The State of the Disc Jockey

| January 28, 2013

A Five-Part RadioInfo Special Feature

Part One:  Personality Radio is “Dying” – But Still Gets Solid Ratings

By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent

NEW YORK — There was a time when people in the 1950s and 1960s would huddle next to their radio and  listen to WJW-AM in Cleveland or WINS-AM in New York City to hear Albert James Freed, or Brooklyn’s Robert Weston Smith in the 60s and 70s who spun records on the “Mighty 1090” XERB-FM broadcasting throughout Southern California and “66 WNBC” in New York, or Kemal Amin Kasem, who got his start on the Armed Forces Korea Radio Network and became famous for launching his national “American Top 40.”  They were the epitome of the word “Disc Jockey,” not only spinning vinyl records on a turntable, but having a loyal following and were what every person who ever wanted to stand behind a microphone and play music wanted to be.

freedalankasemcaseywolfmannjackAlan Freed, Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem were larger than life on the radio, and blazed a trail when AM radio was the home of top 40 music, to the FM dial where music migrated in the 1970s, and later on satellite for Sirius and their competitor, XM Satellite Radio, and in 2012 on the web through Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio or from someone’s basement on internet radio.  Freed, Wolfman and Kasem, along with other voices like those of “Cousin” Bruce Morrow, Robert W. Morgan, Johnny Holliday, “Dr. Don” Rose and so many others who were the “Boss Jocks” of their day would become the role models for the next generation of disc jockeys who gained fame, such as John Records Landecker, “Shotgun” Tom Kelly and others who learned from the “masters” of their trade, and in their own way became legends of their craft.

Ask any long-time disc jockey now, and most will tell you that the radio landscape has changed, and unfortunately, not for the better.  Technology, deregulation of ownership rules and especially the new corporate nature of radio using syndication, downsizing and voice tracking has removed many opportunities for local legends to be made, virtually wiping out what was known as the “farm system,” local radio in small markets.  However, there are still some disc jockeys left making their name doing exactly what their idols did before they took their place behind a microphone – and still going relatively strong.

There are some radio stations where you know the music, but as a listener you wouldn’t know or wouldn’t even care if the disc jockey who normally does middays is on the air or on vacation.  When it comes to oldies music, many of the personalities you hear were former top 40 DJs who spun records with names you grew up with, and most likely idolized.

leebroadwaybilltaylordanListen to oldies on WCBS-FM in New York City, and names like Broadway Bill Lee and Dan Taylor are current DJs you know, but names in the past include legendary AM top 40 DJs like Harry Harrison, “Cousin Bruce” Morrow, Dan Ingram and Ron Lundy who built the CBS Radio-owned station into what it is.

Tune to Clear Channel’s WLS-FM in Chicago, and Dick Biondi and John Records Landecker still talk to you every weekday.

bryangarycarsonjimIn Los Angeles, would the legendary “K-Earth” be the same without Gary Bryan, Jim Carson and “Shotgun” Tom Kelly?

landeckerjohnrecordsJohn Records Landecker grew up listening to Arthur Godfrey and radio shows like “The Lone Ranger” in the Midwest and wanted desperately to be a part of what he “heard coming out of that box with the transistors in it.”

henrybigjoe“Big Joe” Henry grew up in the Bronx, New York and caught the radio bug through his transistor radio, listening to “the fights between the WMCA ‘Good Guys’ and their rivals at WABC-AM,” and “how cool that would be to be on the radio and play the hits.”

kellyshotguntomFor a kid named Tom Irwin, who would grow up to become “Shotgun” Tom Kelly, it was a chance encounter in San Diego meeting a DJ doing a live remote broadcast and letting that very same 10-year old talk on the radio that got him hooked.

ingramdanwilliamswilliambreynoldsjoey“My idols growing up were Dan Ingram, William B. Williams and Joey Reynolds.  Listening to them I knew it was something I had to do – I had to get into the business,” says Henry.

