Spinning the Tunes

Today we’re going to put mental illnesses and checklists and politics and everything else off to the side and talk about one of my hobbies. Today we’re going to discuss internet radio.

Let me back up to my late teens and early 20s – for a few months, I was the midnight DJ for a terrestrial FM radio station during its format change from adult contemporary to oldies, one of the first radio stations in the state to make that change and the first station in the market to switch to an all-digital format (meaning songs were sourced from CDs and not vinyl or cassette – today digital means MP3s, a technology that wouldn’t be public for another six years and wouldn’t become popular for another eight to ten). Playing oldies really had an effect on me, and I loved playing songs that I wasn’t very familiar with. I knew a lot of the songs, but didn’t know many of the stories behind them, and so I peppered my talk breaks with bits of trivia since the vast majority of the station’s oldies library consisted of songs that were on the charts before I was born. I left that job when our new program director made the decision to dismiss the entire on-air staff in favor of bringing in everyone he had worked with at his previous station in St. Louis. So I learned very quickly that despite doing a great job, you could lose your job in the industry at the whim of one individual, and I never pursued being a DJ as a career.

I also briefly volunteered for the local public access radio station – their format was classical, which I knew very little about at that time in my life, and so I didn’t last long there through mutual decision.

Fast forward to 2008, when I was introduced to an internet-only radio station created to play music and host events for one specific computer game. I joined the community and was very eager to want to help out, but given all the things that the online DJs had to do – program their own music, something I never had to do before; monitor chat rooms; keep conversation alive in game – I didn’t think that I would ever have it in me to become one of their DJs. Early in 2010 the station introduced a support staff mechanism for the DJs that helped run events, write commercials (since no money ever changes hands for this station, the commercials that we write are for fake products and services based around the games we support; most of them are quite humorous in nature), and occasionally do voiceover work on new audio production. My wife and I were among the first ones to join the new support staff, and a little less than a year later, we were given auditions and promoted to DJ status. We’ve been with the station for most of the time since, although we did take a year off while we were living in a friend’s spare bedroom while we got back on our feet after a very rough 2012.

I’m on the air twice a week, once on Thursdays on my own and once on Saturdays with my wife. (She programs the Saturday show so for all intents and purposes it’s her show, I just provide color commentary during the talk breaks.) My show on Thursdays has an exceptionally limited format – I only play members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This allows me to play a lot of music that I was playing on the FM station while peppering more recent songs in the playlist.

Setting up the show is a fairly simple concept, but it does require attention to detail. The first thing I do is go to a website that lists events that took place on today’s date on the calendar throughout rock history, copy that data into Microsoft Word, and edit out the items that deal with non-Hall of Famers. I print that and set it aside for my talk break at the top of the third hour of my show.

When it comes time to program the show, I start up the broadcast software and program it to fill my playlist with 20 starter songs. I then will go through and edit certain songs out (I have a Beatles segment in every show, so I delete any Beatles songs that are programmed by the software; in addition, I have some collections that include solo material from an artist that’s in the Hall of Fame as part of a group but not as a solo artist, and so I edit out the solo material.) Once I have my first 2o songs in the playlist, I start adding in things like commercials and talk breaks and station IDs. As necessary, I ask the software to randomly add new songs to the list, as those first 20 will only get me about halfway through my show. Unless I’ve previously received a request for a song, I let the software program the show. I do talk breaks at the :00, :20, and :40 minute marks of each hour, and sometimes I need to move songs around to make for evenly spaced musical sets, but other than that, I let the songs play in the order that the software programmed it. That means that I might have a set with Michael Jackson, Metallica, Johnny Cash, the Ramones, and Simon and Garfunkel, so my listeners are used to what we like to call “audio whiplash.”

When it gets close to time to start the show, I sign into the two online interfaces that I use to interact with my audience and usually promote the show on Facebook. And then I wait for the top of the hour and the handoff, a procedure that DJs use to make sure that the music stream goes seamlessly from one DJ to the next. And then I’m on the air!

I really love doing this show, since it hearkens back to my radio roots and allows me to play songs that my listeners, who tend to be younger than I am, might not have ever heard before. I enjoy introducing my listeners to new music – or at least, new-to-them music. Having the software choose the music for me allows for a more random selection of songs and usually results in several deep tracks from artists that didn’t ever get much airplay.

When the Hall of Fame adds a new class, as they’re about to do in April, I do a special show featuring the new class and telling a bit about each artist’s history, and then those artists join the rotation for future shows. It means I’m only adding a small handful of new artists per year, but that seems to have worked well for the past two years.

I really enjoy being a DJ, and I hope that I get to continue doing this for years to come.

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