Fundamentals of Radio Broadcasting: A Career in Radio

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At this point your interest in radio broadcasting may be only a casual one. By reading this first Section you should be able to decide if you want to continue on or forget the whole thing. There is a certain glamour to the broadcasting industry that makes it attractive as a means of making a living and expressing creative abilities. It is show business for the person unable to act, sing, dance, or play a musical instrument. It re quires only that you be able to talk, and almost all of us can do that. But the simplicity is deceptive. There are relatively few people who have the combination of skills, talent, and desire to be successful broadcasters.

Many who would be able to do it have chosen not to for a variety of reasons. We want to look at both the advantages and the disadvantages.

Let's talk first about the positive side of the ledger.

Radio Is Contemporary

In every sense of the word broadcasting is a contemporary medium. It is in the forefront of new styles and modern trends. The nature of broad casting lends itself to immediacy-getting the information first and making it available to the public in the shortest possible time. There is no need to set type or process film. The announcer needs only to open a microphone and speak. Fast -breaking news bulletins are usually heard first on radio, then seen on television. For this reason people have come to expect that radio will keep them always up to date. They will look elsewhere for historical perspectives and background material. Radio is the medium that tells them what is happening in the immediate present.

The federal government's Emergency Broadcast System is predicated on the knowledge that most Americans will be listening to their radios at some time during the day. Therefore, emergency information can be transmitted to the entire population in a matter of minutes. Simultaneously, millions of people all over the country can receive an important news bulletin or a baseball score. A disk jockey will tell a joke, and thousands of people will laugh-individually, but together. But the following day everyone will have heard it, and the D.J. will have to come up with a new one. The materials of broadcasting, news, weather, and music are continually in flux, and broadcasters must always know what is cur rent. It is their business to be aware of the movies, plays, concerts, lectures, sporting events, and cultural facilities that are available on a day to-day basis in their communities. They are the source of information for contemporary social, commercial, and intellectual needs. The data they provide will influence conversation, attire, buying habits, and may also have an effect upon their listeners' musical tastes and political opinions.

Radio broadcasting holds a strong appeal for the person who has wide interests in modern life and desires to be in the avant-garde.

Radio Is Creative

For the people performing routine jobs in commercial stations, to speak of the creative aspect of broadcasting may appear to be unrealistic. But the potential is there for the person who has new and imaginative ideas.

In some respects there are more possibilities for creativity in radio than there are in television. Radio broadcasting is much less expensive; innovations can be tried without huge financial investments. Many cities have noncommercial or educational stations that are not dependent upon the support of sponsors. These outlets can risk loss of audience for the sake of trying something different. Radio does not require the elaborate special effects that are necessary for a television production. There is no need for costumes or sets; music and sound effects are inexpensive and can be produced in almost any small recording studio. This means that students and small broadcasters are not barred financially from creative expression. They are limited only by the dimensions of their talent and desire. While most radio drama has disappeared from the airwaves, there still is some left. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the old radio shows, and it is not uncommon to hear the familiar themes and voices of Ma Perkins, Lum and Abner, and The Shadow being rebroadcast by local radio stations. While nostalgia was originally the primary motivation, recently there has also developed an interest in new and original radio drama. Much of this is being heard on public broadcasting stations (noncommercial) and college radio. But commercial stations are also programming some new drama. The most prominent, perhaps, is the CBS Mystery Theater which uses the "old-radio" format but puts the stories in more contemporary times. KSFO, a commercial station in San Francisco, offers College Theater of the Air once a week. They invite college radio workshops to produce original dramas and then come to record them at the KSFO studios.

Another creative form that is ideally suited to the medium of radio is oral interpretive reading. The most famous exponent of this art was Charles Laughton who toured the world telling stories and reading excerpts from great works of literature. Most colleges have courses in interpretive reading. These, combined with the talents of those who write for school literary magazines, could result in some extremely creative radio programming.

1. "Radio's Renaissance: Now It's Giving TV a Run for the Money," U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 16, 1978, pp. 49-50.

Radio Is Financially Healthy

There are more radio listeners today than there ever have been in our history. Also, people are listening longer-on the average about 3 1/2 hours per day-just slightly less than the amount of time spent watching television.' The result is that advertisers are buying more radio air time than ever before. Radio is cheaper and reaches almost as many people as television. On radio the cost per listener is about 25 percent of what it is on TV, a bargain that business people cannot afford to pass up. Capital earnings of radio broadcasters are growing at a tremendous rate, and the cost of purchasing a radio station is increasing. Some are selling for as much as 16 million dollars. Salaries paid to radio personalities are also high-as much as $150,000 a year in some large metropolitan areas.

