From College To Media
Sac State vs. The Suck State of Mainstream Media
Chapter 1: Why I Majored in Communication

Introduction: A Journey Through Mass Media Education
Chapter 1: Why I Majored in Communication
Chapter 2: The Art of Radio
Chapter 3: Writing TV News
Chapter 4: Studying To Be a Rock Star
Chapter 5: Exploring the Age of Incoherence
Chapter 6: The Science of Media Persuasion
Chapter 7: How Stats Influence Perceptions
Chapter 8: Strategies for Winning a Debate
Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers
Chapter 10: My Career in Media

by Alex Cosper, October 20, 2015

First of all, I did NOT go to college to learn "how to be a DJ." That would have been the equivalent to taking courses in "how to be a human being." Plus, I already learned how to be a DJ from doing freelance gigs and working for a series of roller rinks. That's how I earned money while attending American River College (ARC) for two years then Sac State for two years. I originally learned about radio equipment and announcing in my senior year (1979-1980) at my Rio Americano High school radio station called KRAT (90.1 FM), which no longer exists.

Taught by Chuck Gebhardt, KRAT was the home of my first Radio & TV class (it also featured closed-circuit television), in which my classmates included future TV/film star Jane Sibbett, future KCRA-TV cameraman Ron Middlekauff, future radio and music promotion executive Rob Tonkin and future radio personality Sam Cadura. Gebhardt also taught public speaking, which helped me refine my speaking skills and gain more confidence in how to present myself. I had been interested in radio since age 11 in 1974. I graduated from Rio Americano in June 1980 after briefly interning at KXOA AM in May.

Roots of My Journey

Communication is an interesting field to study since it can be applied to any business imaginable. So why isn't Communication Studies considered a more serious major? It's almost written off by the business world as the study of common sense, partying or just goofing off. It was a very popular major at Sac State, especially for people like myself who didn't want to commit to something too specific, since society had already radically changed since the sixties, which was radically different from earlier decades.

My communication classes were fun because they involved exploring the worlds of TV, radio, film, writing and beyond. I was intrigued by the books I read, about how media brainwashes people with subliminal messages. My high school economics teacher Mr. Thorn introduced me to interesting books like The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, which explained how advertising was based on psychology and social conditioning research. All that mind control stuff seemed fascinating to me, not because I wanted to learn how to trick the masses, but because I wanted to make sure that mass media wasn't getting away with tricking me.

I entered Sac State in September 1982 after completing two years of general education and lower division communication courses at ARC, where I earned my Associate of Arts Degree. Even though ARC seemed mostly like a continuation of high school, some of the deeper more meaningful courses I took that radically changed my view about the world included English, Journalism and Interpersonal Communication.

I still wasn't sure if I would become a writer, announcer, artist or something else involving media. I had played guitar since age 14, and wrote my first songs a few years earlier, so becoming a rock star was also on the list of possibilities that swirled through my imagination.

Although I was clear on the definition of "media" long before I started college, I noticed that many people outside of media had their own blurred definition of the term. Technically, academically and professionally speaking, "media" is the plural form of medium, which is any type of communication channel that delivers messages, such as a book, phone, radio or television. Later in the internet age, techies began to say "mediums" instead of media and some even went as far as inventing the double plural word "medias" to talk about different forms of communication. Up until then media meant multiple forms of communication while "the media" meant the combination of mass communication sources such as TV, radio, newspapers and magazines (often referring to news sources).

Tinkering with the Career Puzzle

My English courses were important because they sharpened my understanding of language structure. More importantly, English classes required writing several term papers, which helped refine my critical thinking and research skills. I got all my English classes out of the way at ARC, partly because they were requirements for my major.

Journalism was an influential course because it steered me away from pursuing work at a newspaper or magazine. As a kid I had wanted to create my own newspaper after touring the Sacramento Bee on February 5, 1974, the day after newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, which was the headline that day. Then my first jobs as a teen in the late seventies were delivering newspapers for the Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Union.

