Veteran of the Talk-Up Wars

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A colleague of mine, who spent most of his long on-air career in album rock and adult alternative radio, said to me one day, “Before I started working here, I had never talked over the introduction of a song.”

Really? I kinda felt sorry for him.

I do not know if anyone has ever done a history of the DJ talkover, also known as a talk-up. Announcers talked over music during big-band broadcasts in the 30s and 40s, but it’s wasn’t what we’d recognize as the modern style. If Alan Freed wasn’t the first with that, whoever was first must have pioneered it at around the same time, when hot-rockin’ radio first became a thing, integrating jock-talk into the flow to keep the vibe going. I doubt that the announcers on my parents’ radio stations did it much, however. I probably heard it for the first time when I started listening to WLS 50 years ago. It couldn’t have been long before I learned that a well-executed talkover is really cool. By sometime in 1971, 11-year-old me could do it, and did.

The Holy Grail of the talkover is “hitting the post”—going all the way to the vocal, wrapping up with the call letters or the punchline of your bit just as the singer starts. Believe me when I tell you that it’s one hell of a rush—so much so that some jocks do talk-ups just to amuse themselves when they aren’t even on the air. (I do it in the car. Many years ago, I was in a group of jocks drinking beer and playing “talk-up wars” with the songs coming on the stereo, trying to outdo one another. )

But consultants and program directors will tell you not to try to hit the post all the time. They give you lots of reasons for this, chief among them that “it makes you sound too much like a DJ.” Styles change, best practices change, listener expectations change, and the boss jock style of bygone days no longer represents the ideal. Some consultants and PDs will tell you never to do it—but you still can. Lots of introductions contain posts other than the start of the vocal—places where a new instrument comes in, where a singer whistles or shouts or grunts, something like that—and hitting those posts is just much fun. And if you manage to time out whatever you’re saying to hit all of the posts in an introduction on the way to the vocal—two or three of them, maybe—the rush is practically orgasmic. In radio nerd terms, it’s like hitting a home run.

I do not know if young jocks have an affinity for the talkover. I do not know if they get a rush from doing it, like those of us who were raised by the Top 40 jocks of the 60s and 70s, masters of the art. So I cannot say for certain that the art of the talkover is dying. I can say, however, that it’s getting more difficult.

A well-executed talkover requires an economy of language. It was (and on old airchecks, still is) amazing how much personality old-school jocks could project into so little time. But today, introductions are shorter than ever. Eight or nine seconds is common now. It’s challenging to do something worthwhile in so little time, but possible. The event horizon, for me, is six seconds. Sometimes I can’t even get my call letters, the title, and the artist in six seconds. The record might as well have no intro at all.

(The rationale for shorter intros is the same one that’s killed the mid-song instrumental solo—the thinking goes that people want to hear Ed Sheeran, so why A) waste time waiting for Ed to start and/or B) take time away from Ed to let some other dude play? Anything to avoid the dreaded Spotify skip.)

A radio consultant once told me that no listener ever says, “I like the way that guy talks up a record,” and he was right, yet even he acknowledged how much fun it is. But I once had a colleague say to me, “I wish I could talk up records the way you do.” As old-school DJ compliments go, that’s a pretty good one.

Any questions? I’ll be happy to elaborate, and so will other old radio types amongst the readership.

23 thoughts on “Veteran of the Talk-Up Wars

  1. mackdaddyg

    “The Holy Grail of the talkover is “hitting the post”—going all the way to the vocal, wrapping up with the call letters or the punchline of your bit just as the singer starts. Believe me when I tell you that it’s one hell of a rush”

    People who have never worked in radio won’t understand that, but it’s absolutely true. My career was relatively brief, so there weren’t many instances to do that, but when I did….it felt mighty good. I thought I was just easily amused, so after reading this, I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only one.

  2. A good talk up and a good segue (for non radio people, putting two songs together so well that the listener can’t tell where one song ends and the next begins) were what made radio fun in the 70’s.
    I remember fellow jocks applauding and cheering when someone did it perfectly. It’s all gone now of course but we do have our memories.
    Thanks for the reminder JB.

  3. Gary Omaha

    YES to everything Jim said and YES to the two responses before mine. I love a good segue, especially when both songs are in the same musical key. And those who know me know I love hitting the network — also a fairly lost art, especially with “roll the ‘net whenever you want” technology.

