Hello Cats & Kittens...
April 21, 2006 10:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be out of work in two months (happily), and one thing I'm thinking of exploring is radio, both for the sheer fun of it and maybe as a career choice since when I was a kid I desperately wanted to be Johnny Fever. I have a voice for it, I'm told, and the music knowledge, and the patter. I realize that I'll have to start out doing it for free at a college station or something, but that's cool. So, how does one go about doing this? Be as detailed as possible.

Including what to prepare, stations that would be receptive in the NYC area, advice, etc.
posted by jonmc to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This might seem like an obvious suggestion (and it is ), but why not start with a podcast first? The format can be essentially the same as a broadcast radio show, and if you could acquire a reasonable sized listener base for that, which would be very doable via Projects and MeFi, I'd imagine, then I would think college and maybe commercial stations would take more interest. Not only that, but you'd have a ready made portfolio of work to show them.

Your voice is definitely fine for radio - no worries there. Sounds sort of comforting and avuncular - a good morning show voice!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 10:57 AM on April 21, 2006

No firsthand experience, but any broadcast radio station is going to expect you to intern for free, I believe. I would check the local stations around your part of NY for internships.

You get to learn, know some connected folks, and maybe just maybe sometime down the road when the graveyard shift jock gets sick you fill in
posted by poppo at 11:06 AM on April 21, 2006

Unpaid internships. Most of the college stations around NYC are broadcast-radio-oriented (training ground for students) and thus do not take non-student DJs (at least that seemed to be the jist when I was looking to get involved). WFMU claims to take program pitches, but I wonder how easy it is to do that, even as a graveyard shift.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:15 AM on April 21, 2006

Response by poster: WFMU claims to take program pitches, but I wonder how easy it is to do that, even as a graveyard shift.

For WFMU, I'd give it a shot. What would be involved in a program pitch? audition tape? what makes a good audition tape?
posted by jonmc at 11:17 AM on April 21, 2006

I second the podcasting idea. After you've done that, you could call up your local college/community stations to see if they have any openings. If you can get the name of the program director, that's who you should talk to. Even if they don't have any slots open, they might be able to give you some good advice on how to break into the field.

Interning at a commercial station is also an option. Some require previous radio experience (like being on a college station or taking a production class), but not all do. I've heard it's a really good way to get your foot in the door, but yeah, I don't think it pays anything. And commercial stations tend to suck, so there's that too.
posted by 912 Greens at 11:18 AM on April 21, 2006

I interned at a radio station a few years ago (for free, as a teenager), and it was an extremely eye-opening experience. The station was owned by some sort of local media conglomerate -- not Clear Channel, but a large chain of media outlets nonetheless. A few things I learned:

- Radio pays crap, especially to the "talent."

- There is no room for spontenaity, personality, or other amusing shenanigans from DJ's in today's commercial radio. Your job as a DJ is to take the canned pablum fed to you by management and make it sound spontaneous to the audience.

- Surprise! Talent and management always hate each other. Your job as talent is to subvert management as much as possible until you finally cross the line that gets you fired. Rinse, repeat as necessary, until you either sell out and become management, or find a job in another industry.

- On-air studio work is only part of your job as a radio personality; you're also required to go out to many events -- often late at night before your morning shift -- and schmooze with listeners and give away payola schwag in order to promote Verizon Wireless, Frank's Burger Shack, or whoever else is paying to keep the lights on at the station that week. Oh, and make this miserable promotional gig sound like HUGE FUN to the audience, and get them to COME ON OUT and join you.

- Media consolodation has completely ruined commercial radio's ability to promote new, unknown talent. Gone are the days when a DJ had any control over his playlist, or could introduce his listeners to a brand new sound he'd personally discovered. Your job is to keep telling listeners how great that new single from Kevin Federline is, while a producer pushes the button that keeps it in rotation 20 times a day.

Sorry if this is repeating stuff you already know. If you can find a local community station and volunteer, doing radio in an independent/college setting is lots of fun. Taking your career in that direction -- that's asking for a world of pain.
posted by junkbox at 11:24 AM on April 21, 2006

Response by poster: I figured as much on that front, junkbox. But in NYC, I figure I can find some community/college station where I can have fun playing Wolfman Jack and maybe someone will hear how terrific I am and I'll revolutionize radio. But, don't worry I'm not banking on that. I'm just looking for some nuts and bolts here.
posted by jonmc at 11:32 AM on April 21, 2006

Seconding a lot of what junkbox said, as I worked in radio (WDST Woodstock, NY, WVKR Vassar College Radio, WCBN, Ann Arbor Freeform Radio) for a bit after college. Knowing your passion for music, Jon, unless you stick to non-paid gigs at community or non-profit radio stations, you are going to be HUGELY disappointed and immensely frustrated. DJs have zero influence or ability to control the music they play unless they also happen to be the program director. And as consolidation in the music industry and the radio industry continues, things are getting farther away from the hands of the DJ (look at stations like Jack in NYC in which there aren't any DJs at all).

