At some point last year, I put a version of the following into my e-mail newsletter, The Sidepiece. Here’s the original, from my Drafts file:
Making a radio show, commercial, or even a podcast, is a craft, like making a chair or throwing a pot. Certain aspects of furniture making have been modernized; you don’t have to make your own nails if you don’t want to, and electric tools are fine. Certain aspects of the radio craft have gone the same way. We don’t play music on records or commercials on tape cartridges, and we can let the sequence of digital files in front of us run more-or-less indefinitely. We can record our bits as voice tracks and do a show without actually being there in real time.
But some furniture makers prefer hand tools. They believe such tools provide a better feel or more control, or they’re simply more comfortable with them. The equivalent in radio is turning off the autopilot and running the individual elements, jingles and songs and commercials, manually. Or arranging the order of the commercials so that the strongest ones—the ones that are produced the best, or the most entertaining—go first. Or doing a live show even if you have the option of voice-tracking it. Doing things in the older ways can make you feel more connected to the craft you practice. And like a furniture-maker planing a board by hand, you can get it exactly how you want it.
Not everybody in radio has enough talent to make it strictly as a performer, via sparkling wit or fierce intelligence or whatever it takes in a particular situation. Many more of us, however, have the skill and the dedication to persevere at perfecting our craft. If I were advising young air personalities or podcasters, I’d tell them to think of what they are doing not as performing—which I did, for far too long—but as making something, and to direct all their efforts toward making something they can be proud of.
Every few weeks I listen to some airchecks, driving around town and hearing my breaks like a regular person would. Not long ago, I was listening to a bit I had done, one I had put a lot of thought into. While I was doing it, I thought it sounded fine, but listening back to it later, I realized that it just didn’t work.
It happens. There are a lot of breaks in a radio jock’s lifetime, and not every one of them is going to be golden. But what you do after a bad break is important. When I considered myself a performer, I would simply shake off a bad break, fall back on my talent, and trust that if I got into the same situation in the future, I’d do better. But as a crafter, there’s value in living with bad breaks for a while.
If you were building a chair or throwing a pot, it would be important to recognize a rough edge, or when a piece doesn’t fit quite right, or that your basic design is flawed and next time you need to go about it a different way. Same is true for a radio show or a podcast. You cannot fall in love with everything you make. You have to be able to recognize good quality, or the lack of it, in your own work. You have to learn how to critique your own work, because in a do-more-with-less media world, outside feedback has become pretty rare.
And you have to be ruthless about it. Until you can dispassionately evaluate your own work and accept what you have to do to make it better, even at the cost of bruising your ego, you’re never going to be the crafter you aspire to be.