The further away I get from my time off school, the rosier it seems. I could swear to you that Chicago is an El Dorado for struggling souls, a city on the lake with cheap rent and generous people. In all earnestness, I’d tell you Old Style flows freely and the scent of deep dish fills the air. I feel so sentimental about Chicago because my time in that city formed who I am and who I hope to become.
I moved to Chicago in June of 2015 with the ideal setup. A close friend’s parents owned a home in Logan Square with a basement — excuse me, garden — apartment, and they generously offered to let me live there for free. After I insisted on paying rent, we settled on the deeply underpriced amount of $100 per month for a living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and spare guest room.
This couple barely knew me but they offered to help me out, a recurring theme in a city with a real sense of community. People gave without wanting anything in return. They gave and gave and gave and in turn taught me how to become more giving myself.
Even with my gloriously cheap apartment, I needed to work to support myself. I already had a job lined up as an associate producer at WGN Radio. However, I’d only get three or four shifts a week with $10-an-hour wages. I decided to get a second job as a waitress at The Avondale, a sports bar a few blocks from my apartment.
While I did turn out to be a mediocre waitress, quickly realizing that I have a poor memory for both faces and names, I was good at my radio job.
When I initially got the job at WGN, I was intimidated by my title — “associate producer” — but my anxiety was eased right away. On my first day, people around the office called me “the new AP,” a nickname that minimizes the aura of the title. As an AP, I would simply have to audio-edit live radio coverage and write blog descriptions, my kindly boss informed me.
Although I had no idea how to audio-edit, I got to shadow some of my coworkers and I caught on fast. It was simple work that could be done quickly, meaning a lot of free time. I enjoyed hanging around the other employees while I waited for segments to be over, particularly fawning over one woman who made videos for the website. She was a sunglasses aficionado and loved showing off new frames to me. We’d talk work, dating and weekend plans while we snacked on the receptionist’s free candy.
After a couple of months in Chicago, I had saved up enough money to quit my waitressing job and focus on WGN full-time. Since the AP position was a seasonal one, my boss offered to have me train as a fill-in producer for fall. This meant that in addition to cutting up audio and writing blog posts, I would book guests, write show rundowns, work the soundboard, hit the commercial breaks, keep the hosts on time, answer phone calls and do anything else the hosts requested.
Despite the fears of failure, which were strong, I shadowed each and every producer, eventually learning the 24-hour circuit. After that, I was thrown into the producer’s booth.
Naturally, I tanked the first show. But with every shift I improved a bit. I became less awkward when picking up listeners’ calls. I learned to reign in talkative guests and keep the hosts happy by emulating their different styles.
Just as I was starting to feel comfortable in my new role, a myriad of obstacles appeared. The full-time producers weren’t taking many vacations, meaning less shifts for me. Money started getting tight, which was especially problematic because my hospitable landlords needed me to move out so their relative could move in. I was without steady work or a cheap place to live, and my parents continued to pressure me to finish up my undergraduate degree.
With sadness, I relented and went back to Los Angeles. I started back up at community college, finally ready to apply to a public university.
WGN gave me a ton of fodder for my resume. I can edit on Adobe Audition, I have a well-stocked archive of blog posts I’ve authored and I even produced my very own all-things-music podcast. But way more importantly, WGN proved my self-doubt wrong.
After gaining the respect of my bosses, hosts and coworkers, I realized I would kick ass in the real world way more than I ever did in college.
Samantha writes the Friday column on undergraduate myths. Contact her at [email protected].