Were I you, I would perhaps set my sights on getting into promotion or artist representation or music reviewing as a job and try to find a community station where you can play what you want as a hobby to feed your broadcasting bug. The above mention of WFMU is a good idea, although when I went there I found their whole "hipper than thou" thing intolerable.

Outside of FMU, NYC as far as I know suffers from a huge dearth of community stations.
posted by spicynuts at 11:54 AM on April 21, 2006

Oh I forgot to mention, if you are willing to travel up to Poughkeepsie once a week or so WVKR at Vassar College is a great little station and unless they've changed the rules you don't need to be a student to get a shift there.
posted by spicynuts at 11:55 AM on April 21, 2006

i worked as a Music Director/ DJ for a few years at my college station. We were always looking for people and frequently hired non-students. Our station was pretty free format (which is common in college radio) and as such any given DJ had the latitude to do rock/rap/gospel/talk/whatever weird noise experiment they wanted. All we wanted was people to be interesting, and show up for their shift.

i know that several of my DJs went on to work in radio.

So, yeah. Hit the colleges and see if they need help. At the very least it will give you a taste to see if you want more.
posted by quin at 12:04 PM on April 21, 2006

For WFMU, I'd give it a shot. What would be involved in a program pitch?

Apply to do a listener hour, 9 to 10 on Saturday. See their webpage for details.

Volunteer for the record fair and marathon, and get to know people.

Next step up the ladder would be as a substitute.

You do realize the WFMU DJs are volunteers?
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:06 PM on April 21, 2006

If you want to DJ music, one venue you can practice in cheaply is the online game Second Life. Land owners can set their parcels to stream a given URL, so you can sign up with Live365 or something of that ilk, and stream to anyone on the same parcel with you.

Hardest part will be convincing someone with a virtual nightclub that you'd be an OK DJ, but I imagine if you hung out there a bit, you could find someone, possibly with an existing music server, which would be cheaper. Live365 isn't _hugely_ expensive, but if you're not working, you'll want to save every dime.

It'd be a very low-stress, low-commitment way to practice, and you could get a (small) audience and some feedback. Second Life itself is completely free... they try to upsell you on owning land. But you don't have to own any, as long as you can find someone who will let you use theirs to stream from. It doesn't cost them anything to do that, just the opportunity cost of not having someone else streaming at that time.
posted by Malor at 12:13 PM on April 21, 2006

Response by poster: Yes, I do, sticky. I'm looking to start doing what moves me, any career ambitions are a side idea/longshot.
posted by jonmc at 12:14 PM on April 21, 2006

You might also want to check out intern/volunteer opportunities at WFUV in the Bronx. Good music, and lots of interesting musical guests you might have a chance to meet.
posted by mikepop at 12:16 PM on April 21, 2006

WFUV in the Bronx

Just be aware that FUV and FMU are at war about overlapping signals, no idea what impact that might have.

Also, FMU has a pretty cool blog, maybe you could contribute to that?
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:21 PM on April 21, 2006

I emailed you too, but check out WBAI (Pacifica). I believe that they are volunteer friendly (though not really music-oriented). Might be good for broadcast experience at the very least.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:44 PM on April 21, 2006

College radio's a good place to start. Where I was a DJ you only had to be carrying something like 5 credits which is typically one or two classes a week.

Good DJs at this station got picked up by commercial stations and manage to make a career out of it.

But it's a real letdown going from college radio to commercial radio. Imagine going from playing almost anything you want to having to play Coldplay, Celine Dion and Destiny's Child 10 times a day. What a bummer.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 1:01 PM on April 21, 2006

Thirding the podcasting idea and...maybe some voice acting lessons?

You could also try the Storycorps booth and interview someone (interesting) that you know. You'll get a copy of your interview on CD, which you can add to your portfolio.
posted by hooray at 2:10 PM on April 21, 2006

No reason you can't do a podcast at the same time you are pursuing a community radio slot. Once you've landed the slot, continue the podcast and cross promote.
posted by Good Brain at 2:19 PM on April 21, 2006

I didn't see any mention of it so I'll chime in, though my knowledge is slim. Many things I have read about community radio channels indicated that to be in a time slot you don't just need to program things, YOU need to bring in the advertisers/sponsors. So WGFY might think you're the most amazing thing ever but it's up to you to financially justify being in that chunk of time.

