By Conrad Schwellnus
Back by popular demand, part two of ‘Ask The Programme Manager’ got the final week of Radio Days Africa 2020 going earlier today, as host Neil Johnson sat down with Zane Derbyshire (Programme Manager at East Coast Radio), Zandile Tembe (Programme Manager at Ukhozi FM) and Bob Mabena (Group Head of Programming at MSG) to discuss their experiences with radio demos, the importance of being multifaceted as a radio enthusiast in the modern age, as well as touching on the roles that they have found to be the hardest to fill in the industry today. If you missed part one, featuring a different panel of programme managers who also shared insights and tips for aspiring broadcasters, check out our Day 4 wrap over here to catch up first.
As was the case in the previous session, delegates in attendance today were hungry to gain any tips about how they should go about creating their radio demos, and what programme managers typically look for when trying to find new talent for their stations. Neil started the discussion with an important caveat that is often forgotten — namely, that programme managers are part of a bigger team, and while they have some influence in the process, at the end of the day there is a larger group of decision makers who collectively decide about who gets to go on air and who doesn’t. This is good to understand if you’ve been unsuccessful when applying at a station, and are squaring all the blame (or putting all hope) on a single person to give you your “big break”, so to speak.
At East Coast Radio, Zane has a preference to hear demos compiled from actual radio shows. “First try a crack at community radio, and then once you’ve cracked that, send short airchecks to a programme manager,” he said. “I don’t believe in packaging and recording beautiful demos. The shorter and more impactful, the better. If you can grab me in 10 seconds, all the better”. Bob — who oversees programming for multiple stations — echoed these sentiments, reminding delegates that programme managers are tremendously pressed for time in a given week. “The spray and pray thing doesn’t work,” he said, referencing the trend of people sending the same demo to multiple stations, irrespective of considering the audience and language. Zandi gets about 30 demos a week for Ukhozi FM. “Practice, practice, practice”, she said, mentioning that in this day and age there are multiple platforms and opportunities for aspiring broadcasters to do so and to get better at their craft. “I’ll never forget a good demo, I can promise you that”, she added.
As suggested by the panel, about 95% of radio demos are sent for on air roles, when there may be an overlooked opportunity in the remaining 5%. Rather than putting all hopes on a very competitive on air dream upfront, getting into the industry can be easier if you can showcase that you are skilled in multiple areas and are keen to learn more about all the various facets of the industry. This makes you more useful than just being a “replacement for presenter x” on a station (Bob mentioned that he likes to ask people who they want to replace on air when they contact him, and often they don’t have an answer for him), while also showcasing that you have more skills to offer. As many people working in commercial radio will tell you, getting a foot in the door at a radio station often involves getting started in a different role and working your way around (and growing into) the role that you have your eye on over time.
So what are some of the non-on air roles that are the hardest to fill? Referencing the various internships at their stations, the panel was quick to emphasise the role of training to help develop talent across multiple departments (not just on air) for their own stations, but also for the industry as a whole. “We need researchers and writers,” Zandile slipped in during the course of the discussion. For Zane, finding good producers can be quite a difficult task. “There is very little formal training,” he said. “Understanding how things work and being able to direct an entire team of people is a skill that not many people have”. He suggested that the more multifaceted you are as a producer, the more successful you will be in the role. The panel also talked about how difficult it can be to find good music compilers. Often, people think that if they are musicians themselves, that they are more qualified for the job. As summarised so well by Neil, you need to “be passionate about music, but dispassionate about compiling” to be good in the role, which is about so much more than just personal taste.
While these roles may provide opportunities for people looking to get into the industry outside of the on air route, we can’t talk about future careers in radio without mentioning the rise of digital, and how important it is to be tech savvy irrespective of your job title. Does the panel think that the onslaught of digital has changed the skillset of the typical person working in the industry? “Absolutely,” Zane said. “If you are not able to tell a story, or connect with an audience across a plethora of platforms, your time is up”, he added. “My traffic controller will not just be a traffic controller,” Zandile said in reference to the diverse nature of the roles at Ukhozi FM, and how employees need to be skilled in a variety of different ways in order to plug into the greater vision of the team. Neil suggested an interesting idea, that involves getting rid of departments in radio stations, and breaking employees up into teams instead. Irrespective of how the industry should or is adapting in the wake of the the rise of digital, the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertain economic climate, Bob shared a piece of wisdom that will ring true in spite of these and other challenges: “Get your foot in, in any way, shape or form, and you will find your way in if you’ve got what it takes”, he said.
If the ‘Ask The Programme Manager’ sessions at Radio Days Africa 2020 taught us anything specific, it relates to the importance of finding ways to hone your craft in a changing digital landscape, prioritising development of skills slowly and systematically, and the importance of not getting stuck on a limiting dream of only being an on air personality. If people in existing positions at radio stations are becoming more multifaceted in their roles as the landscape of radio adjusts, so the people who are looking to get a foot in the door should be doing the same. With the right attitude and an inherent passion and love for broadcasting, some radio enthusiasts with dreams of working in the industry may even be surprised by where they eventually end up. Perhaps, they will even end up making the greatest impact in an area that they didn’t even know they were passionate about to begin with.