To the College Broadcaster I Heard Tonight

Like a lot of the radio that interests me, I came upon the college Alternative station I heard tonight by accident. Its name was similar to a better-known commercial station. That station wasn’t available online, so I decided to listen. “Sober Up” by AJR was ending. The student on the air ID’d it as the band “Air.” Then he back-sold M83’s “Midnight City” as by “M-B-3.” A few breaks later, AWOLnation became “Owl-Nation.”

The student on the air didn’t get all the band names wrong. He didn’t do anything particularly risible. He made it through a PSA perfunctorily — clearly reading, but not stumbling. He plowed through a dense weather forecast a little too quickly. Mostly the breaks were backsells, and most of them were “that was/this is.”

But even if the broadcast had been more spectacularly bad, there would be no derision here. Beyond victims of actual tragedies, there is nobody I feel worse for than Brian Collins, the college sportscaster tormented for more than a decade for uttering “boom goes the dynamite.” You’re supposed to stink when you’re a college broadcaster. And you’re supposed to be able to do it in relative anonymity. If it were allowed to ruin your life, college radio would have been a serious error in judgment for most of us.

If you also stunk on the radio in college, you’re allowed to laugh at Collins, but only as a proxy for your own early foibles. If you were one of those people who somehow became good quickly, and you still enjoy sneering at somebody who wasn’t, boy, are you ever ungracious about your own gifts. And if you weren’t on the radio or TV in college, there is zero chance that you would have been any better any sooner than Brian Collins. So be nice.

I wondered if there was some way to reach the jock on the air, but he was not indulging in that other telltale trait of college radio newbies — endlessly giving the request line, then complaining when nobody called. Besides, with the wisdom of a lifetime, I have finally come to understand that no one wants to be hot-lined over a mispronunciation. Not even to avoid doing it a second time. And he probably would have thought I was trying to prank him into pronouncing “Air” and “MB3” wrong.

But recently, one of my daughter’s friends came home from college and announced that she was doing a radio show on her Internet station. There are things I’d like to tell her, and the guy I heard on college radio tonight:

For starters, I’m glad you’re there. Because I hear about onetime-prominent college stations that now struggle to fill shifts. My friend who teaches a college course is often happy for a class of a dozen students or more. I’d never known radio to be a particular interest of my daughter’s friend before; I was delighted that radio still held just enough sway to attract somebody not inextricably drawn there from birth.

If your breaks are mostly “that was/this is” now, I understand. That is what I often hear listening to college radio. It is, for that matter, what I often hear listening to commercial broadcast radio. What else do you have to imitate? For many of us, that first on-air break sounded pukey. We thought we were imitating our radio heroes, but it was more the parody of radio that you saw when there was a DJ voice in movies or commercials. But who would even know to do that now?

If you want to talk about something other than “that was/this is,” you have choices. I would be happy to know a little something about your school or your town or your life. My college radio station was full of people who wanted to be Steve Dahl — Howard Stern hadn’t yet come to prominence — and just freestyle, or overshare about their lives and opinions. Those results were often painful (again, they were supposed to be). But I wish I were coming across Dahl and Stern wannabes now. 

How about adapting the contents of your tweets? Because however stilted you may be on the air today, you may well be funny on social media. If you can be funny or have content and still be brief enough for a posting (especially the old Twitter limits), you actually understand the essence of on-air communication.

In fact, if social media is a strong suit, feel free to talk about it. As a professional broadcaster, you’ll be asked to do so frequently, and if you have something better to say than “like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter,” you’ll be in good shape. And these days, it may be your off-air presence that gets you hired.

Please react to the music. My daughter’s friend gets to pick hers. But even if you’re on the air playing unfamiliar artists, chances are excellent that friends or roommates have played new music for you before. What did you tell them (especially if you were trying to be polite)? One of the attractive things about listening to college radio well into adulthood is hearing somebody whose passion for the music is not tempered by adult realities.

And, oh yeah, be yourself. But only if you want to. Because radio is famously the liberator of the shy. If what you do on the air has some basis in reality, that’s good. But feel free to enhance it. Scott Shannon would back me up on this one.

And what is your advice for college broadcasters? Please leave a comment.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

13 Comments


  1. I didn’t do bad on college radio. It was only one hour a week, and I knew my playlist well and could talk freely about what I was playing.

    When I got out of college, I entered a contest to be the next DJ on 1013 FM, WFMG. Everyone met at the local Texas Roadhouse, and got a turn on the mic (which was set up right in front of the bathrooms, ugh.) I figured I would get a couple songs I could riff on and be fine. I would up getting two currents I’d never heard before. Then I wound up putting a “point” in the ID (it’s not 101.3, and I knew this). I didn’t make it to the second round, but I did get a cool first round t-shirt (which had holes in it a couple years ago and got tossed).

