What Broadcasting Taught Me About Life

My parents tell me that the first word I ever said was “Radio”. Here’s what my broadcasting career taught me about life.

It’s a “Do-It-Yourself” proposition:

Despite what the some people may tell you, there is no ideal manual or educational protocol for life and career. Books and teachers can give you the basics, but understanding how and where you fit in is up to you.

I surrounded myself with supportive radio people who were kind enough to overlook my flaws, to give me helpful, if sometimes painful feedback and believed in my dreams.

My mentors in the popular fiction space like to say that thrillers keep telling the same story over and over. The characters and the modus operandi may change, but it always ends up being a tale of  a flawed protagonist overcoming obstacle after obstacle in a quest for redemption and meaning.

Living is daily single combat in concert with the forces of good and against the forces of evil. Others can give you the sword. It’s up to you to learn how to use it.

You make it either exciting or monotonous:

This is the “attitude” piece that has been repeated so often that it’s become a cliche. It remains the most crucial factor that contributes to achievement, or to failure.

The difference between setbacks and failure is how you look at it. Setbacks are the necessary learning experiences that help you build the right skills, mental toughness and tenacity to succeed. Failure is a mindset, a loss of faith and the often incorrect assumption that “it can’t be done”.

You get to choose how to perceive these things. Choose wisely.

Mastery won’t come easy:

I was talking with a radio friend the other day about our early days in the business. Most of us began as a board-ops, the guys who spun the dials and the records at the studio while the real talent sat in a trailer at some furniture store selling sofas.

Doing radio right is a symphony of subtlety. It’s so much more than playing records and commercials. How you arrange your stop sets (the breaks between the tunes), the points at which you start and end each element and the nuances of how you ride the volume levels of the mix are the little things that separate the good from the great. Listeners may not overtly appreciate the attention to detail, but it has a powerful subconscious impact.

It took me years to understand the importance of planning, detail and the art of execution. I made many mistakes along the way. But radio was the one thing I really wanted to be good at. And I kept coming back, again and again, until what required complete focus became a reflex.

What people see isn’t always what’s really happening:

Broadcasting can be a stressful, heartbreaking experience. It’s an increasingly smaller and more competitive pond with many, many fish who want to swim in it. Radio people are often underpaid, under appreciated and easily disposable. This culture is particularly painful because it tends to attract people who love the affirmation that they believe is connected to fame. They may get some of that on the air, but very rarely does it come your way from your boss.  Yet, the audience perceives that we’re having the time of our lives on the air and want them to come along for the ride.

And so it is in any profession. Profit is the ultimate motive and the extent to which we can help generate it determines our upward mobility. The best leaders compliment us when we check the boxes on our annual objectives. But are always looking forward, pressing us to reach higher and be better. Behind every product is a phalanx of often stressed team members who are trying to deliver a customer experience that will make people want to continue the relationship.

Suffer in the privacy of close friends or in your therapist’s office. When you’re on the stage, try to never let them see you sweat.

There will be ups and downs:

I vividly remember coming back from a standing ovation after speaking at a high school graduation, to a meeting with my program director where he tore me to shreds. The day I earned my pilots license, our water heater blew up.

Life is a sine wave of continual change. At any point you are either heading into a crisis, in a crisis or coming out of a crisis. How you navigate each of those spaces becomes the narrative of your life story.

I’ve often found that achieving an end isn’t nearly as exhilarating as was walking the path to get there. This is the “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posits to be the true joy that comes with hard work.

And the view from the mountaintop is much more beautiful when you’ve known the darkness of the valley.

There are no guarantees:

Radio is famous for having no pensions, no clear career paths and (unless you’re under contract) no guarantee that the show you just finished won’t be your last.

Job security in any profession is a myth. You have to prove your worth each time you clock in and hopefully find ways to increase the value you add to earn a commensurate income. Whether it’s planning for how you will continue to serve the world during “retirement” or thinking about the next steps in your career path, you have to make the decisions. The only time you can rest on your laurels is when they line your casket.

As long as you still have gas in the tank, it’s about giving your best effort, understanding the business and finding ways to help your company be more profitable and your boss to be more successful. Even then, your job may be eliminated. But if you’ve built a track record of contribution, you’ll never be “between opportunities” for long.

Purpose is the ultimate objective:

It took me awhile to understand why I was truly attracted to broadcasting. It was being on the air when historic events were happening, helping the audience make sense of it all, cheering their highs and helping them navigate their lows, and giving them an informational toolkit to “Leave them in a better place than I found them”.

Think about how this translates to just about any profession. We are put on this earth to alleviate suffering. How we choose to do it is our “purpose”.

Few of us ever really take the time to contemplate purpose. We get hooked on a job we don’t like that pays us well, and shortchange ourselves based on perceived limitations.

If you can only focus on one goal, let it be discovering your purpose and pursuing it with passion.

Every day is a fresh start:

I still have tape of the worst radio show I ever did. I had just jumped from an also-ran station to the number one shop in town. While I still did a lot of board-op stuff, I finally had my own program! I set my reel to reel to tape my debut. It was a disaster.

Listening to it now, I remember the mixture of unfamiliarity with the equipment and the fear of screwing up that came together to create a disaster. I went home feeling like I had just blown the biggest opportunity of my life, that the skills I had worked so hard to learn had deserted me and my career was about to come to an end.

Luckily, I had an opportunity to get back in the batter’s box the next morning. I didn’t sleep very well that night, but woke up strangely at peace. The butterflies were gone, my reflexes kicked in and, while still far from excellent, the second shot was much closer to the mark.

The great sales trainer, Tom Hopkins has written that, “We are not judged by the number of times we fail, but but the number of times we succeed. And the number of times we succeed is directly connected to the number of times we can fail… and keep trying.

Keep trying to understand your purpose.

Keep learning, building the portfolio of skills and experience you need to pursue it.

Realize that life owes you nothing, that the universe is agnostic about whether you succeed or fail and that your ability to achieve your goals is totally up to you.

Remember my own modification of Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic wisdom. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and to remove myself from the unacceptable.

Surround yourself with good people. Create a board of directors that includes your closest friends, your doctor, financial adviser, lawyer and a therapist. Fuel your body with the right food and exercise, get enough sleep and give yourself time to smell the roses.

And when you have mixed all of these ideas into a blender that creates the personal brand you want to share with the world, cut yourself some slack. Given time and effort, you have the ability to achieve anything you believe. Don’t let the detours deter you from finding your way home.

And as Winston Churchill might advise:

“Never give up, never give up. Never. Never. Never.”

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash