Radio Science, Radio Art

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Our friend Kurt Blumenau asked several questions in response to Friday’s post. The answers merited an entire post, so here it is.

“DJ protocol question: at what point is it acceptable to start talking over the big final chord [of ‘A Day in the Life’]?”

As a commenter on Friday’s post noted, it depends on the format. Album stations would let the chord go longer than Top 40 stations. At the classic-rock station 20 years ago, I’d let it go maybe five or 10 seconds after the big bong because enough is enough. Top 40 stations would likely have cut it shorter.

But as a jock, I might not have much of a choice. When stations played physical CDs, they often bought format-specific libraries from a syndicator, because there’s no need to pay for all of Sgt. Pepper (or Wheels of Fire or Houses of the Holy or whatever) when you’re only going to play one or two cuts. Therefore, a jock would be at the mercy of however the song was mastered onto the library disc. Since it was meant for radio play, it would be highly unlikely to include the whole 40 seconds of the chord. Today, it’s likely that what you are hearing on the air is a digital file, and it’s not going to have the whole chord on the end, either, for reasons explained more fully below.

“What does a DJ know about a record the first time (s)he spins it?”

You might get a memo with a bit of information about each week’s new songs, or the new titles might be written on the studio whiteboard. In days of yore, some stations had music meetings to make sure the staff was up-to-date on new releases, recommended album cuts to push, and so forth. But at some stations, new songs just showed up in the rotation. (When I was a music director, I added new songs and tweaked rotations and libraries on Fridays, with the goal of freshening the station’s sound for the weekend.)

“Will the label be marked to indicate a 15-second instrumental intro, a dead-stop ending, a false ending, a fade, etc? Does somebody at the station give the thing a first listen and clue everybody else in?”

Back when record companies shipped promotional 45s to radio stations, they often printed intro time/total time/ending info right on the label, like this:


If it wasn’t already on the record label, stations would sticker the label or the sleeve (or the tape cartridge) with the information, as well as notes about false endings, abrupt cold endings, and so on. Today, all of that usually appears on the label of the digital file that shows up on the studio computer screen. A digital readout counts down both the intro time and the total time, quite a luxury for those of us who once kept track by watching the second hand on the studio clock, or by feel.

It was once common for stations to hand-time singles. Phil Spector famously labeled “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” as 3:05 when he knew it was nearly four minutes, figuring that stations wouldn’t want to play a record that long, but by the time they figured out how long it really was, it would be a hit and they’d have to stay on it. But also, if record-company timing runs from the first note of the song until the last decibel of the fade, it’s not accurate. Stations don’t let records fade to nothing on the air. They want to know precisely how much usable audio is on the track.

Back in the day, the music director (or an intern) did the stickering and timing. The MD would have put the records in the appropriate bin for the different rotation categories, however a station classified them. Today, he or she does the computer manipulation necessary to prepare new songs for broadcast and to schedule them. The actual selection of songs—what to play and in what rotations—is usually done in conjunction with the program director, and it incorporates whatever research data the station uses. Years ago, the process relied heavily on the MD and PD’s ears, and what sounded like a hit. There’s more science than art involved today, but ears still matter. The best stations sound like an organic whole, and while data can help facilitate that, it can’t do it alone.

I am guessing some amongst the readership have more information to add, so please jump in.

10 thoughts on “Radio Science, Radio Art

  1. Your point about the Righteous Brothers reminded me of another bit of trickery: the 45 of “Fakin’ It” by Simon and Garfunkel lists the track’s duration as 2:74. Hey, it’s under three.

    Spot on about TM Century music libraries and shared databases (looking at you, ClearHeart or whatever it’s called now). In those cases you are at the mercy of whoever did the transfer of the track, and sometimes those just aren’t right. I spent a better part of a year once looking for the correct version of “The Letter” by the Box Tops. The original single has a vocal fading out. When it was repackaged for CD in the 80s, this vocal got eliminated. Minor difference, but it’s the difference between being right and wrong.

