Usually Played For Laughs, the Struggling Broadcaster is a station with heart, but with no ratings to speak of and usually a low or nonexistent budget. It's run by a skeleton crew whose antics are more fun than a barrel of monkeys; everyone at the station wishes you'd tune in but the deck is stacked against them for any of a number of possible reasons:
- The station is broke or going bankrupt. The paycheques are bouncing and the announcers are begging for donations on-air in a telethon just to keep the show alive. If it's a non-profit educational outlet, the scoreboard during a PBS-style pledge break might actually show a negative number (perhaps to reflect the station spent money it doesn't have just to rent the board for the donation drive).
- The station is a low-budget independent, while its competitors are on better spots on the dial and backed by the stronger programming resources of the major networks. With limited resources and no budget to acquire better content, the only programming (other than minor-league sports matches and old public-domain movies) is Cloudcuckoolander nonsense which the station produces itself – on a shoestring.
- The station is on a high UHF channel in an era before manufacturers were legally required to include UHF tuners on every TV set. Of the first hundred pioneering American Television Stations who took a chance on UHF 14-83 soon after the US FCC opened these over-the-air channels in late 1952, roughly eighty went broke – most within the first year. Many others were licenced but never built. Without any viewers, they couldn't get the network affiliation or the advertisers; without the network's programming, they couldn't get the viewers. If they had managed to get a network feed, they lost that affiliation to the first competitor to launch a VHF station. If no one could see the station, no one noticed when it silently went dark and never came back.
- The station is underpowered. On the medium-wave AM radio band, it may be on a "daytime" frequency on which it has to drop power or go completely off the air at sundown to protect a distant broadcaster on the same frequency. On FM or TV, it may have acquired the licence by buying an existing low-power "repeater", "rebroadcaster" or "translator" (which normally just provides a fill-in signal where there are gaps in a full-service main station's coverage) and re-purposing that allocation for an originating station.
- The station is licenced to serve a tiny or distant village, from which it can barely reach the larger city as a "rimshot", but isn't taken seriously as the announcers, the listeners or both are Hee Haw-style hillbillies.
- The station's management may be dishonest, or actively harming the operation in some manner. Maybe they're alcoholics. Maybe they're mentally ill. Maybe they're using the station's finances to launder mob cash, or are openly boasting that the station accepts payola. Somehow, the staff tries to stay on the air and beneath the radar of the national broadcast regulator even though the entire operation is too dysfunctional to be viable.
- The station may be on the air just to keep the licence active until it can be sold, moved to another community or moved to some other frequency. Perhaps it only exists so that the money it loses can be written off against taxable income from some unrelated venture. For local cable access television channels, most often the content has to exist as a condition of the parent CATV operator's licence, but the owner likely does not care that no one is watching.
- The station is badly short-staffed, either on a permanent basis (due to lack of funds) or temporarily (it's in a mountain community and none of the regular announcers made it in through an exceptionally-harsh blizzard, so the lone rookie to arrive tries to fill the entire thirty-minute time slot ad-lib as a One Man Show).
- The station is staffed by people who are simply incompetent.
- Some combination of any (or all) of the above.
Invariably, in the finest traditions of Captain Video and the long-defunct DuMont Television Network, all of this No Budget content goes out live – warts and all. The content is invariably So Bad It's Good as the inevitably-slapstick Show Within a Show segments are filled with pure nonsense, but anything is better than Dead Air.
Evidently, the Struggling Broadcaster has to be strong enough to be originating content (instead of merely rebroadcasting another station, or playing audio or video unattended using broadcast automation) for the trope to work. Among local originating stations, though, this one will invariably be in last place - and likely have been there, unnoticed, for years. Eventually, someone decides that there is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity and having audiences laugh at the station's expense is somehow better than going silently off the air and into the night.
Compare Buccaneer Broadcaster, the pirate radio captain who may always be operating on a shoestring, but doesn't care as long as the signal goes out.
- FM (1978) describes a broadcaster which was at the top of the ratings before management gets greedy and displaces content to programme excessive quantities of low-quality advertisements. The announcers revolt, barricade themselves in the station and change the format to wall-to-wall music, removing the ads entirely. Largely forgotten, except for Breakaway Pop Hit "FM (No static at all)" by Steely Dan –– which is now a classic.
- Network (1976) and the use of one newsperson's "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" rantings as a shtick to prop up the ratings of struggling TV network Union Broadcasting System (UBS). Largely a Take That at the media in general.
- UHF (1989) is a "Weird Al" Yankovic comedy about a lad whose uncle wins an underpowered, low-budget independent local UHF station, channel 62, in a poker game. The station's ratings are in the toilet until the station's janitor goes on-air with Cloudcuckoolander antics bizarre enough to give an audience a reason to tune in.
