Advice to Mass-Communications Majors and Broadcasting Students
Brian Gongol

Rule #1: Get a second major
The market for broadcasters is tough -- so many people think they can be on the air that there's a virtually endless supply of people who are trying to get the same jobs you are...and even when you actually get a job, there's always someone who wants it and who would be willing to do it for less pay than you would. Consequently, most broadcasters make a lot less money than they would in other occupations requiring the same level of education. Nightly news anchors and big-name morning-show hosts notwithstanding, if you're on the air, you're probably not getting rich.

This makes getting a second major good for two reasons:

  1. With a second major, you differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd. If you're a plain-vanilla reporter, then you're just a cog in the machine. But if you're a reporter who also has a major in business (for example), you can report on all the same stories a plain-vanilla reporter can, but you can also do special segments on financial news or investigative reports that require knowledge of accounting. TV weather forecasters have known this forever, which is why they seem to keep their jobs longer than most regular reporters. Their specialized knowledge is a competitive advantage they hold over everyone else.

  2. Alternatively, with a second major, you always have an "out" in case broadcasting doesn't work for you. Not everyone gets to be Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh or Brian Williams or Katie Couric. There's nothing more disappointing than finding out you're 10 years into a career you don't like anymore, getting paid $8 an hour with no benefits, living in a town you don't like because it had the only station that took your airchecks. With a second major in your back pocket, you always have an "out" in case things don't work out.

    In fact, many radio broadcasters have found lots of joy in treating radio like a part-time paid hobby. Many play-by-play announcers for college football, for instance, work in full-time jobs like banking and insurance, and treat broadcasting as a fun side job. As automation and voice-tracking continue to swell on the FM dial, fewer people will have jobs like the ones portrayed on shows like "WKRP in Cincinnati".

Rule #2: Get on the air as much as you can
No matter what you learn about broadcasting in school, it's probably wrong. Broadcasting is really a vocational trade, even though many or most broadcasters have been to college. And just like most manual-labor trades (like automotive mechanics or carpentry), you only learn by doing. Get on the air as much as you possibly can, whether through internships, overnight shifts, or practice in the studio at school.

A corollary to this rule is that you must aircheck everything you do and listen to it critically. Be as hard on yourself as you can bear -- broadcasting is a bizarre universe in which your work is put on public display every day for thousands of people to see or hear. Audiences expect virtually flawless performances, so it's best to become your own toughest critic.

Rule #3: Be flexible
Recognize that for every person on the air at a given radio or television station, there are several others who work behind the scenes -- in management, accounting, commercial traffic, production, promotions, engineering, and sales. Many of them used to be on the air and chose to get out, but enjoyed broadcasting enough to stay in the business. Be open to working in other departments, and go out of your way to try them out whenever possible. You may find that it's much more fun to be a promotions director than an on-air personality. Moreover, many of these jobs have greater job security than on-air personalities. After all, accountants aren't rated by Nielsen or Arbitron.

Rule #4: Expect things to change
The broadcasting industry changes rapidly. In 1986, almost no one worked producing new content for cable TV, no one had heard of "podcasts", and there wasn't a radio or TV station on the planet that had a website. Broadcasting requires more adaptability to massive disruptive change than many other occupations, because it it so dependent upon technology and so susceptible to changes in taste. Adaptability isn't just an asset, it's a job requirement.

Rule #5: Enjoy it
Despite all the reasons to be cautious about getting into broadcasting as a career, it's one of the few occupations that really gets into your blood. Once most people get a taste of being on the air, whether on TV or radio, it's hard to find the same kind of rush in any other job. (Of course, that's why so many people want to be in broadcasting in the first place, which in turn is why the pay is usually pretty low.) But if you're willing to make a trade-off between income and the rush that comes from seeing the "ON-AIR" light brighten up, then broadcasting has its own abundant rewards.