What will you do after your radio career is over?
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 encouraged group owners to acquire more stations in each market and consolidate personnel, many talented people have found themselves — voluntarily or by executive fiat — looking for work elsewhere.
“I believe that the executives have decimated radio,” said Ken Dardis, president of Audio Graphics, a Chagrin Falls, Ohio consultancy. “It’s been one misstep after another. While owners were in their consolidation mindset, people like me were asking how they’d pay for it. The multiples they were paying for the stations were not reasonable.”
Ownership might feel otherwise. But it’s indisputable that for some companies, the solution to the red ink was cutting costs, which meant staff. But where do the employees who were downsized go? Some have gone into allied fields such as voice work, mobile music or equipment sales, satellite services, production companies or radio’s various software suppliers.
“A general manager once told me that radio is built on sand,” said Michael Neff, freelance radio commercial producer and voice specialist. “He said that no matter how good the reputation of your station or what its heritage status may be, you should be prepared to shift laterally or else shift downward. My dad told me that what’s important is how you recoil.”
Neff said that when people are removed from their jobs, they have a choice. “They can say ‘I got screwed’ or they can regroup and go on. I chose the latter.”
Ed Ryba, shown here with an RCA 44BX, an RCA 77DX and a TLM-103, all classic mics. The console is an analog Mackie 32-8 board, which produces a warm sound. Photo by Jennifer Ryba
During his 40-plus years in radio, Neff worked at stations as big as 10,000 watt WMAL(AM) at 630 on the dial in the nation’s capital, and as small as 1,000 watt WBAX(AM), Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
“Some people have a disgruntled attitude, exemplified by the philosophy, ‘The way we did it in the past is best.’ I don’t want to be like that,” he said. “I have tried to shift, bob and weave to stay alive. Middle management, which I occupied during my peak years, has been eliminated.”
Even during his stints at non-radio jobs with United Way of Lackawanna County in Scranton, Pa., and the Pocono-Northeast Chapter of The Lupus Foundation of Pennsylvania, Neff kept up his broadcast chops by doing local radio production from his own studio. He is now doing radio production and voice work in non-ranked Arbitron market Wellsboro, Pa., but he says he has learned from every opportunity he had.
“I never burned my bridges. There have been disappointments but everyone I met helped me get where I am,” said Neff.
ONE DOOR CLOSES...
“You’re not a broadcaster until you’ve been fired at least once.”
So said Ed Ryba, who hit the air in 1977 on the overnight show over a 1 kW blowtorch in California. The pay was pitiful and the hours worse, but the skills he eventually acquired there and at subsequent stations up and down the dial set him up well for his after-radio future.
“I routinely did things in the production room that went way beyond what the equipment was supposed to do,” he said.
As is often the case, one of the stations he helped make into a ratings success was sold and Ryba was fired. He began recording film sound for MTV’s original “Rock Against Drugs” campaign, then got a job mixing audio at Financial News Network, which was later bought by CNBC and killed off. Ryba was out of a job again.
“That’s when I went freelance,” he said. “I began doing voice-overs at Fox TV, ESPN and others. I built a studio where I could do the work in my condo in the San Fernando Valley, and recorded music there as well.”
Ryba estimates he has recorded more than 10,000 radio spots; he credits radio for his ability to work fast while keeping up the quality. He is still recording his own music and currently has a song available through iTunes.
The big question remains: What does the broadcast industry want that someone with roots in radio can provide?
A variety of answers
“There is a growing demand for people who understand radio’s analytics and metrics,” said Dardis.
“What is happening with digital advertising delivery? We don’t have enough people who understand the complexities of gathering these metrics. Which numbers do you ignore? How do you formulate the data into a concise, actionable report you can hand to management? That’s one need that I see.” Others have mentioned the need for engineers, IT professionals and social media/online experts.
But those with an entrepreneurial spirit will follow their own paths. While still on salary with a radio station in northeastern Pennsylvania, Don Murley was doing so much outside voice talent work that he discovered he could make more money on the outside, and eventually left and began a long series of radio-related ventures.
“I found niche services I could provide,” he said. “I was one of the pioneers with in-store broadcasting for Sears and ShurSave supermarkets. This was before satellite-delivered announcements in the stores, but I built a huge network of clients. If I had stayed in radio, all my extra activities might have been considered a conflict of interest.”
Murley also created radio and television spots for local advertisers he met through his station, and worked with ad agencies too. Then he got into voice-tracking, another service for which he was well-suited after his on-air experience. Murley soon got to the point where he was quite speedy at voice-tracking, but he prided himself on making his shows sound “live.”
“I can always tell when I hear some station that’s badly voice-tracked,” he said. “The guy’s head is not in the game.”
Another radio-related revenue stream Murley developed was broadcasting AAA winter road condition reports from his own studio. Called the AAA Icicle Network, Murley explains, “It was great for the stations because they got up-to-date road condition information on the air, and it was great PR for AAA.”
Eventually the broadcast ended up on 65 stations daily. “I had a goldmine, but I worked 105 days straight all winter, getting up at 3:30 a.m. to start compiling the data,” Murley said. “When it would start to snow around 6 a.m., it screwed everything up because I already had begun calling stations with reports.”
But perhaps the biggest step Murley took was when he began producing and serving as on-air national spokesperson for a company’s radio and television infomercials.
“They were selling fish oil and other health products, and I’d host the shows, interview the doctors and give out the 800 number. We were doing so many shows that I eventually moved into a facility they built for me in their building and became their full-time employee.”
And on it went for this post-radio entrepreneur. Over the last 20 years he has also shot video for TV news stories and placed broadcast time for advertisers.
“At some point I began voicing on-hold message tapes for companies,” he said. “It’s not a lot of money for each one, but you put 15 of those together every month and you can pay your mortgage.”
There can still be life after radio, so let us know about your next career by writing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken Deutsch is another one of those ex-DJ types floating around. He has authored four books, which are available at www.amazon.com.