Not all secrets are because no one should know them except a few select people. No, some secrets are what are, because only people in the business know about them. But if you’re a listener, you may not know what’s up behind the scenes in the radio business.
I “cut my teeth” on community broadcasting and I am a professional podcaster. I have written a guide for audio engineers and recorded many live events. So, maybe, my resume isn’t as impressive as that of talent on big commercial station. But I know a lot about radio.
So, no more dawdling, here you go.
- Silence can destroy a station.
After three seconds of silence, people switch to another station or just turn off the radio. Whoever is still on after a minute of silence is probably asleep in front of the radio or not in the room. Sorry, silence is the worst that can happen.
Listen how music stations build everything on songs being mixed seamlessly and DJs talking until the singer starts. It’s a rule that stands above everything.
- We don’t care about “high fidelity”? Try High-steamrolling-over-the-music
Turn on your favourite dance-music station. Listen what happens when the song features a cymbal or very notable drumbeats. A high energy “peak” of a drum causes a “transient”. This is short burst of sound. On a typical radio station, the drums end up sounding like “kafloof kafloof kafloof” instead of “boom boom boom”. The drumbeat sounds mangled and takes the rest of the sound with it in the abyss when it hits. Next you hear the sound slowly increase until next beat causes it to drop again. This is called “pumping” and is the effect of an overactive AGC or compressor.
WHY we do this? Oh, easy… Because we can get a higher average sound level. You don’t want to be that one station that sounds low when your turn the dial. Also, listeners often have the station on in noisy environments, like the car or a missile testing facility.
Someone joked and said, “compress everything until it becomes a square wave” and you’ll be fine. Sure, but the listener wont. Actually, never mind, listeners don’t care, because…
- Listeners don’t
Listeners DO NOT listen. The radio is on in the background. So, a DJ is generally able to make minor mistakes without consequences. Just as long as there is no silence (see point 1).
- We speak briefly
I once concluded that you have 30 seconds to get peoples’ attention and 3 minutes to complete your monologue. I was horribly wrong. I got that from listening to Swedish Radio program 1, NPR and BBC. But they are not representative for music entertainment in radio.
If you play music, you have 20 seconds. At 30, people start wondering if you’re going to stop soon. At 40 seconds, they turn off the radio. If you have a show, and talk about the song, you can keep people listening for up to 60 seconds. But this is because it’s show and not the regular station. But then, those 60 seconds must be worth it, and the listener must have their mind set on hearing a story.
Otherwise, 20 seconds is right.
- We must have only one thought in our head
“That was Banana boat by the legendary artist Jogeir Liljedahl. I was out yesterday, and snow has come to Sweden. It’s welcome”.
Here I just back announced (as it’s called when you say it after the song ends) the song and made a short observation. This takes up 8 seconds and then it’s a followed by a new song.
What I didn’t say was maybe that people are falling and hurting themselves, because they haven’t put sand on the walkways. That can be ok, but at this time, you must cut to music.
It is easy to miss this and continue way past the “allotted” time.
- “That was Banana boat by the legendary artist Jogeir Liljedahl. I was out yesterday, and snow has come to Sweden. It’s welcome, but I heard on the radio the other day that the major has promised sand, but it’s still not there. Maybe they should ask Tunisia for some sand. They have plenty of it. I wonder how much of Tunisia’s land that have farms. Which reminds me of….”
Stop! This took 22 seconds and should have ended after “They have plenty of it”.
Podcasts don’t adhere so much to this. But if you’re doing a podcast with yourself and someone else, here is a hot tip: try to keep every speech you do below 30 seconds or if you need the time, 45 seconds. This will speed up the tempo and make the discussion fluid.
I don’t rigidly adhere to the rules, but you must read the situation and think what the listeners expect from you.
- Radio is no fun if you like getting a good pay and job safety
Radio jocks are easy to find and to drop. They live by their listener ratings and the get fired by failing to bring in the moolah. I wanted to be in the media business when I completed my studies, but it was tough market to get into. My mother, who is a TV-producer warned me. She pointed out that it a very nasty work place, where you would be passé when you grew older. I heeded her words. So, I become an IT-consultant and had radio as a hobby. In 1995 I started broadcasting for Radio Sydväst, a community station. I logged thousands of hours during those 11 years. We had holiday shows 24 hours a day occasionally. So, I have broadcast from midnight till 06:00 many more times than was probably healthy for me. So, I got the experience and the fun sans the high risk of being fired. Also, we didn’t have busloads listeners. But still.
I’m sorry, radio and media exploit their talents a lot of the time. Remember that a Radio DJ is the lowest rung of the artist ladder to brief stardom. I never did radio to become a celebrity (that would have been stupid). I did it for the passion of technology and as a challenge to become better at teaching and holding lectures.
- We record religiously
If you’ve seen radio stations in movies and animated shows, there is always a big tape recorder moving slowly behind the DJ. This is reference tape recorder. Audio quality is bad, but it records everything that is broadcast. If you’re on the air, someone is liable for everything you say. All broadcasters here in Sweden have a responsible person that get shot is someone says something that is not protected by our “free speech” statures. Just kidding, we don’t have capital punishment. They get a “slap on the wrist” and have to write 100 times “I should not have let that happen” on a black board. You seen the Simpson, so you know it’s true.
Today it’s no problem. Any old beat-up laptop can be used to records for days, months and years. Just check that it hasn’t blue screened every now and then.
- DJs today have it easy, back in my days…
Old man rambling-warning. When I setup my station in 2020, I was amazed how easy it was. Voice tracking could be done effortlessly, and live broadcasting equipment was dirt cheap. I remember how we lamented having no budget for a multiband-compressor and just how everything would be a dream if we ever – gasp – got an Aphex Aural exciter. We wanted to excite your ears, and all we had was a crummy JBL mike-compressor. We later got a good multiband compressor for $3500. That would today be around $6100. WOW!
I bought Thimeo Stereo Tool for $500 in 2021. It has all those features and much more. The free version of it would itself have upgraded our sound like you wouldn’t believe.
- We’re still stuck in the era of vinyl
Mentally, that is. As in, we don’t use vinyl records, but we still think a song should be 3-4 minutes and we still use the “record crate”-analogy.
I’ve written this in an earlier post, but the “top of the hour” resets the station. A program that runs for two hours is built on two 60-minute clocks. We slot the music into slots throughout the hour. When I tested SAM Broadcaster, my first question was “where is the clock function”?
I later choose PlayIT Live that had such functionality. The little slots/slivers used to be assigned to real record crates maybe marked “A”, “B”, “C”. This meant that the first song may come from crate A, that held all the most popular songs right now. And next slot was “B”, which may have been a month-old song still popular. And so on…
The DJ took out a record from the front of the crate, played it and put it in the back of the box. Therefore, music play sometimes is known as “rotation”. Some songs that were super-hot, got to the “Power play”. We simply played them more often. But it sounds cooler to call it that.
Weirdest thing I ever put in “Power play”? Easy, “Hier kommt die maus”.
- We lament the old days
Operating a station with cart machines, CD-players, Vinyl ditto and open reel. That was the challenge. Voice tracking is just talk, click, listen, talk, click… 45 minutes gives you days of broadcast if you’re just covering one day part.
Back in the days, you had to be ready for records that got stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck – Sce-ratch!. We had to handle cutting tape with a shaving blade and then taping it together.
I’m just going to end this by saying: “Radio was great and is great – now get off my lawn!”.