If there's one person who could claim to be responsible for an entire radio station, it's the program director. While upper management is chiefly concerned with the station as a business, program directors work on the ground floor to create the radio station as it is perceived by audiences: the content, tone, and unifying direction that give the station a unique identity. To accomplish this, program directors hire and groom many of the radio hosts and personalities; work with writers to come up with ideas for new shows; screen the content and direction of each segment; collaborate with the music director to create the station's playlist; keep track of music logs; dictate the station's schedule; and employ extensive market research to ensure that shows are doing well in their time slots. When it comes to the station's content, program directors are involved with almost everything.
Most program directors are dedicated to and inspired by the process of shaping a radio station to fulfill their vision, but this creative impulse must always be balanced with good business sense.
Overseeing content creation, curation, and scheduling—in other words, the programming—is the primary duty of the program director. However, what ultimately makes the program director's job so challenging is being responsible to so many different parties: the upper management, who want a profitable business; the disc jockeys and music directors, who want to fulfill their own creative and professional objectives; and the listeners, who may have their own completely distinct relationships with, and expectations of, the station. In other words, program directors have to consider ratings and viewership, work to cultivate a consistent audience, and pursue their own vision of the station's values, aesthetic, politics, or brand—all while attempting to create a finished product that appears harmonious.
At a Glance
One of the most advanced positions at any radio station, working as a program director usually requires a minimum of 10 years of prior experience in radio. During those years, program directors—also called PDs—may work as hosts, reporters, broadcast engineers, field recordists, or music directors. They also become comfortable with a wide range of radio formats including music, news, weather, sports, and other varieties of talk radio.
As for many top-level positions, advancing in this role typically means finding a larger station to helm. Program directors might also make the leap to internet radio or music streaming. Today, popular streaming services are scrambling to recruit former program and music directors to unify and guide their playlists and offerings.
Significant experience working in broadcasting is essential. To get started, one should look for internships at a local station or contribute to a college station. Whether it's working in front of the mic as a DJ or radio host or behind the scenes as a broadcast engineer or other audio tech, what's important is understanding the breadth of the station's day-to-day operations and developing versatility as an employee.
- Crafting air schedules
- Creating recurring shows and segments
- Management (budgeting, scheduling, and hiring)
- Marketing research and analysis
- Digital and analog broadcast consoles
- Basic audio engineering (recording and production)
- Written and verbal communication
- Critical thinking
Program directors—who are usually active and lifelong consumers of radio, music, pop culture, and news—are versatile workers, combining top-notch managerial skills with creative vision and practical business sense. They have to make their share of tough decisions, whether it’s letting go of a beloved host because the show is no longer profitable or center-staging a show they can’t stand because—like it or not—its popularity and revenue support the station's other content. Everything's a balancing act for program directors, which requires a particular mix of diplomacy, critical thinking, and leadership.
Program directors generally work long, strange hours. They might arrive earlier than other employees to make adjustments to the playlist or check out the newest ratings reports, and then stay late to ensure that everything is prepared for the night and following day. Many jobs are described as "full-time," but this one really means it; even the program director’s days off—which may be few and far between—are not safe from last-minute changes to the schedule, technical problems, or other practical complications. The position usually doesn't require much travel other than the commute between the station and home, which may be done multiple times each day.