Monday, August 13, 2007

From FM Terrestrial to Internet Radio: A DJ's firsthand account

Hi folks,

A short while back, I asked Kevin Hiscock (aka Radio Gnome) of radio hidebound (Dial spot: H9) if he could guest blog on the differences between DJing for a good ole' fashioned terrestrial radio station, and DJing on the Internet.

For me, the DJs studio is one of those iconic locales which I believe has always captured the popular imagination. For me personally, I had a friend who DJed late Saturday nights for the University of Waterloo's college station CKMS. After bugging my buddy for weeks, he let me hang out one night with him, and the place was everything I imagined: tons of records spilling off shelves; studio equipment; but most of all, a strange sense of intimacy with the microphone and the turntables that felt less like "just spinning tracks", but more like speaking your mind. Reading Kevin's reminds me of this time, but also shows me the work that goes into running a station, that at the time I probably took for granted.

So, without further ado: Kevin's first guest blog on his experiences DJing from terrestrial to the Internet
For me, the two are drastically different. I was "on the air" over 20 years ago playing "brand new music" and now I'm never actually "on the air" and playing, mostly, the music that was brand new over 20 years ago.

For the most part, my "on the air" experience was at WXYC, the college radio station in Chapel Hill, NC. I also spent a year or so at Chapel Hill's only commercial station, an AM Adult Contemporary Hits (at least that's what it was called back then) format. My commercial radio experience was pretty awful and aside from a few possibly funny anecdotes I told over the air, it's not really worth mentioning other than in no way was it fun or "art".

My college radio experience was just the opposite. I loved being on the air, even though at WXYC I hardly ever said anything other than, "that was {some song} by {some artist}, before that we heard blah blah blah and before that was blah blah blah . . . it's 24 minutes before two o'clock . . . you're listening to WXYC . . . and here is a new song from {some artist}.

In order to (eventually) write anything truly meaningful about the difference between "being on the air" on a terrestrial radio station and running an Internet radio station, I should probably write a little about WXYC itself. From the perspective of a DJ, aside from not getting paid (hmmmm . . . I'm sensing a pattern emerging), it was the closest thing to a perfect radio station that I can imagine. While we did have something resembling a format, the format was "anything good and let's focus a bit on music released in the last six months". While we focused on newly released music, a station favourite from many of the jocks was Nick Drake, so keep that in mind I guess. For most of the day's "programming" at 'XYC the only requirement was to play at least five songs every hour from our playbox. Our playbox had three parts, heavy rotation (about 25 records), medium rotation (about 25 other records) and light rotation (another 50 records or so). We were to play three heavies, one medium and one light every hour. Given a specific record in the playbox, we could play any song from that record we wanted to. Other than that, we could play whatever the hell we wanted to. Sometimes I'd play my five rotation songs and sometimes I might only play two or three of them. The new music rotation rule was really more a guideline.

When I started working (if that's the right word) at 'XYC in the fall of 1981, I was a typical 70's prog-rock junkie. I new absolutely nothing about punk, new wave, etc. etc. and, to be honest, didn't even particularly like it. I started on the path of learning about this "New Music" slowly, the station manager would keep telling me to play more new music and less Genesis et. al. and after six months or so I had changed my aural palette. Over the next four or five years, that palette grew and grew and grew. I kept playing Genesis et. al., but I played less and less as time went on and far more Teardrop Explodes and The Church and Rupert Hine - the 80's Rupert Hine, not so much the 70's Rupert Hine. And while I could have done all of this without being on the air, doing so in order to actually be on air and play songs was, I think, different than just listening to new music for myself.

Similar to many college radio stations, I had, for the most part, one two-hour shift every week. Those two hours were precious to me and I was very picky about the songs I played during those two hours. Those two hours were my way of saying, "here is the best music I think is being recorded today". Allow me to introduce you to U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, REM, Dream Syndicate, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Martha and the Muffins, Juluka, Guadalcanal Diary, Green on Red, the latest from Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel and David Bowie and Brian Eno and Bill Nelson. While I wasn't playing the Top 40 as defined by Billboard, I was playing the Top 400 as defined by the radio gnome. I would go to the station about 30 minutes before my show started and look at the list of songs played by the jock (we never really used the term "DJ", we were just "jocks") before me and the one before them to know what I couldn't play, since I didn't want to repeat anything they had played. Then I would go into the records library and pull 30-40 records for my two hours. I might not play a song from all 40 records, but I'd pull enough records so I could pick various things based on context. Then I'd take my 40 records into the control room and at the top of the hour, I was on the air.

