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The first voice heard in the morning: Four steps for starting a career in radio journalism

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Radio news on AM/FM commercial stations is a tough gig. It is not a 9 to 5 job. You will have to come in at odd hours, weekends, overnight, etc. Get used to it. After all, radio prime time is the morning drive, a window generally starting at 5 a.m. When the rest of the world is rolling out of bed, brushing teeth, and making coffee, you have to be possibly the first voice heard in the morning.

 

Tough as being a radio journalist can be, it can be even tougher if you don’t make the right choices or have unrealistic expectations. Radio is not an industry of fame or fortune, rather one of little pay and an increasing workload. However, just because you have to “pay your dues” does not mean you should waste time in positions of little pay or upward mobility. The following advice will help you navigate the minefield of what is a volatile, fading business.

 

1) Get an internship

 

If you are considering a news radio career, get an internship. It will give you real-world experience and networking opportunities, but most importantly it will help you decide whether you’d even want to work in the biz.

 

A paid internship is a plus, but don’t expect one. It’s not your goal anyway. Your goal is to step out the ivory tower and into the thick of it. If all you have is a small-town radio station nearby, don’t worry. It’s a place to start. Even if the station does not have a news room, much less a news reporter on staff, you should spend some time there. At the very least, it will give you real exposure to the inner workings of a station.

 

If you want to become a radio journalist, though, don’t spend too much time there. Ideally, you want to be around a strong news operation. If one is not near where you live, this may require some travel and cost depending on your situation. An inside word is the best way to find out which news rooms are decent and which are not. Networking through groups like the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) or states’ news broadcasters associations can help you gain insight. Or perhaps you could see the operation for yourself by volunteering as a job shadow, an approach that may also help you get your foot in the door for an internship later.

 

Surprisingly, a polished on-air product is not an indication of that station’s news room. It’s possible the newscaster is simply reading wire copy developed by another source. It’s also very common for news hubs to provide “local” information for other radio stations. Although it sounds like the anchor is reporting on local politics, he or she is actually “beamed in” from hundreds of miles away. So be resourceful and cut through the smoke and mirrors.

 

As far as what to look for, a strong news operation normally involves more than one person. Coverage need not be strictly public affairs, but the operation should attempt to follow important issues. Using “local” anchors from far away is very common now, but if the station is using more than 50 percent of its voices that way, it’s probably not worth wasting your time there.

 

Once you figure out where you want to work, you need to figure out who hires the interns. If there is no contact info for an internship on the organization’s website, simply call and find out who handles them. If you leave a message with that person and don’t hear back, call him or her again until you get through. If you find yourself apprehensive about making multiple phone calls to the same person, you might want to consider a career outside of journalism.

 

If you land the interview, be enthusiastic, professional, and humble. There is a multitude of books on giving a great interview, and the principles apply the same when dealing with radio management.

 

If you pass the interview and get in the door, be a friendly intern. If you don’t know someone there, introduce yourself. You are in other people’s territory; they are not mandated to welcome you. Be willing to learn. Don’t spend the day playing with your smart phone. Focus. Be prompt.

 

Save your scripts, airchecks, newscasts, etc. This applies whether you are in school, an internship, or a first job. The more material you have, the better off you are when putting together a resume tape for that next step, like a bigger media market and theoretically more money. It also helps to have a few quality pieces that you could enter into contests. Winning them is even better.

 

With today’s few jobs in the field, the internship probably won’t lead to a full-time job at that station. Instead, take what you’ve learned, and if you have some time left in school, use it as a method of gauging your next step.

 

Also, keep in touch with your former colleagues and supervisors. They could turn out to be the friend you need when you are looking for that first real gig. As in every other profession, networking is essential. If you haven’t attended some gatherings for groups like SPJ or your state’s news broadcasters association, get on that right away. Most of these groups have websites with decent job banks, too.

 

These groups will be helpful in finding mentors, a key in radio journalism. Unlike your counterparts in TV and newsprint, there may be few chances for mentoring in your first radio news job. You could be hired as a News Director for a small-market station, meaning you are the only person doing news at that facility. In these cases, who will provide guidance on stories? Who will critique you on your abilities?

 

2) Learn on the job

 

Journalism is best learned on the job, so I suggest majoring in something outside of the journalism, broadcasting, or communication pipeline. I have a BA in broadcasting and learned a great deal about the sociological effects of media on certain groups, but in retrospect a broadcast minor would have been adequate to develop the basic skills. Having another degree can actually enhance your abilities as a reporter. For example, a political science major would enhance your public affairs reporting, an economics major could help your business coverage or an English major would give you stronger writing skills.

 

Your skills as a newscaster, whether you are in school or ready for retirement, center on delivery (anchoring) and production (writing and use of sound). Interviewing and other tasks are important, but delivery and production are the vital skills.

 

A basic-level anchor should be able to read a newspaper article start to finish with only minimal flubbing. For practice, spend a half-hour a day reading some form of news copy, then listen back to your delivery. You can even use newsprint, but you might want to stay away from stuff like The New York Times. Broadcast copy is never that cerebral.

 

The best way to develop a good ear for production is to listen to good work—like NPR’s use of natural sound—then incorporate the ideas into your pieces. Don’t get too caught up in the various audio software programs. They will change over time. Master one or two programs now, and use that mastery as a springboard. Writing should be conversational. Author Mervin Block is a good resource for this.

 

3) Develop other media skills

 

Although you are an aspiring radio journalist, radio is only one format to convey your information. Blogging and other social media are increasingly necessary aspects of being a modern reporter. Some of the better radio news groups are doing video and photography along with long-form text for web stories. If you don’t know how to take a good photo or write a decent newsprint-style article, learn how. These skills will help you not just in doing the job, but also in shaping your personal brand as a reporter which is similar to branding any product. Companies use a multitude of platforms to develop a trusted image for consumers. Likewise, you should use multimedia to develop trusted news coverage for consumers of information.

 

4) Be a jack-of-all-trades

 

Some people right out of college go to work full-time in a major market. However, don’t be surprised if your first job opportunity is either a part-time or hybrid position. Unfortunately, the days of a fulltime radio reporter are all but gone in smaller media markets. In addition to working in the news room, you will probably have to spend some time doing traffic reports, taking care of administrative work, or helping produce advertising spots.

 

If you would prefer spending most of your time on-air, then work toward being a diverse broadcaster. The ability to do play-by-play for high school sports or to double as a music DJ is also an advantage as companies look to cut staffing. A single-task employee in radio is dispensable. It is in your best interest to add multiple tiers of value to your employer. Hopefully, you can move past this jack-of-all-trades and get a full time news gig, but it may take a bit of time.

 

Why do it?

 

So with little pay, weird hours, and the realization that you will most definitely be fired at some point, why do radio news? First, you are the master of your own destiny. You don’t need to work for a great radio station to be a great reporter. You may be doing newscasts on a coffee-stained soundboard that is 40 years old. Who cares? If you have a recorder and a way to edit the sound, you’re set.

 

Second, it’s a lot of fun. Despite being an ever-shrinking product, radio news continues to be a major element in the public discourse. It’s an information conduit that can touch people when they least expect it. You’re letting the mother picking up her kids from school, the guy at the factory or the person cleaning their house what’s going as they’re going about their day. Internet, TV or print news cannot claim this distinction.

 

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