For years, radio stations were not just a source of music, they were a rich source of information about music and the artists that create it. Today the knowledgeable DJ has all but disappeared along with the critical immediacy of live broadcasting.
In the late 60’s and 70’s it was common for radio disc jockeys to be very well informed about the music they played. With the rise of the AOR (album oriented rock) stations, DJ’s often took a minute or two before or after each song to provide some context for the song. They would include things such as: who the songwriter was, who the musicians were, or what album the song was on. Listeners could expect to learn plenty of interesting things about their favorite bands and artists.
This has changed drastically with the dawn of internet radio and the increasing consolidation of terrestrial radio under mega corporations that own huge blocks of stations across the country. Gone are the days of colorful introductions and conversation about the artists and their art. Online radio stations like Pandora and Slacker Radio now offer endless streams of commercial free music. The radio “personality” is nowhere to be found. The user can tailor the streams to their tastes insuring that a favorite artist is played quite often or a not so favorite artist is banned altogether. This was a great step forward because the annoying commercials are gone, but it has also taken away one of the pleasures of listening to the radio: the knowledgeable DJ.
A good disc jockey would choose their own songs, build their own shows, take requests, and create themed segments of music. It was something they took great pride in, and the resulting “shows” were often as artistic as the music themselves. Nuances like the way one song segued into another, the time of day, the season, the weather, current happenings in the news or the local community; these were all things that went into a great radio show.
Now we can customize our internet radio shows to our hearts content, hearing only what we want to hear. If we want to be informed, we can look it up on the Internet. The radio application also provides that information to the listener by way of text information or web-links for more information about the artist and song. The Internet being what it is of course means instant information overload. Besides, if you are driving or otherwise preoccupied, you can’t very well be looking things up on the Internet.
I recently went looking for an online radio station that featured a real live DJ’s with personality and knowledge and was really disappointed to find almost nothing. There are some good syndicated shows like the ambient classic “Hearts of Space” or several Jazz showcases, mostly on community or NPR stations. There is “Radio Paradise” too, which is a fun internet radio experience that features hand-picked playlists and the occasional commentary of a “real” DJ. It is important to note that neither of these are live broadcasts.
This is not about being too nostalgic for the older days of rock radio. We should embrace the new technologies and promote these exciting new music radio sites. The solution seems to be really simple: provide the users with an option to turn the DJ on or off. There have got to be plenty of educated and passionate DJ’s out there who would love the chance to get back to work bringing great musical experiences to appreciative listeners.
It will happen. Radio is a medium that is not going away anytime soon. It has been with us for over 70 years and it continues to evolve. Listening to audio, whether it be talk, music, or a combination is something that can be done while doing other things. You can walk the dog, drive the car, cut the grass, clean the house, stain the deck, fire up the barbecue, you name it, it can be done if while listening to the radio. It doesn’t really matter if the programming comes from the Internet or over a traditional radio receiver; the basic experience is the same.
The Case for Live Radio
There is another, perhaps more important argument to be made in favor of live DJ’s. It rests in the word “live”. Today, radio stations and cell phone service providers are at odds. Radio stations want the FCC to mandate that all cell phones include FM radio receivers. The stations want to take advantage of the huge cell phone market and compete with online radio stations. They point out that FM radio on a cell phone would be an important public service. The argument is that since FM radio is transmitted live, listeners could be informed instantly in case of a public emergency.
The cell phone providers refuse to cooperate because they say the receivers would use too much battery power and make their devices to bulky. The truth is that many cell phones already have FM receivers built in. For example, in the case of the iPhone, the FM receiver exists but the feature is disabled at the request of AT&T who wants to sell online radio services because they use data – something that AT&T can charge for.
Anyone who has been listening to internet radio during a severe storm in the Midwest knows that it is better to be listening to a “live” station than an oblivious internet radio station. If there is a tornado warning, you’re going to appreciate it if somebody broke in during “Stairway to Heaven” and gave you a heads up.
All in all, we can be optimistic about the future of radio. It has served us well over the years as a source of information and entertainment. To take the originality, spontaneity and critical immediacy out of the radio is to miss the entire point of the technology. We’re smarter than that.