The Born Freelancer on the True Value of a First Paid Job

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.



It’s a warm day in July so I’ve selected a sloppy old t-shirt to wear while writing this post.

It’s faded over the years but has served me well. It even has splotches of paint on it from when I removed it off “active wear” duty to “wear when painting walls” duty.

But that’s not why I’ve kept it.

It originates from the first commercial radio station I worked at on-air. (One of my many parallel freelance career threads). It displays the station logo, frequency and call letters from an era when they still branded themselves that way.

I’ve kept it because of the memories it evokes.

It’s a reminder how critical that first paid work experience was to my subsequent career. Up to that moment in my very young life I had done relevant courses, spent time volunteering at community stations and passionately studied the media. I highly recommend all of these activities.

But none of them will ever teach you more than your first paid media job, whatever it is.

It’s a numbers game

The year I decided to gain paid radio work experience I contacted hundreds of stations.

I didn’t want an unpaid internship – which are an abomination designed to save employers money and rip off young workers. I wanted “the real deal”. I wanted a paid job.

I had done my research, selecting markets I thought would consider rookie talent. (Other friends chose to attack big stations in big markets. Most did not succeed.)

And so prepared, I began my blitzkrieg.

From a couple hundred initial contacts I heard back from maybe ten percent 

I was learning my first invaluable real world lesson that would serve me well throughout my freelancing life: getting a paid job is often harder than the job itself. It requires tenacity and focus, determination and planning.

The list narrowed down, I chose responses that seemed most promising for ongoing follow ups. This brought me three genuine offers.

I chose the one closest to home so I could finish my schooling (which pleased my parents) despite some serious long distance commuting.

I was, in retrospect, alarmingly cocky. But I had to cool my jets. The program director wanted to witness me in action under the pressure of a real on-air shift. I thought this an unnecessary prevarication to delay my emerging stardom; in retrospect it was to provide one of my most memorable paid work world experiences.

I was assigned to produce or “operate the board” of the fast moving afternoon drive shift announced by the program director. (I would be expected to self-op my later freelance on air shifts requiring both technical and presentation skills). These were the final dying days of analogue in small markets – still utilizing “carts” and “cassettes”. Music was played off vinyl or cartridges. (You kids can look up these terms on Google or ask your college instructors to reminisce.)

My first moments on my first paid job

I was initially aware of something weird happening to my brain about 10 minutes into the shift. It was as if I was under water. Everything seemed to speed up and my reactions seemed sluggish and painfully slow. It made no sense. I had prepared for this moment over and over again. But this was finally “the real deal” and it was flooding my body with unexpected torrents of adrenalin.

My first paid radio job learning curve had begun.

I was aware of my program director talking on air but also to me through the glass from his booth. He was talking about some kind of community event for which we had a prerecorded PSA (Public Service Announcement). He now wanted to play it. That is, he wanted me to play it. His listeners were unaware of my presence.

I looked down at the CRTC log. There was no reference to it! He was “winging it” – in fact – testing my ability to improvise. I looked up at him, panic stricken, through the glass.

A kindly mentor, he was nevertheless enjoying my discomfort. The cocky kid was going to have to learn fast to survive.

“The announcement I want is on a prerecorded cart beside me” he said on air, to the audience but in reality to me behind the control board. I looked beside me to the rack of prerecorded commercials and PSAs. There were hundreds! Which could he possibly want me to play?

He sensed my indecision immediately. I’m sure that was the point of the exercise. Calmly, with a great smile on his face, he said on air (and again to me through the glass), “My right arm is reaching out to the rack of carts. My arm is going up, up, up and along, along, along. My right hand is reaching out for… that cart!” Talk about out of body experiences, it was as if my arm was being run by remote control. Sweating profusely, I found the right cart and dropped it in to the correct slot to play.

Total elapsed time on air: Maybe 10 seconds.

In my mind? An eternity.

And the listeners? They were used to his humour and assumed it was just another of his “bits”.

The rest of his show passed in a blur.

Later, he congratulated me on passing his initiation “test”. Having done so, he was confident I could handle any on air emergencies of my own on my own. It would very soon prove to be the case.

So what had I Iearned?

That first shift is etched forever in my mind.

• I learned that all my previous experience was nothing compared to having a first paid job. Sure, it had got me there but once there the learning curve was sharper than I could have ever anticipated.

• I learned humility and the acceptance that I had so much more to learn. (Fortunately that program director would turn out to be an inspiring mentor.) I still accept that I have so much more to learn to this day, every time I work on anything new as a freelancer.

• I learned that all job-related tasks – no matter how seemingly menial – were to be accomplished with maximum effort. From such tasks invaluable experience can unexpectedly emerge.

• I learned that paid job experience would give me genuine confidence (not just a youthful veneer) and the ability to overcome any obstacles in my path if I stayed focused, calm, tenacious and with my sense of humour intact.

• I learned that the true value of a first paid media job goes well beyond getting paid.

The takeaway

Getting a first paid media job, whatever it is, will probably be one of the hardest things you ever do.

From it you will learn more than you learned in all your life before it.

If you are lucky you will have a mentor to guide you and allow you to explore your abilities and talents.

(And if you are in a senior position today but hesitate to help mentor novices, try to recall your own first job. I believe in giving back that which we have taken out of the universe – even more so if possible. Perhaps you will too.)

A couple years – and uncounted lessons learned later – I left that station, moving forward with my multi-faceted freelancing career.

But I still occasionally wear their t-shirt. It is now my only tangible connection to a time when I thought I knew it all and learned I knew nothing at all. A time when I put my foot on the bottom rung of my fledgling career ladder and found out that it would all turn out OK if I just kept my ears and eyes and mind open and my healthy ego in check.

It’s still true today.

Posted on July 17, 2019 at 8:00 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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