Dialing into a radio career

by James van Osdol

I love music. Not love it, like "Of course I enjoy music. I like ice cream and rainbows too." Uh-uh. I mean, love it. Music is what makes me happy, defines my moods--I live it, drink it, devour it, can't get enough of it. It's my passion. That's why, when I was in college, the only thing that mattered to me was landing a career that would allow me to totally immerse myself in music. The perfect career for me was obvious. I needed to get a job in radio. [more]

I love music. Not love it, like "Of course I enjoy music. I like ice cream and rainbows too." Uh-uh. I mean, love it. Music is what makes me happy, defines my moods--I live it, drink it, devour it, can't get enough of it. It's my passion. That's why, when I was in college, the only thing that mattered to me was landing a career that would allow me to totally immerse myself in music. The perfect career for me was obvious. I needed to get a job in radio.

When I was in high school and college, the message I heard repeatedly was that if I wanted to get my "break," I'd have to move to a tiny city and work miserable hours playing awful music I didn't like for shockingly bad pay. That belief tends to scare a lot of talented people away. I didn't buy it, however, and neither should you. I found a way in, right here in my hometown of Chicago, at a radio station I liked. That way was an internship.

A radio internship can be like a full-time job, just without a salary. Or business cards. Or a guarantee of a "real" job when the semester's over. But it's a huge "in," an opportunity to interact with working professionals and get noticed. When I locked my internship at Q101, the "alternative" station in Chicago, I made it my goal to treat it like a paid job. I volunteered to work extra events. I created projects for myself. And, sure, there were perks--I got to go to concerts free, meet celebrities, and take home free CDs--but I never lost sight of the fact that I was at the station to work.

Two months before I officially graduated, I segued (radio term, can't help it) from the internship to a legitimate paid job as a programming assistant. Among other things, I sent out playlists (weekly lists of new songs played on the station) to industry trade magazines. I tracked down new music to play on the air. I took weekly phone calls from independent record labels. I started at a poverty-line rate of $5 an hour, but it didn't matter. I was in. I was (and remain) a firm believer that if you like what you do and work hard at it, things like success and money will eventually come. And they did.

That first programming job led to the opportunity to audition for an on-air job. The host position of Q101's local music-based "specialty show," Local 101, was left open when its host moved to another state. Specialty shows can be heard on almost every radio station in the country. You'd know one if you heard it--they're short and focused on a specific theme (such as a new-music show, flashback show, loud-music show, or hip-hop show). Even though I'd never been on the air before, I worked obsessively hard on getting that audition right, soliciting the help and feedback of anyone I could grab in the building. After a fair amount of sweat, rerecording takes, and finger crossing, I got the show. A few months after that, I was doing part-time DJ work on the weekends. As my presence on the air increased, so did my role in programming. The harder I worked, the more opportunities rolled in. I giddily did a huge variety of things--morning news, station webmaster, concert booker, staff interviewer. That's the beauty of radio--there are always opportunities to go off on professional tangents you didn't even realize existed. After seven years, I left Q101 as the full-time evening on-air personality and assistant music director. A few years later, I'm still happily in Chicago, still moving forward as midday host (9 a.m.-1 p.m.) and music director of Active Rocker WZZN.


So let's say you like radio. Maybe being on the air appeals to you. Maybe pulling the strings behind the scenes sounds cool. How do you start on your quest? First and foremost, go to college! A four-year degree is expected in radio. From there, you'll need four simple things: an internship, a healthy appetite for reading, writing skills, and passion. The rest is all gravy.

My internship story isn't the exception; it's the new rule. Being in the building when a job became available is how the majority of my peers found their way into their first jobs. Why take a chance on a name on a resume when there's an eager, talented, hungry-for-work body down the hall? It's always easier (and in most cases, preferable) to hire a familiar, hardworking face, someone who an employer's already on a first-name basis with.

