The death of the disc jockey
Some people wanted to become doctors. Others chose law school. A few liked the security that came with a job right out of high school, one that provided the steady employment, solid pay and great benefits that could be found at one of my hometown's factories, like Kohler or Plastics Engineering.
Me? I wanted to be a disc jockey. No pulling kids from burning houses. No curing cancer. Me? I wanted to sit on my fat, pasty can and play the hits. Radio was my fascination as kid and I was able to give it a try at my high school's ten-watt station, my spring board to a part time job at Sheboygan's WHBL. I'd been a caddie and a grocery store stock boy before my first turn a the mike, so I knew what real work felt like. Radio never felt like a job. I was lucky to have opportunities, great co-workers who were willing to teach and bosses who wanted to nurture.
Others, it seems may not be so lucky.
A columnist in one of our industry's trade magazines wonders if the disc jockey is dead: by definition, someone who hosts a music-intensive radio show. The debate raged for decades--how many times hasn't a program director told an air talent, "Less chatter, more platter"? How many national consultants made young fortunes preaching the simple, time-honored mantra, "Shut up and play the hits." Trying to strike the perfect balance is a tough act and it seems the industry trend most recently is that you can't go wrong with less talk, which makes music radio the equivalent of listening to someone else's IPad.
RadioInfo publisher Michael Harrison is among those quoted in the column. "By assuming that any verbal component of the musical presentation in radio is an automatic 'interruption', programmers are throwing the baby out with the bath water, he says. "PD's are so fixated on eliminating what they perceive to be the 'tune-out' factor that they have taken their attention away from their primary task--and that is to create compelling 'tune-in' factors. It is a huge mistake that sells the potential of this art form short to think that music alone--no matter how popular--can cut it." Plus, disc jockeys are people and people cost money--they want to be paid, they need benefits. Radio is a business and business has learned, more so in recent yearse, how to run things on the cheap.
Morning radio is a different beast, a different animal that the listener has certain expectations of. What happens after that is what is changing in my beloved industry, hopefully not at the expense of the host, better known as the disc jockey. It's a skill to hold a listener between songs and commercials, but it's also an opportunity to tie the audience to the community and the world. Radio is a "warm" medium, and warmth is hard to come by when a station becomes little more than a juke-box with commercials.
Selfishly, I hope the disc jockey never dies---it's how I got my start in the business. Major entertainers first got their feet wet in radio--Dick Van Dyke, for one--and anyone on radio today will have a story about their first break in the business, usually a story involving a small town, a bad shift, little pay, no listeners and sketchy working conditions. Those who stayed were those who truly loved the business. It's radio's minor league system, and it's where the stars of tomorrow are cultivated. It would be sad to see that go away, for both the business and the audience.
My quest for stardom as a big city disc jockey pretty much died in college. Colleagues at our campus radio station steered me toward news and that would be my portal to my first full time job. I wasn't going to be the next Larry Lujack, knocking down big money at a powerful Chicago radio station, playing the hits and crackin' wise. But I could dream, couldn't I?
I hope our industry lets others have that chance, too.