Author, Larry Rifkin Shares Improbable Path to Managing a Cultural Phenomenon By Larry Rifkin
I am amazed and amused when people talk about a career as one unbroken and clear trajectory. I have found in speaking to many people about my book, “No Dead Air”, that they, too, agree that the professional journey involves one part preparation, one part execution, and a healthy dollop of good fortune and serendipity.
The relationships that propel you forward can be very random, in fact. How was working as a speechwriter for the Commissioner of Education in Connecticut an important predicate to bringing Barney the dinosaur to national attention?
The two events are worlds apart but the fact that I was afforded an opportunity in the world of public broadcasting as a result of that role at the Department of Education was key to what I was able to achieve.
Yet, even with that introduction, a string of unrelated events had to take place for me to have the position of programming a statewide PBS network station and to be able to bring forward a children’s programming phenomenon that would upend conventions about the genre.
About Larry Rifkin
I joined the staff of Connecticut Public Television as the manager of its public relations unit. But for the fact that the new president of the organization was from out of state and relied upon me to help him navigate the uncharted waters of Connecticut, I would never have been elevated to director of programming.
And this is how careers are cobbled together—piece by piece and one element building upon another. You can only hope that it all rhymes and keeps pulling you in directions where your skill set can grow and that someone who can help you make the next critical move is there to help you along the way.
In my case, while I thought about pursuing a law degree, it was always clear to me that I would better be suited to argue my case in the court of public opinion. I grew up a ‘radio brat’ as my father managed a local radio station and I saw the power of that communications instrument in the city of license, Waterbury, Connecticut.
I loved the fact that my dad was in the middle of all the action in our city and had the duty, the honor really, of helping to share important information about what was happening, help us prepare for storms and other emergencies, and introduce people to the music and the mood of the country in the turbulent 1960s.
I wanted to be part of something in that same community and state that made a difference in people’s lives.
Instead of a law degree, I pursued a master’s degree in corporate and political communication knowing that such a credential ‘might’ help me stand out from other applicants in seeking a job in the communications field.
As it turned out, I am convinced that absent that degree I would never be hired by a Harvard-educated Commissioner of Education to run his communications shop, and therefore the link to public broadcasting would never have been made. At the time, the Education Department oversaw a state grant to public broadcasting and, thus, brought me into contact with people there.
While there is no substitute for preparation and hard work in the early stages of a career and showing a willingness to do the unglamorous stuff—the late nights, less than exciting projects, and trying to be seen—there is no guarantee that it all leads to the perfect position for your skill set, but without embarking on this phase with abandon it’s hard to imagine all those doors, locks and secret passages will ever open up for you.
I am blessed to be able to look back on a career that exceeded my expectations and allowed me to stay at home, where I find the greatest comfort, and have an impact on a stage much bigger than the one I cared most about—my home state.
Ironically, while many people imagine that being the guy who brought Barney to television might stand as the signal achievement in a career, it was in many ways dwarfed by having that same distinction in bringing UConn Women’s Basketball to television.
The impact of that decision on the viewers of my station and the people of Connecticut was something I struggled to describe in my book because it was so outsized. And the success of that decision had an impact on the coverage of women’s sports across the nation.
Your sense of what is right for you and your career is the first North Star in your search to be heard and your impact to be felt. Look inside as to where you believe your talents and intrinsic value to society intersect and then start the journey hoping there are others who see a way to help you along your path.
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Larry Rifkin is best known for his nearly thirty years as programming chief for Connecticut Public Television. Under his leadership, CPTV amassed over fifty Emmy Awards in the Boston/New England competition. In 2006, he was inducted into the Boston/New England Silver Circle, the regional television equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is currently the host of the American Trends podcast, where he looks at changes in our society and our politics. Rifkin appears in the Barney Documentary, I Love You, You Hate Me, on Peacock TV. His new book is No Dead Air: Career Reflections From the TV Executive Who Saved Barney the Dinosaur From Extinction (independently published via Amazon’s KDP Books, September 21, 2021). The initial rollout of the book was in Connecticut, where he still lives, and included over twenty book talks, where he articulated his ideas passionately. A new chapter was added recently, focusing on the societal impact of Barney. Learn more at larryrifkin.net.