While Journalism seemed like a worthwhile career, it wasn't my top choice because it involved knocking on too many doors and going through too many steps to write a story and get it approved. The Hearst story had influenced me to create my own handwritten newspaper for my parents at age 11. That's how I became turned on to radio. I would write down news updates from stations KFBK and KCRA. After a few months I burned out on the news as the Hearst story became overshadowed by Watergate, which I thought was boring and annoying, how court proceedings interrupted by favorite TV shows. So I began listening to music stations KROY and KNDE, as well as the weekly radio show American Top 40, hosted by Casey Kasem. By 1982 I was still bored with news and more into listening to music on the radio.

Interpersonal Communication introduced me to several books by deep thinkers such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig. That may have been the longest paperback book I ever read, but it was fascinating how it sorted out different levels of perception and how the logical, rational left brain differed from the more artistic, emotional right brain. The class also touched on author Marshall McLuhan, who made the famous statement in the sixties that "the medium is the message." That was a challenging concept for me because I believed the message was potentially more powerful than the medium.

Building Blocks of Communication

My communications courses at Sac State tended to repeat many of the same basic concepts about the communication process that I learned at ARC. One of the kernels of knowledge that kept resurfacing was that "meanings are in minds, not in words." At first glance, some people might find that statement crazy, especially if they believe words originate from the heavens, not humans. But after letting it sink in and learning about the history of publishing, it actually became one of the cornerstones that radically reshaped my thinking about the world.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1455, most people didn't get their information from reading books. While there were handwritten books at libraries for students, most people got their information from oral communication, such as at churches from preachers. Book publishing became the first form of mass communication.

Somewhere along the line I learned the old cliche "he who owns the printing press, controls the publishing." I already knew that the Bee was a Democratic paper and the Union was a Republican paper, based on their endorsements during elections. I also had already figured out that just because something was in print didn't mean it was true. Another cliche I picked up from a teacher was "believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see."

Another challenging concept that opened new doors to my thinking was that dictionaries are not bibles. They merely reflect how words are used by society, which is why old dictionaries become outdated and new dictionaries reflect how meanings of words evolve over time. The word "computer," for example, in the 1800s meant a person who computes math equations. By the 1980s it meant a machine that computes all kinds of things. The meaning of the word "media," as I mentioned earlier, also changed over the years, depending on who used or misused the term. Ultimately, if the masses commonly use a once "improper" word like "ain't," it will eventually show up in a dictionary.

Words, of course, are the building blocks of messages, which leads us to the "Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication." That's the model that lays out the components of the entire communication process into one universal statement, which is:

Sender + Message + Channel + Noise + Receiver + Feedback = Communication

In other words, a sender sends a message through a channel (the same thing as a medium) over noise to a receiver, who completes the cycle by giving feedback. Communication breakdown results when one of those components is out of wack, such as when noise overpowers the message or when the sender uses words that the receiver doesn't understand.

Juggling Words and Meanings

The idea that meanings are in minds, not in words, made me realize words are just codes that people ultimately decode based on agreement of meaning. So just because the word "conservative" might have used to mean "someone who conserves" at one time to some people, didn't mean it meant that to everyone anymore in the eighties, especially to big military spenders like Ronald Reagan and George Bush. History and Political Science had been top subjects of interest to me since the third grade. I liked listening to political speeches, especially by John F. Kennedy, who I thought had the most commanding and confident style of any president.

I realized from my communications studies that part of the reason people get so divided over politics is because politicians deliberately use language that has double meaning. The word "freedom" tends to rally all sides of the spectrum, because it means something different to different groups. Republicans tend to be focused on economic freedom, while Democrats are more concerned with social freedom. Then again, politics gets complicated when you study all the hidden layers of influence (and bribery) that go with it.

Argumentation and Statistics were also on my list of favorite courses at Sac State. I already knew a lot about both by following political elections. Learning debate fallacies was fun because it helped me instantly tear down any argument that came my way, not just in class, but in every day life. Statistics was fun because it taught me that even the most scientific polls could be argued as meaningless just by picking apart how the survey was put together. Those two classes prepared me to climb a step closer toward my eventual career in radio.

Continue to Chapter 2: The Art of Radio






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