Sunday, August 23, 2015

Man vs. Computer!

Honestly, I’d rather do it myself! Back in the heyday of Top 40 Radio, there were two types of control room operations, combo and those with an engineer “console operator.” Each had its advantages and disadvantages.

Left: Lauren Michelle, Cousin Brucie's control operator at the board! You can hear them interact across the board at Sirius' Sixties on Six." You normally found console operators in the larger markets and those with unions. The big advantage with operators is that the DJ is free of all the manual activity involved in doing a combo radio show: cueing records and tapes, loading cart machines, answering the phone and of course switching the appropriate audio source onto the air channel. In some operations, the control room engineer was also the transmitter operator, who had to take transmitter readings every half hour and switch power and pattern twice a day. Not having to do this left the DJ/Announcer a little more time to plan the next thing he or she was going to say. Many would argue that this made the show a little better but I am not of that school.

I think all the manual activity leads to the DJ becoming more immersed in the “stream” of the radio show; to become “one” with the show if you want to get Zen about it. I have thought about this over the years after having both experiences and have come to the conclusion that being a combo DJ is akin to playing a musical instrument. Instead of valves, strings, mouthpieces and keyboards, the combo DJ “plays” the potentiometers to make things louder and softer and switches to begin and end the “notes” that comprise the melody of the radio show. Doing it yourself makes the show “tighter” because the DJ can make things happen exactly when he or she wants them to happen, rather than waiting for that split second delay between signaling the engineer and the engineer performing the switch.

Left: "Combo" DJ doing a show on the BBC. This is especially when it comes to mixing the announcer’s voice over a song’s instrumental introduction. The experienced combo DJ knows to slightly increase the volume of the music when taking a breath and especially when ending the introduction and bringing the songs volume up exactly when reaching the first sung word of the song. This is called “hitting the post” and is the holy grail of every DJ, combo or not. Listen carefully to the next DJ you hear on the radio. If it is a live show, even if it a block show where the DJ talks only every two or three songs, you will notice that the DJ is pacing his words to the beat of the song that is ending and once the next song begins, that pace changes to match the song that is starting. If the pacing is off, either the DJ has not learned that skill yet or he does not hear the music underneath him. Or, and this is a big capitalized OR, the show is “voice tracked”, that is the DJ has recorded all his announcements before the show and an automation system is mixing the show together after he has left the station. In many instances in big corporately owned stations, the noontime DJ is a morning DJ for another station in the corporation in another city. Another hint that voice tracking is happening is that there is no mention of conditions that change rapidly, such as temperatures and traffic conditions.

They say that perfection is the ultimate relevancy. Indeed it is easier to reach perfection with voice tracking and automation than live shows, but I for one, love listening to a live DJ doing his thing. And I mean a live DJ that has the power to pick his or her own songs and the order that they play in. This is when you can hear the magic of composing the opera that is a radio show with key and rhythm changes that carry the listener across the songs smoothly. The magic of DJs that know how to tell a story in the tunes they play and talk with you and not just at you. I know many a corporate programmer who wants their DJs to never refer to a single listener directly or metaphorically but to focus on the larger audience. I respectfully disagree; the best DJs are the ones that can shout out to a single audience member while making everyone in the audience feel like they are an important part of something bigger. Just think of the on air patter of the great DJs like WolfMan Jack, Cousin Brucie, Dick Biondi or Woody Windham here in Columbia; that is the key to what made them great!

Today, the few live shows that are left use radio automation in “DJ Assist” mode. There is a great advantage to this in that most of the manual activity has been taken over by the computer. The biggest disadvantage is that if “the post” is not que marked, the DJ has to either remember where it is or to take a chance on the construction of the intro musically to anticipate it. Inevitably this leads to “stepping on the record” a time or two if the DJ is brave enough to take the risk. But again this is live radio, been there done that!

Now, don’t even get me started on stations that are completely automated; a computer connected to a transmitter. I grant that automation is less expensive to operate than using live DJs, but they plod along through the day-parts with hour after hour of computer generated perfection. But they have no soul, nothing that differentiates themselves from Pandora or i-Tunes. Can you spell “B-O-R-I-N-G.” Explain to me mister radio programmer, how is that relevant? At least with the streaming services, you can choose the type and genre of music that you would like to hear. Programmers of stations that have live drive times and automation running mid-days and evenings tell us that those day-parts have little or no commercial value. My response is that the reliance on automation has made them that way. Want to save radio? Make it live and local, the way it was meant to be! Oh MY!

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