There are, of course, stations that operate at the low end of the economic scale. Some of the small FM stations are low -budget enterprises and will pay disk jockeys only the minimum wage. But these are generally the places where neophytes get their experience. The high end of the scale is virtually unlimited, and even the middle-range salary is attractive. At the time of this writing the union -scale wage for a disk jockey on a medium -size station would be $300 to $400 a week. In addition to that, some are able to pick up extra money on the side by recording commercials for advertising agencies and making public appearances at dances and concerts.

Unions that represent broadcasting personnel are strong in some areas but not in others. There are several reasons for this. One is that being a disk jockey is an extremely attractive occupation, and a great many young people are willing to work for practically nothing, just for the privilege of being on the air. Another reason is that unions are unable to enforce job protection for broadcast personalities. A drop in a station's popularity rating has always been regarded as sufficient cause for firing a disk jockey. The personalities who are able to command a large listening audience are able to do their own negotiating with station owners without the help of a union. However, there are stations that do have union contracts. They usually are the high-powered AM stations in the large metropolitan regions. There are three nationally recognized unions for the broadcasting industry: The National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians (NABET) is very strong in television but also represents some radio employees. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) is the union to be joined by announcers and performers who are not engineers or technicians. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has a broad cast division and represents both radio and television workers. It is a union that is commonly joined by personnel who are performing the duties of both announcer and engineer.

Radio is Prestigious

The job of disk jockey or announcer does not require a college degree, and radio performers enjoy considerable public prestige. There is a certain mystique connected to the broadcasting business. On the air you are reaching into the private lives of thousands of people. You may be an important part of their environment without ever knowing it. After listening to you for a long time people can develop a feeling that they really know you. When they meet you in person, there is naturally a great deal of interest and curiosity while they match their over -the -air impressions of you with the reality. Unlike the average citizen, who can remain fairly anonymous, as a radio personality you expose your knowledge, feelings, attitudes, and opinions for all to hear. You will have to get used to hearing yourself quoted and having your foibles, expressions, and anecdotes recalled to you by people you have never met before.


Radio is an attractive business for those who have the temperament for it. If you talk to someone who has a job as a radio announcer or disk jockey, you will probably get an enthusiastic response. For the most part the people who make a career of the broadcasting business do so because they love it. And the enthusiasm seems to be pervasive, even though the salaries are not always high. The stress produced by the pressures of the radio business makes it a profession that can be endured only by some one who is getting more out of it than just monetary rewards.

The Commercial Aspect

Consider first of all that broadcasting is essentially a commercial enterprise. While there are people who make a living in public broadcasting, they are relatively few in number. Most people in the profession are employed by commercial stations and networks. That is not true in all countries. Britain, for example, has an extensive public broadcasting sys tem supported by tax money. The British Broadcasting Corporation is one of the most highly respected in the world, and, if you were a citizen of that country, you could work without having to contend with sponsors. (The British do have commercial broadcasting, but it is a separate entity from the BBC.) In the United States we have chosen to support our broadcasting stations through private enterprise. That means your primary task will be to sell the product. Your value to your employer will be measured in terms of how much you are able to contribute to increasing the sales of those who "buy time" from the station. After 15 years in the business one disk jockey summed up his career by saying that all he ever did was "move the beans off the shelf." You may be idealistic and reject such a notion. You may feel worthier working for a station that is "untainted" by commercials, but you must understand the realities of the business. It is difficult to support a family on the income afforded by a station that carries little or no advertising, because your salary is set in proportion to the income of your employer.

Even if you accept the commercial nature of radio, you may not be prepared for some of its abuses. As a disk jockey you will have to read all of the copy that is put in front of you. Some of it may annoy you. You may consider it to be degrading to the listener or even deceptive. But your job is not to make judgments; you are paid to sell the product.

Many announcers have quit or been fired over this issue.

Job Security

Job security is another factor that you should consider before entering the field of radio. If you are the kind of person who likes to stay in one place for long periods of time, the business may cause you some unhappiness. While there is a certain amount of job security for engineers, air personalities tend to move or be moved frequently from one station to another. Every disk jockey plans on being fired at least once; some, several times. This is not necessarily a matter of professional competence. Employers realize this and do not hesitate to hire someone who has just been fired from another station. Longevity is not really a helpful professional attribute. A station manager does not expect announcers to stay more than a few years. The manager wants them to move on be cause their material begins to get stale. The announcer usually likes to move because moving offers gains in experience and professional growth.