Henry went to the University of Minnesota and joined the college radio station, and got a short-lived break doing overnights on the then-powerhouse KSTP-AM in Minneapolis, whose clear signal at the time in the 1970s reached Denver and points west.  Unfortunately for Henry, his grades began to suffer and he had to give up night work and radio for a while, but never gave up the dream.  It was back in New Jersey where he approached “Oldies 107.1” on the Jersey Shore in 1991, and GM Jim Davis gave him a job as a DJ, and Henry later became PD, and in the process, became a local radio star.

According to Henry, “It wasn’t just the music.  Personality provides the image.  I’ve always believed radio is a theater of the mind.  Unfortunately I think radio has lost some of that.  I believe you have to be out with your listeners.  You have to be a part of the community.”

After an ownership change at “Oldies 107.1,” Henry went to WKXW-FM, and talked the PD at the time to abandon the large variety of music and genres they were playing and focus the music to oldies, and also be more community oriented.  Within two Arbitron books Henry became the top-rated DJ on the weekends, saying, “Too many people in the business put the music above the presentation, and care nothing about how the music or station is presented.  I’m fortunate my station and PD believes in it and it shows.”

For Landecker, like many others in the radio business, it’s not always “what you know,” it’s “who you know.”  In his case, it was when he was in high school, and it was the aunt of his teenage girlfriend who worked at a radio station who helped him get through the door, allowing him to meet the program director and ask for a job.

“I got my first job at WOIA-AM, hired as a janitor for $1.25 per hour.  That’s where I learned how to be a DJ.  I’d go to the local record store, got records and played them on the air,” says Landecker.

Kelly got his first job at what was known back then as a “black station” in San Diego, the city where he grew up.  “I would record shows and they would play on the air on a Mexican station.  I moved on to KDEO-AM, where I would help out ripping news.  I would later go to a place called Ogden’s Radio School, because back then you had to have an FCC license to get on the air, and if you had a 1st Class license, it meant you could read the transmitters and if you had the ‘ticket,’ you had a job.”

They may have each started differently, but for Big Joe Henry, John Records Landecker and Shotgun Tom Kelly, their careers are intertwined by the same things that make them larger-than-life on the air in New Jersey, Chicago, and Southern California – personality, community and a hands-on, one-on-one approach with their listeners.

Big Joe Henry is unlike any other DJ on the air in the New York Metropolitan area.  He is the driving force on the weekends for talk-music hybrid WKXW-FM, Trenton (well known around the country as New Jersey 101.5) where talk is heard during the week, but is known as the place “Where the Music Comes Out To Play” on the weekends, and Henry is the face of that weekend music format in New Jersey.  He has become legendary along the Jersey Shore, from weekly remote broadcasts and events, to his work in helping to raise money for a myriad of charities, and recently doing anything he could for the victims of Superstorm Sandy.

“You have to be able to connect with the listener.  They’re going to the shore, driving in their car, at the beach.  You have to be a part of their lives, and let them connect with you.”  Using his large frame as the butt of many jokes, quick wit and personality, he tells listeners to his top-rated show he’s the “only disc jockey visible from space,” tells jokes, and interacts with listeners regularly.  “It’s the connection.  You have to have it,” says Henry.

Both Landecker and Kelly have seen other stations pull away from forging a listener connection, but some stations keep the age-old mantra of radio being a medium to inform and entertain, much like Landecker’s WLS-FM in Chicago and “K-Earth” KRTH-FM in Los Angeles, where Kelly entertains listeners heading home from work.

“Voice tracking has diluted personality.  If you voice track you can’t be current.  You can’t be immediate.  But, if you have the right PD, who knows what they are doing you can then work within the confines of the format and be yourself.  You won’t lose that connection (with the listener),” says Kelly.

Kelly believes that you can still keep a connection, even in the second-largest radio market in the PPM world.

“It’s not about less words in a break, it’s still about the connection.  You still read the liners, promote the morning show, promote the station, but you still have to do what you want.  You can’t do long bits, but you can still entertain and maintain that connection.  You can still get the PPM numbers.  It’s something you can’t do voice tracking, or from another city,” says Kelly.

