Post to the Host

Host Garrison Keillor answers your questions about life, love, writing, authors, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion.

Send GK Your Question »

Getting into the Radio Business

August 18, 2010 | 23 Comments

Mr. Keillor,
I listen to your show all the time. I am turning 18 this January and searching for colleges and one of the classes I want to take is radio. People say that I have the voice (and face) for radio and I am interested in the field.

I would love to have your opinion and hear how you got on radio.

Ryan D.
Lebanon, Ohio


I got into radio, Ryan, by sheer luck and personal connections and also because I could get up at 4 in the morning five days a week even in the dead of winter and be ambitious to do a good show. I was too naive to be discouraged. And somehow, despite all sorts of bonehead moves, my enthusiasm did not flag. I don't think you need to study radio in college. Most of what you need to know you can learn on the job and most of what you learn in a college course will be useless, or outdated. What you need from college is an excellent liberal arts education that will give you a broad base of judgment and perspective that will stand you in good stead no matter what sort of career you pursue. Radio has a bright future which will be forged by young people following their own inspiration, not imitating their elders, though the essence of broadcasting is the same today as it was ninety years ago at the inception: radio is all about coherence. We all live in a landscape of dense confusion and competing messages and radio attempts to give us a degree of clarity and a coherent view of the world, embodied in the human voice. It's a powerful medium that speaks to our perpetual loneliness and I wish you well and hope you'll hurl yourself bodily into getting a good education, studying the hard subjects, taking on a new language, reading the difficult texts. That's going to be a struggle, compared to a broadcasting major, but it's a better use of your time, Ryan.


"What you need from college is an excellent liberal arts education that will give you a broad base of judgment and perspective that will stand you in good stead no matter what sort of career you pursue."

Hear, hear!

"the essence of broadcasting is the same today as it was ninety years ago at the inception: radio is all about coherence. "

Agreed! your glasses, be they rose-colored or otherwise, derive from real and vicarious adventure. Neither your text nor your twit will be worth a thumb-flick with no cultural literacy, nor life "in-the-thick". There are no short-cuts, but some long ways are well worth the "detour". A time for every porpoise under heaven.

I could not agree more.

the problem with the spirit of the statements is that we are not all the same. if you received the same letter saying he wanted to be an english major you could reply that you do not need to be an english major all you need is the wish to be involved in the pursuit of english studies which you could in fact do by yourself. the new world of education is to give an opportunity to study online, as an elective, as an area of interest any number of subjects that may or may not play out in real life.
i agree that to go to school to get a radio degree is not going to create a s well rounded an individual as a liberal arts degree would, but i think the opportunity to hang out with radioheads may be very informative if that is where your interests lie.

How about attending a community college (or a university) that has a radio station so while you take your general Ed courses, you can find out if its an area you want to pursue and build up a voice portfolio... I know several young people who got on-the-job training and practice honing their craft that way. It gives immediate opportunity to find out what works - and, of course, I agree with Mr. Keillor as well.

You have such a way with words, be they spoken or written. Thank you for the excellent advise you gave to this young person. I agree - getting as much cultural literacy is important. Too many of the radio stations spit out such negativity without much thought behind their comments, or, unfortunately, much negative thought to their comments. We need more persons on radio with common sense that will have, what you said, "a broad base of judgment and perspective". Even though I am a liberal, I long for the days of radio when I did not know what political bent the radio personality had, because they talked with much common sense, and did not berate this or that political viewpoint. Thank you, Garrison, I love your words.

I encourage Ryan to plunge into the Prairie Home archive, key word search:English Major, to develop perspective. Then take a deep breath and include, among his ventures into the great traditions, a Norton Anthology based survey course with flesh and blood classmates and a greying mentor who's not lost his sense of humour.
As a graduate --U of M-- 1964-1970 I am prepared to enter a radio career at any moment noe.

