In his influential book Mastery, Robert Green examines how people learning a new skill or starting a new job go through three distinct phases. In the first, they’re on the outside looking in. Training such a person costs more than they can possibly contribute without some experience, and even if they already have some basic technical skills, their main role is to keep out of the way while observing everything they can.
Figuring out how things work like this is a lot like learning to swim in a sinking boat, so having someone to talk to can be a terrific help. At this stage, a person might know how an amplifier works and how advertising is sold, but how procedures are actually followed and rules enforced will be way out of their wheelhouse. Putting this another way, they will know what all the parts are, but not how to put them together.
Worse, they don’t know what they don’t know. The differences between theory and practice can often come as a tremendous shock, especially for those who became interested in radio due to its perceived glamour. Things can often be fast-paced during a broadcast, with very little room for error, so the stress may become overwhelming to the uninitiated, and having the support of someone who can prevent you from hitting the wrong switch at the wrong time can be hugely valuable.
Testing the Waters
Broadcasting is not a career which everyone will want to follow, but when you’re standing on the outside and relying only on what you’ve heard at second hand, it is difficult to know whether it will be good for you. Equally, individual radio stations can have very different institutional cultures, ranging all the way from chaotic freewheeling to more suit-and-tie organizations where everything has to be documented and approved.
Services such as Glassdoor may be of some help, as can simply asking around, but the best way to determine whether it will be a good fit is to jump right in in a non-permanent role. Even though interns are of little practical use, radio stations and other companies go along because this also allows them to comprehensively evaluate potential employees.
Most jobs in radio require a degree of some sort, usually in broadcasting, journalism or electrical engineering. This will not, however, actually prepare anyone for how things are done in the real world without some additional coaching.
It may seem absurd that, after three or more years at college, a person still can’t walk into a job and perform useful tasks, but this is the case in almost any profession you can name– medicine, law, and piloting being some examples. Companies typically expect a newly qualified engineer to be a net loss for at least six months, while they help out with small tasks and learn about the systems they’ll be working on. Unfortunately, there’s just no practical way to teach subjects such as how to book an interview, or what to do if an outside broadcast goes down.
In addition, almost everyone who works at a station ends up being cross-trained to a greater or lesser extent, which is usually done by their co-workers. Some information is barely available outside the station, such as the quirks of particular pieces of equipment, or procedures defined for various circumstances. Finally, on the job market, a degree without practical experience is likely to send your resume to the bottom of the pile.
Advice for Interns and Apprentices
The best possible advice anyone trying an apprenticeship can receive is to absorb all the knowledge they possibly can. Be proactive instead of merely responsive, since this is the first attribute potential employers look for and competition for desirable positions is likely to be fierce. Talk to everyone, even outside your field, and try to make as many friends as possible; and if you struggle with that, consider getting a therapy session with a licensed professional to help. Be confident without coming over as cocky, ask when you don’t know instead of trying to fake it, and people will be willing to share not only their technical skills, but also the kinds of insights that can only be gained through years of working in an industry. The networks you develop during an apprenticeship will be valuable during the whole of the rest of your career.
Unless a person is already sure of what career path they want to follow, it is also a good idea to rotate through as many departments as possible: technical, development, production and even admin. There’s no better way to learn how a station runs than hands-on, worm’s eye view experience. Even people contemplating a career change can benefit from an apprenticeship, and they may well find that their previous experience is unexpectedly useful.