“At WLS, we have things we have to say [liners], but we have to be real.  Our PD understands that.  When you talk about another air personality, we’re not supposed to be straight.  We’re supposed to talk, be interesting, funny… be creative.  That’s what we’re hired for,” says Landecker.

Landecker, Kelly and Henry, who all work in oldies formats, all say PPMs and consolidation have hurt radio, but have not killed it.  In fact, each proves that you can be popular doing “old school” work, be a solid foundation for their station, and also get ratings.

They also have common links in the chain of management.  Henry, Landecker and Kelly each have program directors that do not stifle their creativity, allowing each to do what they do best.

“The oldies listener wants to hear those great hits of the past, but they also want someone who can entertain them and be a part of the music.  That’s what we give you on WLS-FM,” says Landecker.

Kelly echoed that statement, telling RadioInfo, “Beyond the PPMs and all that, a DJ has to get involved with the listeners.  Remember that the listener is also your customer.  The music can bring a listener to the station, but the DJ can help keep them there if the listener can relate to that DJ.”

For Henry, whose on-air bits and jokes have been known to go as long as 30-45 seconds, it’s about being relatable and entertaining.  Although he only works weekends on the radio on WKXW — which is talk during the week — for him the job of being a disc jockey is a full-time endeavor.

“You have to be a part of the community.  I get involved with charities.  I must do over 40 personal appearances every year, whether it’s a live show or as the emcee of an event.  It’s not for yourself.  You represent the radio station, and that’s an important connection for both the listener and the radio station, and frankly I think sometimes some stations forget that.”

However, it may not always be the stations that “forget that.”  While personality can thrive and live a long life in an oldies format on a local station such as WLS in Chicago and “K-Earth” in Los Angeles, or on Sirius XM Satellite Radio or the syndicated True Oldies, other formats such as CHR and other “music-intensive” formats, and even now the rock formats to a degree, have moved toward more music and less “interruptions.”

One program director, who asked both his name and radio group be withheld “for fear of losing my job” spins this differently, saying “We’re told by the group PD that our DJs are merely a bridge between the songs.  I don’t necessarily agree, but if I don’t agree, they’ll find someone else who does.”

Another program director who currently works in a large market overseeing several formats and asked not to be identified says in the “PPM world” you have to “identify with the music,” and adds, “People want to listen to the music.  They want to hear their favorite songs.  The person who is heard between some of those songs isn’t the reason they listen.  Listeners want to hear Ke$ha singing ‘Die Young,’ Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars.  Talk takes away from the music.”

Many other PDs will most likely say the exact same thing, of course, depending on format and audience.  Which brings us to the important question – is the “Disc Jockey” needed, or do listeners just want a jukebox coming through their speakers?

“PPM’s certainly have something to do with that.  And radio stations are now corporations that have to answer to shareholders,” says Landecker.  “But it doesn’t have to be that way.  At WLS, the deal here is to do as much as possible within the PPM system, but be like WLS-AM in the 1970s.  We have things we have to say, liners we have to read.  But we’re supposed to talk and engage our listeners.  That’s what we’re here for.”

Henry takes this a step further, admitting personality radio is in some cases on life-support, but it’s not dead yet.

“I think personality radio is dying in this industry.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  I’m fortunate my station understands this and thrives in it, and believes in me.”

Unfortunately for Landecker, Kelly and Henry, with the advent of the Portable People Meter and its growing technology, the corporate ownership of radio, continued downsizing and putting profits before performance, they all believe it will take extreme change to re-create the image of the disc jockey to what it once was, especially in formats like CHR and adult contemporary.

And, of course, who will be the first to pick up the gauntlet and make that change?

Until that day, however, it’s still important to be vital each time you crack open a microphone, and serve your community, and talk to your listeners, and represent your radio station.  And, as Henry, Landecker and Kelly each said when asked the same question, “You have to be relevant.”

Click here to read Part Two:  The PPM – a DJ’s Downfall.


Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for RadioInfo.  He can be emailed at Meet Jeff McKay at TALKERS New York 2013 on Thursday June 6.   

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Category: Features