    I did have a few other interviews. One would have had me on air part time, and in sales the other part. Which is fine, but I didn’t have a background in sales, so I didn’t get the job. And I could have been the evening drive time guy on a little Christian station in Union City, but while they were interested in letting the boss be the boss, they decided to pinch the pennies and keep him there instead.

    So my advice would be to enjoy it while it lasts. The possibility of getting that kind of job is not good, and getting worse as time goes by. By all means, take classes and improve yourself, they better you are, the better your chances. But enjoy your time in front of a mic. I know I did.


  2. Sean, this post is precious to me. Thank you so much.

    I became the program director of my college station, WOCR-FM in Olivet, Michigan, in the middle of my sophomore year. I wish I’d had a greater sense of what you say here: “You’re supposed to stink in college” — and that people DO get better from there. I remember coming down hard on DJs for making similar mistakes to those you heard. I knew what I wanted the station to sound like, but I was too arrogant and perfectionistic to find the patience to help people develop their skills.

    One day the station manager called me on the carpet to call me out for being a jerk. But I got defensive; I lacked the self-awareness to say, “I’m sorry; I will do better.” What can I say? We ALL stink in college, but in different ways.

    When I graduated, I moved to Seattle, where I had little hope of getting on the air anytime soon. I worked for a time in research at KUBE-FM and then ran the board on overnights at KJR-FM. But that didn’t last more than a few months. After that I greatly enjoyed my nine years at Broadcast Programming/Jones Radio Networks, but I never found my way back onto the air again. And even there, I continued to learn some of the lessons I didn’t learn in college — not just about radio, but about people.

    I will always treasure my old cassette tapes, now also in mp3 form, of a morning feature I did on WOCR with my friend Dave: “Lifestyles of the Poor and Semi-Educated,” in which I played my regular radio host self (Da Sooper Yooper), and Dave played an imagined version of Robin Leach as a washed-up, former star now subsisting on what I paid him for his time: bread sticks from Tim’s Pizza downtown. We were terrible on the air … but we had so much fun!

    Would that more people could have the opportunity to suck on the air — and also in real life — but to suck sincerely and then to learn, even very gradually, from the experience. That’s the work of redemption — which, in my new life as an Episcopal priest, I keep learning more and more about.


  3. as someone who works with students at the university station I work for (a fully pro, music-intensive public station that does use students on the overnight shift), the first thing I do is gage their interest. before I got my first job, I spoke to a bunch of jocks on the phone or in person, asking how to get into radio. invariably the answer was, “don’t do it!” when that didn’t turn me off, they’d then give me serious (or sometimes semi-serious) advice.

    so, I’ll tell a visiting mass-media class that they shouldn’t even think about getting in the business. I’ll tell them it’s a low salary business that eats up people and spits them out. and that very few people at their stage of life are ever sucessful. I’ll point out the superstar TV sportscaster in town that was a student sportsperson here 25 years ago, and how that person had to toil in the bowels of the industry until he got the big market position he has a couple of years ago.

    sound cruel. but that separates the the ones who aren’t really serious about a career in broadcasting from those who think it’s just something fun to do and an easy way to make a living. it’s those people, the really serious ones who refuse to back down, that get all the good advice.

    then I’ll advise them to learn every little iota they can about the business – past history as well as present. I’ll advise them to be a generalist – do everything they can do, anywhere they can do it. news, sports, jock, production, tech/engineering, sales even. take anything and everything presented to them. know as much as you can about every job in the business. by being a generalist, when the fateful moment comes that you’re out of a job – and it will – you’ve got a better chance at getting another job somewhere. even if you’re just a jock, jock any and all format jobs that come your way regaredless of your interest in the music played.

    when you finally know what you REALLY want to do (you may have started out wanting to be a newsperson or reporter, but found being a jock was more fun, or you were more comfortable behind the scenes in sales or engineering), find a mentor and let them guide you. never, ever, think you know it all. you don’t, and you never will. that will just get you in trouble. remeber, it’s always about the success of the overall organization you work for – you’ll never be successful if the organization isn’t successful. if it is, then you will be too, and you’ll have some evidence to prove it when it’s time to move on/up.

    then I tell them to try to get a slot on our student internet station. we regularly take the best from our student station to fill the overnight shifts here. our overnight music format is real, striaght-ahead and classic jazz, so they have to really be serious about getting a shift here. many of these students have gone on to bigger and better things after graduation. a good number of them are in major markets doing their thing. others who haven’t had the chance to get an airshift here but concentrated on other areas, like news and sports, have also done well.


