On Air. Two simple words. Just five letters. But to the thousands of people who work in the broadcast media, those two simple words can mean a lot, not the least of which is "it's show time!"
On Air. The words flash in red lights outside of the broadcast studio, indicating to the outside world that something special is happening inside, so please don't interrupt. Inside the studio, behind a microphone and sometimes in front of a camera, professionals communicate messages to an unseen audience. They may even appear to the casual observer to be talking to themselves, yet with all the animation and expression one might expect when speaking to a good friend.
On Air. Two words that are seen every day by announcers, people engaged in the professional practice of vocally communicating messages to an audience through the broadcast media. Many people want to become announcers. Some realize their dreams. And a few make it to "the top" of the profession, achieving fame and possibly fortune.
What about you? Do you want to be on air? Do you have what it takes? I believe that if you truly want something badly enough, and you are determined to work hard, you're more likely to achieve your goals. But it helps to know more about what you are aiming for.
That's what this book is all about: an introduction to the field of announcing. It won't tell you everything you might want to know about the field, but it will give you a start. It might even be the start of something great, your own successful journey to be among those On Air.
What is announcing?
Before we can clearly discuss any concept, we need to define it. That sounds easier than it actually is. Defining any concept involves some risk that someone might disagree with your definition. Define a term too narrowly, and you're likely to miss something important. Cast your net too widely, and you're likely to include things that probably should be considered something else.
So it is with the terms "announcer" and "announcing." What is the first thing you think of when you hear the term "announcer?" A disc jockey on the radio? Perhaps a television news anchor? Maybe a sportscaster calling the play-by-play of an athletic competition? Or someone providing the "voiceover" for a commercial message?
I would include all of these—and more—in my definition of announcing. But whether everyone I would call an announcer would call themselves an announcer is another matter. Indeed, most people who work in the profession of announcing, at least in the broad sense I use here, would prefer to be know as something other than an announcer.
So for what it's worth, here's my definition of announcing: Announcing is the professional practice of vocally communicating messages to an audience through broadcast media. And by extension, an announcer is someone engaged in this profession, for love or for money (and hopefully both).
Let's expand upon the seven components of this definition:
- ...professional... Announcing is not just a "job" that anyone can do. Announcing is a profession: an occupation that demands specialized skills and unique talents. Indeed, it's not uncommon to hear people in the industry refer to announcers as "talent." For that's what the announcer has that others are willing to pay for: talent. That doesn't mean announcers make a lot of money (although a few make quite a bit). But it does mean that announcers are able to do something others are willing to pay for. And as in other professions, announcing has its own associations and unions dedicated to protecting and enhancing the profession, like AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Some announcing specialties have professional ethical codes that seek to establish professional standards, such as the Radio and Television News Directors Code of Ethics. So while announcing can be fun, it's not something people usually do just for the fun of it. Announcing is a career choice that most announcers take quite seriously.
- ...practice... Because skillful announcing requires talent, announcing is a practice as well as a profession. Announcers are continually practicing their craft, trying to make the most of their talents. Although some announcers may be blessed with a naturally pleasant voice or an attractive appearance, most announcers find they must work hard to develop and maintain their "on-air presence." A nice smile and "good pipes" won't get you very far if you don't know how to use them. So announcers practice; they practice how they sound on a microphone, how they appear on a camera, and how they interpret and deliver messages. Announcing is a very competitive field; only a few make it to the top of their profession. Those that do, know that becoming a successful announcer takes practice, and typically, a lot of it.
- ...vocally... The voice is perhaps the announcer's most valuable asset. It is the primary "tool" announcers use to convey messages to an audience. While announcers don't necessary have to have a "beautiful" voice, announcers must be able to effectively use their voices, sometimes for long stretches at a time. The voice is important for performing on both radio and television: whether an announcer is behind a microphone or in front of a camera, it is the voice that carries most of the "content" of a message. That doesn't mean that announcers don't need to know how to communicate in other ways; some announcing jobs require writing as well as speaking skills, some give considerable attention to physical appearance, and some require specialized knowledge in a particular area, like popular music, current events, or sports. But all announcers use their voices, and vocal quality is often what distinguishes the most successful announcers.
