Getting Into Broadcasting was Almost Like Having a Real Job
The true and not-so-glamorous way I got into broadcasting
There’s little that compares with the thrill of someone actually paying you to do something you like, something you trained for, something that may actually be a start to a long and successful career. Recently I wrote of an experience early in my television career, but even before that, my first real broadcasting job was at a small radio station in a small town, run on a small budget.
I got my foot in the door when a staff member from the station came to my Broadcast News writing class my junior year in college and advertised for an intern. She was the station’s News Director, which sounded impressive, but I guess when you’re the only person on the news staff you get to put any job title you want on your business card. I made an appointment with her, showed up on time, presented my meager resume, and answered a few questions. Before I left, I asked her when I would find out if I got the internship.
“Oh It’s yours,” she said. “You’re the only applicant. When can you start?”
I was elated. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after my last class, I rode my bicycle down to the radio station to embark on my quest to become a genuine broadcaster. I couldn’t come on Tuesdays or Thursdays because I actually had a paying job, earning minimum wage at a commercial laundry in town. We laundered the bedding from the local hospital, and though it usually was not a difficult job, there were days when we had to don rubber gloves and masks when a laundry cart came in directly from surgery. If I figure out a way to write about that experience without retching, I’ll tell that story one day.
The laundry job was to stay alive. The radio internship was to build a career. As part of my internship I wrote local news stories, re-wrote wire copy, and before long was even voicing individual news stories so the news director could pitch to a reporter in the field.
I didn’t exactly go “into the field,” but on a small radio station you make do with what you have. We had a telephone hooked up to a tape recorder and I would call that phone from across the room and record my story through the phone line so it would sound as if I was phoning in from the scene of a breaking story. It worked beautifully, and sometimes we sounded like a real news operation.
At the end of the spring semester my internship was over, but I asked the News Director if I could continue to come in daily to gain more practice.
“You mean work for free, right?” she asked.
“Well yeah, of course,” I confirmed. She was happy for the help, and I was happy for the experience, so it worked out well for both of us and I continued to work through the summer.
One August evening I was home when the phone rang. It was the radio station’s Program Director. He sounded desperate.
“Do you know how to play records on our air?” he asked.
I was confused, but answered in the affirmative.
“Good. Can you go down to the radio station and work a disc jockey shift right now?”
“You mean as in right this minute?” I asked.
“Yes, right this second,” he said hastily. “Our evening jock apparently just walked out, locked the door and left. After ten minutes of dead air, the chief engineer drove to the station to check it out and found the studio empty. I’m an hour away or else I’d go myself.”
It was a ten-minute bike ride from my apartment to the station, so I told him I’d be right there. I hopped onto my ten-speed and pedaled down to the station where the engineer met me at the door, perspiring.
“Get something on the air right now, will you?” he pleaded. I sprinted into the studio, slapped a record on the turntable and hit the “on” button.
No more dead air.
And no more working for free, either. It seemed that in order for me to work completely unattended (the perspiring engineer didn’t count), the station had to put me on the payroll. Finally, I had an actual broadcasting job with a paycheck! Sure it was only $2.30 an hour, but it was actual money.
Even though I had a real job, that didn’t mean I was real good at it. In fact, I was, at the time, the worst disc jockey I had ever heard. But there I was, on the air playing the latest country hits, telling the time and temperature as often as I could stand to hear myself say it, and getting at least some experience in ad libbing on a live broadcast.
My stint as the world's worst disc jockey was a short one. I continued the job through my senior year of college, but right after graduation, the News Director resigned and a full-time position opened up. I got the job, and continued to build on the local news operation that my predecessor had begun when she helped me get into the lucrative minimum-wage world of broadcasting.
Like my forerunner, it wasn’t long before I was looking for an intern to help me. So like her, I visited the Broadcast News class at my former alma mater and asked for applications. I was looking for someone I could mentor, someone I could pass the torch to, someone I could encourage toward a lifelong and successful career in broadcasting the same way I had been encouraged.
I didn’t have a single applicant. Doesn't anyone want to work for free anymore?
© Nick Walker 2018
What was your first real career job? Was it all you thought it would be? Please scroll down and hit "leave a comment" below.