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Don’t Touch That Dial: The Rise And Fall Of The DJ

2561934737_eb914fdf59Guest post by Alex May (@AlexmDrums) for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

In my early teens, broadcast radio shaped the way I listened to and discovered music.

Tuning into the local alternative rock station, 97X, became a daily ritual. It would be on in the car both to and from school, and move to my stereo when I got home. Over the years, I got to know the on-air DJs, recognize their voices, and trust their taste. In effect, they acted as a middleman between myself and my favorite bands — a then distant collection of entities.

Hearing an artist over the air created a link between the band and the listener. Although the song wasn’t being played live at the local station, the DJs managed to make the artists seem that much closer, by way of their conversations and inside information. Calling into a station and correctly answering some questions could win you a chance to meet your favorite band.

As the years went by, however, I found myself listening to the radio less and less. I couldn’t find a station that I connected with as much as 97X, and the Internet was slowly becoming a better place to find out about new music and interact with artists. So I registered on social networks and started finding music on my own, because I knew exactly what I wanted. While I was now in complete control, I found the social aspect lacking, and missed the tailored feedback between songs that traditional radio had made its selling point.

While interning at a local classic rock station, I started to realize how much the radio industry differed from the one that I had built up in my mind. My idealism conjured up an image of DJs sorting through thousands of CDs and finding only the best music to play. These select few were lucky enough to have a platform to talk about their passion for music, and could influence what artists were heard on air. What I found instead was a pre-programmed library of top songs that played in a manner that would guarantee the most listeners to advertisers.

Being able to guarantee a certain amount of listeners when “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen is played becomes a selling point to advertisers, and it solidifies that song’s place in a station’s programming for an extended period of time. This particular song must be played so many times within a given period, which eats away the time that could be spent playing other songs. This song is then automatically added to the pre-programmed playlist multiple times, which often makes listeners grow tired of hearing the “new” single every few hours.

To escape this repetitive batch of songs, I turned to Internet radio services like Pandora and Last.FM. Suddenly, I could vote on every single song played, and the station slowly became my own, customized station. I was able to choose what genres of music I wanted to listen to, and could provide instant feedback on the songs that I didn’t enjoy. There was no longer any need to sit through several mediocre songs to hear that one new single that I enjoyed.

What I started to notice, though, is that these custom stations became more personal, but they lacked a personality. A favorite station that played a variety of music slowly turned into just another static blend of familiar songs. The mystery of what’s next is soon replaced with the comfort of knowing all of the similar tunes, and diversity is traded for complete control.

Given that anyone can pick and choose their own music now, traditional radio acts less as a platform for discovery, and more as a form of background music. Without human selection or an intelligent formula to pick what will connect with listeners, there is little reason to tune in other than to fill dead air while doing mundane activities. Stations simply serve as a format that reinforces the popularity of already well-known songs and artists to casual listeners.

To avoid this fate, radio should return some degree of influence to the listener and remind those who have tuned in that the music is being played for them rather than at them. My local station, 97X, is trying this now, following a recent format change. By introducing its “You Control The Music” program, users can vote on the songs being played, sort of like Jelli Radio, a social radio service that allows users to vote on live broadcasts.

This type of listener-driven curation yields real-time results and rewards the exchange of opinions. It offers users a look into the library of a radio station, a previously unseen and mysterious collection. However, what is missing now is the banter between songs that gave traditional radio its character. Updates about noteworthy music news, tour schedules, and local events take away from the communal value that DJs had provided in the past.

The reality is, though, that radio DJs may not be necessary anymore. Technology has provided countless ways for listeners to encounter new music, and automated radio playlists have all but replaced the need for live on-air personalities. Slacker Radio has attempted to combine commentary and curation by staff DJs with the customization afforded by the Internet, but it’s not local enough. So listeners will never feel like they are part of a regional community.

It’s quite possible that user-selection like 97X and Jelli powered stations is where traditional radio is headed, but there must be a careful balance of control given to listeners. Too much listener control, and radio becomes no different than an ordinary music player; too little listener control, and they aren’t convinced that their opinions mean anything. For traditional radio to regain its cultural relevance, the middle ground between listener input and program director moderation must be reached, and nobody seems better suited for the job than the radio DJ.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

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