- Videodrome (1983) follows the CEO of a small independent UHF station (CIVIC-TV 83, as presumably a parody of CITY-TV 79 Toronto) who stumbles upon a satellite signal that is broadcasting extremely violent and horrific things. He makes the mistake of rebroadcasting the content, which harms the local community.
- Wayne's World (1992) is a comedy film, based on a Saturday Night Live routine, about the hosts of an Aurora, Illinois-based cable access television show who attempt to do their jobs despite Executive Meddling by corrupt higher-ups in the organisation.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus had an episode depicting the BBC running out of money. Characters appearing in comedy sketches were begged on-air not to speak because a speaking part gets paid more; someone utters one word and it's "oh dear, that's fifteen shillings out of the budget" that poor auntie Beeb can't afford. The credits were written on scraps of paper and the heat was turned off in the flat they were renting as a studio.
- Mork and Mindy has "Mindy McConnell" (Pam Dawber) as an inexperienced new hire at a television station. The owner, an intoxicated old man, hosted a local farm report which got unprecedentedly poor ratings until he tried to milk a bull on-air. After being given the job for little more than a complaint of "why do you ask for experienced people, when no one's willing to give anyone any experience?" she's plopped behind an anchor desk during a blizzard (no one else made it through) and invited to fill a live half-hour prime time news broadcast unprepared and solo.
- Radio Active/Radio Enfer (Canada) has a struggling broadcaster operating within a high school, where its operation is exposed to Executive Meddling by the school's administration.
- The similarly-named Radio Active/KYTV programme on the BBC also is prone to on-air antics similar to those of the struggling broadcaster.
- WKRP in Cincinnati is based around an AM radio station which was dead last in ratings after playing endless elevator music for years. In desperation, and to listeners' disbelief, the station abruptly changes format to start blaring Rock and Roll. Not the first MTM Productions show to be based on a dysfunctional broadcast newsroom, but WKRP was unusual in that the vinyl spinning on-air in the original broadcast contained a few real hits, current and popular at the time. (This created some issues when trying to create reruns or DVD box sets later.)
- Second City Television purported to show the broadcast content of a small local station in the mythical town of Melonville (never actually described outright as a Struggling Broadcaster but showing many of the signs) Among the Melonville station's "talent" were several washed-up has-been stars, a newscaster who doubled as the host of the late-night creature feature, and an unintelligibly-foreign washerwoman who somehow made it on the air and into her own movie.
- It's a Wonderful Life: Live From WVL Radio Theater is a touring theatrical piece about a handful of fictional station "WVL Radio" staff who somehow make it through a blizzard to get to the radio station, where they have to put together a live Christmas Eve rendition of the classic plot with very few voices, none of the station's experienced actors on hand and whatever meagre props or sound effects are available. As it's a story about presenting a well-known story, it differs from all of the classic 1940s radio broadcasts which predated the 1948 It's a Wonderful Life feature film and which played the story straight.
- The DuMont Television Network (1946-56) was a hopelessly low-budget fourth terrestrial network in an era when most major cities only had two stations at best – and those stations mostly chose to affiliate with NBC or CBS because those were already the firmly established brands on network AM radio. There were no broadcast videotape recorders until 1956 (by which time the network was dead) so, by necessity, most content went out live – and the rest showed up at the individual stations as reels of movie film. Effectively "FOX thirty years before FOX" but run on a No Budget shoestring by a once-innovative manufacturer of television sets who did not survive.
- Channel 17 Atlanta, as a UHF independent, was once infamous for this. Founder Jack Rice, Jr. built WJRJ 17 in 1967, using a former WAGA (VHF 5) studio and building a new 1000' transmitting tower, only to sell the entire operation to Ted Turner (as WTCG) in 1970. According to Fybush's NorthEast Radio Watch, "WTCG ran on a shoestring, at one point holding an on-air telethon just to raise enough money to keep the station on the air for a few more weeks. There were lots of old movies, a slapstick late-night newscast anchored by Bill Tush, Atlanta Braves games and a growing network of microwave relays carrying the signal all over the South." On 17 December 1976, WTBS 17 was uplinked to satellite, allowing the station to turn the corner. The rest is history.
- Progressive talk radio network Air America lasted from 2004-2010 despite low ratings and income, and a damaging scandal about loans made to fund the network. At its height it had 65 affiliates across the United States, but constantly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, actually tipping over into Chapter 11 status once in 2006 (after which it was sold by owner Piquant LLC to SLG Radio LLC). SLG owned it until 2009, when it sold Air America to Charles Kireker; at the start of 2010 AA ceased programming, filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, and basically disappeared. Newsweb Corporation (the owner of Chicago AM station WCPT) currently owns the Air America brand and trademarks but as of this writing is doing nothing with them.
- In later seasons it somehow managed to transform into a Struggling Network.