Mot du jour, "Tweffifiency", on the efficiency of tweets:

audience response, aka "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing":


If you don't strike a chord,
chances are you're ignored.

How to find work in any XYZ occupation? Read What Color Is Your Parachute,2010 edition.It is the latest and best annual edition.You won't be taught this in school so here's something else to learn.

Agree broadly for on-air work; however: if you were going into broadcast engineering (behind the scenes), a few courses in electronic engineering (used to be called electrical engineering) would be valuable: modern radio stations can be very complex technically.

I'm a radio producer in my mid-20s, and Ryan's letter could have been my own, had I had the gusto to write to my radio heroes when I was graduating high school. I'm glad to hear Mr. Keillor support a solid liberal arts education, because that has been my experience, too.

I studied anthropology at a small public liberal arts college, and learned radio by volunteering at a community station, trying to produce pieces on my own, and then studying radio at a documentary institute. The skills you need for radio--voicing, recording, cutting tape--are all things that pretty much anyone with some motivation can do. The real skill is learning how to investigate issues and then explain them with clarity, which can come from a good liberal arts education. The discipline doesn't really matter--just take classes in whatever you find interesting.

If you can learn how to think and research and reason and write, you'll have all you need to get started in radio. Those, and the ability to tell stories, which they don't really teach in college. Just don't expect to make too much money.

We definitely need some more replacements for Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern types. First I think we have to extirprate the pull/drag of Big Money in order to have such alternatives. In short, if you can be plain vanilla for hours on end, you can be wallpaper if you have the right voice, and if you care about your audience, their response as well as the world they live in, you'll find a place, but if you have grander objectives, watch out.
I wonder what Garrison Keillor means about radio and "coherence." I thought sleep/dreams did that, sort of recontextualized all the flashing disorder of the day. PHC can do some of that "work," centering us in its ways on the present, the ordinary, the universal.
Radio -- his program aside -- is actually morphing into websites. That's what I do nowadays; I surf. It is great to be free like that. When I'm winding down at midnight, I can read the scripts from NPR segments I choose, and I can listen then too if I care to. But NPR segments are more about reporting than airtime, I think; such broadcasting is about selecting what story will have the most heft culturally, and thereto, what is the best way to identify the best sources. For interview skills, practice, practice, practice. And what you learn culturally AFTER college is far more important than what you get when you're still a kid. You want a substrate to build on, a nucleus designed to grow, not something like a full-blown House, complete in itself, with a mortgage to pay on it forever.

Thanks, Garrison, for getting to the brass-tacks.

I did a fair stint in local radio news in a time when that was dying here in South Carolina. I know lots of people who preceeded me. I know no one who has followed.

That said, radio is one of the best communication processes since telling tales around a fire. And, may just be an electronic version thereof. (Listen to any PHC with that image and "see" what you think.)

Like writing, and some other close relationships, radio is best learned by doing. Of course, having the knowledge to understand what one is doing is what everyone from Edward R. Murrow onward haa advised... except... of course the recruiters for "Journalism" schools and editors of newspapers who prefer not hiring real writers... ooops.. I'm off-message!

So, follow Mr. Keillor's advice, be working on an education that will prepare you for life. Yes, the liberal arts. Yes, history and literature. Then, at the same time you are educating yourself, if radio is more important that that girl you might love if she happened to notice you exist... beg or borrow a microphone in which to talk and don't let anyone stop you.

Oh, yes, I think it was Harry Reasoner (look him up on the internet... at seventeen, you may think he was a general in the Civil War) who said what he did boiled down to not mispronouncing or stumbling over too many words. That is also reality.

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I have listened to your show since I was about ten years old. For the past eleven years I have looked forward to listening to your show and have gone to great lenghts to aviod missing or being interupted during an episode! I am now a junior in college and thanks to your influence I am an English major.Do you have any career advice for a person just starting out with a degree in English. I am willing to work for your show if you will hire me. :)Thankyou for creating such a wonderful program that has brought great joy to both me and my family for several years now. Thankyou for your time,
Rachel L.