  4. Of course I’m not biased at all, but I do want to recommend my daughter’s show on U. of Rochester’s WRUR – The Pizza Prty on Tuesdays from 8-10 pm. There are only a few weeks left before she and her co-DJ graduate. They pick their songs (mainly indie pop/rock), and discuss their reactions along with trivia and other chit-chat.


  5. In September of 1997, I walked into 91.3 WTSR Trenton NJ with two friends to inquire about volunteering at the station. While I was mostly intrigued by the neglected AP Wire in the corner of the office, all the managers cared about was my music snobbery and not my interest in the inner workings.

    Would things worked out different for me had I went in any other day or time in terms of a career course? Who knows? As I never had any real interest in being on-air but rather in programming strategy was there a place for me in the college radio ecosphere of the mid/late 90s or the commercial landscape that followed?


  6. I went right to commercial radio overnights, probably worse than college radio, but I thought I would impress my pd by being able to sound conversational but also have extra perfect enunciation. At my first aircheck meeting he said you sound great but we also play male artists too. I said huh? He responded, our slogan is not today’s best tits, cut the emphasized “T” from the word best when you read the positioner.


  7. I talked my way into a radio station when I was in high school… did the calls in the research department, pulled carts, etc. When they forgot to schedule someone for an overnight, the PD (Ron Parker) turned to me and said “Follow the book, follow the log, and don’t eff up.”

    Following the book meant I had a liner book to follow. Liners meant that I didn’t have to worry about what to say, just how to say it. And Parker, along with my next PD, beat the puking out of my delivery. But it still took years before I was comfortable enough to be able to sit down with a few copy points and make it sound natural. So don’t worry about polish, just know before you open the mic when you want to close it and concentrate on saying what needs to be said and nothing more. (And when you’re on air as part of an ensemble, that’s the key. Even with people who have been doing this for years and have worked alongside each other for years, they go into the break knowing what they need to say, who’s saying what, and when it’s time to wrap – and they make sure that everyone is on the same page when the mic goes on.)

    The rest of Parker’s advice still applies today when I’m on the air. Follow the log: if you don’t play the spots on the log, nobody gets paid. In college you don’t necessarily have spots, but you do have certain things in the hour that have to be done, so do them. As for the “don’t eff up” part? Keep the show legal.

    Otherwise? If you screw up and the PD didn’t hear it, it didn’t happen… and everybody sucks when they first start, so just concentrate on doing what you know. You’ll learn the rest the more you do it.


  8. Even though for most it’s a completely artificial situation (who sits alone in a quiet room and talks out loud?), make it less artificial by talking to someone when you open the mic. If you can’t imagine someone, put up a picture, or a stick figure drawing. Anything to remind you that even though your blowtorch (or peashooter) transmitter can reach thousands at once, you are generally still only talking to one person at a time.


  9. I can’t recommend that anyone specifically do what I did–partly because it was over 25 years ago, but also because it was on GWU’s number-two carrier-current station (WRTV), which has since been absorbed into the original one (WRGW).

    What I can recommend, though, is that today’s college broadcasters reach out to and network with others as much as possible: Even though CMJ may be dead, NACC is definitely a capable successor. And, there’s no reason to limit it to U.S.; at the very least, there’s the UK’s Student Radio Assn. and Canada’s (combined) Nat’l Campus and Community Radio Assn.

    Beyond that, it’s actually a net positive to be able to start out in a situation where there’s less pressure because fewer folks (or really even no-one) may be listening. That’s a big reason why, to pick just one example, the newest staff members at UNC’s WXYC get a lot of the overnight shifts…

    http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2018/03/wxyc-late-djs-0325


  10. I’ll freely admit that my college years sounded terrible – also, coincidentally, on WRUR/Rochester, NY, but in the late ’80s. “Ron Is On” was not good, by any definition of good. The show that I currently host, “Crap From The Past”, is in its 27th year on the air, but the first five years sounded pretty rough.

    We all start somewhere. But how you approach your on-air presentation depends on where you want to end up.

    If your radio ambitions are just to go in there and have a good time, my only recommendation is to make sure you record the show. Whether it turns out great or terrible, I guarantee that you’ll want to have a recording of it years down the road.

    If you want to do radio/podcasting long-term, then approach your on-air duties as if you were hosting a specialty show. The important part of a specialty show is that people tune in to specialty shows to hear the *hosts*, not necessarily the music they play.

    Go out of your way to bring your own personality to the stuff between the songs. The greatest specialty show of all time, “American Top 40”, still has a rabid following, thirty years after the shows aired. People tuned in to hear Casey Kasem be Casey Kasem on the air. In the ’80s, there were competing shows that played the exact same songs in the exact same order (like Rick Dees’ “Weekly Top 40”), but those shows are largely forgotten today. There are no Rick Dees collectors.

