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Hey Mr. DJ

Radio just isn’t the same without disc jockeys

By Molly M. Strauss

Cruisin’ down the freeway, windows down. Wind in your hair. Signs flashing. Sun setting. And the first few notes of that song—the one you’ve been waiting for—suddenly float from the radio.

In that second, there’s a moment of connection. Somehow, somewhere, someone understands exactly how you feel right now. A DJ, sitting behind a desk with headphones firmly in place, chose that artist, picked that album, selected that track. And you, miles away, know exactly why.

But the radio changes, just like everything else. A few years back, I hit preset number three in my ancient Ford Taurus station wagon, but to my dismay, the familiar jingle of Arrow 93.1 was nowhere to be heard. The station was gone—replaced by the anonymous, jockey-free “Jack FM.”

Stations like “Jack”—such as Boston’s 93.7 “Mike FM”—advertise their lack of disc jockeys as an advantage, claiming that listeners benefit from more music and less talk. On the surface, it’s true: I much prefer rocking out uninterrupted versus waiting for that overly enthusiastic voice to shut it and play the music already.

Still, regardless of this perk, something just feels wrong about Jack and Mike. In place of human conversation, a sarcastic male voice now greets 93.1’s Los Angeles listeners with the same schtick every time. Clearly, he’s too cool for school, he’s anti-establishment, he has nothing to do with those saccharin-sweet DJs who clog up the airways—because he’s a recording and doesn’t waste your time with old-fashioned niceties.

Despite his rebellious tone, this disembodied voice represents the radio industry’s best attempt to stay in business. In the face of iPod proliferation, YouTube listening, and online radio streaming, the traditional dial is in the midst of a crisis. Americans have turned away from FM and AM, and they don’t seem to be turning back any time soon. Desperate, stations have tried to innovate. The BBC reported over two years ago: “In an attempt to woo listeners, a number of them are broadening their playlists, putting all the tunes on shuffle and ditching the DJs altogether.” Why did the BBC pick up the story? Because all of a sudden, America’s Jack FM had hit Oxford, too.

In the end, this new form of radio could just as well be an iPod—the only difference being that it’s not your particular iPod and therefore provides some variety. But listeners don’t just tune in to the radio for a new song or two. We switch on the dial for the community we find there, confident that a population of other listeners is singing along to the same tune we’re humming. When we pull up to a stoplight and hear an identical bass beat out of the car by our side, we forge an unspoken connection with that anonymous driver. And, ultimately, we feel like there’s a person out there orchestrating it all—someone who cares deeply about the tune that played before, and the one that will play next. When you’re driving down that highway well past 1 a.m. and the lanes are empty as your headlights cut through the night, there’s nothing like knowing that somewhere, far away, you’ve got company.

Molly M. Strauss ’11, an associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

Cruisin’ down the freeway, windows down. Wind in your hair. Signs flashing. Sun setting. And the first few notes of that song—the one you’ve been waiting for—suddenly float from the radio.

In that second, there’s a moment of connection. Somehow, somewhere, someone understands exactly how you feel right now. A DJ, sitting behind a desk with headphones firmly in place, chose that artist, picked that album, selected that track. And you, miles away, know exactly why.

But the radio changes, just like everything else. A few years back, I hit preset number three in my ancient Ford Taurus station wagon, but to my dismay, the familiar jingle of Arrow 93.1 was nowhere to be heard. The station was gone—replaced by the anonymous, jockey-free “Jack FM.”

Stations like “Jack”—such as Boston’s 93.7 “Mike FM”—advertise their lack of disc jockeys as an advantage, claiming that listeners benefit from more music and less talk. On the surface, it’s true: I much prefer rocking out uninterrupted versus waiting for that overly enthusiastic voice to shut it and play the music already.

Still, regardless of this perk, something just feels wrong about Jack and Mike. In place of human conversation, a sarcastic male voice now greets 93.1’s Los Angeles listeners with the same schtick every time. Clearly, he’s too cool for school, he’s anti-establishment, he has nothing to do with those saccharin-sweet DJs who clog up the airways—because he’s a recording and doesn’t waste your time with old-fashioned niceties.

Despite his rebellious tone, this disembodied voice represents the radio industry’s best attempt to stay in business. In the face of iPod proliferation, YouTube listening, and online radio streaming, the traditional dial is in the midst of a crisis. Americans have turned away from FM and AM, and they don’t seem to be turning back any time soon. Desperate, stations have tried to innovate. The BBC reported over two years ago: “In an attempt to woo listeners, a number of them are broadening their playlists, putting all the tunes on shuffle and ditching the DJs altogether.” Why did the BBC pick up the story? Because all of a sudden, America’s Jack FM had hit Oxford, too.

In the end, this new form of radio could just as well be an iPod—the only difference being that it’s not your particular iPod and therefore provides some variety. But listeners don’t just tune in to the radio for a new song or two. We switch on the dial for the community we find there, confident that a population of other listeners is singing along to the same tune we’re humming. When we pull up to a stoplight and hear an identical bass beat out of the car by our side, we forge an unspoken connection with that anonymous driver. And, ultimately, we feel like there’s a person out there orchestrating it all—someone who cares deeply about the tune that played before, and the one that will play next. When you’re driving down that highway well past 1 a.m. and the lanes are empty as your headlights cut through the night, there’s nothing like knowing that somewhere, far away, you’ve got company.

Molly M. Strauss ’11, an associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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