- ...communicating... Fundamentally, an announcer's job is to communicate. Announcers just doesn't read words out loud; they use their skills and talents to effectively communicate the meaning of those words. If the message an announcer is trying to convey isn't successfully communicated, the announcer has failed to do what he or she is being paid to do. Announcers should thus possess a solid understanding of the process of communication in order to organize, synthesize and present information in a compelling manner. Many announcers have advanced training in public speaking, rhetoric and communication studies. But regardless of their academic credentials, successful announcers demonstrate they know how to effectively communicate. Because communication is the fundamental purpose of what they do.
- ...messages... The meaningful content of what announcers seek to communicate is embedded in the messages they communicate. Sometimes announcers are directly involved in the writing of scripts, commonly called "copy" in industry lingo. Sometimes announcers are asked to "ad lib" a message for a specific purpose. And sometimes announcers are asked to quickly create messages that capture the essence of a news story or a sporting event. But regardless of whether they are involved in creating the messages they convey, announcers must be able to interpret, understand and communicate the meaning of those messages. Announcers "breathe life" into these messages, using their talent to convert simple words into an engaging message.
- ...audience... Ultimately, the success of an announcer is dependent on the audience. You can't communicate a message if no one listens to it. And announcers typically don't have captive audiences; they rely, at least in part, on the power of personality to attract listeners and gain and maintain their attention. Put another way, announcers try to be people other people want to listen to (and perhaps look at). Announcers are often assessed by how well the audience responds to them, which is typically measured in audience ratings. It may seem unfair, but many announcers live or die by the ratings. They must use their talents to attract and "connect" with the target audience...and keep them coming back for more.
- ...broadcast media.
Should this definition include television actors, since they also are professionals communicating messages to an audience through the broadcast media? Probably not. In general, actors focus on communicating fictional narrative messages while announcers focus on communicating non-fictional expository messages. But that's a rather "fuzzy line" that doesn't always clearly distinguish acting from announcing. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of overlap between these two professions. Many announcers would also consider themselves to be actors, and many hold membership in an actors union, like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). But probably fewer actors would consider themselves to be announcers.
While people who practice this profession can be called announcers, most prefer to use a more descriptive title to describe what they do. As a result, not everyone in the announcing profession likes to be called an announcer. There are some good reasons for this. One reason is that the term "announcer" is often associated with radio and television, and not everyone in the announcing profession works in radio and television (although most probably do at some point in their careers). Another reason is that the term "announcer" has come to be associated with the reading of scripts, and not everyone in the announcing profession reads scripts. Another reason is that the term "announcer" sounds rather dated and "old-fashioned." But perhaps the biggest reason is that some people hold a somewhat negative stereotype of announcers. For some, the term "announcer" implies a person who is in love with the sound of their own voice, is probably a bit pompous, and uses an overly polished and somewhat artificial tone of voice. Even though the vast majority of those who work in the announcing profession don't fit this unfair stereotype, there is just enough of a subtle stigma attached to the word "announcer" that most professionals prefer to use a more specific term.
And there are plenty of more specific terms to go around. Here are a few:
- Disc Jockey Many announcers prefer to use the term disc jockey, especially if they primarily announce recorded music on radio. The term reflects the adroit handling of phonographic discs that once was a required part of the job.
- Radio Personality Some disc jockeys specialize in providing entertaining and often humorous banter between selections. Sometimes called "radio personalities," these announcers often talk more than they play music.
- Radio Journalist Those who work in radio news often must wear multiple hats, serving as field reporter, news writer, audio producer and studio anchor.
- Television Newscaster Television journalists tend to have narrower job descriptions than do their counterparts in radio news. The title "newscaster" is typically reserved for those who routinely appear on a news program. The primary newscasters on a program are typically called "anchors."
- Voice Artist These announcers often specialize in providing character voices, such as the voices for characters in animated films. However, many people use the term "voice artist" in a more general sense to apply to anyone who uses their voice in an "artistic" manner.
- Voiceover Talent Many announcers work at providing the voices you hear on commercials, station promos and public service announcements. The term comes from the fact that only the announcers' voices appear "over" the video. If an announcer appears on camera, the term "on-camera talent" or "spokesperson" might be used.
- Sportscaster An announcer who specializes in sports broadcasting is often called a sportscaster, although there are a number of more specialized titles as well. An announcer who "calls the action" of a sporting event is typically called a "play-by-play announcer," while an announcer who provides commentary between plays is called a "color commentator."