    My advice: Give your show as much stand-alone personality and character as the station will allow. Command attention. Go out of your way to ensure that your show is as far from audio wallpaper as you can get. Remember that we all started somewhere; I’m sure even Casey Kasem had his own “Ron Is On”. And welcome to the airwaves; there’s plenty of room up here for all of us.

    (Not to toot my own horn too much, but this advice is a tiny excerpt from my book “Between The Songs: A Step-By-Step Guide To Creating Radio Magic, Or: Stuff I Learned From Hosting Crap From The Past For Twenty-Five Years” – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1547272570)


  11. Started in college radio in the southern California suburb of Walnut in 1987. To be a DJ, you had to do news for six months. But I wanted to do news. We had one electric typewriter and, thankfully, an AP machine (with its noisy dot matrix printer). My tape recorder was about $25 from Radio Shack (and sounded like it). Smash cut to Tuesday. I was live for WCBS Newsradio every half-hour in afternoon drive with a box that let me walk around Yankee Stadium on opening day with rich, full sound. Just as fun as the 80s.


    • Oops. Forgot to leave some advice! So here it is… it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s what college radio is for. A training ground. A wise news anchor once described starter jobs in smaller markets as “paid rehearsal.” College radio is usually unpaid rehearsal, with aging, broken equipment. But you’ll be glad you had a place to hone your skills.


  12. This would be advice to anyone just starting out, and especially those on college radio because you’ll actually get some mic time versus trying to bust into commercial radio with no experience. First though…I didn’t get to do college radio. I got thrown onto regular radio almost instantly. In listening to old saved airchecks from back then recently, I can absolutely tell you I BLEW. Really really bad. Luckily I had young peers who were also rotten like me and we all helped each other get better quickly. Here’s how we did it. 1. We air checked ourselves almost daily and we were BRUTAL. Questioning everything. Not being subtle at all. “What the heck are you talking about there? It makes no sense.” “Were you eating a sandwich on that break? You’re mumbling.” And so on. Brutal. But we all trusted each other so it was no big deal. Criticism, we just took it and tried to fix it. 2. We desperately tried to copy our heroes on the air. We were awful at first but slowly you can get to mimic decently. After than you get bored of mimicking and somewhere along the line that turns into you. Usually you copy those that you like because their show is how you want to do your show. So in a way it’s not copying, it’s learning…because you’d go there anyway. Try anything at least once. Anything. You can’t grow without mistakes and train wrecks. 3. Lastly…and to me this is the most important to get decently quickly. Spend an ENORMOUS amount of time in a prod studio. My first year in radio I probably did 3-4 hours a night, every night, 6 or 7 days a week. I’d take a national spot. Write down the words. Find music (or if I was lucky, use their same jingle bed) and do that same spot. Over and over and over trying to inflect the words exactly like the announcer. At first you can’t even hear the difference. But after a few months you’re ear gets attuned to their adding emotion or taking a phrase up or down etc. Then you can do it…bad at first, but you’ll get better at it fairly quickly. Then when you get better at that….you’re show jumps a huge amount of notches. You can elevate your show into the 5 – 6 years of experience sound within about 5 – 6 months because you’ll learn how to use your voice like an instrument and ‘play it’. Now…it’s a lost art really. But it’s one of those things that screams pro, versus amateur. Sad part is, most on air talent don’t really master the ‘instrument’ ever. Too much concentration on what they’re saying. Kind of like a singer concentrating on the words while her voice is out of key or the phrasing of the words are off. Jocking is an art form when done right. Saying neat stuff AND making it sound great at the same time. Even just sounding great while reading boring liners can be an enhancement. Prod Studio. It’s how 3 kids from a town of 20,000 all ended up on major stations in NYC within 5 years of cracking that first mic. One last thing. The end game for any media person now is content and entertainment. You’ll HAVE to, HAVE to have some sort of good act to not be expendable. You HAVE to be able to shine and stick out. Most jocks don’t, or don’t know how to because so many role models to copy are gone so you don’t know what’s actually possible. Can you listen to a jock today and write down at least 10 GREAT lines that you could copy on your own show? I doubt it. That was the norm. I truly believe now is a fantastic time to be the talent in radio. But only if you’re prepared to stick out, be uber creative, hone the craft, and OWN IT. If you’re PD keeps asking you to talk less, either they’re terrible themselves as a PD or you suck on the air and don’t have anything decent to say so they’re being kind by shutting you up more. If you’re really good though….leave and go somewhere where that PD WANTS you to entertain.

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