Saturday, June 9, 2012
The day the music died
With a few broadcasting rebels throughout the nation, you may still find a live DJ outside of the larger cities, but in my opinion, for most, the heart is gone and replaced by a pacemaker. A pacemaker that still pumps it out but without care or emotion.
Let’s return to the past for just a moment… Girls, you’re 13 years old, and it’s Friday night. You’re at the anxiously awaited slumber party at your best friend’s house. Eleven girls wearing pajamas, eating pizza and giggling the night away are gathered around the radio in excited anticipation. You recognize the song immediately, and your heart begins to jump as you hear the DJ come on and say, “The latest hits heard here on KLUE. Hear there’s a big slumber party going on in town tonight. Okay girls, as requested, here’s a song for Jill, Lisa, Carolee...” You’re overcome with excitement that your name was just on the radio for everyone you know to hear.
This moment has been brought to you by radio of the past - not iTunes, not Serius Satellite, but a local celebrity on the air of the local radio station just across town on the second floor studio of a local office building.
I guess this could have been more appropriately titled, “The Day the Guys Who played the Music Died.” I feel lucky to say that I was once one of those “guys who played the music.” I became a DJ in 1989 at a local radio station. It was a changing time in an always changing industry. In my 13 years as an “air personality” as we preferred to be called, I witnessed the decline and near death of the local radio DJ.
To explain this extinction, I must lead you through some of the perhaps not so exciting technological facts of radio broadcasting. In 1989, radio stations were being introduced to the new media of the compact disc. Up until that point, a DJ showed up for his shift with a playlist and an armload of either records or carts (similar to a one song 8-track). It was a simple time in radio where the DJ had basic responsibilities: keep everyone informed of time, temperature, news and weather; intro the songs played; play advertisements; and entertain the listener when possible. But change was on the horizon.
As we progressed through the 90s, computers became as common in the workplace as the coffee maker. Computer and radio technology was advancing rapidly when someone realized, “We can put all of those songs into a computer and do away with records, carts, and even digital CDs.” It was not long before an innovative software writer copyrighted a program that would do it all: play music, play commercials, even record the DJs voices so the whole show could be pre-recorded. Instead of paying a live DJ to be on the air for full shifts and full salaries, station managers could pay someone to work a couple of hours recording a whole week of shows. The best part? The radio listener might never know the difference. In the age of downsizing, this was very appealing to company owners. But it was at the cost of the radio listener. Without an onsite DJ, who would tell us about bad weather or breaking news? Who would play our requests or even give us the time and temperature?
As computers began to rule the airways, radio began to use program syndication like television. Instead of listening to local talent on a low budget show, why not syndicate the large market shows with big contests, celebrities on air, or great prizes to be given away? With new computer programs to play commercials on the air, no one even had to be in the local studio to merge the network with the local station. The thought of the owners and managers was simple: higher quality of entertainment and, with the exception of playing a few local commercials for the company being syndicated, no out-of-pocket cost. The only expense was to the listener who would now be competing with thousands or millions of other listeners across the nation calling to play that contest, win those tickets, or just request their favorite song.
At the risk of sounding like one of those old guys sitting around the table of a local coffee shop in the morning talking about the good old days, it makes me sad to drive by many of the radio stations I grew up listening to knowing that there is no longer anyone in the control room interacting with the audience. With a few broadcasting rebels throughout the nation, you may still find a live DJ outside of the larger cities, but in my opinion, for most, the heart is gone and replaced by a pacemaker. A pacemaker that still pumps it out but without care or emotion.
Today, I can listen to any song, any time, anywhere right on my cell phone, and that is fine for many. But, for some of us, radio was much more than an unprogrammable MP3 player. Our favorite station played our songs by request, looked out for us in bad weather, and provided us with a friend alone in the car or when we couldn’t sleep at night. Even if we never dialed the number one time, we knew someone was just a call away. To those that know the difference, it somehow just leaves an empty feeling. The day of the live, local disc jockey is now on the shelf somewhere between the old 45 rpm records and the cassette tapes. Yes, we have national celebrities on the air giving away trips around the world, but I would love to hear just one more time, “This is Gary Mason on KYKS. It’s 4:33 p.m. and 85 degrees on the Loop as we get ready to go home. Come join me at the fair tonight as I’ll be broadcasting live...”