How To Become a Radio DJ
Q&A - Quick Answers
Radio DJs entertain listeners and discuss news, music, or other topics of interest on breaks between songs. They work with Producers and Board Ops who coordinate on-air interviews, mix and play the music, and sometimes screen calls.
To learn more about the day-to-day of Radio DJs and how to get a foot in the door in the radio industry, we talked to:
- Brandi Garcia (98.5 The Beat, KDAY 93.5)
- Maxwell (Z100, WNCI 97.9, Nick Radio)
- Wendy Wild (103.5 KTU, Y100.1, My 99.5, Totally 93.9)
What does a Radio DJ do?
I’m the guy that entertains in between your favorite songs when you’re listening to the radio. Being on a Top 40 radio station, we’re playing the most popular music out there, so it’s my goal to keep people connected between their favorite songs, and to orchestrate things like interviews, promotions, and giveaways. That’s what I do as far as an on-air Radio DJ.
But the job has evolved into a kind of all-encompassing content creator role over the years. We’re tasked with making sure that we’re staying relevant on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
A Radio DJ is someone who not only plays music and talks between/over songs, but someone who feels like (and is) a friend to their listeners. Someone who is relatable, stays on top of the news and pop culture, but also understands the grind of everyday life…commuting, binging shows, relationships, things happening locally, etc.
The most challenging part (if you’re on a music station) is finding a way to weave in what you have to say in a limited amount of time and still have it all make sense.
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 the shift, it’s 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. It’s always fun and different every day.
For hip-hop, in particular, you have to live the lifestyle. 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.
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.
How much do Radio DJs get paid?
This is where it varies. Likely your first radio job will be in a small market and you won’t be on the high end of that scale. My first radio job paid about $27,000 a year, but I supplemented that by also working in the office as a Receptionist. I worked my way up from there.
Radio DJs in large markets can make upwards of $100,000+, plus endorsements and talent fees.
There’s a spectrum. As a Radio DJ at the number one radio station in America, I will be compensated differently to someone doing the same job, unfortunately, in a city like Sioux Falls or Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I like to use this analogy when I talk to friends and students: it’s like a professional sport in the sense that I’m lucky enough to have made it to play for the New York Yankees of radio. Z100 is that brand. That doesn’t mean that a person who plays for the San Diego Padres is any less important to the industry. They just might not be with the biggest media brand or the biggest sports team in the world.
So, there is a scale, but the thing is, it’s like any other full-time job. You’ll be compensated. I’ve worked and been able to be in radio in various markets across the country. Money was never my driving factor. But I always made enough to survive no matter where I was. No one was shortchanging me.
The reason I did it was because I loved the connection I was able to make with the listeners through music. It’s a passion of mine, and if you’re leading with that type of mindset and that type of heart, you’re gonna be okay. You’ll get those big bucks when you’re supposed to get those big bucks. I’m still chasing some more of those big bucks!
My morning show guy makes significantly more than I do. And he’s doing the same exact thing that I’m doing. But he’s also a guy who’s been in radio for 40 years. He’s a true professional. He’s the Tom Brady of the industry. Hats off to Elvis Duran.
It’s definitely possible to make a living doing this. But again, it’s just like any other career: if that’s the reason you’re trying to get into something, to be rich and famous, you’re in it for the wrong reason. No matter if you’re a goat herder or you’re trying to be Ryan Seacrest.
As much money as that dude makes, he doesn’t do it for the money. He does it because he’s a genuine pop culture fanatic. I know it. I’ve been with him. I’ve sat next to him. That dude does not stop.
So don’t lead with that in your heart and you’ll be okay. But just know that you’re not gonna go broke, your rent’s gonna get paid, and there’s gonna be food on your table. I promise you that much.
How do you become a Radio DJ?
I would encourage anyone reading this not to be afraid to reach out to the radio station team, management, or even the local DJ, because interning is a really good gateway into the industry. It gets you that in-studio experience. Maybe it’s with a promotions or marketing team that’s looking for assistance within the radio station.
I think a lot of people get scared and think it’s unattainable when really it’s as simple as reaching out and seeing if there’s an internship program. Then you get the chance to learn while you’re on the job. You get the chance to observe; to be in the studio. So just reach out!
As a matter of fact, I’ve had several of my Interns, if not a vast majority of them over the years that I’ve been in radio, hit me up on social media. They just slid into my DMs on Instagram. I had some Interns back in the day who were sending me messages on MySpace. They got the opportunity to be in the studio and get involved.
That’s the gateway: look for an internship program. Some of those schools that offer broadcast journalism offer the opportunity to learn in a controlled environment. They also place a lot of their students into internship programs, or based off their curriculum and connections with radio in a particular city or market, they might find job opportunities.