Clearest evidence I remember reading of this phenomenon was in a Miami Herald article about WDNA, if anyone has Lexis access or archive search ability...
posted by phearlez at 2:30 PM on April 21, 2006

Look into some of the smaller college stations, not the large, almost-pro type - they tend to be more open to community members, in part because they tend to have small ranges. You'll probably have to go through some sort of application process to get in [probably a stricter process than the students do], so it's worth it to prepare some sample playlists and perhaps have a show idea before you even apply. I'd plan on preparing 1 hour and 2 hour playlists, depending on the station's format. If you can record a sample show [or do a practice podcast] yourself, that might be useful too. Try to think about what would set your prospective show apart from other shows - guests? live music? certain obscure genres? You'll find it easier to get a show if you can demonstrate you'll be filling in some sort of area that's been lacking in the station's schedule.

There'll be some amount of training. You may not be able to run a show alone [that is, without an engineer] for a while, and depending on the station's policies, you might have to stick with subbing or taking otherwise open slots before you get a real show. If you do choose a smaller station, not as many people will hear you... but it doesn't sound like that's the main point. You'll have a better chance at getting a show quickly, which is worth it. The station I had a show at for a while didn't even have the people to man the transmitter all 24 hours, although it was still pretty well-respected, and there was a relatively large amount of community involvement. That kind of setup sounds like it would be good for you, if you can find it.
posted by ubersturm at 2:45 PM on April 21, 2006

What about Sirius or XM? I don't subscribe, but it seems like they really have much more content freedom than terresterial radio. And it seems like a much more exciting time in the satellite radio world - a growing industry vs. the old/disappearing/consolidating terrestial radio industry.
posted by mullacc at 3:08 PM on April 21, 2006

An alternative not mentioned so far...

With minimal to zero investment you could start doing internet radio...it's actually a good way to nail down your chops, get over mic fright, listen to yourself (you'd be amazed how you don't "hear" some of your quirks) and you'd also get the feel for recording and inserting bumpers, sweepers and all kinds of other stuff.

You'll also learn part of the downside, (boredom, wondering if anyone's listening/looking at the server and discovering they aren't) but with patience and consistent quality you can build an audience - sort of like blogging but with quicker feedback.

It will also teach you enough basic stuff through sheer trial and error that if you do seek a professional radio gig, you'll have some voice demo stuff recorded/edited that you can use for demos.

Another benefit is that if you demonstrate an ability to do VO/Production work (through bumpers and sweepers, etc) then you become more valuable as well.

The point is consider this as a hobby first, and jump ship later. I've done it off and on for a couple of years and thoroughly enjoyed it. Email me if you'd like to talk about this a little more - I can point you toward inexpensive-to-free solutions for this and help you get started if you like.
posted by Thistledown at 3:41 PM on April 21, 2006

Regarding opportunities with satellite stations, they of course have every graduating college DJ applying to them. What they seem to need is specialized niches: a trucker call in show comes to mind as one example.

What other niche is underserved, but could have a national base? Show you have a deep understanding, and can put together a lot of material for that subculture. Mix comic repartee with solid entertainment, with a sidekick (wfmu's Glenn Jones?)

Build a collective of regular callers, mixed with ringers playing a variety of semi-scripted roles (wfmu's Tom Sharpling?)

Maybe you could do some MC work spinning at a club or restaurant? Build a following, get all your MeFi, MeCha fans to show up.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:33 PM on April 21, 2006

1. This area has always fascinated me, too, so this thread is very interesting to me - thanks, all.

2. jonmc, I've "known" you via MeFi for years and your blog when it was in existence, and I think that you definitely have something to contribute -- your vast musical knowledge, of course, but also in your even-handedness in dealing with the world, and your ability to use words far, far better than most people. Good luck, jon.
posted by davidmsc at 7:12 PM on April 21, 2006

What other niche is underserved, but could have a national base? Show you have a deep understanding, and can put together a lot of material for that subculture.

Yep -- seconded. I'm picturing jonmc not spinning what the Man says, but putting together a weekly (say) two-hour broadcast on one of the many genres or subgenres he knows about. Try starting by proposing the show and doing whatever it takes to get it at one of the above-mentioned community/college broadcasters near you. Once you're on-air, print postcards, stickers, and leaflets and get a lot of listeners, and work at drawing in underwriters and cross-promotion.

