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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