The Power of a Compliment

By Peter L DeHaan

In the years between high school graduation and my first real job, I took on a variety of part-time work while being a full-time student. During one such vocational transition, the placement advisor at school knew of an immediate opening for an audio engineer at a TV station. I arrived to find out it would be a group interview, not a group of people interviewing me, but rather one person simultaneously interviewing three candidates.

Stan was an odd-looking guy, with clothes and a hairstyle emanating from the previous decade. Despite the powerful magnification of his Coke-bottle glasses, he still squinted at everything. Stan led us candidates to an open classroom and the interview quickly fell into an awkward pattern. Stan would ask a question and we would respond in order, with me going last. With my classmates embellishing many of their answers, I struggled with how to honestly present myself as the desirable candidate. After a while, the classmate who went first blurted out, “I have a Third Class FCC License.”  “This position doesn’t require an FCC License,” Stan responded. “I have a Second Class FCC License,” the second one boasted. Then all eyes turned to me. Should I let them know that my credential was even better, although equally irrelevant? Or would my silence communicate another deficiency in this game I was losing? Opting to avoid further silence, I informed the group that I had a First Class FCC License. Of course, this meant nothing as far as the job was concerned. Everyone was uncomfortable on this whole exchange but as the last one to speak, I felt it more acutely.

Seeking to defuse the tension, I changed the subject. “When would you need us to start?”  I inquired. “As soon as possible,” was Stan’s reply. “I can start in two weeks,” volunteered contestant number one. “I can start in three days,” bested contestant number two. “I can start tomorrow,” I asserted confidently. “Okay,” Stan replied, “be at the station at 6:30 tomorrow morning.”  I was hired!

The first day I watched Stan work and did a lot of listening. As he explained it, the job seemed simple. There was lots of idle time, four live broadcasts and on some days production work in between. However, he was more interested in regaling his glory days as a radio DJ than in training me. It turned out that Stan was also a silent partner in an out-of-town enterprise; his presence was urgently required to protect his investment. As soon as my two weeks of training were completed, Stan would be gone.

On my second day, Stan let me touch the control panel and I did the first live segment. It was a 30-second weather report. I turned on the mike when the weatherman was cued and turned it off when he was done. There was a mike check beforehand and I monitored the level as he spoke. I did the second live broadcast, too, a one-minute news segment. Stan did the third segment: news and weather – two mikes!

The half hour noon show, however, was overwhelming. There were a half a dozen mikes to activate, monitor, and kill, recordings for musical bridges, an array of possible audio sources, and a live announcer, plus an abrupt change in plans if a segment was running long or there was time to fill.

On the third day, Stan called in to tell me he would be late. He reviewed expectations of the first two segments and I did them solo. He called later, before the third, and we talked it through; he promised to be in before the noon show. I did the third segment by myself.  Then Stan called to say that he had been watching and I had done fine. Could I do the noon show by myself? “No!” I asserted. “Okay, he assured, “I will come in, but let’s talk through it just in case.”  I never saw Stan again; my “training” was over.

With sweaty palms and a knotted gut, I muddled my way through the noon show, knowing that any miscue would be heard by thousands. By the time the show concluded, I was physically and mentally exhausted. This was a pattern that would repeat itself before each noon show for the next several months. If only I had gotten more training to boost my confidence.

On-the-job training was fine for production work. Time was not an issue and retakes were common, expected, and accepted. If I hadn’t been trained on something, the director would instruct me. The live shows were a different story. It was tense and nerve-racking; perfection was expected and errors were not tolerated. This produced an incredible amount of pressure and anxiety.

This stress was partly due to my lack of training, but more importantly a result of the directors; I worked with three. My favorite was nice and kind; he remembered what it was like to do my job and was empathic and understanding. Unfortunately, I seldom worked with him. The second director was aloof and focused only on the broadcast, not caring what he said or how he treated others. Fortunately, I didn’t work with him too much, either. Most of my interaction was with a third director. During live broadcasts, he became verbally volatile and abusive. He yelled – a lot. When he was mad, he yelled louder. And everything was laced with expletives. Management via intimidation was his style. My goal was to get through the noon show without a verbal tongue-lashing; usually I was unsuccessful. Of course, this made me even more tense.

Although most of the work was fine, my angst from this half hour each day caused me to despise my job. Thankfully, my time there would be short, as graduation was nearing. I grabbed the first job offer and gave my two-week notice. Ironically, the day after I tenured my resignation, the volatile director inquired, “You should be getting some vacation, soon, shouldn’t you?”

“I haven’t put in enough time, yet,” I replied. Besides, I just gave my two week’s notice.”

“What!” he exploded. He slammed some papers on the table. “I can’t believe it,” his face turned red and with a curse, threw the papers on the floor. “We finally get someone good and they don’t pay him enough to stay.”

I was dumbfounded.  “Good?” I questioned. “I’m not good.”

“You’re the best audio engineer we’ve had in years.”

“What about Stan?” I asked.

“Stan was an idiot. He was always making mistakes. We couldn’t get through a broadcast without him screwing it up. You did better your first week than he ever did.”

“But…but, I make mistakes everyday, too”

“Your mistakes are trivial,” he disclosed. “Few viewers ever notice.”  As he picked up his papers and left the room, I contemplated what he had said. I am a good!

Not surprisingly, I had a new attitude during the noon show that day. The nerves were gone, I made no “mistakes,” I wasn’t yelled at and most significantly, I enjoyed it. My job was fun.

On my second to last day there, I met the weekend audio engineer. She was thinking about taking over my shift. She wanted to see what was involved in the noon show. Unfortunately, that day the show was one of the most difficult I had encountered. There was a live band, with each person and instrument separately miked, plus there were a few unusual twists. I would need every piece of gear in the room and use the entire audio console. Although it was stressful, it was a good stress, because I was a good audio engineer. I performed my part without error, earning a rare compliment from my critical director. At the end of the show, I leaned back with the knowledge of a job well done. My protégé shook her head. “I could never to that,” she sighed and left the room.

My last two weeks at the TV station were most enjoyable. As such, it is with fondness that I recall my time there. How might things have been even better if someone had told me sooner that I was doing a good job?

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