Most of what you need to know you can learn on the job and most of what you learn in a college course will be useless, or outdated. What you need from college is an excellent liberal arts education that will give you a broad base of judgment and perspective that will stand you in good stead no matter what sort of career you pursue.

I was on radio in the Vietnam War. You learn fast in Laos.

I am 62 years old and have many friends my age who did go into radio, mostly in the 60's. By now, most of them are either dead, retired or totally disillusioned with their industry and life in general. Almost without exception they have led broken lives. Multiple unsuccessful marriages and relationships, alienated children and family members. On top of all of that, the financial rewards are nothing to be envied. You should make an effort to find out how much your local radio personalities made last year. That is, if you can find him or her. Most of local radio, and national radio for that matter, comes in from a satelite or off the internet. Some local radio stations operate around the clock with not a single on-air personality on the premises.
When I was your age, I flirted with the idea of becoming a professional musician. One of my music teachers gave me some great advice. " Don't do it. Look at me and my life. " He was 52, had never been married, had no home , no money, and a fading future. He was extremely talented, virtually gifted, but never caught the breaks. Music, radio and acting are occupations where most of the professionals live at or near the poverty level. It's true. A very small percentage are extremely fortunate and make all the money. They are like rock stars. Everybody else starves.
I was advised to keep music as a passion but at the hobby level and to get a proper college education and have a real carreer that could provide for a happy, financially fulfilling occupation. I did. I have been married to the same person for nearly 40 years, two successful children, I live in a big beautiful home with no mortgage and, since retiring 7 years ago I have turned my attention to my music and play at a modest professional level and love my music beyond measure.

Major in anything. Just minor in business, so at least you'll always be working.

Geeewhiz,go to college and you get into the club eh? My father was in radio for forty years and i have spent many an hour at various stations. He had to quit school during the depresion to pick cotton and work odd jobs so his family could eat(meaning his parents)he did not have the super-duper whammo sheepskin yet he had a fine career as a radio man,i suppose Hunter S. Thompson was not a worthy journalist...

Like books, radio still communicates in a linear path, more or less one thought at a time, no clicking around. It resets the attention span to "normal." If I hadn't had such a passion for food and shelter, I might have given it a try, too.

By the way: if social media is sitting alone in a room typing, what on earth is antisocial media?

You're telling him to become an "ENGLISH MAJOR"? There some show on the radio spoofing them all the time.

As I would expect from GK, very good advice for Ryan. In all the comments, I didn't hear one word about Music. Music is a very big part of PHC radio show. I do agree with GK's valuable
advice, he also sings all through the show. After enjoying PHC for over twenty years,(for which I Thank Garrison very much), I've recently noticed that he's sounding better than I've ever heard him when he sings. His show has been one of my many true pleasures in my life. I'm not exaggerating either. So, Ryan, (I have a son named Ryan. Good name, if I do say so myself. Means Kingly), So, I think you should keep in touch with GK and let him mentor you. I would like to see you follow in his footsteps! Good luck with your studies. Sounds like you have a great future ahead of you. Colleen, in Beautiful Ashland, Oregon. The home of JPR, Jefferson Public Radio.

Hello Ryan, I have been in radio for 15 years.I produce a Polka radio show for 5 hour on saturday morning. I sell sponsorships for the show, put new sales packages together, hold fundraising events,travel trips, all the marketing for the show, select the music, there is lots to radio.College will teach you all the things you need for radio,and the world will teach you the rest.thanks to Garrison I am still learning. Valerie Pawlowski, Cleveland, Ohio

Just remember Two things:

(1.) Microphones do not bite!!!

(2.) Paydays are on the First and Fifteenth of each month!!!

Previous Post:
« On the 12th Floor of the Acme Building...

Next Post:
October 21 Cinecast »

Post to the Host Archive

Complete Post to the Host Archive

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy