Independent radio station Galaxy offers young media hopefuls a course, a demo tape and a foot in the door, reports Steven Hastings.
More than 30,000 further and higher education students choose media studies as their main subject. But while the courses have attracted a rash of applicants, they have struggled to win the respect of employers in the industry. The most common accusation has been that students spend too little time behind a camera or microphone, and too much time deconstructing episodes of EastEnders.
Employers, it seems, are unconcerned whether applicants have written dissertations on the Queen Vic or on Queen Victoria. What they want is evidence of ability and lots of hands-on experience.
Many courses have addressed these criticisms, with increased work placements and systems of accreditation. But the best initiatives tend to be industry-led. After all, who better to know what is expected of new employees than employers themselves?
At Galaxy 106107, an independent radio station in the North-East, canny bosses have taken matters into their own hands by setting up a radio academy. From hundreds of applicants they select a dozen 16 to 21-year-olds to receive specialist training one evening a week for three months.
The emphasis is on practical experience. Even seemingly dull areas such as marketing are enlivened through role-play. Galaxy's marketing executive and scheme co-ordinator, Lisa Blower, says the academy takes every opportunity to allow students to use the equipment for themselves.
"We might get someone with bags of personality and talent, but when they get behind a microphone they clam up," she says. "In that case we'd give them lots of studio time to get comfortable with the sound of their own voice. Many of our students have strong Geordie accents, and when they hear themselves for the first time it can be quite a shock."
Even if universities have their own recording equipment, it is unlikely to compare with the hi-tech studios at Galaxy. "Radio is an area where technology advances every year," says Ms Blower. "It's essential for newcomers to be bang up to date with developments. As a new station, our facilities are cutting-edge."
Most media studies courses include several weeks in the workplace shadowing professionals. But the radio academy has several advantages over a traditional placement. Vaughan Hobbs, Galaxy's programme director, says the evening classes mean students get the attention they need. "During the day, staff are too busy getting their own jobs done to be of real help to trainees," he says. "In the evenings it's more relaxed and equipment is available. The more hands-on the training is, the more successful it will be."
This sentiment is shared by the students. Daniel Nolan has just finished a placement at a local newspaper, but found it too unstructured. "I just tagged along with whoever was out reporting, and sometimes felt I was in the way. Here, everything's centred around you. There's a sense of development from week to week."
The sheer number of people attracted to careers in the media means that even work experience placements are hard to come by. Kelly Fraser, 19, has worked in a shop since leaving school. "If you're applying to university media courses you need some work experience under your belt, but all the placements go to people already doing these courses." The lack of work experience opportunities is particularly unhelpful for those still at school who are unsure about a media career and want to discover what it entails.
Linzi Iggleden, in her final year at school, was confused about her future. A few weeks at Galaxy allayed any doubts. "I'd been thinking about a radio career, but committing myself to a degree in broadcast journalism was a big step - if things don't work out, it isn't necessarily a useful qualification for other careers."
With similar concerns, Alan Soady opted for a degree in history and politics. While at university he joined the staff of the student newspaper and hopes that this, along with the practical experience of the radio academy, will offer a better way into the industry than a media studies course.
The 12 academy students have a variety of backgrounds and interests. Some, of course, are would-be presenters, but others are interested in marketing or production. Over the 12 weeks they will learn about every aspect of radio, not just their specialist area. Lisa Blower says an overview of how a radio station operates is vital. "This sense of a team working for each other can't be taught in a classroom. By meeting people from every department they appreciate the dynamics of the workplace."
As a result, several students at the academy are thinking about previously unconsidered careers. Jonathan Milnes was convinced he wanted to be a presenter, but learning about sales and marketing has made him reconsider. "I wouldn't rule it out," he says. "There would still be the buzz of working in an exciting environment."
At the end of the course, the whole group will create a mock breakfast show. This will weave together the various strands of their training; they will be responsible for everything from presenting and production to competitions and promotions. Four students judged to have shown the most potential will also have a chance to do the job for real and use their new-found skills live on air. They will co-host a breakfast show, read the news, or DJ their own one-hour mix of music. For the rest of the group, it will be an early introduction to the reality of a competitive world.
However, everyone leaves the Galaxy Academy with a professionally produced demo tape. Vaughan Hobbs says this could give them the edge in an overcrowded market. "Every day I get letters from would-be presenters. If they don't come with a demo tape they're wasting their time. If I receive a tape I always have a listen, and although I wouldn't hire someone just on the strength of it, I might ask to meet them."
Lisa Blower tells those leaving the academy to prepare for disappointment and not to be impatient for success. "The people most likely to succeed are those who take time to find an area of work that best suits their abilities. You don't have to be a star presenter to make a good career in radio."
This awareness of commercial pressures is important in a competitive industry. The rate of unemployment in the North-East, traditionally an area that knows all about the difficulties associated with a lack of job opportunities, is outstripped by the rate among graduates from media studies courses - 55 per cent of them fail to find work in their first year.
Ms Blower admits she would be surprised if more than one in four of those at the academy developed a career in broadcasting. "But if we help one person to land a job they otherwise wouldn't have got, it is worthwhile. After all, it's likely to be the job of their dreams."
GET ON THE RIGHT WAVELENGTH
Each of the five independent Galaxy Radio stations operates a training academy.
* Galaxy 1056 Newcastle Tel: 0191 206 8000 * Galaxy 105 Leeds Tel: 0113 213 0105 * Galaxy 107 Manchester Tel: 0161 228 0102 * Galaxy 102.2 Birmingham Tel: 0121 695 0000 * Galaxy 101 Bristol Tel: 0117 901 0101 * BBC local radio stations participate in the BBC's Regional Broadcast Trainee Scheme, which offers trainees a one-year contract and hands-on training at 13 regional stations, as well as formal sessions at the BBC's training centre in Bristol. Details online from: firstname.lastname@example.org or the BBC recruitment service, PO Box 7000, London W12 8GJ * Many independent local radio stations run a variety of competitions offering the chance to be a reporter for a day, or to get some behind-the-scenes experience. Contact your nearest station for details * The Radio and Television School, founded by radio presenters Neale James and Bruno Brookes, offers a variety of two-day practical, hands-on courses at all levelsfrom beginner upwards at itsstudios in Newbury. Tel: 01635 232800