  4. mikehagerty

    I no longer have it (made the mistake of loaning it to someone 44 years ago, but in spring of 1969, Robert W. Morgan did a combination killer segue (he had an engineer, so I guess the credit goes to Walt “Failsafe” Radke) that I have burned into my memory.

    The song “Morning Girl” by the Neon Philharmonic is ending and Creedence’s “Born on the Bayou” is beginning (don’t worry, I’ll post the links to both below). The violin and organ drone from the end of “Morning Girl” blends seamlessly into the drone at the beginning of “Born on the Bayou”. Bill Drake’s voice, on tape, says “From Los Angeles, More Music!” and the Johnny Mann Singers sing “KHJ”,at which point the lead guitar begins.

    Morgan says “Seven—-hahahahah—boy, those rehearsals are really paying off, Failsafe. It’s almost worth it getting up at four in the morning. Seven-thirty in Boss Angeles and THIS is Robert W. Morgan!”

    And hits the vocal.

    I was 13 and it may have provoked a physiological reaction.

  5. Willie

    One of the best was John Records Landecker who combined a talk up with a segment called “Americana Panorama.” You have to hear it to believe it.

    1. Somewhere, on a decaying cassette tape, I have an episode of “Americana Panorama.” JRL told this elaborate story about Cybill Shepard – known to her friends as “Sil” – hiring Mothra as her agent. “From now on, you’ll have to get to Sil via Mothra” just as Dr. Hook starts wailing the verse. It’s a thing of beauty.

      Landecker once – and I witnessed it – talked up, over, and out of “Green Onions.” The whole record, calls in, calls out, just to see if he could do it. And of course he did.

  6. Near the end of my commercial radio days we had a program director who got promoted to operations manager who had a disdain for talkovers of all sorts. It’s largely because he couldn’t do them well, and suspected that the rest of us “just wanted to hear ourselves.” Never mind that it’s harder to say something coherent and memorable in eleven and a half seconds with a beat behind you. It’s a skill that I talk about with my radio students and encourage them to try. Few do.

    Like JB, I still do this in the car all the time. Only when alone, as it tends to annoy passengers when I go back and re-start the tune to see if I can do it better.

  7. mikehagerty

    The guy who was amazing at hitting the post was Bobby Ocean (KGB and KCBQ, San Diego; KFRC, K-101 and KYUU, San Francisco; KHJ and KWST, Los Angeles). Every single time. If there was an intro to the first commercial in a stopset, he’d talk that up. If there were instrumental posts in the spot, he’d hit them.

    I asked him once how he did that—-what supernatural thing inside his ear he was born with that allowed such flawless timing.

    He reached into his pocket and pulled out a stopwatch.

  8. TimMoore

    I really loath the talk many times im yelling at my radio jock to just shut up so I can get the song intro.. maybe I’m in the minority, but I believe those few seconds are important to the song. I used to listen to a station in mid Florida and their tag line was they never talk over a song, beginning or end.. but i can see the appeal of it to a radio personality..i would rather hear back stories or trivia about the song, than call letters and the time.. rock on

    1. This is absolutely a valid perspective, and you are not alone in sharing it. Stations using “We never talk over a song” as a positioning statement tend to be in particular formats, like album rock or adult alternative, although any format could use it. But your station will have a lower-energy presentation as a result. If that’s what a station wants, then they should go for it. But it becomes pretty hard to do tight-n-bright, forward-momentum-type radio if you’re going to stop the momentum to talk.

      As far as preferring to hear backstories or trivia than call letters (and positioning statements), I get that too, but reason #1 we talk to you at all is to tell you who we are. And if you’re only going to be with us for a few minutes (nine minutes per visit, if the consultants are right), we aren’t going to waste a chance to tell you. (That’s why you hear so few song-to-song segues anymore, BTW.)

    2. mackdaddyg

      I can dig what you’re saying, but to me, if it’s done well, it’s not an annoyance. I’ve heard some airchecks from decades ago – when the music was, in my opinion, a bit more palatable to talk over – where the dj patter at the beginning of a song was almost a piece of art.

      These days….not so much. The local oldies station switched formats recently to “Throwback Country” – providing this market with three similar sounding Country stations – but before they switched, the two djs they had talked over the beginning and ending of almost every song, and 99% of the time they had nothing to say. One was a very poor man’s Adrian Cronauer, and the other would just say whatever popped in his head, which was usually nonsense. I give them points for trying, but still….