If you are planning to stay in the radio business for a while you will want to think about raises and promotions. Starting salaries are generally good at AM stations, particularly those in metropolitan areas. But it is difficult to negotiate a raise above the union wage scale. At many stations you will have to lay your job on the line; then you may get what you want if the boss thinks you are a valuable property. If not, there are a dozen other people who would like to have your job, and remember, longevity is not considered to be an asset by most employers. Promotions, too, are hard to obtain. You may get to be program director, but, unless you have a strong business background, it is not likely that you will go beyond that. Station managers are usually selected from the ranks of the sales department. Naturally the job of chief engineer will go to someone who has technical knowledge and experience.

Social Life

There is one other factor you may want to keep in mind, and that is your social life. Radio stations are usually on the air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You will have to expect that, frequently during your career, you will be working on weekends and holidays. When other people are out partying, it will be time for you to go to work. While radio may be exciting for you in the first few years, it begins to get tiresome to work every Christmas and New Year's Eve. Some people like it; others do not. Decide first what kind of a person you are, and if a career in radio will be consistent with your desired life-style.


There are a variety of jobs you can pursue in the broadcasting business.

Generally they fall under the headings of engineering, programming, news, and sales. The head of each department would have the title of chief engineer, program director, news director, or sales manager. An organizational chart might look something like that shown in Figure 1-1.


The job in radio that probably comes to your mind first is that of an announcer. This is a term generally applied to well-known personalities who are heard on the network stations. Some of the larger local stations will also hire what are called "staff announcers." These are people who are generally employed because of the quality of their voices and their ability to read copy in a well -modulated tone. They are usually very highly paid professionals and have been in the broadcasting business a long time. Often they are actors, such as E. G. Marshall, or comedians, such as Gary Owens. This is not where you would start your broadcasting career.

Figure 1. A medium -size radio broadcasting station will have an organizational structure similar to the one illustrated here. The station manager is responsible to the owner and provides direction for the four major departments-engineering, programming, news, and sales. The program director must work closely with the news director and sales manager and feed information to the traffic director. Note that the combo operators are responsible to both the chief engineer and the program director.

Combo Operator

Most of the people who talk on the radio and play records call themselves disk jockeys. And a majority of the disk jockeys you hear are combo operators. The term combo means combination announcer and engineer. Most stations operate combo because the alternative is to hire two people instead of one, and that, of course, is much more expensive. The two -person arrangement is called dual operation, and a few stations still maintain it. It allows the station to hire a big -name personality without requiring him or her to have a license or engineering skills. But the job that you would most likely apply for is that of a combo operator. To obtain this position you would need to meet the following requirements:

1. Have a radiotelephone operator's license. Some stations require a first class license, which is very difficult to obtain and calls for extensive knowledge of electrical theory. Most require only a third class license or a restricted permit. We shall discuss how to obtain them in a later chap ter.

2. Know how to fill out program logs. The program log tells what programs and spot announcements have been scheduled for the day. It is a guide for the combo operator and also serves as a record of what the station has put on the air. Keeping the log is not difficult, but it is an important part of the job. The Federal Communications Commission requires that logs be kept on file for 2 years and that they be available for public inspection.

3. Know how to operate the equipment. The combo person will he working with an audio console, turntables, tape recorders, and other equipment that will be described in later Sections. He or she will get on-the-job training but should have some basic knowledge of fundamental operations.

4. Be able to speak in a clear, well -modulated voice. The combo operator should be able to extemporize (ad lib) and also be able to read the printed word in a voice that sounds intelligent and conversational. The combo operator who aspires to be a "personality" disk jockey must also have a quick wit, a gift for gab, and some knowledge of records and performers.


Almost all stations broadcast some type of news. Generally the news is read by someone other than the disk jockey. If the station employs separate news personnel, the management will expect something more than just the ability to read copy. A newsperson on a radio station will be employed because he or she knows how to write copy as well as read it.

A job in the news department may be much more exciting and challenging than a job as a disk jockey. For one thing you will get to read your own copy rather than that which has been written for you. You will also get a chance to talk to people and find out what is happening firsthand from those who are making the news. In order to fill this job you must be the kind of person who can work under pressure and meet deadlines.

You may need the ability to read copy "cold" in case someone hands you a bulletin at the last minute. And, of course, you would have to be the kind of person who keeps up on current events and has a sense of responsibility for the public's right to know what is happening. Knowing how to type is a must. Also necessary is the ability to construct clear, concise sentences. Perhaps most important of all is to be able to make judgments as to which stories are most significant and most appropriate.


The people in the sales department are the ones who keep the station going financially. Also they probably will be the ones who are most highly paid. It is not at all uncommon for a good salesperson to be earning more than the program director or even the station manager.

