Radio Disc Jockey: Long Hairs Need Apply

So, you think radio was always the way it is today?

rich schlitzLet’s see, today, many “announcers” go into the studio, record all of their vocal breaks, and leave for the day. Oh, they might make a public appearance here or there, and cut a commercial or two, but in reality, radio has gone downhill over the years. I’ll go into more detail why I believe so in a few minutes.

Most radio disc jockeys in the 1970’s started at small market radio stations. These were stations where you honed your vocal skills, perfected your timing, and learned how to operate a control board. There were even mixed format stations that tried their best to reach all different audiences at specific times of the day. These were the challenges that faced anyone that wanted to “get into radio” back in the day.

Take, for instance, a station I paid my dues at. In the morning, it was a mix of local news, national news, and religious programming. It made a change to “Classic Standards” (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc.) at 9 a.m. Then, at 12 noon, there was an hour of “Checkerboard Time”, which was old Sons of the Pioneers and the Chuckwagon Gang singing, interrupted by farm news and grain reports. At 1 p.m., it was time for two hours of Country Music, followed by an hour and a half of Pop Hits, followed by an hour of “Bruce, the King Of Soul”, and finishing out the day was Pop/Rock. Versatile, to say the least.

One had to be a Jack of all trades to do the job. You had five minutes of state news to read before the top of the hour and five minutes of national news to read after the top of the hour station I.D. Of course, you had to have all your commercials either in the cart machine, or sitting in order next to it, and your music out of the news had to be cued up to start when the news was finished.

There were public service announcements that had to be read, birthdays that had to be announced and celebrated, and commercials that had to be written and recorded. The phones rang incessantly, the sister FM station, which was generally automated, needed reel to reel tapes changed, news had to be ripped off the teletypes and rewritten for broadcast, and you had to be witty on the air or you’d lose your audience.

Of course, some of that changed when you hit the larger markets. You still had to pick out some of your music, even though the Currents and rich soundboardRecurrents were in a box beside you for easy access and heavy play rotation. You were now in a market that was in the ratings book, so you really had to be aware of your audience and what amused them to simply hit your numbers and keep your job. The news was usually recorded by a true station newsperson, and the commercials were written by a production staff (which usually meant you had to fit 90 seconds worth of copy into a 60 second spot).

Pay was never good. Oh, you could survive, but the days of Howard Stern and other greats were yet to come. The real perks, for the single guy, came in the form of disc jockey groupies. No matter where you went, if you looked halfway cool, you left with a great looking partner.

There were times this was dangerous, though. One could find themselves invited to a party that turned out to be an orgy, or arrive to find Godzilla awaiting. Many of us used to tell our phone date people to meet us at such and such bus stop, and we’d pick them up in a fancy car we’d make up. We’d then drive by, see what was waiting there, and most of the time, quickly drive away in our Chevy Vega Woody Station Wagon! (I know, how callous and shallow of us! Still, you didn’t see the Godzilla we did!)

As Clear Channel and other groups bought out independent stations and made them all sound the same, many of us left the announcing industry. Luckily, I found my way into stand-up comedy. Others weren’t so lucky. I know of several that are M.C.’s at strip clubs. (I understand the perks are still quite good, though!)

The satellite radio industry still has its star announcers, as do some local stations, especially with a live morning crew. Otherwise, radio has become monotonous as the jocks are saying the same things, stations are playing the same music, and the music industry has gone in quality decline.

Wolfman JackWolfman Jack’s portrayal of a station disc jockey in the classic film “American Graffiti” is a good example of small town radio. At night, one could stretch the limits and play music not allowed in prime time. One could express opinions somewhat, as long as they didn’t conflict greatly with station policy. And, one could sit back in the silence and envision a day when they would be the master of the airwaves.

For most, the vision was only a dream.

Still, I cherish those memories. I remember having to go on a remote at a grocery store and talk for 15 minutes an hour about the world’s largest piece of cheese on tour there. (It’s the only time I could say “cut the cheese” on the air and get away with it!) I remember interviewing many rock stars that were making a comeback and hitting every little concert hall they could to revive their fame. I remember standing in front of the glass window as another jock was reading the news and doing my best to make him laugh during it. And, I remember getting ticked off at our station manager, cussing my ass off as I got up to go to another room to reset the reel to reel automation system, and looking up to see the “On Air” light still on as I left the broadcast booth. (Yeah, that one got me in trouble.)

I met my wife while I was in radio. In fact, let me introduce you to Godzilla I.

Yes honey, I was just joking. Now, go soak your tail to keep from getting all scaly!

About the Author:

Having grown up during the 50′s & 60′s, Rich was a personal witness to the confusion of the times. His love of music drew him into the conflicts of the day as he protested many of the atrocities in civil rights and an overseas war. Ironically, military service, during the final days of the Vietnam Conflict, ended a music career in a successful band. However, his love of music held true as he later chose a career as a radio announcer over law school. Here, along with being able to play the music he cherished, he interviewed many top music acts. This allowed him to gain much knowledge of the recording industry and the psyche of music artists in rock, jazz and R&B. Later, his love of performing transformed him into a career in stand-up comedy. Twenty years later, his love for music continues. Quote: “Being born in 1954, Rock ‘N Roll and I have grown up together. I wouldn’t have had it any other way!”

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2 comments

  1. I, myself started in radio in 1970, first as a DJ for a small (SMALL) Daytimer, where in the summer, we could stay on until around 9 P.M. and in the winter it was sign-off at 4:30 P.M.; the rest of the shift was spent DJ’ng on the FM which had the same programming as the AM? In those days, this could be done and it was the norm!
    I worked weekends at first until I got used to being on the air, then they had me working 6 P.M.-Midnite. I tried working at an even smaller station as I wanted to live in it’s city of license; here one had to wind commercials, PSA’s, promos, and jingles individually on the one reel-to-reel playback/record machine, no cart machine!! So the time for one event to rewind on the reel-to-reel and loading/cueing the next event for playback had to be filled in on the air by giving a weather forecast, or a story of interest off the newswire? The cue circuit went thru the headphones so the only way to cue up a tape was to have them on, in which case you couldn’t hear what else was going on; sometimes I remember wishing I had more hands and arms to do all of this! Only music that was less than 3 minutes long could be aired or you were in trouble with the management? By the way, they paid for a 12-hour shift at the end of each day in cash, I am sure for tax-dodging purposes and the fact that no one I ever knew of lasted more than one week working in this manner; I lasted three days, I think, before I walked out in anger and disgust!!! Thank goodness stations like this and the people who owned them are a thing of the past!

    • Chuck – Thanks for writing in. The sunrise / sunset stations were standards for sure, and simulcasting was fairly common. I was lucky enough to have never worked for one, though. There were many nightmares like yours that tended to precede them, for sure. When I started, I got my beginning at two different stations on a college campus. The reel to reel decks were generally just used for special programs that were mailed in weekly. Later, my first “real” job outside of college radio was when a major heard me and hired me to do their late night shift, moving me soon to 7-midnight. I moved to the South (to escape the snow of the North), and found myself in a small market station. That was where the reel to reel automation system was at. It was also a very frustrating time for someone that had come from a large market and had to deal with the small market mentality. Luckily, it was only for a short period of time before I got back into a larger market. Many Thanks!

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