I can still remember when I was young enough to believe that 25th anniversary celebrations were recalling things that happened in ancient history. When you’re a kid, 25 years seems like a long time. Yet this post is all about an event that last happened 25 years ago, and the life lessons it taught me. I have no doubt my story isn’t unique, and maybe if we share our experiences in the comments, it may give a young person struggling to find their way in the world a bit of motivation and inspiration.
When I was a kid, I lived and breathed the radio. Through a series of flukes, and just plain precociousness I guess. I managed to get on radio in my home town of Auckland, New Zealand, from a bout the age of four, and was a regular fixture on radio throughout my childhood. My friends and I ran imaginary radio stations. Radio was my passion, and I really wanted to work in it.
In my early teens, I was actively discouraged from pursuing radio as a career option by the Foundation for the Blind, whose vocational guidance person said that he had seen radio becoming increasingly computerised, thus making it hard for a blind person to succeed in this industry. This was before the age of even DOS computers. Yet I wasn’t prepared to drop it. I believed I had something to offer, that I could really be good at this radio thing.
There was no Internet then. No easy way to go to a search engine and find out if any blind people were doing what I really wanted to do. What we did have though, was word of mouth. My brother’s friend had travelled to Singapore, and heard a very capable, popular DJ on radio there who happened to be blind. On the radio, he called himself Roger Kool. I didn’t hear any recordings of him then, but he instantly became my hero, because he was living the dream I had for myself.
With help from teenage friends of mine who were also blind, and with the support of the principal who was very encouraging, I set up small radio stations that broadcast on FM throughout the campus of the school for the blind. Although I wasn’t attending it by then, I still had some contact with it for studies, and there was a market of students who lived in the residential accommodation at nights and weekends.
One day, a friend alerted me to an ad in the paper for a broadcasting course, which was run by some recognised names in the field. To be considered, you had to send in an audition tape. So I put one together, full of bad jokes and puns and jingles and little rants in the voice breaks. Wait, sounds just like the Mosen Explosion doesn’t it? Then I sent in the tape.
One day I got a call from the head of the course to say that they loved my tape, and they offered me a place on the course! I was over the moon, until I heard the price of the course. There was no way I’d be able to come up with that kind of money. So I told them I would have to decline their offer.
A day or so later, he called back. He said that my tape was of such a high standard, that they were certain I would have a future in radio, and that it would be good for the future of their course if they could say I was a graduate of it. So he offered me the course at half price. I was delighted, and said I could probably manage to come up with the funds. I told him that the night before the course started, I would come in and put Braille labels on carts, other items of media and the like. At that point, his attitude changed and became frosty. He said there was absolutely no point in my doing the course, since a blind person couldn’t work in radio. Too much, he said, was visual.
I wonder what kind of person I’d be today, if I let that ill-informed comment break my spirit. As a teenager, uncertain about whether society would ever allow me to maximise my potential because of common misconceptions about blindness, it would have been so easy to have given up.
Sometimes, clichés are clichés because they really do contain useful advice. And I believe it’s true that we can’t always control the cards life hands us, but we can control how we play the hand. So I decided that if those attitudes existed in the radio industry here in New Zealand, it was my job to change them.
In 1986, I began working on starting my own commercial radio station. In those days in New Zealand, radio licenses were allocated by a body known as the Broadcasting Tribunal. You could apply to the Tribunal to obtain a short-term license to broadcast for a fixed period for some sort of special event. My idea was that a group of blind people would broadcast from the school for the blind for 14 days during the May school holidays of 1987, using equipment that would give us reach right across the city.
I think if we’d gone to the local service clubs and sought philanthropic donations, we could have done it easily. There’d have been general support for letting the blind kids have a go on the radio. But I was determined we had to do it the harder, proper way. The station would be commercial. We would have a team who sold advertising, to fund the cost of hiring studio equipment, the AM transmitter that would broadcast our signal right across the city, and the massive antenna that would have to go up in one of the fields. We’d sell ads by saying that a bunch of blind people running a station would have enough novelty value, that people would tune in and give us a listen, so advertisers would get exposure. In most cases, we would write and record the ads to a high standard. We called it Radio Enterprise, partly because of the trekky imagery we could use, but also because we wanted to make it clear this was a commercial enterprise, not a charitable venture.
Applying for the license was epic. It was necessary to list every person who was going on the air, and why they should be let loose on the airwaves. I think that was the first really long, detailed document I ever produced on the original KeyNote XL. Waiting for the response from the Tribunal was like waiting for exam results. The day I got a letter saying that we’d been given our license was one of the happiest of my life. But the euphoria soon turned into hours and hours of work as we did the budget, hired the gear, sold the ads and organised a media strategy. Then I had to train many of my fellow team mates, who didn’t live, eat and breathe radio like I did.
But there was one more part of this project to work on, and that was the most important part. I wrote to every broadcaster and manager in the radio industry in Auckland I could think of. I told them what we’d be doing, and when we’d be doing it. I invited some of the best broadcasters in the industry out to do a guest 2 hour celebrity slot on the station, so they could meet us. And I invited all the managers of radio stations to come and meet us.
The response was incredible, and what it taught me was that people really do respect those who do something out of the ordinary, grasp their future by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake.
In 1988, 25 years ago this week, we repeated the exercise. It was easier because we knew what we were doing. It was bigger and better, with the station running 24/7 for the two week period we were operational. Getting people to come out and see us was easier than before, we had a good reputation by then.
So was it all worth it? Well, by the time I was ready to get into radio, I was on first name terms with people who knew my name and made hiring decisions. I worked in radio for some years, until my wife and I decided we wanted to start a family, at which point I left the world of commercial radio which was very unstable and deregulated at the time. I’m sure that Radio Enterprise, a determined effort to change attitudes and perceptions, had a lot to do with my ability to stay on air in New Zealand’s largest radio market.
There are a couple of footnotes to this story. On one radio station, I ended up working with the very operator of the course who told me that there was no way a blind person could work in radio. Sweet, isn’t it? It still makes me smile.
And much later, when running ACB Radio, it was my very great honour to meet that remarkable broadcaster, now the late great Roger Kool. He worked for me on ACB Radio Interactive, and I was able to tell him how he’d given a little blind kid in New Zealand hope, and encouragement to carry on.
So 25 years since the start of the last Radio Enterprise, I send my thanks and affection to all who were involved in it. It’s a special experience to have shared, that created a precious bond. We did well.
If you are a blind person pursuing a dream, and you’re being knocked back, I would say this. Be an objective critic. Constructive criticism is different from the negative self-talk that can so often limit our horizons. Objectively assess what you need to do to improve the skills necessary to achieve your goal and realise your dream, then work and work to get the job done. In my case for example, I read Braille out loud for at least an hour a day as a teenager, so I could pick up a script and read it fluently.
Network. Most people like talking about themselves. There are many great articles online about the informational interview. It’s a fantastic information gathering tool and a great way to network. With the Internet at your fingertips, that person you admire and aspire to be like is only a free, or at least cheap, call away.
And above all, if you know in your heart that you really can do the thing you want, never give up. Don’t let someone who is blind to your potential stamp on your dream. Do whatever it takes to take control of your own future.
Have you faced setbacks in your life, only to have recovered and pursued the career of your dreams? Share your experiences and words of advice in the comments.