I recently had the pleasure of touring the WYPR studio with radio personality Aaron Henkin. I learned some of the inner workings of the studio and what it takes to produce a quality radio program. Mr. Henkin took a few minutes to share his thoughts about pursuing a purposeful life.
1. At what age did you first sense your purpose?
I was a late bloomer, career-wise. I spent much of my 20s waiting tables and playing in rock bands. It wasn’t until I was 27 that I dropped in at WYPR (then WJHU) and asked if there were any local radio shows that could use a volunteer. I ended up volunteering on the daily call-in program, “The Marc Steiner Show,” and waiting tables at night to pay the bills. I was at the show for about two months when the longtime producer quit. They needed someone to fill the gap, and they all looked at me and said, “Hey, that guy seems like he knows what he’s doing. He’s here every day. He gets along well with the host. Let’s make him the interim producer until we can find someone else more qualified.” Eventually, they stopped looking for someone else. I produced that show for two years. I learned everything about radio on-the job, by trial and error. It was an intense way to learn the ropes. I few years later, the station entrusted me to help start up a new local cultural program, “The Signal.” That’s when I really found my purpose: I fell in love with radio and began to explore it as a creative tool for telling stories.
2. What did you experience that attracted you to pursue this particular purpose?
Radio is an intimate medium. You usually listen alone, and it’s just you and this disembodied voice communing in a very personal way. I’ve always been amazed by how much common ground I can find with complete strangers when I hear them tell their stories on the radio. It’s a kind of magic, I think. And I wanted to learn how to do that magic. I wanted to make listeners care about people they might otherwise ignore or dismiss.
3. A support group can be an asset during the early stages of trying to obtain any goal. Did you have a lot of support? And what type of things did they do to help you?
My support group consists of people I’ve never met, other radio journalists whose work I hear on the radio airwaves. These voices are my mentors. I listen to them carefully. I emulate what I love about them. I also pay attention to what I don’t like on the radio. Learning what not to do is as important as learning what to do. Establishing your own ‘voice’ on the radio takes a lot of time. I’ve been at it for 12 years now, and I’m still learning. I can’t stand hearing the way my earlier stuff sounds. And I bet that 12 years from now, I’ll be equally mortified by the way my stuff sounds these days.
4. Compare the expectations you had before you started to the reality you have experienced since.
It’s easy to hear something you admire and to know that you want to do something that good, too. But you can’t paint a Rembrandt the first time you pick up a paintbrush. In fact, you can’t paint a Rembrandt even after 10 or 20 years. Hopefully what you can do however, after that much time, is see that you’ve developed your own style. I think people put too much weight into the idea of ‘talent’ and not enough into the importance of ‘practice.’ Making good radio stories is like shooting foul shots. The more you practice, the better you get.
5. Often we have obstacles that hinder our pursuit. What type of obstacles did you face? How did you overcome them?
I face obstacles every time I make a radio story: Will this radio story be as good as last week’s? Is my work getting too formulaic? Am I challenging myself enough? Will anyone care when they hear this? Does this kind of work even matter? My obstacles are internal. They’re of my own design. Sometimes they can be pretty debilitating. How do I overcome them? I have a weekly deadline.
6. You have been doing this for a number of years. Besides the earning a living, what gives you the inspiration to keep going?
I’m generally satisfied with what I accomplish, week to week, but once in a while I’ll put something really special on the air. There’s no way for me to predict when it’ll happen, or how often it happens. It just comes to pass. Once in a while, I’ll put something on the air that I know is really going to touch listeners when they hear it. What keeps me going is knowing that’ll happen again, if I just keep at it.
7. I believe as we accomplish one purpose we discover another. Have you discovered or felt another purpose you need to fulfill?
I love it when a radio novice gets in touch with me and wants to learn how to make good stories. Helping newcomers learn the craft, that’s my next purpose.
8. It seems like everyday we read something about negative about our youth and a need for mentoring. As a parent, what do you think of the role of mentors in cooperation with schools and parenting?
Mentors are crucial. I never went to school to learn what I’m doing. I’ve learned everything I know simply by following the examples of those I admire in my industry.
9. What type of advice would you like to give someone pursuing their purpose?
Figure out the job you’d most like to have. Find a person who has that job. Ask that person if you can volunteer to help him/her out in any way. Be flexible and be persistent.
10. I like to end an interview on a light note. What funny thing have you experienced in your profession?
My kids can’t stand it when my voice comes on the radio. They make me turn it off!
The Signal can be heard Fridays from 7pm – 8pm, and Saturdays from 3pm – 4pm on 88.1 WYPR-FM.