Broadcast assistants work alongside producers and presenters, assisting them to research, deliver, present and produce radio programmes.
Broadcast assistants, known in the industry as BAs, work in a supportive role alongside radio presenters and producers. The job is varied with many different tasks, including operating studio equipment, manning the phones, interviewing guests and researching programmes. BAs are there to ensure that everything runs smoothly, troubleshooting and reacting to unforeseen hitches.
BAs are usually the most junior member of the studio team so, naturally enough, the job can also involve routine admin and other fairly mundane tasks such as making the tea. Every broadcast is unique so no two days in this job are the same, and although BAs spend the majority of their time in the studio, they might also spend time out on the streets conducting “vox pops” (interviews with the public) or researching in another location.
Since the birth of the BBC in 1922, the UK radio industry has undergone huge expansion. Today there are over 25 national radio stations and hundreds more regional, local, community, student and hospital radio stations employing several thousand staff. Some stations are run by the BBC, whereas others are commercial or not-for-profit enterprises.
Further stations have sprung up with the advent of internet radio, and technological advances have allowed us to access broadcasts via mobile phones, PCs and digital radios. There are therefore plenty of job opportunities in radio, and starting out as a broadcast assistant is an excellent way to kick-start your broadcasting career.
Trainee broadcast assistants will earn in the region of £13,000 a year, with salaries potentially rising to £17,000 with a year or two of experience. Experienced BAs can earn up to £25,000 a year, though it’s usual for BAs with potential and ambition to be promoted to assistant producers rather than remaining in the job. Some broadcast assistants work on a freelance basis, in which case they are paid a fee for each contract.
The role of a broadcast assistant depends on the type of radio station and size of the production team, but they are usually responsible for some or all of the following:
- Researching topics and gathering information for programmes
- Finding, booking and liaising with guests and contributors
- Acting as the first point of contact for studio guests
- Maintaining databases of contacts and freelance staff
- Preparing and typing scripts
- Managing phones for phone-ins (and keeping records)
- Devising competitions, contacting winners, and arranging and sending out prizes
- Procuring resources and equipment at competitive rates
- Booking studio time
- Keeping track of programme budgets
- Putting together programme logs and running orders
- Updating the station’s website (if it has an online presence)
- Recording and editing trailers using digital editing software
- Helping the producer with time-keeping
- “Driving the desk” (operating technical studio equipment to play pre-recorded items, music and jingles at the right time)
- Assisting with the writing of links, cues, competitions and quiz questions.
- Choosing music
It’s not necessary to have a formal qualification to start a career in broadcasting. Most radio stations provide comprehensive training, but a degree or postgraduate qualification in media studies or broadcast journalism will provide a good grounding in the theory and practical skills you will need as a BA as well as demonstrating a commitment to broadcasting.
There are over a dozen higher-education institutions offering degree courses in broadcasting (and related media courses which include radio broadcasting in their syllabus), varying in length from one to four years. Although these courses develop useful skills and can open up opportunities for work placements, bear in mind that many radio stations have their own entry requirements and training programmes.
There is no ‘industry standard’ qualification in radio, so even with a degree in broadcasting you are likely to start your career as a trainee BA. When choosing a degree, make sure the course includes plenty of practical experience or opportunities to get hands-on experience either in a real studio or a ‘simulation’ radio station. This experience will give you an edge when applying for jobs.
The Broadcast Journalism Training Council has details of bursaries and sponsorship available to broadcasting students.
The following skills are essential for broadcast assistants:
- Enthusiasm and energy
- Creativity and ideas
- A flexible attitude
- A genuine interest in radio, current affairs and/or music (in particular a passion for whatever the radio station majors in)
- Good administrative and organisational skills
- Good written and spoken communication skills
- The ability to work as part of a team as well as on your own initiative
- Diplomacy when facing provocation
- The ability to prioritise and work to tight deadlines
- The ability to inspire and persuade others
- Technical competence in broadcasting/production
- Computer skills and a familiarity with wordprocessing, spreadsheet and database packages
- Knowledge of and an interest in the audience (especially important for local radio)
- Good analytical and interpretive skills
Language skills are also useful as some UK radio stations don’t just broadcast in English (eg. BBC Radio Cymru for Welsh audiences).