At that point, once you have a fair number of shows recorded and archived, you might be able to distribute your show through a resource like PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Browse through this page for some examples of the types of programming most in-demand. Jon, I could really see you doing a mix of commentary, biography/interview, history, verbal riffing, and musical tracks on 60s R&B for an hour or two each week.

The key to making it worth national distribution is that it wouldn't just be a music show...it would offer educational content. Since some percentage of educational content is often required for public, college, community, and LPFm stations, they're always looking for that type of material.

And by the way? I'm really excited that you're thinking along these lines. You'd be brilliant at this. Make it happen.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on April 21, 2006

I was programming director for a year at KAMP (University of Arizona) and DJ'd for 3. We were pretty unique in that we didn't have a broadcast signal (I could curse a fucking mile-long blue streak about this but anyway) and worked free-format, but I learned a lot regardless.

so far, folks are pretty dead-on: you'll be volunteering a lot (both on-air and out at locations), you'll probably wind up playing a bunch of shit music and telling everyone how great it is, and you'll be against management every step of the way. it broke my heart firing cool kids 'cause they couldn't contain themselves on air. of course, I have higher hopes for you based on your participation hereabouts.

I don't know if this is because of the wacky arrangement at KAMP, but the last year I was there they started accepting students from the local community colleges into DJ positions. if you're looking into switching careers and educating yourself a bit more, that can be a good playing card for getting on at a university station without actually attending the university.

you will be expected to learn the technical side of things first. it doesn't matter if you have the Golden Voice of God and a Supreme Being's Taste in Music and A Wit To Crumble Civilizations, if you can't get the music on the air you won't find yourself behind a mic. mainly I mention this so that you don't expect to get on the air right away when you get a position somewhere. community radio stations are good for technical training courses (I'm working through KXCI's right now) and college stations too, to a lesser extent.

in the other worlds of radio....my father bought an hour long home improvement talk radio show on a relatively-local conglomorate's AM station recently. he was expected to bring his own advertising, and the station expected to get a (big) cut of whatever ad revenue he brought in. also, he was required to do high school-level outlines for all of his shows. I wish this was something I made my news/sports DJs do specifically for me back when I was PDing, because filling an hour with interesting talk is hard. anyway, he basically purchased an hour of airtime once a week, so that's at least a possibility.

finally, here's the DJ Handbook for the KAMP kids. much of it is station-specific, but there's some real wisdom in there about being on air.

anyway, I've had some little experience with the smaller eddys of broadcast radio, but my coherence escapes me at this point--hit me up if you have any more specific questions.
posted by carsonb at 7:25 PM on April 21, 2006

miko's suggestion is good, but speaking from a former PD's perspective I'll say that getting people to air that stuff--let alone even listen to it once--is nigh on impossible without a nice long list of serious connections at individual stations. liken it to bands that self-promote albums: if you've ever been around a radio station that does anything close to the format necessary to accomodate this type of show, you'll recall the stacks and scads and piles and heaps of crap promos that tend to collect around the place.

I don't mean to discourage, because quality work sometimes does get picked out of the chaff (& I have no doubt you'd contribute quality work), but there's a lot of chaff to contend with.
posted by carsonb at 7:32 PM on April 21, 2006

We were pretty unique in that we didn't have a broadcast signal

Just out of curiosity, was it cable FM? The station i MDed at (WYRE represent!) was cable and it was a pretty sweet system. No FCC regs, we could play everything unedited, and while you couldn't listen to it in your car, it did reach about 100,000 homes. Which in a suburban area is pretty good for a college radio station.
posted by quin at 9:05 PM on April 21, 2006

well, we cabled into the dorms and broadcast over the internet. we also rigged a crappy AM tower, but could hardly power it at all--had to play by the rules to even hope for an LPFM. Tucson's broadcast media market sucks.
posted by carsonb at 9:42 PM on April 21, 2006

If you're willing to entertain a slightly far-fetched idea, the shortwave radio station WBCQ sells airtime for under $100 a pop - with a powerhouse, continent-crushing signal and a free-speech policy that has even protected (to some extent) things as ridiculous as anti-Semitic comments about the station owner. Granted, there are a lot of quackpots out there, but it's a neat way to broadcast ... well ... any damn thing you can think of to a truly global audience.

If you're willing to entertain the idea of "pay-to-play" in the short term, it'd be a pretty damn cool resume builder to say that you already have a show being broadcast internationally (and legitimately).
posted by mykescipark at 7:20 AM on April 22, 2006

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