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Walking home last night listening to the Supreme’s “When Will I See You Again” (one of my all-time favorite songs), I was DJ’ing in my head. Back in the day as a top 40 AM radio DJ, I had a lot of fun intro’ing a song like this. Listeners were probably oblivious, but there were skills involved in being an AM jock…and I wonder if they’re a lost art.
What am I talking about? Well, this may only be of interest to a cadre of middle-aged ex-DJs like myself, but I’ll tell you anyway. In a top 40 pop/rock format, you’d typically be wrapping up a weather report, PSA or something like that as an announcer, and start the next song while you were still talking. In a song like “When Will I See You”, there’s what we called a “post” (two actually)….about 12 seconds of musical intro in, the Supremes go “Who-hoo, Wha-ha”, and then there’s about 3 seconds of music before the next post…a little drum riff kicking of Diana Ross singing the first verse. So, with the music underneath, you time your spiel to end/pause right before the first “post”…this we called “hitting the post”. Since there was another musical interlude before the final post, you could jump in and say something like “Diana Ross, on WWWW”, and then the drum would hit right then.
Some songs didn’t really have musical posts in the intro, the vocal would just start some amount of time in…so you’d backtime your rap to end precisely one beat before the vocal. This, you may have guessed…was called “hitting the vocal”.
Hitting posts and vocals required song knowledge and feel for the music, as well as the ability to match your talking to the music seamlessly. It’s not easy…and you didn’t do it on every song. Pulling it off was always very satisfying – but talking over the vocal “stepping on the vocal”, was a cardinal sin. Ruin your whole day/shift. Of course, didn’t happen to me very often.
Other little radio DJ tricks from the AM Radio era: Of course, we were spinning records…literally…on turntables. 45 RPMs started quite quickly, but if you needed total precision on a song start, you’d cue the record to the precise spot where the music started, and then spin the turntable while holding the record in place…quickly lift your hand when you wanted the music, and it would start cold/instantly. With 33 RPMs it was more difficult, as those took a while to get up to speed and you could have the music sound warped if that happened on air. So in this case, you’d do the same cueing as with the 45 RPM, only you’d have to actually give the turntable a little manual boost to quickly get up to speed when you needed it.
At a big market station, the DJ would often have an operator doing a lot of this stuff on the other side of the glass from the announce booth, but in my little proverbial 5000 watt station situation, I was doing the announcing and operating myself, live. Probably the only time I got good at any kind of eye/hand coordination.
Other thing I remember from those early, super-fun career days was “prod”. Before/after your on-air shift, I’d often have to produce/announce commercials or promos. This often involved taking songs and editing snippets together. Back then, that meant splicing – physically cutting tape at the precise points desired, and connecting using a special kind of sticky tape designed for that purpose (it had white backing so you could see where your splices were).
I fully realize that this all is pretty arcane and probably not interesting to anyone under the age of 40…or perhaps even those over who just thought of radio as something you listened to, not something you “did”. But it was such a great job, and so much fun, it’s cathartic for me to write it down….and wonder if somewhere these lost arts still survive? Of course it doesn’t really matter – except to me.