LOS ANGELES, CA—Founded in 1983 by former radio DJ Jimi Petulla, RRF, Inc. has long offered an alternate path to the industry-specific educational institutions for anybody wishing to pursue a career in recording, radio or film. Rather than subjecting students to loan repayments for tuition fees in the tens of thousands of dollars and the stress—for many—of relocating to another city, the Recording Connection Audio Institute (and sister organizations the Radio Connection and Film Connection) instead places them with facilities in their hometowns, where the facility owners or associated qualified professionals mentor them.
RRF Founder Jimi Petulla (left) with head of business development and COO, Brian Kraft. “We’re not big believers in advising people to, ‘leave your job, get a U-Haul and get out here to L.A.,’ where there are already very few jobs,” says Brian Kraft, head of business development and COO at RRF. “It’s better to stay out of debt and out of stress, and focus on what’s important.” The tuition fee, including all materials, a year of job placement assistance and a copy of Avid’s Pro Tools, is less than $10,000, according to the web site.
There are mentors in all 50 states and in numerous cities. “Our mentors are everyone from a guy in Iowa that owns a small recording studio, radio station or film production company, all the way up to people like Ross Hogarth, Al Schmitt, Ryan Hewitt, Tim Palmer and others,” he says.
Mentors receive compensation for taking on a student, says Petulla. “They are not being paid to take on an intern; they are being paid to take on an apprentice that actually performs real work in the studio under their strict guidance as a mentor and teacher.”
But before being placed, every potential student must go through a multi-stage screening process handled from RRF’s headquarters near downtown Los Angeles. According to Kraft, 3,500 would-be students apply online every month from the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. “They fill out a form and then they are called back by our admissions department. These admissions agents are all audio engineers, filmmakers or broadcasters. They’re vetting to find the best—those who display commitment and clear potential.”
Those making it past the first hurdle are next called by the heads of admissions in the second step of screening. “They go deeper,” says Kraft, asking questions such as “What are your expectations of the business? Do you realize it’s going to take 10, 15, 20 years with little or no pay before you maybe are successful?” If it turns out that there is no shaking the student’s determination and it’s simply in their blood, he continues, “We send them to the mentor to have an in-person, one-on-one interview at the studio.”
The mentor is the ultimate gatekeeper. “If the mentor says no, we ask why. If the mentor says yes, we enroll the student, but only if the student still really, really wants to do this. If the mentor says no because he or she is not a good fit, or for some reason there are bad vibes, we give the student a second chance with another mentor,” he says.
Where appropriate, parents are encouraged to accompany the student for the interview with the mentor: “For parents, what better person to talk to about a career in audio, broadcasting or filmmaking than a person who’s actually doing it for a living, before you spend any money supporting your child’s chosen path?” asks Kraft.
“Once they become enrolled students, we have a dedicated student services department that makes sure we deliver on our promise. We also have tutors that will take the students through any program they want, or any additional services in terms of education,” he continues. Recording Connection offers tuition (in the education sense, not the payment sense) on Ableton, Logic, Native Instruments, Pro Tools, Reason and other software.
Each course, typically six months long, requires a minimum of two days per week apprenticing at the facility. “We encourage them to go more; that’s between them and their mentor,” Kraft elaborates. We tell the students that you’re auditioning for a job every day you show up. Get there early, have your homework done, have a notebook with all your questions, and show this guy that you will not let him down—which is what we all want to see as employers.”
“I know the value of just getting them in the door,” says Petulla. “Our biggest frustration is that a lot of times you battle with the unmotivated candidate— but we have a refund policy.”
It’s not unusual for a student to have an opportunity to work on a project several months into the course. “Therein lies the entry point to the beginning of their career,” says Kraft. “We’ve gotten 900 people jobs in the last 21 months. Not because we’re geniuses, but because we have done the hard work to match up these individuals with the right mentors and get them in the room with the guy who has work.”
There may be as many as 5,000 apprentices at any one time, all across the country, says Kraft. Upon finishing their apprenticeship, the best of the best may be asked to join a higher-level program known as Masters Mentor. “We ask our mentors, find us your stars. Who are the 500 who are kick-ass? We take those guys and introduce them to Al Schmitt, Dave Pensado, Nick Raskulinecz, F. Reid Shippen, Ross Hogarth,” as well as companies such as Native Instruments, Waves, Focusrite and SSL.
“We’re the only school that’s connecting students to the people they need to be connected to,” says Kraft. “Not as interns, but as apprentices, where they are taking a structured course curriculum under the supervision of hard-working people who are all in the business.”