- Club DJ This is a general term for an announcer who primarily works at a nightclub, dance hall or disco. Because most radio announcers no longer play discs, the terms "Disc Jockey" and "DJ" are increasingly used to refer to announcers who primarily "spin music" in a public setting.
- Public Address Announcer Most public sports venues, including baseball parks, football fields and racetracks, hire announcers to make announcements during an event. Sometimes these announcements are also broadcast (such as the racing call of the "track announcer").
- Program Host Many programs, like game shows, talk shows and some "reality TV" programs, use announcers as hosts or to supplement the hosts. Most game shows, for example, include both on-camera hosts and off-camera announcers.
- Narrator Some announcers specialize in providing narrations for documentary films and educational videos. Some specialize in reading literary texts as audiobooks. Here's one area of announcing that clearly bridges that "fuzzy line" between announcers and actors noted above.
How many people work as announcers?
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook provides a lot of useful information regarding the size of the Announcing profession, at least in the USA. In the 2008-2009 edition of the Handbook, the BLS estimated the number of Americans working in the "Announcers" category at about 71,000 people. However, the BLS defines announcing more narrowly than I do here, identifying "news analysts, reporters and correspondents" as a separate category. Many of the individuals in this second category, at least those employed in the broadcast media, would be included in the profession of announcing as I define it here. There may also be some people counted by the BLS in the categories of "Actors, Producers and Directors", "Writers and Editors," and "Broadcast and Sound Engineering Technicians and Radio Operators" whose work includes some announcing duties.
So while the BLS counts 71,000 Americans in the Announcer category, I think a more complete count can be achieved by including the 16,000 people the BLS identifies as working in broadcast news and sportscasting. This would mean that about 87,000 Americans are employed in the broader definition of the announcing field that I'm arguing for here.
Since the population of the United States is about 300 million, that means that about 1 out of every 3,300 people in the USA are announcers. To be fair, however, one should compare the number of announcers to the actual number of people employed in the US (excluding children, retired people and those who are unemployed). As of August 2008, the BLS estimates the US labor force at 155 million, which means that about 1 out of every 1700 jobs are in in the announcing profession.
| Did you know...?
In the USA, approximately 87,000 people work in the announcing profession, including about 16,000 broadcast journalists. That's about the same number of people employed as casino dealers in this country. Are you feeling lucky?
This suggests that announcing is a very competitive field, and indeed it is. In general, more people want to work in this field than there are jobs in this field. It's not uncommon for people in the business to feel that there are a thousand people waiting to have their job if they leave. That may be an exaggeration, but not a gross one. This is one reason why entry-level announcing jobs tend to not pay well (more on this in a moment). But keep in mind that those who have polished their skills and demonstrate considerable talent will find it much easier to find work than those who don't seriously devote themselves to excellence in announcing. Perseverance and practice can go a long way.
How much do announcers make?
Some announcers make very good money, because they have talents that are in great demand, and people are willing to pay handsomely for them. The very few announcers who have reached the top of their profession, such as network news anchors, can earn millions. When Katie Couric accepted the job of anchor of the CBS Evening News, she reportedly agreed to a salary of $15 million a year. Perhaps even more amazing was that Couric may have turned down NBC's offer of $20 million per year to continue hosting The Today Show in favor of the prestige of being the first sole female anchor on a major network evening newscast. Of course, it should be pointed out that the CBS Evening News is a half-hour program, while The Today Show is four hours long. So on an hourly basis...well, let's just say Katie is doing quite well for herself.
Unfortunately, most announcers don't make nearly that kind of money. It is not uncommon for entry-level radio announcers to make minimum wage or just slightly more, especially in smaller towns and for those employed on a part-time basis. While most announcers earn more than minimum wage, many people are surprised to discover that the average salary is not that much higher.