The biggest part of actually being "on the air" was segues. When I started, I didn't know any segues, I didn't even know what a segue was. But over time I learned how to listen to both the beginning and ending of a song to get ideas about other songs to play before or after a song I was hearing for the first time. For songs in the playbox, if I "heard a great seg", which means I would hear it in my head while the playbox song was playing, I would rarely have the record the song was on in the control room. I'd make a mad dash into the library, pull the record, run back into the control room and cue up my song. Sometimes I made it back to the control in time, sometimes I didn't (oh the joys of college radio). Most of the time I made it back into the control room in time to cue the song. Which brings me to slip-cueing. Our turntables had felt covers on them so one could cue up a song, then a few seconds before the song currently playing would end one would put a thumb on the turntable for stability, put a ring finger (it had to be the ring finger, using the index finger was simply not sexy enough) on the vinyl, start the turntable while holding onto the record and then at an appropriate moment . . . let go . . . and the next song would start at a precise time. After getting reasonably sufficient at slip-cueing, I would actively search out segues with a high degree of difficulty, segues that would require me to . . . let go . . . at the exact split second or have the segue be spoiled. I could write a bit about cold fades and warm fades and false ends, but then we might be here for awhile.

All of this led to a very tactile aspect of being on the air. My fingers were almost constantly touching something while I was on the air. At times it was a bit like playing an instrument and sometimes even slightly athletic.

Fast forward 20-something years to running an Internet radio station. Because I decided to attempt being some kind of time capsule of what I did at WXYC, there is not much of a new music component to radio hidebound and definitely not one where the whole point is to find the best of everything released this week. There is also no real concept of "being on the air". I'm never really "on the air" at all. I suppose I could sit down and run the station manually for a couple of hours, but . . . why?

Instead of pulling of records from the library at WXYC, I rip CDs into mp3 files.

Instead of listening to boatloads of new music, I review the mp3 files to make sure they are technically okay and list the songs from each record I want to include in the playlist for radio hidebound.

Instead of sitting in the control room with a pile of LPs leaning against a cabinet, I load the mp3 files of songs I like into my broadcasting software's database.

Instead of opening boxes of promotional records we would receive at 'XYC, I search for CDs I to buy. Yes, I have to plunk down my own money to buy CDs I want to play on the station. WXYC would get promotional copies of everything under the sun.

Instead of opening my mic to say "it's 24 minutes before 2:00", I record canned mp3 file station IDs that say things like "it's 24 minutes before 24 minutes from now . . . you're listening to radio hidebound". I have no idea what time it will be when the station ID gets played and I have no idea what time zone a listener might be in when they hear it.

Instead of taking requests to play specific songs over the phone, I answer posts in my online forum about, well, whatever a listener wants to say.

Instead of having a personal Top 400 list of songs to choose from once a week, I have a library of over 10,000 "songs that don't suck" playing in an endless loop with various controls in place so that the same song or musician doesn't get repeated too frequently.

Instead of personally selecting what song to play next, I leave that to the logic of the software I use. Having said that, I am almost constantly amazed at how good most of the segs I hear on radio hidebound are. Sometimes there are some real losers, but in general I think they are pretty good and sometimes I'll hear two songs played together which I would never have thought of playing together and be thrilled at how well they blended together.

Instead of broadcasting to a very small potential audience in Chapel Hill, NC, I am broadcasting to the largest potential audience possible, the world.

Finally . . . there is all of the technology involved in running an Internet radio station and the reality that I'm responsible for all of it working. I didn't have to worry about anything like this at WXYC. Walking into 'XYC was like flipping on a light switch, I expected everything to work and if something wasn't working, all I could do was call the station's engineer. Now I'm responsible for:

- making sure my DSL connection is working
- maintaining the various computers involved in running radio hidebound
- installing, configuring, enhancing and trouble-shooting my broadcasting software
- connecting to my broadcast host and dealing with the bills, etc.
- making sure I'm legal with all licensing issues
- ftp'ing files to a non-php HTML host server (the original "web presence" for radio hidebound)
- installing, configuring, enhancing and trouble-shooting my own portfolio of php-based software to provide for an on-line community experience for my listeners
- making whatever vain attempts at marketing I can think of

Today, I probably spend more time on the community parts of radio hidebound than I do on the station itself. Of course I keep adding songs to the playlist, but doing so takes very little time, other than spending time listening to a record I'm unfamiliar with several times before deciding which songs to add. A process which takes a little longer than one might think because I also spend a lot of time simply listening to the station itself. Listening to my station. In part to make sure it is still on the air, but mostly because I simply enjoy listening to it. If I didn't, why would I go to all of this trouble in the first place? While, of course, I want to have other people listening to the station to feel somehow important, mostly I just want to enjoy listening to it. If someone else enjoys listening, great, if not, that's okay too.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Gnome tells it like it was. I was there too at WXYC. Now, I run Sadly, gnome, er Kevin, shut down Radio Hidebound in May 2009.