Reading is fundamental (I know that's been said before by greater minds than mine). Radio's a communications-based business. As such, it's expected that those looking for jobs can effectively communicate. Duh. The best people I've ever heard on the radio are those who read voraciously. By reading, I don't mean just classic literature. (How boring would radio be if the DJs only discussed Melville's technique in Moby-Dick?) I mean the daily newspaper. I mean books of all genres, shapes, and perspectives. I mean every type of magazine out there--sports, entertainment, news, editorial--they're all fair game. But the reading shouldn't stop with books and magazines. The Internet, comic books, pamphlets, brochures, catalogs--wherever the written word is, you should be soaking it in.

Know how to write! Because writing plays a major role in all radio work, job candidates whose resumes are littered with poor grammar or spelling never get a phone call back. If you can't spell, structure a sentence, or articulate your thoughts, your resume will be tossed quicker than you can type "Laterz, dood." How do you become a better writer? That's easy. Read more. See the paragraph above.

And then there's passion. For me, my passion for music, coupled with a lot of hard work, got me my first job. If radio is definitely the career you want, find your passion and target it. Love sports? Get an internship at a sports talk station. Love entertainment? Find yourself a morning show internship. Enjoy news? Get yourself a news-radio internship and start writing news copy for the anchors. Anyone can be taught to work a radio control board (the sound console that the music and microphones are routed through). Passion, however, can't be taught or instilled. If you have it, you're instantly attractive as a job candidate.

It's a great time to consider a radio career because there are more opportunities now than there were as little as two years ago. One of the reasons for that is satellite radio. Beyond the "terrestrial" AM and FM stations, there are now two major satellite radio companies with long lists of channels that exist as their own specialized radio stations. AM. FM. Satellite. There's opportunity for you in radio. Find your passion and go.


Trying out the radio biz is super-convenient if you're a student at one of 300 high schools nationwide that run their own radio stations. Student-run radio is influential in promoting new music. Seattle's C89.5 FM, out of Nathan Hale High School., boasts 115,000 loyal listeners who tune in for around-the-clock dance music. Advisor Gregg Neilson says that each year about five students from C89.5 go on to pursue radio careers.


Radio stations are best known for their on-air personalities, but there's a full staff of people with interesting jobs behind the scenes too!

* PROGRAMMING: Decide what the format of a station should be and how the station should sound. Direct the on-air talent.

* PRODUCTION: Create and record commercials and other prerecorded elements that run through the day.

* PROMOTIONS: Market the station, in everything from on-site events to billboard and television ad campaigns. Put a public face on the station's call letters.

* SALES: Sell commercial time to Local and national advertisers.

* ENGINEERING: Fix stuff. Build stuff. Keep the station equipment humming and running. Act as resident electronic's wizard.

* WEB: Design and create pages and editorial content for the station's Web site.

And, of course ...

* ON-AIR: Some of the more common positions include disc jockey, news anchor, traffic reporter, sports reporter, and talk-show host.

Dialing Into a Radio Career


* What was the author's attitude toward finding a job and building his career? What does he say in the article that supports your answer?

* How do you think the author's positive attitude helped him succeed?

* Trace the author's career path in radio. What qualities did he bring to his work that helped him move up in the business?

* What skills and attributes does the author say are important for achieving success in radio?

Each student can use his or her favorite radio station to help understand the business of radio. Have the student identify the station's format (all talk? all music? a mix?), the types of programming it offers, its key advertisers or sponsors, its demographic (the target audience for the station), and who owns the station. Have each student visit the radio station's Web site to find out about different jobs behind the scenes at the station. Once all information is gathered, ask each student to write a paragraph identifying which job at the radio station is the most interesting and why.


PBS's News Hour With Jim Lehrer offers an online lesson plan on current issues in the broadcasting industry'. Visit www.pbs.org/newshour/ extra/teachers/lessonplans/media/ satellite_radio.html.

Students interested in broadcasting can visit the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation's Web site at www.nab.org/bcc.

The National Broadcasters Training Network offers an overview of radio careers. Visit www.learn-by-doing.com/ careers-in-broadcasting.htm.