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PROFESSIONALISM

by John Pellegrini

Back in 1984, when I had been working my first job in radio for a half year or so, I went for a visit to one of the Broadcasting Schools (and I use that term in its loosest sense) that I had attended to see one of the teachers I had been friends with. As I sat in his office, swapping "new radio job" stories with him, one of the students barged in and demanded, "Where's them f* * * *g headphones at?" (exact words)

My friend, the teacher, replied, "You appear to be holding them in your hand," which was true enough because the student did have a pair with him.

"Nah," the student spat, "them ones with the f@#$%&g loud knob! I gotta have them f*&%$@g loud!" (again, exact words)

I looked up at this student, and asked, "Do you ever plan on working in radio?"

"F*** You!" was the reply. And he walked out.

You might think that the subject of this article is going to be professionalism. And you would be right. But it's not professionalism where you think it is.

Okay, so the student was extreme. Of course, as anyone can plainly see, he had no business being in the class. By the way, he subsequently dropped out of the school and never worked in radio (to my knowledge). The unfortunate thing was, the school never encouraged him to leave. Nor did they do anything to correct his behavior. This school was among the types of broadcasting schools that couldn't afford to be picky when it came to aptitude because they needed all the students they could get. My friend, the teacher, chose to just live with it, collect his paycheck, and ignore the ones like the student above. Incidentally, this school is no longer in business, and my friend is not in radio anymore either. Does this surprise you?

But consider for a moment what might have happened. What if I hadn't been just a starting out disk jockey myself, but instead, had been a Program Director from a major market station? What if I was visiting this guy as an old friend and was in town listening to the local talent? What if, instead of being a jerk, the kid had been polite, and even interested in what was going on between my friend the teacher, and myself?

The problem is, the student didn't consider for one second who I might be. The student didn't even think that who he was talking to could have been someone important that could have helped his career. Sure, as it turns out, I wasn't, but how would he have known that? More importantly, how could he have been so stupid as to not know that it is always a possibility that the person you're talking to might be in a position to help you with your career, or might be in a position like that in the future? Simple, the kid was an idiot and had no business being there. The kid had no business even thinking for one second that he had any future in broadcasting. But the school never told him that.

Had there been proper counseling for this student, before he took the classes, a lot of this could have been avoided, and a lot of time wouldn't have been wasted on him. My friend the teacher remarked to me that this particular student had caused him a great deal of trouble with other students by being disruptive and a general pain in the ass. I'm sure this went over nicely with the students who were there trying to actually learn something and had paid $1,200.00 each for the semester (this was back when $1200.00 was a lot of money) at the school.

Here is where the professionalism problem lies: The school had none. The curriculum had none. The owner of the school didn't have enough professionalism to value the education he was giving the students so that he would weed out idiots like the student above. All the owner was interested in was making money. The teacher, my friend, didn't have enough sense of professionalism to drop kick that kid's ass out the door. He was only interested in collecting a paycheck. Therefore, all this unprofessionalism on their part combined to create an unprofessional environment for the rest of the students, and subsequently not teaching any of them the right values toward professionalism. After all, anyone in that class who had any aptitude for the business at all certainly wasn't going to learn anything helpful from that school.

Professionalism doesn't begin in the obvious places. Professionalism begins with you, and how you view your job. Professionalism means you don't just throw up your hands and declare "It's hopeless," unless it truly is hopeless. Then the professional gets the hell out of there and doesn't waste any more time on it while destroying his or her own values toward professionalism.

You've no doubt heard of the "Domino Principle" in which one small incident sets off a chain reaction of escalations. This school was a classic example of that effect. As far as I know, I am the only graduate of that particular broadcasting school who ever went on to any sort of career beyond the standard one year or less of fooling around before going into a "real job." In fact, I'm the only person to graduate from that school for a two-year period who even got a job in radio! How did I do it? Ignorance, I guess. I just realized that I would have to ignore everything they taught me.

There is an old saying that I still use to this day. It sums up much of my attitude toward my job, and you'll find that it's probably true for you, too. It is this:

"I'm only as good as the people I surround myself with."

No other statement on professionalism comes as close as the truth of this one, because when it comes right down to it, none of us really wants to do more than we have to to get our career going. There's nothing wrong with admitting it. In fact, if you can admit it, you've discovered the secret to your success.

Because if you know that you're only as good as the people you work with, the goal becomes to find the best possible people to work with. Find the best possible work environment you can and the best teachers available. So what if it costs more to learn at a better school? You're the one who has to pay the price regardless. So what if it takes longer to get to that "ultimate" radio gig? You're the one who has to live with the result. If the rest of your life is the result of why you are doing this, why would you settle for mediocrity?

Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? In fact, where do you see yourself one year from now? Five years? Ten years? Fifteen years? Do you have any plans for that period of time? You no doubt realize that among other things, 20 years is long enough to create and raise a kid and put it into college. What are you doing about the rest of that time?

Obviously, if you have any aspirations at all, your answer will be, "some- thing better." What is that? Where is that? What is your exact definition of "something better?" Your sense of professionalism will definitely be influenced by how you answer that question. If you have no real or exact goal, you'll have no real interest in your present situation or your future situations. Why should you? lf you don't have an objective in mind, there's no reason to be interested. If you don't take your objectives seriously, you won't take your present job seriously, and you won't take your future career considerations seriously, either. Trust me when I tell you, this comes from hard lessons learned by yours truly. This is the leading cause of problems for people in career choices.

The worst thing you can do to your career is to have no real goals. By that I mean more than the usual, "I'm gonna get to a major market and make tons of money." You need to have specific goals. The worst thing you can do to hurt your chances of getting a job and keeping it is let indifference be your guide. A person who does nothing but complain about how bad they have it will soon find themselves in a worse situation, like unemployed. Why? The Domino Principle. One person complaining all the time brings down the attitude of all the others. The solution is to get rid of the

complainer. It's done all the time. It was done to me years ago, back when I was a complainer.

It is far easier to get rid of one lousy attitude, than to motivate fifty average attitudes. I could take the position that the broadcasting school I attended wasn't very professional, which caused me to learn bad habits, and that's why it took me so long to get my act together in this biz, but that's ducking responsibility. Sally Jesse Raphael and those other shows make fortunes off of people blaming others. I'd rather not whore out my integrity like they do. I put the responsibility squarely on myself. There were people that I knew whom I could have called for advice that would have set me straight. But I was lazy, took the easy way out, and paid for It.

Remember, no matter how deeply you dig a hole and hide yourself, you will have to eventually answer for your situation. You will have to pay a price for every action you do. But, not all of those prices are horrible. Sometimes the price you pay is success and recognition, Yes, believe it or not, that is a price to be paid. There is almost always a course that you can chart, which will tell you that by doing this, this, and this, you will get that. Your career can be charted in just such a fashion. If you go this way, you'll get to this destination. Go the other way, and you end up there.

As a nation, we are taught that "amateur" athletes are the true heroes. But are they really? The Olympics always make a big hoopla about the "amateur" status of the participating athletes, and that this is somehow more desirable than a "professional" status. Yet most of the best athletes competing in the Olympics are full-time professionals. What's the difference? A while ago, NPR reported a study of professional pianists versus amateur pianists. The basis of the study was to determine why professional pianists seem to defy the laws of nature that affect most people when they age, that they get more energy and improve their skills as they get older.

The study found that all the professional pianists improve their abilities because they are paid to do what they do, and they get paid better as they improve. Therefore, they have a daily interest in practicing and getting better, even well into their 70s and 80s, such as Rubenstein and Horowitz. Whereas the amateurs didn't take the issue of improvement seriously, so their skills deteriorated. The same can hold true for older athletes (Arnold Palmer, Jimmy Conners), and entertainers (all the great singers, actors and comedians that have been around for ages). Sure, the "legendary" athlete or performer is an attraction, but if they aren't winning the occasional event, or still performing on a level close to, or even better than, when they were younger, no one's going to want to see them anymore. Those who take their professions seriously always do better than those who don't, and always have more to offer as they get older.

You could say the same holds true in this industry. The good ones who still want to achieve more and improve their careers are still at it and successful. But the road back down is paved with those who didn't take it seriously, for whatever reasons. Radio is one of those few industries where age is meaningless. As long as your voice holds out, you can have a career forever. What makes it or breaks it is how serious you are about keeping your career.

Trust me, this is a hell of a lot easier to preach than it is to practice at first. But once you get into the habit of looking at your career this way, it's much easier to get all the right stuff taken care of. It's much easier to keep yourself on course, and much easier to make the right decisions when the time comes. True, the argument could be made that when I was going through all my attitude problems, someone could have told me all this and it probably wouldn't have changed much. Some people, like me, need to be hit on the head with a much larger sledge hammer than most. But, if I can help just one person who reads this to make it a little easier for themselves, then the rest of you can just live with it.

Reprinted from Radio And Production magazine.

John Pellegrini is Creative Director of WLS-AM/Chicago. He can be reached at John.Pellegrini@abc.com

© 1997 by John Pellegrini

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