Who’s Flying This Plane?

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.

16 responses

  1. During my radio career, I worked at a station where “Studio C” was located directly between the the rooms of the two stations’ studios. So, fortunately, most of the breaks I needed to take could be finished well within 3 minutes. Since I don’t smoke, that wasn’t an issue.

    However, whenever I had to take a…er, longer break in Studio C, I had a few longer songs on cart that I could just sequence together in case the extra time was needed. Since I worked the overnight shift and was the only soul in the building, I had no option of just asking somebody to cover for a moment.

  2. “Take Me To the Pilot” from Elton John…excellent song! I still have a copy of that 1970 album with “Your Song,” “The Cage,” “Border Song,” and “The King Must Die,” although it’s not in very good shape.
    It’s only fitting that you linked an Elton John with your post. The longest song I’ve ever played on the radio was an Elton john song. Long ago, I played Elton John’s live version of “Burn Down The Mission” which included “My Baby Left Me” and his version of the Beatles’ “Get Back.” It totaled 18:20. The longest song I’ve ever played on a radio station that paid me to do so was “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic…12:10 of pure Steve Winwood mastery.

  3. Ah yes… Traffic. There was always the long version of “Miracles” by Jefferson Starship and “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, both just short of 8 minutes.

    There was a rock station I worked at where you had to physically leave the station’s “suite” and transverse a long hallway to get to the bathroom. Thankfully, being an AOR format, we had plenty of long songs to work with.

  4. Album version of Green-Eyed Lady from Sugarloaf. For a few months, it allowed me to maintain a long-distance relationship (courtest of the station’s phone line) with my lady-friend 1200 miles away. And, there was always the entire “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” from CSNY.

    Back then, we were still actually spinning records on Gates turntables.

  5. There were more dead-VU meter moments than I care to remember when a country station remodeled the restrooms outside the basement AM studios. I swear they hired a contractor who worked maybe once every week on the re-do. For several months, Plan B entailed zooming down the hall, zipping up the long stairway, then dodging office and FM personnel on the long dash to the far end of the building. The clock was tight and popping “El Paso” on was not an option. I guess I should be thankful that those actual mistimed bathroom treks don’t come up in the regular “dead air dreams” rotation, while the one that does — two-turntables-and-only-one-working-cartridge-between-them — never happened in real life.

    Doing oldies morning drive was also a challenge, with so few available three-plus-minute songs. I suppose I could have thrown “Layla” on in a pinch, but at seven A.M on an oldies station, you might just as well crack the mic and announce to the world that you’ve got an appointment with Mr. Whipple. As I look back on it now, the thought of breaking format never even occurred to me, in spite of wearing the PD hat at the time. Once that notion of the music logs being sacrosanct is Etch-A-Sketched into the brain, it stays there forever. For me, anyway.

    1. The recurring “dead air dream.” Does everybody in radio have that one? Mine usually involves either not being able to find records to play, or the only records I can find are too short. I had it even during the nine years I didn’t do a DJ show. As best I can figure out, I have it whenever I’m confronting a new situation of some sort. The writer’s equivalent is a lot like the one where you have a final exam in a class you’ve forgotten to attend—it’s deadline day and you haven’t written anything. Fortunately, in both dreams, I am usually wearing pants. But we’ll see what happens tonight.

      I wonder what sort of recurring, job-related dreams people in other professions have.

  6. @jb: I’ve been out of radio for over eighteen years, and have never had any dreams revolve around my subsequent profession (or the wearing of pants, for that matter.) But the “dead air dreams” just keep on comin’!!

    Unlike radio people, many folks seem to fear speaking in public more than anything else, so “dead air dreams” just might be in the human blueprints.

  7. The dead-air dream! Oh, yes, and in many different fashions. One recurring one is, during the first half of my career, as a DJ, is a variation on being somewhere else in the building – a production studio, the bullpen, the bathroom, etc. – and I know I have to get back into the air studio because the song is ending, and the hallway keeps stretching out farther and farther and farther…it’s obvious I’m not going to make it before the song ends. I think the shrinks call this a “frustration dream”. The other is during the second half of my career, as a news anchor, that the jock has “potted up” the news channel after hitting the long (20 sec.) news intro cart/file, and then goes out of the studio to take a break…the news sounder ends, and I crack the news mike….and discover the jock has actually forgotten to pot up the news studio….and I’m torn between running over to the on-air studio and doing it myself, and then running back to the news studio….with the attendant dead air in between…..and yelling so loud in the news room that somebody in the hallway will see what’s going on, find the jock, and have him pot the newsrom up. I’m frozen in a “logic loop” trying to decide which option is best, while the unmodulated carrier goes on and on and on and on….another “frustration dream”.

    Haven’t been inside a radio studio in over two years, but I still get these dreams, mainly when I’m up against deadline on a writing project or a news story that’s just not coming together.

  8. I did a little bit of DJing in college and when I had to use the bathroom I’d usually queue up longer songs… I know I used Chicago’s Liberation and the Sons of Champlin’s Freedom (both clocking in at just under 15 minutes) if I felt I’d be awhile.

  9. I’ve only DJ’d twice in my life, both in college, so I’ve never had the dead air dream.
    I get the exam-for-an-unfamiliar-class dream all the freakin’ time, though.

    1. I’ve been out of college nearly 12 years and I still get that exam for an unfamiliar class dream from time to time. Not as much as I used to have that dream though.

  10. I’ve had the newspaper reporting version of that dream several times: I’m close to deadline for an important story. In one version, I settle at the computer and open my notebook to find either blank pages or notes written in a lanuage I cannot read. In another version, I’m back in the typewriter days: I get the story written, and then find that the pages I’ve pulled from my typewriter are all blank.

  11. Oh, the dead-air dream. Had those two nights in a row last week. It usually happens if I wait too long to piece my show together for the week. What have I encountered in these dreams? The CD players being ten feet away from the mic, the announcer on the cart barely speaking above a whisper, the CD either being too big for the tray or having the transparency and floppiness of a 5″ contact lens…I’ve run the gamut.

    But the kicker happened a few years ago when my day job and volunteer-DJ career collided in my sleep: I’m in the lobby, about 5 minutes before I’m scheduled to go on, when a couple walks through the front door with a few bags of books they’d like to sell. I took a vacation from both duties not long after.

    The one waking-life close call I had took place about 10 years ago when I was filling in for our midday host (also our PD at the time). I was in the comfort room, whose door had recently been painted, and the door was locked by a hook-and-eyelet latch (our station’s in an old house willed to us by a member). The latch had also been painted with a rather thick layer, and the hook got stuck in the eyelet. With about 2 minutes left in the song, I busted the door open and ran back to the studio, letting someone know en route that the bathroom door latch needed to be replaced, and could they possibly not paint it this time. (I believe the song was from Beth Orton’s Central Reservation, but I can’t recall which one.)

  12. Ahhh, the dead air dreams. Still have them after all these years. No music to be found any where. But the one I had recently involved no microphone in the control room. Looked everywhere, none to be found. THAT was weird

  13. […] middle of the 1970s and discussed the importance of the top of the hour. We considered the changes in the way your favorite radio station delivers programming to you and how country music is different from what it used to […]

  14. Inna Gadda Da Vida – 17 minute long version – was my college radio oldies show bathroom break song (or Springsteen’s Jungleland during a regular air shift). I actually once left the studio in my car during Inna Gadda (to pick up a girl who wanted to “visit me” at the studio) so naturally that’s the only time in dozens of playings that the album decided to stick.

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