  9. Tim M

    1970, sitting in my car with the radio on the mighty 89, WLS, listening to Joel Sebastian talk up Santanta’s Oye Como Va. Audio orgasm. Perfection. He built that intro/talk-up so well that I actually cheered when he hit the post perfectly. Never forget it. Prided myself in being able to do it fairly well – though never with as much effect and power as Sebastian.

    That consultant who told you no one ever says “boy, that jock did a great talkup” – complete consultant bullshit. If the format allows it, the perfect talk-up and hitting the post are a part of the magic the DJ creates. No one (except us guys/gals) knows the terminology “talkup”, but they understand at a less than conscious level that it’s part of what makes the station exciting to listen to – part of the magic.

    Oh – one other thing – in the 60’s and early 70’s, there was a famous DJ on WAWA-AM, Wauwautosa, WI named “Dr. Bop” who not only talked up the intro to a song, but would often talk over instrumental bridges DURING the song, exclaiming “Yah! Yah! This is a stone GROOVE, man!” or something similar.

    Which also reminds me of what I always considered to be the world’s best IL-legal ID. Again, 70’s, album rocker KQRS-FM Minneapolis. Jock named John Ostroski. Top of the hour ID: “This is O, on Q.”

  10. Al Peterson (the Radio World guy, not the News-Talk guy)

    For me. the best is when a jock hits the post with a gag relevant to the first line of the song.

    I remember hearing Dan Ingram talking up Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Hurt So Bad” with the set-up line, “… c’mon, everybody knows who I am. Hey Linda, do I look familiar to you?” Whereas Ronstadt would replay with the opening lyric to the song, “I Know You….”.

    And yeah, I’ve stolen that and used it many a time myself after that.

    1. mikehagerty

      Rick Dees did something similar with Carly Simon’s “You Belong To Me”…come up with some inane line just in time for Carly to sing “Why’d you tell me this?”

      I’m happy to see I’m not alone in talking up the vocal in the car. Or in rewinding to take another shot at it.

      Fact is, though, that both Tim Moore and JB are right. People have been telling us to shut up and play the music for decades. The talk-up is a production element for stations that want to create a sense of excitement and forward momentum. Which is why it was pretty much limited to Top 40, the old AM Adult Contemporary (pre-“Continuous Soft Hits”), oldies and Country formats (at least after Country became Top 40 with different records).

    2. Shark

      There are certain songs that just BEG for a great talk-up, because of its killer intro. For me, “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck has the best talk-up intro. Conversely, I have mever talked over the into to “Stairway To Heaven.” It’s a song that needs to be left alone for maximum listener enjoyment.

  11. Yah Shure

    Showmanship. That’s what it was all about. The well-executed talk-up was the secret sauce that transformed what would have otherwise been just a passive musical jukebox with commercials into a compellingly-entertaining listening experience. It turned “radio” into RADIO! It was also radio’s way of saying, “if you want to hear the intro, then buy the damn record,” much to the delight of music label nabobs.

    I haven’t been a regular KQRS/Minneapolis listener since the early ’70s, but they recently underwent a change in PDs and have started doing talk-ups, probably for the first time since going album rock in 1968. One recent weekend morning, I tuned in to what sounded more like a weekender in Fergus Falls or Black River Falls feeling his way uncomfortably over a song intro. Instead of RADIO!, it was AWKWARD! Retired longtime PD Dave Hamilton has to be shaking his head in disbelief.

      1. Yah Shure

        Tac has been gone for probably 20 years now, Tim, but I’m sure he’s shaking whatever he can from down below.

        I always appreciated Tac’s ear for English uncharted extras. As MD at KDWB, he added “No Milk Today” as an import in October ’66, until MGM opted for “Dandy” stateside. “Matthew And Son” and “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” likewise found uncharted airtime on Channel 63. Tac continued the tradition when he moved to PD at request/oldies KRSI. I have an aircheck I ran of him on the air there from Labor Day, 1971, playing T. Rex’ “Bang A Gong” months before it dented the Hot 100.

  12. mikehagerty

    Two examples of polar opposite talk-ups:

    Machine Gun Kelly, afternoons on KHJ from 1974-78, used to take a long intro like “Long Train Runnin'” by the Doobie Brothers and cover the entire 40-some seconds with “K-H-J and Machiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine Guuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnn!” and hit the vocal.

    About a week after I heard him do that, I was listening to Marvelous Mark McKay on KFRC, who over the same record, said “KFR” in the first second—let the other 40 or so play and then, just before the vocal, said “C”.

    Both were owned by RKO—I gotta think Mark had heard tape of the Gunner and decided to parody it.

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