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Rough notes: the case for radio deejays talking over music


Full disclosure: once upon a time I was a radio deejay. In the 1980s I took jazz/public radio aficionado Jim Bennett’s engineering course at KPFA in Berkeley and learned how to run the live studio board at the station. The more I “board-opped”, the more I was called upon to substitute for various absent hosts. On those sporadic occasions I played a mix of rock, rap, postpunk, and whatever: X, Heaven 17, Afrika Bambaataa. It usually worked, unless I talked over the music.

“Hey Matt!” somebody next door would shout at me. “People are calling in. Stop saying stuff over the songs!!!”

So I stopped. But I always wondered who wrote the commandment Thou Shalt Not Talk Over Music on the Radio. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why the practice is annoying. I asked my Facebook friends for feedback on this question last week and got some smart comments.

“It often is a ego blast from the DJ,” noted Jeremy Lansman. “I don’t like or need it.”

“Not,” declared Taylor Philip, one of my UC Santa Cruz students. “The modern ‘DJ’ (especially the formerly famous Radio Dj, but statement applies to the live/club DJ as well) often is a sculptor of sound, and therein, must manifest their best performance not by the tenor or cadence of their voice, but by the music they play. Far too often, I believe radio D.J.’s utilize their vocal cords to obfuscate the imperfections in their mixing ability… ”

Amen to all this. Still, I can think of a number of contexts in which talking over tunes enhances a music radio program.

First, I am often grateful when deejays place music under their voice while making public service announcements. This is particularly crucial for hosts who feel the need to insert lengthy community calendar sections into their shows. If you are going to make me listen to five to ten minutes of which band is going to play where this week in my city, at least put some fun music in the background so I’ll stick around.

But my colleague Jennifer Waits adds a wise caveat to music backgrounding in general: “I don’t mind music beds, but talking over a song with vocals is highly annoying.” Indeed.

Second and in the same vein, I appreciate it when deejays add music beds to their interviews with musicians. My experience is that most musicians have something to say that interests me, but not always fifteen minutes to a half hour’s worth of such. So a music background (especially if it’s music from the artist in question) helps sustain my attention. This goes double when the deejay decides to opine solo.

Here’s a theory: one of the reasons folks today may be a little less touchy about this issue is that the incentive to tape music radio shows has diminished somewhat in the age of Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes. If a deejay talks over a song, you can usually hear it elsewhere with relative ease, although not always.

Sir Ernest Crackleton, music host at Radioactive International, elaborated on his approach in our Facebook discussion:

“I talk over music when it’s a specific piece I play at the start & end of each show, like a little bit of background music for the intro & outro, it’s a different tune each week, usually a 100+ year old recording of something like a military band, an accordion instrumental or a tango, nothing overly spectacular – but throughout the show itself i make a point of not talking over a tune if I can help it.”

“Depends on the pace of the show and the announcer,” suggested my friend Mark Hernandez. “If its fast, its okay; if it’s slow or easygoing, then no. Exceptions would be making the break (top of the hour news, for example), but never over the vocals unless its a trailing chorus that’s fading out.”

“It’s fine,” added deejay Mary Tilson, “depends on the context.” That summarizes my perspective. But what’s your context? Further comments on this question welcome.

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5 Responses to Rough notes: the case for radio deejays talking over music

  1. malderor December 4, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    We usually play a bed of “industrial dub” under our mic breaks. We feel a bit naked without the background music, to be honest, but the heavy dub gives us a foundation to talk over that represents a clear, distinct break from the popular tunes we play during out show. (It’s almost all instrumental dub, of course.) The dub means “now it’s time to talk.” But talking over the show rock & roll content would seem odd to me, except for intros and outros. I do remember my college station used to put countdown lengths on popular CDs so you could time your mic breaks to end just before the vocals kicked in. I know the top 40 stations where I grew up _always_ stepped on the beginning and end of songs.

  2. Tom Roe December 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm #


    This post seems needless.

    What is the alternative? Talking over “silence?”

    You know, John Cage proved there is no silence, right?

