Career Reinvention Might Be Crazy, But It’s Fun as Hell

by Kent Sterling

Unlike in this picture, now when I smile, I actually look happy.

Unlike in this picture, now when I smile, I actually look happy.

For a long time I was paid a righteous amount of money for executing the wide variety of tasks necessary for talk radio station programming departments to function at a high level.

But just as an athlete has a predetermined number of games his body will allow him to play, I had a specific number of meetings where the careers of members of the staffs I managed could be debated, and in some cases ended.

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The joy I derived from helping talent perform better began to be outweighed by the angst of continuing to find ways to operate more efficiently.  That happened while working for Hubbard and Emmis – two of the most conscientious and decent companies in broadcasting.  I wouldn’t have lasted through the first meeting at a Cumulus station.

So what did I decide to do instead?  Generate content for a website and radio station!  Smart, real smart.  Instead of being in the room as part of the brain trust who plots the course of a business, now I am trying to build a career as one of the pawns I used to shuffle.

That could only make sense in my life.

I didn’t get into radio to be a program director, but financial concerns drove me to continue to accept raises and promotions in that direction.  Soon, my hopes to be on the radio faded as a career that was sort of thrust upon me happened.

It took being replaced as a program director in Indianapolis to provide me the freedom I needed to do what I always find more challenging anyway.  Writing 750 word columns three times a day became my routine, and interviewing those who play and coach became a passion.  The writing led to a radio show on 1070 the Fan – the station I helped launch a few years before.

Then a series of phone calls came from one of the top sportstalk stations in the country.  101 ESPN is owned by one of the smartest companies in media, Hubbard Communication, and when you get a chance to work for Hubbard, you either say yes or decide that you are done with radio management.

I decided to take a chance, but realized after almost two years that the sacrifice of living separated from my family was not worth the position.  The choice to return home and re-engage in my pursuit of generating unique content was easy.

This is what I always wanted to do, and life is way too short to spend a minute doing something other than what you love.  Some are born with that wisdom.  In others, it never comes.  I’m just glad I got it eventually.

For years, I heard people say, “Better to fail at what you love than to succeed at what you loathe.”  I thought they were nuts, and the truth is that they are.  If I felt for a minute that I wasn’t improving at writing, talking, and executing the systems needed to be excellent at both, I would get a job doing something else.

When people asked what the mission of the stations I managed was, I would say, “To search for the fun and truth in sports.”  That’s a pretty sturdy umbrella for the philosophy of a talk radio station, but what I have found is that it’s far more enjoyable to explore that terrain myself than to provide the map for others.

So I work like hell to improve by doing the same things I used to tell others – relax and be yourself.  Success isn’t guaranteed by being yourself, but failure is assured by trying to be someone else.  Have fun because if you don’t enjoy performing, no one will enjoy the performance.  Prepare like you are going to war but be a little unpredictable.

I worked with Big Joe Staysniak Thursday, and he said that he’s never quite sure what I’m going to say.  I liked the way he described me.  It made me sound dangerously honest, which is often times where the best radio is.

What I’ve discovered over the last six months is that the same dynamic that makes writing a source of fun and challenge for me translates just as well to radio as I thought it might.  The effort to communicate to others exactly what my thoughts are with language is an endless test that is  impossible to master.

I can’t control whether people enjoy listening to or reading what I believe, but I can consistently reflect exactly what I believe to be fascinating, moving, funny, or true.

That beats the hell out of sitting in meetings deciding who gets raises, and who gets gassed.

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