Sunday, January 6, 2013

Empty Buildings and DJs

One of the largest buildings on the campus of the University of South Carolina is the Russell House University Union (RHUU). It has a basement and four floors that contain three cafeterias, a full sized theater, a ballroom, numerous meeting rooms and a student media section that contains a radio station, a cable television station and a daily newspaper. It is the nerve center of the busy main campus that is normally a beehive of activity twenty four hours a day year round.

Except, that is, for the last two weeks of December, the one time during the year that the building is closed and there is no one inside. Almost no one that is! For a few hours each week, a lonely disk jockey, usually an alumnus makes his or her way to the control room of WUSC-FM and brings life to a small corner of this otherwise silent behemoth of a building. Most of the time access is granted through an ID card. Occasionally someone forgets to update he security system granting access to the outer doors. On those occasions the DJ calls the campus police who checks the access list and sends an officer to let the DJ in. Once in, however, the DJ is on his or her own. Again this year, I was one of those stalwart few to brave the solitude of the RHUU in Semester Break.

Now, every DJ out there is used to working in a building alone. It comes with the territory. Back in the day, unless you were working the day shift when the office staff was there, you would enter the control room, greet the DJ you were relieving, spend some quality time catching up with the latest station happenings and then take over the console. Except for the telephone, and today, social media, those DJ were alone until the next shift change. But this week it is a different story; I entered a cool dark control room dimly lit by the lights of the console and the computer screen of the automation system. The turntables are still; even the CD players are turned off. The computer itself is in another room so you don’t even hear the whir of its cooling fans. The monitors are turned so far down it sounded as if I were listening to a radio in a room down the hall.

In pretty short order, I brought things to life: lights on, my laptop booted, SAM Broadcaster imitated and the first few songs of my show queued up in the players – it’s SHOWTIME! For the next three hours, the phones were ringing, messages came in via IM and Facebook, requests taken and played. It was nonstop activity! For those of you who didn’t have the opportunity back in the day of watching a DJ work in a “Combo” operation where the DJ operates the console and the transmitter alone it is hard to imagine how incredibly busy he or she was. Today, with automation running in DJ assist mode it is still a handful. Instead of maintaining transmitter and operational logs, the DJ must enter the artist and title into the computer for transmission to the HD displays on radios, the web site for the streaming audio and the music log. There is little time to reflect on being alone in this big old building.

Alas, at the end of the show there is no fresh faced student DJ set to take over the switches and dials. No fun conversation or sharing of station gossip. The only thing there is the unblinking automation computer screen staring at me just like HAL did the astronauts in the movie “2001.” It is then, as I am about to leave the familiar warm confines of the control room and walk myself down the halls and stairs to exit the building, that I realize that the building is NOT silent. Beyond the usual mechanical noises of the air handlers and the buzz of the fluorescent lighting there is something else; something that is irregular, something almost alive. I had not heard it before, but I definitely hear it now. Scratch, click, rumble; what could that be? There is no one else in the building, or is there. Could it be the ghost of a past freshman frantically searching for that testing room to sit for the final exam? Maybe some vermin has gained entrance via a loose grill on the ventilation system. Listen, there it is again!! Of course, there is nothing there really, it is just the realization that I am alone in this huge building and maybe one too many bad horror movies taking advantage of an overactive imagination as I come down from the high of being on the air.

Most of the stations in my past were in much smaller buildings and the one that was not was in a building that was never empty; there was at least a security guard to chat with on the way out. Not so much today, more and more, radio stations are driven by automation systems with the occasional live DJ shift. I spoke with an old DJ friend who now works at such a station. He feels the same way, there is something missing. We talked about the old days when the DJs hung out around the station together. We didn’t need team building activities back then, it happened naturally! Trust me, I am no Luddite, but sometimes the old ways are the better. Oh MY!

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