from where I stand

Media studies may teach some big issues, but they are a waste of time for anyone who wants to make a career in radio

This month thousands of students will have started their media studies courses at universities and colleges across the country. I hope they've chosen well.

It is my experience, in five years of recruitment for the BBC World Service, that many of those who achieve degrees in these voguish subjects haven't learnt much of any use. Yes, I know, university isn't supposed to be vocational, it's for the mind. But why have I been faced by queues of young people, fresh from their degree ceremonies, who can't even tell me what a microphone does?

All I want is for the candidate to say, "It turns the sound waves in the air into electrical currents that run down the wire, become amplified and come out of the loudspeaker." If they can describe, simply, one of the mechanisms - moving coil, ribbon, electrostatic - so much the better. But answers such as "You use it for vocals" betray a lack of knowledge and motivation.

Getting into the radio business is hard. I once received more than a thousand applications for six studio manager traineeships. Long gone are the days when the BBC's advertisements made "education to university standard or equivalent" essential. All I want is proof of aptitude (enough basic knowledge for you to take the training quickly and easily), attitude (people skills), and motivation (do you really, really want to be in radio?). Every year I saw application forms in which the question, "What radio programmes do you listen to regularly, and why?" was answered by "I don't really listen to the radio, I prefer television." It made shortlisting easy.

I counted the universities offering media studies. There are 80. Here are a few questions to ask before you sign up for three years: why would the BBC be interested in someone who's spent their student days learning (maybe) how a microphone works, getting (perhaps) an understanding of how radio programmes are made, conducting (possibly) interviews on a portable tape recorder, when they can be taught all this in a couple of weeks anyway? What the organisation can't teach you in a fortnight is the political system in China, or the history of the Bosnian conflict, or that Bolivia is a country, not the Romanian currency. Or drama, music, literature, science or any of the other things that turn into programmes.

I know that the history of broadcasting, and the battles over Real Lives, charter renewal, BCC, BSC and the rest are important and interesting. I don't have a disagreement with people learning this stuff. Just be clear: it won't get you a job.

The worst of it is that radio isn't that hard to learn, or teach. Of course, to be a Charles Parker (the man behind the radio ballads, not the jazzman - but most media graduates wouldn't know that) or an Alastair Cooke is difficult. But radio has the advantage of accessibility. My complete outfit for freelance broadcasting? A Walkman Professional, a decent microphone (moving-coil) a secondhand open-reel tape recorder, razor blades and sticky tape for editing.

How, then, do you get in? You prove your aptitude by finding out how to use the gear. Hospital radio, student radio or even doing the sound for the local amateur dramatics. You prove your attitude by what you've done: team things, and where initiative is needed, and where you've enjoyed working under pressure. And you prove your motivation by listening all the hours there are, to every station there is, by hanging around the local radio station on Saturday mornings making the coffee, by pestering people to let you watch their programmes go out.

And how to fill in the application form? That's another story... .

The writer spent the past five years as recruitment and training manager, BBC World Service. He is now a freelance broadcaster and trainer. He writes in a personal capacity.

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