    I don’t understand radio DJs who insist on talking over the 60KHz hum of electronics. It sounds horrible. It is ugly. Talk over music always. Do not talk over the 60kHZ hum.

    • Noel MacClanahan February 11, 2014 at 10:10 am #

      Get rid of the ground loop and you won’t have that 60 Hz hum.

  3. Glen M December 6, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    Extreme cases of this on Top 40 radio of the 60/70’s. Visiting NYC I recall a WABC nighttime DJ (not Cousin Brucie) reading practically a whole 60 sec spot over the looong intro to Superfly by Curtis Mayfield. For the format it was so smooth it flowed.. better than the otherwise cold reading.
    For jazz I prefer a music bed behind the announcer, a signature tune as Angelynn Grant does using Bucky Pizzarelli on WMBR’s Coffeetime & as Steve Schwartz did on his Friday night-at some point WGBH quashed that & eventually the whole show (both Boston examples).
    In the right hands (ears?) it can work.

  4. Noel MacClanahan February 11, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Starting in ’70, having carried drive time in 6 major markets and owning a 5 station cluster I’ll pass along the fundamental rules that the “old school” jocks lived by.

    1. No dead air, ever. not even 2 seconds…everything flows together.

    2. All music should have a timed intro and outro, leaving no question as to how long a jock may talk up front and on the back end.

    3. Never, under any circumstances talk over the vocals. No exceptions, you’ve just ruined the piece for the listener.

    4. If you have nothing relevant to say, don’t say anything. Time and Temp are relevant maybe twice an hour. Hit the Legal ID dead on and work it into the top of the hour event or segue. Learn the difference between an anecdote and a joke. Use the former, not the latter.

    5. Backtiming. At the beginning of the hour, you should have already timed all your music, banter and traffic to work out exactly on the hour. It’s part of the job, do it, do it well, and you sound professional. Otherwise you’re just another hack sitting at a board playing music for your girlfriend.

    6. Heavy rotation songs don’t require or need intros or any commentary for that matter. The audience is already sick of hearing it, no need for you to compound the misery.

    7. Radio stations play music, yes, but they inform and entertain…our purpose is not to provide 3 seconds on the font and back end so that someone can get a clean recording off the air. Inform and entertain, professionally, with relevant banter or give ’em 3-4 n a row without blathering. Every style of music requires adjusting your style of banter.

    8. Personal gripe – Station branding is fine “The Wolf” but it doesn’t drive home who you are “WXYZ” or where you’re at “!03.3”. Listeners can’t find you if you’re not reminding them of where you are.

    9. Personal Gripe – If your on air name is “Shadow” or “DJ Hysterical” then you need to be working the club scene. Listeners relate to a common element with a jock “John Records Landecker” “Alan Freed”. I’m going to puke if I hear another station with “Mystical” or “DJ Hammer” sitting at the board…it’s juvenile (so I guess that works if you’re going for that lucrative 12 yr old demographic). Would you go see “Dr. Howling Wolf” for your ruptured spleen?

    10. Be professional, act professional, run a tight board.

    Voice tracking is 100% pure crap…it’s immediately obvious that the jock is disconnected from the music and the audience. The number 1 ranked stations in 38 of the top 50 Arb markets do not and have never used voice tracking. If you automate, use mild crossfade, stick to time/temp/legal ID and quit trying to fake out the audience…it’s hokey and it’s the reason that stations change formats more often than I change shoes. It’s not your format Bunky, it’s your crappy, stuttering, voice tracked presentation that sounds like some shortwave missionary broadcast and that’s the reason you’re losing market share.

    Finally, if you’re an owner and you can’t afford to have a guy sitting at the board, at least during drive time, then you’re in the wrong business. Go resurrect a drive-in theater that you can run by yourself.

    After 44 years in the business, I can almost universally show you why a station died and which station will die next based on listening to 3 hours of their programming and it all boils down to connecting with your target audience and running that board like a pro. You don’t have to be brilliant or a comedian, but you do have to be on top of what you’re doing.

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