Back in the day, every element you heard on the radio—every record, every jingle, every commercial—was a discrete recording. Those recordings might be on different formats—records, CDs, tape cartridges, or reels of tape—but each one was a separate piece, stitched together into a coherent whole, at first by a live human being, and later by automation systems. But even an automation system required human intervention: reels of tape would run out, commercials would need updating, tape cartridges would fail and be eaten by the machinery. Somebody had to keep an eye on it. Today it’s different. Almost everything you hear on the air at your favorite station is an electronic file of some sort, an mp3 or a .wav file. Because the mechanical has been eliminated—no tapes anymore to change or break—automation systems can run longer without human care and feeding. Theoretically, they could run forever, as long as the electricity stayed on.
Even when a jock is doing a live shift, a station’s automation system typically carries much of the load. Systems can be operated manually, with the jock firing each element as in days of yore. (Some stations prefer that their jocks do it this way.) More often than not, however, the automation runs the show, dropping in the jingles and handling the segues. When the jock talks, he either steps into the running stream or signals the automation to stop briefly so he can do his bit. Then he hits a button and the automation takes over again.
The ability of automation to do it all has eliminated one of the greater challenges jocks used to face: What happens if you need to leave the studio for a while? The great New York city jock Dan Ingram once said that the key to greatness in radio is whether you can go to the bathroom in three minutes or less. Many of us never trusted ourselves to be quite that quick. Every jock who remembers playing records on the radio has stories about playing a long record to get something done.
When I was a little baby DJ at KDTH over 30 years ago, part of my job involved tending the automation for D93, the FM station next door, recording the weather forecast, changing tape reels, that sort of thing. The first couple of weekends, until I got used to the routine, I would stack up every five-minute record I could find in the KDTH studio at the beginning of my show so that I would have plenty of time to do what was needed next door when I needed to do it.
A colleague of mine had just settled in for a six-hour shift one day when realized he was out of cigarettes. So he cued up a live version of the Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides,” which clocked in at 20 minutes, and went down the street to pick up a pack. A college friend once put on a similarly long record and went out for a smoke during an overnight shift, but found he had locked himself out of the building. He didn’t panic because he figured he had 20 minutes to find either a custodian or a security guard to let him back in. Alas, it took 30. Talk-show host Larry King tells a colorful story about leaving the building during a shift and driving somewhere, only to hear the record stick as he was listening in his car. And it wasn’t just records that could mess you up. The Mrs. remembers taking a bathroom break while engineering a Cubs broadcast, only to listen helplessly on the restroom monitor as the Cubs went down on three pitches in the shortest half-inning ever.
Today, of course, you can put the station in autopilot (even a sports broadcast) and do what you must for as long as it takes, limited only by when you need to talk. And even that can be automated in a pinch.
I am sure that some of the current and former jocks amongst the readership have their own stories along these lines. In fact, I’m counting on it.