You just have to be bold enough and brave enough to take that chance and hit up your favorite DJ or do some research on the station’s website and find the Program Director, and just go for it. It’s very doable.
I certainly recommend majoring in communications in college! I personally started off stalking my local radio station as a kid in high school, using AOL to network before I even knew what networking was. I landed an internship right out of high school, but these days colleges will help place you in them.
Internships are of the utmost importance: not only do you use your time to learn on the job, but you will most likely be considered for a paid position if one opens up! Plus, many of them you will get college credit for (or might be paid internships!) Use your time wisely and network.
The #1 most important thing is [to] get your foot in the door, no matter how you can. 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. Don’t complain. Do anything that is asked of you and hang around.
Go to all the smaller surrounding markets, [where] you can get actual hands-on experience. 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.
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. Whoever hangs around the longest, that is willing to work on the holidays, you’ll eventually get a chance.
Try to find one person to take you under their wing. 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.
Experience & Skills
What skills do you need to be a Radio DJ?
Well, language skills for one. It helps to be tech-savvy since you would be using a board and a whole bunch of computers and programs. These days, social media rules the world, so it helps to learn about how to optimize your show by incorporating social media and vice versa.
You need to know just about everything–at least a little about everything. Especially in a Top 40, pop culture world. It varies between genres. People that are on classic rock stations or adult contemporary stations don’t necessarily need to be tapped in on TikTok and Instagram as much as I need to be.
More than anything, you need to be connected with who you are and be comfortable in your own skin. As soon as you crack the mic and you’re talking to literally millions of people—and in an instance like mine on Z100, there are people from all over the globe who are listening to me—if you pretend to be someone you’re not, people are going to read right through that inauthenticity.
The more comfortable you are with owning who you are, the better you’re going to be. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about what’s going on with Justin and his wife, or Ariana Grande’s new music video for the remix of “34+35”. I can only speak about things from my perspective, and if I try to pretend like I’m interested in something when I’m not, people are going to pick up on that.
So aside from all the technical things that you need to know, the biggest thing is to just own who you are. Be comfortable. Whether it’s quirky, intelligent, poignant: just be you.
[With regard to the technical side,] we have a big mixing board that’s full of sliders which are what we call “pots.” They slide up and down and control your mic level.
The computer programs vary depending on what radio station or company you work for. The program that we use here at iHeartRadio and at Z100 is a control room computer program called NexGen. Pretty simple. It displays a playlist almost like it would on an app such as Spotify or Apple Music. It’s like a big computer screen with songs loaded onto it. It plays one song after the next, only we have a little bit more control over when to stop and start the music.
There’s another program that we use in the studio called VoxPro, and that’s like an audio recording, shortcut recording, and editing software. Whenever phone calls come through, I record them in VoxPro and edit them. That way it prevents me from putting somebody on the radio that’s gonna drop a big old curse word or say something stupid. It allows me to edit things to make them a bit more timely.
Whereas with the morning show, they take live phone calls because they actually have Phone Screeners and Operators to take the calls prior to putting them on air. There’s an extra level of protection and security before that person makes it onto a live radio program.
So if you were going to call Ryan Seacrest on his morning radio show, before you get to Ryan Seacrest, you’re probably going to hit an Intern who’s going to pass you over to the Phone Operator, who’s going to coach you on what you’re going to say before Ryan Seacrest picks up the phone live on the radio.
That’s the interesting part about morning radio and night radio. I don’t have that luxury; I utilize the software that we have around here.
And last but not least, I use other editing software when I’m doing things like recording video. I use Adobe Premiere and Photoshop when I’m doing stuff for our website or stuff for social media.
What’s cool about it is it’s not a career with certain prerequisites.
You have to be proficient at social media, have a certain level of web knowledge.
Take a speech class. It helped me tremendously when I was in college.
[Working as a DJ is good for] anyone who likes to talk with, entertain, and joke with people and genuinely loves the music. I love making people’s days better. You can be a positive, uplifting force for them. If you are a boring person with no opinion, do not apply.
Education & Training
What education do you need to be a Radio DJ?
I went to school and studied speech communication—public speaking, that kind of a thing. For me, it definitely helped because I learned a lot of different techniques, a lot of persuasive techniques, and it helped me sharpen my public speaking skills.
You don’t necessarily have to go to broadcast journalism school in order to be a Radio DJ. It helps, but it’s not necessary. It helps because they’re going to teach you some of the basics of radio; the things I do on a daily basis. But this is a hands-on industry. You’ve got to dive in there and just do it.
It’s going to help if you know how to operate stuff, but it depends on which radio station you work for because the software differs. If you go to school and learn how to utilize one particular brand of software and then get hired by a radio station that doesn’t utilize it, all that’s out the window.
