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 Styles change, best practices change, listener expectations change, and the boss jock style of bygone days no longer represents the ideal.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.