In My Opinion: John Collins: Why bother with media courses?

THE first thing I say when I start a new year with my HNC students usually ‘puts their gas at a peep': “Welcome to the course that doesn’t guarantee you a job when you finish.”

It’s an essential piece of honesty when we start ‘climbing the foothills’ of radio broadcasting. Because the course in itself won’t get you a job. It’ll make you more employable, but it’s only part of the answer.

So what is?

Maybe we should first ask, What’s the question?

Getting into radio used to be about two things – talent and tenacity. Look at many of the greats in the industry. If they have degrees at all, they generally aren’t in media or broadcast disciplines. For many years, BBC studio managers in London tended to have an university degree, but it was their technical skills and broadcast craft that allowed them to move from operating the studios to producing the programmes in them.

When I started out as an audio assistant at BBC Scotland in 1985, my computer science degree didn’t help me with swinging Studer A80s in the studio or helping rig complex OBs.

I learned my craft in studios with programme makers who had much more experience than I did, storing up what went well and what went less well. The bulk of the journalists in the newsroom had learned ‘on the job’, as had many of those above me in the ‘food chain’.

It’s that mix of voices and experience that makes a radio station – or any media outlet – tick. The community of learning in an old-fashioned organisation means that a whole group of people, who joined the company as production secretaries, have climbed through the ranks and now hold senior roles at Pacific Quay. In my opinion, this is a good thing. People learn by experience, doing a thing until they’re ready to move up to the next level.

Nowadays, though, it seems that the broadcasters – or at least some of them – have ‘pulled up the ladder’.

I sat in a meeting a few months ago when a senior manager actually said that he required a degree as an entry qualification. In production and craft areas, this rules out many great talents who can be shaped by their experiences.

So, media courses have  become an essential part of the process now. But only if they’re set up to resemble a workplace, get students up to speed using broadcast-standard kit and have them think about issues surrounding multi-platform production.

Colleges and universities need to get students involved in projects that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing, because radio and TV stations just don’t have the ability to start people out at the bottom like they used to.

There’s an onus on lecturers to work closely with industry. If we don’t identify and nurture new talent then we’re not doing our job. So feedback matters, as does coaching. Mixed, of course, with formal training in aspects on technology, law or whatever the industry needs.

It’s also very useful to understand the ‘landscape’ and the issues that shape it. But, fundamentally for many, the reason that courses are chosen is to try to get a step into the industry.

And what does industry need? Talented individuals who have taken their first steps on the path to the broadcasting industry.

It’s not about degrees, HNDs or HNCs. It’s about being taught to work to deadlines, being part of a team, and studio discipline. It’s about how to express one’s ideas using the media. It’s about introductions to decision-makers who’ll give them a chance to shine. It’s about showcasing the best talent.

Often that talent is highly educated and has a great story to tell. Sometimes the talent is a communicator with no great intellectual talent but just the ‘gift of the gab’. Industry needs both.

In reality, media courses aren’t about getting a job. They’re about taking creative individuals and developing them. Helping them better understand the world they live in and giving them the skills to make sense of it.

Media courses should be about creating better people.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio, at Clyde 2 on a Sunday morning. Pic: Michele Dillon.