portrayal of the radio biz is Harry Chapin’s W.O.L.D.?

  4. re: WOLD: well, they’re not called sock-hops anymore….

  5. Good Start Jim, catch them young, i know i wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life after a simi;ar presentation in grade 4. never regret the decision.

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