How To Become a Radio DJ
A Radio DJ plays and mixes music and discusses news, music, or other topics of interest on breaks between songs. An On-Air Personality, on the other hand, is not responsible for actually playing and mixing music.
DJ Brandi Garcia of classic Los Angeles hip-hop station KDAY says her day consists of “show prep. Scouring the internet, checking out celebrity birthdays, current news and what people are talking about. Looking at social media to see what’s trending, what events we’re promoting in-house so you can place your breaks and what you’re going to talk about next.”
After her daily shift, Garcia says she spends her time doing “production work, helping my P.D. schedule music and setting up for the next day. Seeing if there are any commercials or promos to record.”
Sometimes there are also interviews to be prerecorded for a later date or movie screenings or album listening parties to attend in her capacity as a representative of the station. “It’s always fun and different every day,” she says.
A DJ works with Board Operators, Producers, the Music Director, Program Director, and sometimes Recording Artists.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a Radio DJ is approximately $53,600. Salaries for Radio DJs range from about $19,300 to $105,200.
Full-time DJs are salaried, whereas Board Ops and part-time On-Air Personalities/DJs are hourly.
“For hip-hop, in particular, you have to live the lifestyle,” Garcia says. “It’s all about the music, the attitude, the style, going to different events…it’s a whole feel to it. I go to a lot of the shows and different events our listeners go to. You have to be part of the community, not just show up to do your shift and go home.”
Shifts can vary, with morning drive-time hosts working extremely early in the morning. Shifts generally range from three to five hours. Radio DJs also often work around the station offices in other capacities, working alongside Board Ops, Producers, Music Directors, Program Directors, and sometimes Musicians. Many will make appearances or DJ at events on behalf of the station at night, too.
Advancement can come in several forms. A DJ can move from a smaller market to a bigger market, and become better known. A DJ can also go from having a part-time shift to having a full-time shift. Moving from say, a late night shift, where there are fewer listeners, to a drive-time shift, where the station has the most listeners can also represent an advance in a DJ’s career.
Additionally, DJs can step into roles such as Assistant Program Director, Music Director or Program Director. “It’s a natural, linear progression” from working as a DJ to a more managerial position “for true radio professionals,” says Garcia. However, “not everyone does that nowadays because everyone wants to be famous and be on reality TV or whatever.”
Radio can be hard to break into. “The #1 most important thing is [to] get your foot in the door, no matter how you can,” Garcia says. “If it’s in a cluster [a group of radio stations owned by one company], you can maneuver around eventually, you just have to prove yourself.”
She advises, “Don’t complain. Do anything that is asked of you and hang around.”
If you can’t get into the major stations in your area and you’ve tried everything, she suggests DJs “go to all the smaller surrounding markets,” where “you can get actual hands-on experience” and build up your resume.
- “Put together a resume and go look up every station in the surrounding area and submit to any Intern or part-time job in the general area. Get in there and start doing anything and everything. Eventually, let them know your aspirations, but take all your work seriously. If you do your job well, people have no choice but to respect you.”
- “Try to find one person to take you under their wing.” Study what makes them successful and shadow them on the job.
- Little by little, work your way up. Know that you won’t land that dream job immediately. “It’s a waiting game.”
Experience & Skills
So how can an aspiring DJ get experience? “Get an internship or start working part-time at any station you can, whether it be in promotions or on the street team or Board Ops.” The station doesn’t even necessarily have to be the format you hope to work in, “because that’s hard” to land right away, Garcia says. “Whoever hangs around the longest, that is willing to work on the holidays, you’ll eventually get a chance.”
In regards to necessary skills for the job, social media skills are surprisingly important. “You have to be proficient, have a certain level of web knowledge,” Garcia says. “Take a speech class. It helped me tremendously when I was in college. What’s cool about it is it’s not a career with certain prerequisites.”
“Anyone who likes to talk with, entertain, and joke with people and genuinely loves the music” would make a good Radio DJ, Garcia says. “I love making people’s days better and if you can be a positive, uplifting force for them,” you’ll be successful. “Any kind of extreme person” would also be good in radio, she says. “If you are a boring person with no opinion, do not apply.”
Education & Training
“The best training in my personal experience is hands-on,” Garcia says. “Just get your foot in the door. I feel people waste a lot of time by taking on-air classes.” She describes the experience of taking a similar course in college, saying “the guy was teaching out of an antiquated textbook.”
She adds, “If it’s a school that specializes in it and has a job placement program, I’d lean more towards it.” She does recommend the college radio station at Florida A&M for aspiring radio professionals because it’s comparable in quality to a commercial station. “The majority of the people who graduated [from this school] went straight to radio jobs.”
Many DJs and On-Air Personalities are members of the National Association of Broadcasters, although Garcia advises “go out and get it yourself. Spending money on an association isn’t necessarily going to help you.”
What is a Radio DJ called?
In America, most Radio DJs are simply referred to as DJs. They may also be called Disc Jockeys, Announcers, Radio Personalities, On-Air Personalities, Radio Hosts, Co-hosts, or On-Air Hosts.
In the UK, Radio DJs are usually just called DJs, as well. They may also be referred to as Radio Presenters.
How do Radio DJs get paid?
Radio DJs are usually salaried employees of the radio station. They earn a steady salary based on how many times a week they DJ and when their shift is. For example, a DJ on a popular weekday morning show will make much more annually than a DJ who works from 2-5am, when there are fewer listeners.
This is why the annual salary range for DJs varies so widely, with the low end clocking in around $19,000 and the higher end at about $105,000.
What qualifications do you need to be a Radio DJ?
A Radio DJ should have an educational background in Broadcasting, Media Arts, or Radio & TV Communications. Hands-on experience through a college radio station could also serve as an equivalent.
A DJ needs to know about music and how to use radio equipment. DJs should also have a big personality, with the ability to conduct interviews with musicians on the air and get along with all kinds of radio staff behind the scenes.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The #1 most important thing: get your foot in the door no matter how you can. You can maneuver around eventually. You just have to prove yourself.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The sense of entitlement. They don’t understand you’re supposed to work your way into it. [They] think you’re just going to show up and get a job.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“People need to understand the sacrifices you make to do this type of position. The radio doesn’t turn off during the holidays. You sacrifice personal time with your friends and family. You sacrifice the amount of money you’re worth.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
About how to practice. Before Garcia became a full-time Radio DJ, she says that “as the song would wind down, I’d do a fake mic break. Always practice voice manipulation. [This is how] I learned to do my radio voice, which is just a variation of my voice using inflection, projection, and putting a personality on it.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Passion is everything. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you will be successful. Period.”
Brandi Garcia is a DJ at 98.5 The Beat in San Antonio.
Although born in Michigan, Garcia got her start in Tallahassee, FL, where she first worked as an Intern at a local radio station while still in high school. While attending Florida State University, she simultaneously worked at her college radio station and a local hip-hop station. Her first full-time on-air gig was doing middays at Huntsville, AL station Power 93.3.
She also started making mixtapes and DJing concerts and events. From there she moved to Houston’s 97.9 The Box, where she opened up for Drake, Ludacris, Jay-Z and 50 Cent. She also hosted her own entertainment show on an NBC affiliate, and received the Justo award for “Best Female Mixtape DJ.” From Houston, she moved to Hollywood, where Garcia became the weekday mid-day on-air personality and Music Director at LA classic hip-hop station KDAY.