One of the many skills radio jocks used to have (a skill not needed much anymore) is the ability to back-time. In days of yore, stations often carried a national network newscast at the top of an hour—say 12 noon. Listeners would hear the last record of the hour end within a few seconds of 12:00. This did not happen by accident—the jock on the air had to make it happen. That’s back-timing.
Imagine that you are playing your last commercial break of the hour, and you know that it will end at 11:52:00. This means you have eight minutes to fill before the network news at 12:00:00. So you have to divide up the clock in your head to fill those last eight minutes. The easiest way would be to play two four-minute records, although those used to be rare—you might find yourself playing two records of about 2 1/2 minutes each and another that runs about three. If the format you’re running dictates that you must play a jingle, sweeper, or promotional spot between songs, you’ll have to account for those in your timing.
You’ll often have a little bit of wiggle room in your timing. If you’re going to run long, you can cut a few seconds by fading your songs a bit early. This will be less noticeable if you have chosen songs that end with a fade—fading early out of a song that has a cold ending is the radio equivalent of letting the seams show.
To back-time successfully, it’s critical that the timing listed on the record’s label be accurate. Sometimes it isn’t. (Phil Spector famously labeled “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers at 3:05 because he feared that if radio stations knew its real length, 3:40, they might have been less likely to play it.) And even when the label timing is closer to being right, it might not be exact. It might say 3:05, but that might not be 3:05 that a jock can use. It might be 3:05 from the start of the record to the last iota of sound before the groove is blank, but the amount of music at a decent level for broadcast might run only to 2:50 or so—and a back-timing jock needs to know that. Some stations would time records by hand to make sure the timing was exact.
The goal in back-timing is to get within a few seconds of the top of the hour, leaving you enough time to give your station identification or news introduction or whatever you have to do. It sounds best when the last record has a cold ending—and the very best is what’s known as a cold fade, a definite ending but one in which the final notes linger a bit. (Think “Something” by the Beatles, for example.) Then you can give your ID over the last notes, and they fade away to nothing just as the network broadcast begins. More often, however, you would simply fade the music yourself as you hit the network broadcast, and that’s fine, as long as the fade occurs at or near the point where the record would normally fade. (Again, to do otherwise is to let the seams show.)
Every veteran jock has used instrumentals to back-time. You’d do this when you couldn’t find the right combination of songs, or if you didn’t feel like doing math that day. You could fade out of the instrumental anytime you needed to. This is the origin of the DJ phrase, “Taking us up to news time, here’s Mason Williams.” Or Lenny Dee or Henry Mancini or the Hollyridge Strings or whatever was in the stack of instrumentals kept in the studio exclusively for back-timing purposes. I always think of Floyd Cramer’s 1960 hit “Last Date” as the ultimate “taking us up to news time” record. I must have heard it used that way a million times growing up, and it wasn’t until I got into radio myself that I even knew the title of it.
Mighty few stations have network broadcasts to hit anymore, however, so back-timing is a lost art (and it is indeed an art). But it’s an art every decent jock used to practice frequently, often once an hour and occasionally more. My greatest moment in back-timing came on the afternoon following the start of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. My station stopped carrying ABC Radio’s wall-to-wall war coverage and went back to music, but we carried ABC updates every 10 minutes. So for six solid hours that day, I back-timed to six network broadcasts every hour.
(DJ beats chest, yells like Tarzan.)
Recommended Reading: David Cantwell of Living in Stereo on Michael Jackson’s loneliness.