BAs do a lot of work ‘off-air’, such as carrying out research, booking guests and maintaining the station’s website. However, radio stations are on-air most of the time so BAs will be expected to work some unsociable hours depending on when the programme they are working on is broadcast.
Broadcasting is a fast-moving working environment so BAs need to be able to cope with change and to work well under pressure. Also, although the job is not physically demanding, it may involve long hours and stress.
Broadcasting is a very competitive field, and to land your first job in radio you should take every opportunity to gain work experience. To get started you could attend one of the Radio Academy Masterclasses organised by The Radio Academy, which are one-day conference providing an introduction to broadcasting through a mixture of seminars, hands-on skills sessions and lectures.
The next step is to get some work experience with a local or community station – the latest opportunities are available online in the RadioCentre Work Placement Digest. Placements last anything from a couple of days to a month. If you build on this during your degree or postgraduate course, you should have enough experience to apply for BA jobs on graduation.
The BBC is the major employer in the UK, but there are many opportunities with commercial and community radio stations as well. Freelance BA work is also a possibility and many independent production companies, who produce programmes on behalf of radio stations, also employ broadcast assistants.
To progress as a broadcast assistant it is important to keep up-to-date with technological developments and to take every opportunity for professional development and training. Within the BBC it’s possible to go on an ‘attachment’ which allows an individual to work in a related role for a period of up to 12 months. Attachments become available when colleagues take career breaks, maternity/paternity leave or when new projects or busy periods arise. This is a great way to gain new experience and skills, and to move sideways to another role or gain promotion to become a producer or presenter.
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What’s it really like?
Elizabeth Dix is a broadcast assistant with the BBC. Here she gives us the inside track on her job.
What motivated you to become a broadcast assistant?
I was already working at the BBC in television, and realised that I wanted to work in radio. The production teams in radio are far smaller than in television so the range of jobs a broadcast assistant works on is far wider than the equivalent in television.
How long have you been in this industry?
I joined the BBC in 2003, and became a broadcast assistant in 2004.
What did you do before you became a broadcast assistant?
After university I did a masters degree (unrelated to broadcasting), following which I worked for a while as an administrator at BT and then as a wine guide before joining the BBC.
Did you study a related subject at college/university?
No, I studied archaeology and anthropology. As far as I can see, very few people who work in radio studied a related subject at university.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
We have a morning meeting to discuss the programme that was broadcast the previous evening. If I am working on that evening’s programme, I will talk to the producer and presenter about the content of the programme, and complete various bits of paperwork necessary for the broadcast, then publish the information about the day’s programme on the webpage.
What happens on the day can never be predicted, and could involve doing some research about the topics being covered, finding some archive to play during the programme, recording actors at a theatre or recording an interview.
We rehearse before the broadcast and then it’s time to get the guests and the programme goes out. It’s pretty full on! On days when I don’t have a programme I catch up on paperwork (there is a LOT of paperwork for each broadcast, most of which falls to the broadcast assistant), and work on upcoming programmes, which involves some logistical organisation and idea generation. It is definitely true that no two days are the same!
What is the best aspect of your job?
The best aspect of the job is the range of topics covered by the programme, and how broadcast assistants can get stuck right into the material. We are encouraged to suggest programme ideas, and to follow up with research and production.
Is there anything you dislike about the job?
There is a lot of paperwork to get through.
What three skills or qualities do you think are essential for your job?
- The ability to juggle many different tasks at the same time.
- And wide general knowledge and a keenness to learn, as there are lots of aspects of the job that are fairly specialist, such as artist and music rights.
- You need to be able to keep a cool head when there is general panic – live radio is very responsive to news and manages this with very small teams so you need to be able to cope if a crisis emerges.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in radio broadcasting?
Make sure you know what is going on in the industry, especially now that the internet is becoming so important in broadcasting. Listen to as much radio as you can. There’s also no point in doing the job if you don’t like radio. And be prepared to go in at the very bottom, as jobs are few and far between.
What are the prospects for career progression?
Career progression is very slow in radio, as there are very few jobs and a lot of talented people would like them.
What is job security like in this industry?
Job security in the media is poor, but if you have talent then freelancing is a good way to navigate the problems of job security.
Is there any other inside information you could give to help people considering this career?
The main thing is to be prepared to go in at the very bottom, and take all the opportunities given to you, as there is no such thing as wasted experience in the media.