Sunday, August 3, 2014

So, just what is an “Old School” DJ?

Some folks think that Old School refers to a movement in Hip Hop music but according to Wikipedia; “’old school’ can refer to anything that is from an earlier era, anything that may be considered ‘old-fashioned.’" Why am I even bringing this up, you ask? Well, it stems from a phone conversation I had with a listener at WUSC – FM a couple of weeks ago, where I am fond of using the tag phrase that I am an “Old School” DJ in every sense of the word. The listener challenged me because I play oldies at WUSC, not hip hop. While I had him on the phone, I looked it up in Wikipedia and read him the definition that I just quoted you. I then referred him to the station schedule on the web page to find the hip hop show that is done by another DJ on the station.

Left: Old School DJ Courtesy Classic Radio Broadcasting Facebook Page But that got me to thinking about what defines an “old school” DJ in my mind. Well, to be an “old school” DJ, first of all, you have to be live not recorded or “voice tracked” as is the common practice with the automation systems that rule the airwaves these days. In my way of thinking “old school” DJs have the several key attributes.

First of all, they have to have control over their play lists. They must be able to select the songs that they play and the order in which they play them. That gives the DJ the capability to string songs together to tell a story across a segment of the program. This is how the DJ puts his or her personality into the program. It is not something that can be taught, but is the “art” of being a DJ. On shows where the DJ takes requests from the audience, this is also how the DJ strikes up a conversation with the audience, not just talks at them.

The hardest part of this is adjusting the playlist and requests so that the songs flow from one to the other. I am definitely NOT talking about beat-matching, commonly done by club DJs where the main purpose of the music is to provide a background to the dance floor. When you think of the popular music of the 50’s and the 60’s, you realize that there were many different genres that made up the radio station playlist; rock and roll, rockabilly, rhythm & blues, country and even a little classical every now and then. There were hard driving songs and ballads, instrumentals and vocals (male, female and groups). If you just segued between them, the results would be musical chaos. Just imagine following Judy Collins’ “Some Day Soon” with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil With A Blue Dress On” and you get the idea. Those two are a great example of songs that should never touch each other. To a skilled DJ, that is what commercials or public service announcements are for.

Today’s radio DJs for the most part announce in blocks. That is, they play three or four songs segued back to back, or with sweepers between them. Every 15 minutes or so, they hit a “stop break” or “announce block” where the DJ comes in and talks for a minute or so then it is off to the next music block. During the morning drive time slot, where there is usually a “side kick” for the announcer, the blocks are shorter, but they are there nonetheless.

“Old school” DJs were required to talk between every song back in the day. But they had to hold the talk down to 10 – 15 seconds each time. My old boss called that “TTBB” or “Time, Temp, Boom Boom.” At the very least, the ‘Old school” DJ would play a production element, usually a jingle or a “sweeper” between two songs. It would be a rare thing to hear two songs segue on one of their shows. All this meant that there was a lot more energy in an “old school” radio show than you commonly hear today. Another factor is that most of the tunes back in the day were much shorter than you hear today. For example, the shortest #1 song in Rock and Roll history is 1959’s “Stay” by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs at one minute and 39 seconds in length. Today, the average length is between four and 5 minutes. It was not unusual to get 18 songs played in an hour that had 15 minutes dedicated to commercials, weather, sports and news. That amounted to a lot of work. These days on WUSC, without the commercials, sports and news, I can get in somewhere between 20 and 24 songs in an hour. Most stations playing Adult Contemporary or All Hits play between 10 and 11 songs per hour. No wonder I am exhausted after some shows, despite the fact that the microphone is on only about two thirds of the time that the typical block announcer has theirs on.

The other thing that differentiates an “old school” DJ with his modern contemporary is audience interaction. The studio phone line was off the hook most of the time with audience calling in requests and dedications, telling jokes and making comments. Today, the phone line is augmented by social media. About 50% of my audience interaction these days is via the internet, and that is a cool thing indeed. The job of the DJ is to take that feedback and weave it into the show’s story line. That can be done by commenting back on the air or via the choices they make to the music that is coming up. An “old school” DJ rarely has more than 3 or 4 songs pulled and ready when he or she goes on the air. The rest are selected on the fly reacting to the audience. You can bet that this is not lost on the audience. It makes them feel like they are an integral part of the show, as they should be. So next time you hear an “old school” DJ plying his trade, take a minute to sit back and listen for all these elements. They will be there and they will add to the fun! Oh MY!

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