Sunday, August 7, 2016

You can’t take the radio station out of the DJ!

There is an old saying about radio DJs; “You can take the DJ out of the radio station but you can’t take the radio station out of the DJ!” To be sure, a similar saying exists for other professions but there are few for which the saying is stronger.

Every now and then, I run into one of my DJ colleagues on the street or in a local store. Invariably the conversation turns to the good old days of radio complete with “war stories” of things that happened then. Often these stories are repeats and that drives the non DJs standing around listening little crazy. Stories of funny things that happened in the studio and updates on what is happening with our other DJ friends are shared while eyes are rolling all around.

Something else that marks an old DJ is while listening to the radio we “walk up the record” and “hit the post!” Huh! You ask! What the heck is that? Well walking up the record is the practice of talking over the instrumental introduction to most songs and hitting the post is stopping within a beat of the beginning of the vocal part of the song. It’s just something that disk jockeys do. Just like breathing. So down the road I go walking up the top of the pops and the cream of the crop as the driver in the other lane looks at me like I have two heads. On a really good day I can hit the post on a song, then start up again over the tail of the song while listening for the first notes of the next song, recognize it, and walking up the next record. When I “hit the post” I celebrate with a fist pump as the driver in the next lane moves over to give me a little more room.

That brings me to another hallmark of an old school DJ; recognizing a song from the first few sounds of its opening. One learns that skill from doing remotes where the songs are played by the control operator back in the control room. It is not always possible to maintain contact with the studio so the remote DJ has a cue line that he or she uses to tell the control operator to play a station break. “We’ll be back in a moment with more from Uncle Bob’s Car Dealer after these short announcements” is a good example of one of these. The cue back to us is usually the station jingle. We know at the end of that jingle there will be a song and that our remote line will be “hot” so we could walk up the intro if we wanted to.

Left: This is the type of radio I used for remotes. What made all of this possible back in the day was the fact that there was no delay from the microphone through the transmitter. This meant that you could connect a headphone to a radio and listen in real time to what was happening. You could really hear it all, the reverb, the audio processing and compression right in your ears. I had an old tube type desktop radio and set of headphones that I kept with me for remotes. I used it for years at Doug Broome’s Drive In. It “lived” in the cubbyhole in the common entrance to the studio and was the first thing that went into the cardboard teletype paper box that carried all my “stuff” between the studios on the second floor of the Cornell Arms Apartments and Doug Broome’s. You can’t do that these days because almost all radio stations have a delay between the audio board in the control room and the transmitter. Part of this delay is intentional; a 10 second digital delay system that can be “dumped” if somehow a “no no” gets past the DJ. The rest of it comes from the transmission process in the transmitter itself. So what you hear on the air can be as much as 17 seconds later than what was said into the microphone. The same is true for internet streams of broadcasts, only that delay is variable and becomes longer the longer you remain tuned in to that stream.

Another hallmark of an old school radio program is that the DJ speaks more often and always for a shorter time each time he or she speaks. In fact, I would have been fired if I allowed two songs to touch each other without a voice over or some production element such as a jingle between them. The kids would often complain about that, but you see, that was the point. It was harder to pirate a song off the radio onto a cassette if something else was always going on. We had to keep the record companies happy too.

Left: Turntable similar to those used in the WCOS Control Room on the second floor of the Cornell Arms Apartments. Speaking of jingles, they were not sacred. They had intros that could be “walked up” bridges that could be over spoke and endings that were perfect for starting the next song. By the way, when playing songs off of records and jingles off of reel to reel tapes, there were no aids to assist the DJ in “hitting the post.” These days, automation systems running in DJ assist mode present visual cues to the DJ of how must time is left until the post or the end of the song. Some give you countdowns in the form of a digital clock, others let you know with a “pie chart” containing a slice that gets smaller each second and others give you a bar filling up, like Windows does when you are downloading a file. Back in the day, the DJ had to “own” the song’s intro. That made it more fun and dangerous at the same time. If the DJ spoke too long, he or she would “step on” the song. And that was bad. Note: some of the old school DJs still working with automation in DJ Assist mode, ignore the visual aids. These are the coolest of the cool.

This is why I love live radio so much. There is nothing like hearing a great DJ work at his trade. There is no such thing as a perfect live show; there is always some sort of flub, mispronunciation or stepping on a record. The recovery, how the DJ handles his or her own mistakes is a big part of it all. In case you are wondering, the gold standard of the perfect intro is when a DJ interacts with the singer or the musicians on the song right up to the post. A great example is saying the station call letters on the last four (or five in the case of FM) downbeats before the singing starts. That always gets a fist pump and a “whoop” the second the microphone is turned off. Oh MY!

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