The salesperson makes contacts with the local merchants and arranges contracts for a certain number of spot announcements to be run on the station at certain times of the day. Sales personnel usually work on a commission basis but may also earn a salary. They may have other du ties in addition to selling. Many times they will write the copy for their accounts, and occasionally do the announcing and production work as well. A member of the sales staff might also be doing a disk jockey show or working on promotion campaigns. This type of position is definitely one that you should consider as an entry into a broadcasting career, not just because it is lucrative, but because there are probably more job opportunities in sales than in any other aspect of the business.


Radio stations consume copy voraciously. A medium -size station that maintains an active news department may employ a dozen or more copy writers, just to feed material to the newscasters. In addition, copywriters are employed in the sales department to write commercial spot announcements. Again, the ability to type would be an important qualification, along with some facility in spelling and sentence construction. As a copywriter, you would need to be able to compose quickly, and often under considerable pressure.

Traffic Director

Although a disk jockey may be aware only of what is happening during a particular shift, or a newscaster may be concerned only with the re porting of current events, the traffic director knows what is happening at the station throughout the entire day. The traffic director is the individual who prepares the program log which will be followed by all on -the -air personnel. Based upon information received from the program director, the traffic director prepares the program log indicating which pro grams and commercials have been scheduled and the times they should be placed into the log. (See discussion of program logs in Section 7.) In addition to making entries in the log, the traffic director must be sure that the copy to be read and tapes to be played are placed properly for the use of an announcer, disk jockey, or newscaster.


The engineering department is one that is extremely important to any broadcasting station. Maintaining the equipment so that it functions efficiently and with the necessary high fidelity is the essence of good radio station operation. Every station is required to have a chief engineer. This is the person who takes the responsibility of seeing that all the technical requirements of the station are met. The Federal Communications Com mission demands that every broadcasting station operate within certain parameters. The chief engineer's job is to know precisely what these tolerances are and to see that the requirements are met. He or she must have a Radiotelephone Operator License First Class and must be familiar with the FCC's Rules and Regulations. The chief engineer must be able to do the maintenance on the transmitting equipment, as well as on the audio equipment in the studios. Small stations will probably have only one engineer, but larger ones will have several.

General Qualifications

There are a variety of talents and skills that can be useful in a broadcasting station. To prepare yourself for this career you will want to develop a broad background. Know as much as you can about all areas of the broadcasting business. The more things you can do, the more valuable you will be and the greater chance you will have for getting a job. While a college education is not required, the person with some academic back ground does have an advantage. Almost any course you might take could contribute to your value as a broadcaster, but some are more directly related to programming than others. Here is a list I would suggest.

Music appreciation


Public speaking

Sales and marketing

Voice and diction


Oral interpretive reading


Group discussion

Political science

English composition


Students who take only broadcasting courses in college are limiting themselves considerably. They should have at least a smattering of knowledge about a variety of subjects.

In addition to the academic background, the person seeking a career in broadcasting needs experience. It is unrealistic to think that you will get your first job at a large station in a metropolitan area. You should plan on working for several years in small -market areas. If you are un willing to move away from your home town, broadcasting is probably not the right career for you. You may also find that salaries are low in the beginning and that there are a lot of people who are willing to work for practically nothing at all. These are the realities with which you will have to contend.


Just like any other business, broadcasting offers both advantages and disadvantages. It is a highly commercial industry, and the professional broadcaster must have a positive attitude toward the concept of advertising. Otherwise, pursuit of the career may lead to frustration and disillusionment. The radio business is contemporary, creative, prestigious, and sometimes lucrative. But the drawbacks should also be considered.

While salaries are potentially high, they are generally low in the beginning. There is little if any job security, and working hours are often unattractive. Usually the person who pursues a career in broadcasting is one who is seeking a means of expression rather than just a method of making a living.


Ad lib Audio console AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) BBC (British Broadcasting System) Combo operator Dual operation EBS (Emergency Broadcast System) FCC (Federal Communications Commission) IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) NABET (National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians) Program log Radiotelephone operator license Traffic director


Find out how many AM and FM broadcasting stations there are in your area.

1. Make a list of all the ones you are able to receive clearly on your own radio set. If you tune in on the hour you will hear the station give its call letters and location. List the call letters and get the address and telephone number of each of the stations.

2. Call a station that you like to listen to, and ask if you can come to visit. See if you can get a tour, and if possible talk to the station manager or program director. Find out what they consider to be the most important qualifications for a person entering the field of broadcasting.

Also see: DIY low-power transmitter projects ; Radio Communications Receivers -- A guide to radio receiver design and technology

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