    Often jocks get caught short if they are not prepared. I did a lot of theme weekends when I programmed as an excuse to go deeper in the library. I ended up having to suggest to my younger air talent that they may want to take a few minutes in the prod room and call up any tracks they didn’t recognize before getting them wrong. (That didn’t help with mispronouncing the artists’ names, but baby steps…)

  2. Cool! Getting a DJ to answer questions is like getting a DJ to play your request, or several in a row. Thanks.

    It says something that my questions were conceived and thought through as if it were still 1979 … I should have assumed that digital files have all the info you need.

    1. MediaTouch, which is a vast improvement over Maestro, which we used when I first got there. You had to be careful with Maestro. If you were done working with it and you clicked the X in the upper-right corner instead of “exit” from the pulldown menu, you’d kill it for every station in the building. Fun!

      If anybody’s got any other questions, ask away. Between me and the rest of the old DJs who read this blog, we should be able to answer them.

  3. Scott Bennett

    I worked at a college station (WHSN Bangor ME) for a short time. People would scribble notes on the album cover, often warnings about cold endings. Of course, careful jocks would double-check the ending when cuing up the record.
    Convoluted album names, like Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround had arrows drawn between the words to help read it correctly.

  4. HERC

    I have a million questions but I’ll just fire off four:

    1) Back in the day, when new vinyl showed up at a station, was it the music director’s job to listen to it, pick what was gonna get played and given the (imagined) sheer volume of albums (and 45s?) coming in, was said listening session merely a skip the needle around to the beginning, middle, and end of a song type thing?

    2) Given the relentless barrage of incoming records, the usual wear and tear of playback and the finite space to shelve those records, what were some of the ways a station would thin the vinyl library?

    3) What was coolest station promo or giveaway you ever participated in?

    4) Given the inherent competition between stations or even formats in some markets, how did you maintain awareness of what other stations were playing?

    1. CalRadioPD

      My experience: JB’s may vary.

      1) Depended on the station. I was lucky enough to have autonomy when I was a Music Director. Most needed to get the Program Director to sign off on the new music adds. And, if you worked for a national chain (ABC, RKO), there might be chain-wide adds that you had to go along with whether you thought they were the right record or not.

      2) Stuff that didn’t get added was held in my office for 3-6 months, then offered, first come, first serve, to the entire staff in what was affectionately known as “the stiffo stack” outside my office door.

      As to wear and tear, I’d order five duplicate copies of anything we added to the playlist. Those five would be locked in a filing cabinet. If we ended up using three of them and the record was still on the charts, I’d cart it. I’d have carted everything, but even at the biggest station I worked for, the GM wasn’t open to the idea of buying enough carts to make it happen.

      I programmed hit-oriented stations, Top 40 and the 70s version of Adult Contemporary, which really was Top 40 with minus the six or seven hardest records, and I tended to work in buildings that were older and had a lot of space from the days (1950s/60s) when the stations were MOR and the library was filled with albums and the jocks could program their own music. Storing a thousand or so 45s and a couple hundred albums (mostly greatest hits collections) was a breeze. Stations that relied on albums needed a room to serve as a library—ideally with built-in floor to ceiling shelves. Best one I ever saw was KMPC in Los Angeles in the early 70s. They kept everything they ever played. The room was about the size of a kids’ bedrooom with built-in shelves and a stand-up space, like a kitchen island in the middle. That’s where Alene McKinney and Tess Russell would keep the catalog of what song was on what album on what shelf and help the personalities choose the music for their shows.

      KMET in Los Angeles, when it moved to Metromedia Square from Wilshire, rather famously had a two-room music library. Go through the door at the back and you entered the “Marijuana Room”, which was soundproofed, had a killer air-exchange system and a good stereo. Perfect for when promo reps dropped by.

      3. Sad to say, the stations I worked for kept it pretty routine—albums, concert tickets, etc.

      4. If your competition reported to the trade papers (R&R, Gavin), you’d see their added music every week, along with your own. But most PDs (and jocks) worth their salt would spend time listening to the competition. Probably 3/4ths of my button-pushing in the car came from seeing what the other guys were playing.

  5. Pingback: Doing the Same Stuff | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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