Up to News Time

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.

“Last Date”/Floyd Cramer (buy it here)
“Mr. Lucky”/Henry Mancini (buy it here)

11 responses

  1. the automated FM I worked for had “deadroll”, an instrumental reel that was time-activated and would fade right before news time. The downside was sometimes a vocal song would end, the instro would start and maybe 2 to 3 seconds later the fade command would take over, ending the song, going to the pre-news commerical (adjacency!) into the station ID.

    Probably made folks at home wonder was what going on.

  2. Ditto on whiteray’s comment — Fascinating! Ugh, and way too much math for my liking. :)

  3. News times would vary from :55, :57, or :00. The stations I work for now take ABC Entertainment News at :57, but we don’t have to back-time for it as we have a “news-catcher” feature which is kinda like Tivo, allowing us to play it back sometimes just seconds after beginning to record it.

    Long ago, I worked at a station which carried ABC Contemporary News live at :56:30….a little extra math was involved in backtiming for that. Of course, disc-jockeys are pretty dumb, anyway. All you need are a couple of kids from the local high school to play a few records…what could possibly go wrong?

  4. I loved back-timing because the mental arithmetic was one more element that helped to keep the mind sharp while doing a show. Ending an hour with something like Chicago’s “Dialogue, Parts 1 & 2” was quite the challenge.

    My most rigorous workouts came via a long-running daily lunch-hour contest I did on WDGY. Coming out of the 12:40 stopset (commercial break) I’d play a portion of a TV or movie theme, or a record by an actor. Some of those were easy to identify, and I’d have the winner’s call all cued up and ready to play back at the 12:52 break. From there, it was a matter of back-timing to the network news on the hour.

    But some of the slightly more obscure themes required a longer amount of time to get a winner. That sometimes meant having literally seconds to record the winner’s call, cue the tape, do the mental math and then play back the winner after the :52 stopset, especially if the winning call came *during* the stopset. There were only three or four end-of hour song options from which to choose, making the back-timing a real seat-of-the-pants endeavor. Amazingly, there were very few seams that were ever exposed.

    Adding to the fun was the fact that the hubs that held the reel-to-reel tapes in place on the tape decks mounted above the control board (and one’s head) would occasionally – and without warning – come crashing down, frequently followed by the reel of instantly-mangled tape itself. Uh-oh, no winner. Cue the seams.

    Having to think on one’s feet made for a lot better radio.

  5. “Having to think on one’s feet made for a lot better radio.” True dat, as the kids say. You can get lulled to sleep when you’re merely stepping into the stream now and then.

    I once worked at a station that used the automated instrumental deadroll to time up to the network news. It often sounded exactly as awful as porky described it.

  6. …and if you were a couple of seconds long, the spoken station ID could always go over the news open music. As long as you let the CBS top-of-the-hour-violin-string-pizzicato-pluck (or whatever that was) punch through. As in “W-S-” (bing) “W-W Platteville!”

  7. Ya know, whenever you write about your radio experiences, it makes me grateful that I did get to live in and remember a world when radio was so important.

    Pieces like this one never fail to draw me in.

  8. Great post! Brings back memories of late-night shifts on college radio… where “skills” were appreciated (but not required).

  9. Sobs!! I miss those days when DJs would play the entire Pink Floyd album on Sat night. Sobs!!

  10. […] heard it on our hometown radio station, presumably when it hit in 1965 and for years thereafter, “taking us up to news time.” See also “Last Date” by Floyd […]

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