I didn’t necessarily study with the goal of working in radio when I went to school. I was just a guy who was no good at doing math and engineering and needed to find a different major. Then I got involved and dove in headfirst. I was put in the studio and was taught by my industry peers: “This is how things work. Go for it. Be yourself. Have fun.”
I was lucky enough to be able to hone my skills and screw up every once in a while and press the wrong button from time to time. But you learn by doing.
It varies from company to company, but most prefer some sort of degree. In this profession, experience is key–and college will help you with that experience. Look for one that has a radio station on campus.
The best training in my personal experience is hands-on. Just get your foot in the door.
I feel people waste a lot of time by taking on-air classes. [However] if it’s a school that specializes in it and has a job placement program, I’d lean more towards it.
Do you have anything else you want aspiring Radio DJs to know?
I would say the biggest thing is what I mentioned earlier: be the best you that you can be. I know it sounds cliché and cheesy, but authenticity is truly what fuels this industry. People who turn to a medium like radio looking to be entertained aren’t looking to be entertained by an imposter. They want that person’s real self. They’re gonna stick with you and become a fan of you because you are who you are.
So the moment that anyone tries to be like me, Maxwell, it’s not gonna happen. You haven’t walked in my shoes. It’s okay to emulate, and it’s okay to take some of the things that, hopefully, I do well. But be your best self.
There have been plenty of times throughout the course of my career as an African-American male that I’ve had a lot of people think that I needed to be on a hip-hop station or working in urban radio. But I’m a guy from San Diego, California–one of the most diverse cities in the world. I grew up around so many different cultures. Pop culture was something that I loved.
I was just the best me that I could be, and it led to me being on the biggest pop radio station in America, despite what I may have heard along the way or what people may have thought that I should be doing. So be true to yourself. Have fun with it. Every time I say this, it sounds so cheesy but that’s just what it is.
I’ve seen a lot of people try to be like somebody else. A lot of people try to be like Howard Stern. A lot of people try to be like Charlamagne tha God. Those are the people that never, ever, ever, make it. And it’s exhausting too! I’ve seen it wear down so many people.
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.
You can catch Maxwell on the world-famous Z100 in New York, weeknights from 6-10pm and on iHeartRadio’s heritage Top 40 radio station, WNCI 97.9 in Columbus, Ohio. He is also heard on over 180 radio stations across the globe on the syndicated “Most Requested Live, with Romeo” show as the premiere guest interviewer. Conducting interviews with stars like Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, and more, he has proven to be one of the most sought after in the industry. A true friend of the stars. Teaming up with Nick Cannon on the “TeenNick Top 10 Countdown”, Maxwell has acted as co-host for the television show and also entertains on Nick Radio, Nickelodeon’s go-to for “All The Hits & All The Slime!”
A hybrid radio personality and pop culture correspondent, Maxwell has the unique ability to extract personal truths from the most celebrated artists in music and entertainment today. His conversational interview style coupled with the demeanor of a veteran journalist creates a genuine exchange that both informs and entertains audiences worldwide.
Wendy first fell in love with radio as a pre-teen, listening in awe of her radio idols. Despite being shy, she knew that this is what she wanted to do. Her first internship was at her local radio station at 17 years-old, while simultaneously working as an ice rink DJ.
Working her way through the ranks, Wendy eventually found her way to her dream job, hosting, entertaining and connecting with listeners during the workday hours.
Currently heard middays on 103.5 KTU, ‘The Beat of NY’ Wendy also lends her voice to Y100.1 in Southwest Florida, My 99.5 in Salt Lake City, and Totally 93.9 in Miami. In addition, Wendy’s ‘What’s Up With Wendy’ segment airs weekends on The Weekend Throwdown with Jagger, a nationally syndicated program with approximately 35 affiliates and counting. She provides various voice-overs for commercials, promos, and programs such as The Weekend Top 30 Countdown.
In the past, she has also been heard on Mix 106.1 in Philadelphia, Nick Radio on iHeartRadio, The All New 95.1 in Albuquerque, NM, 93-1 The Party in Las Vegas, 95-5 The Bull in Las Vegas, New Haven’s legendary KC101, and the world-famous Z100 in New York City.
In addition to her busy radio career, Wendy is also a co-host/producer of the Tales Over Cocktails podcast and the newly launched Give Our Take podcast, which she created to focus on current events, politics and ways we can all make positive change.
While not on the air or podcasting, Wendy has been called a “collector of hobbies” and loves to learn new skills. With a gymnastics background, she has experience in aerial arts (flying trapeze, aerial silks, and static trapeze), but these days mostly enjoys creating content for social media and brand partnerships. She’s used time during quarantine to fine-tune her photography skills and video/photo editing using programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Premiere.
The name “Wild” may be a little misleading, as Wendy is more of a homebody who would much prefer binging Star Trek Next Generation, or taking pictures of a sunset, but the name was a gift given at the start of her career and it stuck.