They’re the people we listen to as we drink our coffee in the morning and they keep us company in the car during our commute to and from work each day, but beyond this, most of us probably don’t give radio DJs much thought.
It’s not exactly a mainstream career choice, but most radio DJs don’t fall into the profession by chance – for many of them, their life on air is the result of a long-term plan and lots of hard work. And for anyone who wants to know how to get there, here’s how to become a radio DJ.
For a few extra tips on succeeding in this career, you can check out this video too.
What is a radio DJ?
Before we start, we need to be clear about what a radio DJ is – and what it isn’t.
Radio DJs host radio shows that are based around music. “DJ” stands for “disc jockey”, and a radio DJ’s primary job is playing records for their listeners.
This is in contrast with other types of radio presenters – for example, chat show hosts, sports presenters, comedians or anything else. These people host shows based around talking and don’t play music, so they can’t be considered DJs.
However, radio DJs don’t just play music. They also fill the gaps between songs with conversation, they might interview guests or discuss current events. They may also deliver bulletins about the traffic or the weather.
This means a radio DJ needs to be familiar with a range of subjects beyond music and has to be able to discuss many different topics that might come up during their show.
They also need to have an on-air presence and a suitable personality. Somebody who comes across as boring and lethargic when talking between songs won’t last very long – if they are even given the opportunity to go on air in the first place.
So what are the requirements for becoming a radio DJ?
First, education is important. Even though you are mainly going to be playing music, radio DJs have many other tasks to perform and responsibilities to consider, so having a college degree is preferable.
This is because there are not many positions available and competition is fierce – so anything that might give you an edge is worth having.
However, that said, this is the kind of job where experience counts for more than education, so if you want to pursue a career in radio, you should think about acquiring as much experience in the field as possible right from the start.
Possible career path
Here are the typical steps that might be taken by someone who wants to become a radio DJ.
As I mentioned, if you want to become a radio DJ, education is important, so your first step should be to obtain a college-level education.
Choose a course related to radio, for example, a degree in communications, broadcast journalism or something similar.
This kind of background will stand you in good stead when it comes to looking for jobs in radio after you leave college.
2. Do an internship
While studying at college, you may be able to do an internship at a radio station. This will give you a valuable insight into what goes on behind the scenes, even if you don’t get anywhere near the airwaves.
This is the kind of knowledge you will need later because a radio DJ needs to understand the technical aspects of the profession rather than just being able to change the music and maintain lively chat between songs.
3. Gain experience
During your time at college, you can also start gaining experience as a radio DJ by working at the college radio station. As well as the technical side of the profession, this will also give you more experience of the techniques and practices that are used by radio presenters on air.
While doing this, you may be given slots at different times of the day, which will also be valuable experience for when you start looking for work as a “real” radio DJ later.
4. Put together a highlights reel
With all the experience you gain at the college radio station and anything else you do, you should put together a highlights reel of your best moments on air.
This could include any examples of things you think went well, shows you hosted, phone call-ins with guests that you handled – anything that shows your personality and magnetism as a radio DJ as well as demonstrating your high level of professionalism.
This will form an important part of your pitch as you start to search for better and more interesting positions.
Remember, nobody is going to hire an unknown, but if you have some examples of your best work, it will show that you are capable of doing the job and that you are someone who can be trusted.
5. Work unsociable hours
Most radio DJs start by accepting slots either very late at night or very early in the morning. These are the slots that program managers are likely to give to relatively new and untested DJs since there are fewer listeners at these times so the quality is not so important.
However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to try. On the contrary, if you are presenting a show at four in the morning, you need to show your dedication, enthusiasm, professionalism and talent in the hope that it will lead to a better slot at a more in-demand time.
Working at these times is just about getting your foot in the door, so if someone offers you a slot at any time of the day or night, you should grab it with both hands.
If you are going to make it as a radio DJ, you will need to have the passion and the skills to do it, and if you are really cut out for this kind of work, you will soon be moved to a more favorable slot.
6. Work your way up
Once you have your foot on the first rung of the ladder and you are given your first show, all you need to do now is concentrate on working your way up.
You will probably start out working at a small local station with few listeners. However, with perseverance and your growing experience, you may be able to move to a larger-market station with more listeners.
People looking to hire radio DJs from smaller stations will rely heavily on ratings to guide their choice, so this is another reason to work as hard as you can to make a success of any opportunities you are given.
Extra tips for success
Here are a few extra tips that will help you achieve your dreams of becoming a radio DJ.
The more knowledge and experience you have and the more versatile you can be, the more opportunities will present themselves. If your shows are specialized and only appeal to a niche market, you will be making it harder for yourself to succeed.
Although having said that, if you are a specialist in a particular kind of music, that may open doors for you too.
Stick at it
Becoming a successful radio DJ is the kind of career that takes a lot of dedication and no short supply of self-belief. At the beginning, you may find it hard to get your first break. After that, you may also find yourself stuck doing that 4am slot.
The key is to keep at it, keep trying and keep your enthusiasm and professionalism up. Through perseverance – and perhaps just a little luck – you will find that your career begins to progress the way you hoped.
Always say “yes”
Since this is a hard field to break into – and it’s all about getting your foot in the door – don’t turn down requests from your boss or anyone else who might be able to help you make advance your career.
You might find you are asked to do jobs that you don’t find appealing, but just by sticking around and showing that you are a willing hard worker, you will be building up a store of trust and goodwill that may eventually lead to your big break.
Build your profile
In jobs like radio work, your profile can help make you a more attractive prospect. For example, if you have a large social media following and regularly interact with your followers/listeners, this can boost your chances of being promoted to a better slot.
At the same time, try to build your profile in the “real world” with appearances at local events. Again, the better known you become, the more people will listen to your shows – and the more leverage you will have when it comes to promotion and advancement.
A fun and enriching career for those who can make it work
As I said at the beginning, being a radio DJ is not the first career choice that might occur to everyone, and it can be a difficult one to break into at first. However, with passion, professionalism and dedication, it’s possible to make it work.
And when you finally get your own show during peak-time hours, you have your loyal following of listeners and you become well-known in your local area, you will realize that it’s all been worth it – because it’s a fun and enriching career to have.