The Shield was one of the most groundbreaking series of the past two decades, putting FX on the map while proving that envelope-pushing dramas about antiheroes could thrive on cable outside of HBO. However, creator Shawn Ryan says the show, along with his many others, may have never existed without the skills he learned during his first job as a copywriter for a Vermont radio station.
Ryan, who is now the showrunner on CBS’ new reboot of S.W.A.T., graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College before landing his first postschool gig, writing ads for a Top 40 radio station in Burlington, filling in for someone on maternity leave.
“There are a lot of things where it was simply, ‘We’re having a mattress sale this weekend, everything is 30 percent off, sleep better, come in.’ Just-the-facts-ma’am ads. But every now and then, you’d get a chance where the client would be like, ‘Write something! Present it!’” recalled Ryan.
Ryan explained that Burlington was a “small enough market” that there weren’t many advertising agencies.
“The radio station sales people would come back and say, ‘We’ve sold 20 spots for this company. Call the owner, Joe, at this number, and see what they want to sell,'” Ryan said. “Sometimes Joe would be very specific about what Joe wanted, and sometimes Joe would be like, ‘We know we want ads, but what do you have in mind?’ And they’d let me go off and write something. That’s when the job was fun, when you could write something.”
The job required Ryan to do a lot more than just write the ad copy—he also had to produce ads. “I’d grab DJs and say, ‘Here’s the copy. We’ve got to do this,’” he said. “And, ‘What music are we going to use?’ I had to make sure it was actually hitting the air.”
But how did advertising experience help in the television world? Ryan said all of that juggling, prepared him to call the shots on The Shield, which debuted on FX in 2002, as well as his current shows, S.WA.T., which he created with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, and NBC’s Timeless, which will return next year for its second season.
“In a strange way, it was the beginning of being a showrunner,” said Ryan, whose previous series include CBS’ The Unit, FX’s Terriers and Fox’s The Chicago Code. “There’s different aspects to the job, and it’s working with talent, and writing.”
Back when he was at the Burlington radio station, Ryan thought advertising—not television—was going to be his profession.
“I thought for awhile that I’d go into advertising,” he said. “I had done a weeklong internship in the middle of college one summer at an advertising agency. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was writing plays, and it seemed impossible to earn a living writing plays. I hadn’t yet realized, maybe TV, so I’ve always been fascinated by writing ads, and that’s how I started after college.”
Though he’s obviously changed direction, there’s one aspect he remembers clearly that can apply to practically any profession: above all, “the client is always right.”