Again, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers us some insight. In 2007, the BLS reports that the average hourly wage for announcers was $18.44, and the average annual salary was $38,360. Those working in broadcast news made a bit more, with $25.69 as the average hourly wage and $51,350 as the average annual salary. It's interesting that in both categories, the median wages and salaries were considerably lower than the averages. For announcers, the median figures were $12.38/hour and $25,740/year, and for broadcast journalists the medians were $17.79/hour and $37,010/year. The median is the "middle point" in the pay range; in other words, half make more than the median and half make less. The disparity between the averages and the medians suggests that there are a few people who make well above the average (like Katie Couric), and these top-earners consequently "stretch" the industry average well above the middle point of the pay scale. In statistic-speak, announcing salaries reflect a skewed distribution.
Such salary figures may seem discouraging. But keep in mind that most announcers earning salaries at the lower end of this range are probably either just starting their careers or working part time (or both). Also, there tends to be considerable employee turnover in announcing jobs at the lower end of the pay range. It is fairly common for announcers to move from one job to another many times in the early stages of their careers, as they "work they way up to the top." Within a few years of working in the profession, young announcers find that they either "have what it takes" to reach the top, or they don't. There are many people who work as announcers in their 20s, only to move on to more lucrative careers in their 30s. For those who stay in the profession, most find they are eventually able to make at least a modestly comfortable salary.
What kind of training do announcers need?
Some people who work in the announcing profession do not have any formal training in the art of effective communication. A college degree, or for that matter, a high school diploma, is not a requirement for many announcing jobs. It is quite possible that a person who has a good voice, an engaging style and a persuasive personality can succeed in the announcing profession regardless of academic credentials.
Nevertheless, most announcers have completed at least some post-secondary work. A college education can greatly increase one's chances of success in the profession, and provides a foundation for a wider range of career opportunities. This is especially true of those who work in news; nearly all broadcast journalism positions require a bachelor's degree. Serious journalists often pursue a master's degree in journalism or communication.
College-level announcing courses are typically offered by departments of communication, broadcasting, or journalism. Such courses can be found under various titles, like "Broadcast Announcing," "Communicating on TV & Radio," and "Performing for the Mass Media." Sometimes announcing skills are taught as a part of a broader course, like "Introduction to Broadcasting," or "Radio Station Operation."
Sometimes courses in announcing are combined with other courses in a curriculum designed specifically for those pursuing a career in broadcasting. An aspiring announcer should consider coursework in audio and video production, journalism, broadcast management, voice and articulation, acting, script writing and mass communication. Depending on one's particular interests, courses in music, sports officiating, marketing, film, advertising and public relations can also be helpful.
Many announcers get their first real "job" at college radio or television stations. College stations, especially radio stations, are typically operated by students and advised by a faculty member, graduate student or staff person. The role of the advisor varies greatly from station to station, but most stations fall into one of two categories: faculty-supervised stations that are funded by an academic unit and operated as part of a broadcasting curriculum, and student-managed stations that are funded by student government and operated as a student activity organization. Both kinds of stations can provide valuable opportunities for learning practical broadcast skills.
What is the future of the announcing profession?
It is likely that there will continue to be a need for announcers. As long as there are messages that people want to be communicated, there will be those willing to pay for those who can communicate those messages effectively.
Having said this, it is also likely that technological, cultural and economic forces will change the nature of the announcing profession in the coming years. Radio is changing as people gravitate to iPods and satellite audio delivery services. Television is changing as people increasingly download videos from the internet. News is changing as the traditional gatekeeping function of the "mainstream media" is being challenged by the "blogosphere" and alternative media.
Yet while change may be inevitable, the fundamental skills that talented announcers possess will always be in demand. Formats may change, news values may change, media may change. But people who can use their voices to convey meaningful messages effectively, persuasively and passionately will rarely be out of a job. At least not for very long.
The bottom line: not everyone who seeks to be successful in this profession will be successful. But if you polish your communication skills, sharpen your vocal talents, continually seek to learn more about as much as you can, possess a strong and abiding work ethic, and are willing to be flexible, you can and should go far in this field.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Announcers, http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos087.htm.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, News Analysts, Reporters, and Correspondents, http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos088.htm.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Actors, Producers, and Directors, http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos093.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Writers and Editors, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos089.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Broadcast and Sound Engineering Technicians and Radio Operators, http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos109.htm
- CBS fought to keep the exact terms of Couric's salary confidential, but most sources agree that it is at least $15 million per year for five years. See http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2006-05-12-hollywood-pay_x.htm.
- See http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,185380,00.html.
- See http://www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag515.htm