Songs play on, but is DJ gone?
Rodney Ho - Staff - Atlanta Journal Constitution
Thursday, April 4, 2002

Drivers listening to Atlanta oldies radio station Fox 97.1 on a recent weekday afternoon heard a Beatles tune fade out, followed by the voice of disc jockey Spiff Carner:

"This is Randy & Spiff, coming to you mornings, afternoons, nights and weekends. We're always here!"

Carner was being less than sincere. In fact, he wasn't there. He recorded the show earlier that day.

A DJ named Domino tapes his radio show on Atlanta's WMAX-FM as well --- from Dallas, one of four taped shows he does for stations across the country.

"It's awesome, dude," says Domino, whose real name is Tony Lini. "I record in different rooms for each city so in one room I mentally act like I'm walking into Atlanta."

Radio has used taped DJs in various ways for decades. But new technologies tapped by ever-larger radio conglomerates have made it easier than ever to do so. Today in Atlanta, the nation's 11th-largest radio market, a majority of the music stations tape at least some of their programming --- and the practice is not typically disclosed to listeners.

For a year, Christopher Rude taped his 96rock (WKLS-FM) afternoon show. If a listener called in, an intern would tell the caller Rude was in the restroom.

"People bought it," Rude says.

Now radio companies --- most of them public corporations under intense pressure to cut payroll costs --- are having DJs do multiple taped shifts, even for prime listening hours such as late afternoon. As a result, the disc jockeys Atlantans hear on the radio often aren't live --- or even in Atlanta.

Clear Channel Communications, which operates five radio stations locally, is the most aggressive user of this technology. (The San Antonio-based company, which also owns the nation's largest billboard and concert promotion outfits, reported a net loss of $1.14 billion on revenue of $7.97 billion last year.)

Atlanta's newest station, 105.3 the Max (WMAX-FM), a Clear Channel property that plays 1980s pop music, is almost entirely virtual. The DJs Atlantans hear, including Domino, are actually in Tampa, Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas. Only one DJ is local.

For out-of-town jocks, Paul Kriegler, program director for Max and sister station Mix 105.7 (WMXV-FM), maintains an internal Web site that includes updated Atlanta event listings and a pronunciation chart. "You better know the local lingo," Kriegler says. DJs, for instance, are told to pronounce Gwinnett with the emphasis on the second syllable.

A voice from afar

To prep, Domino races through Atlanta-related Web sites, picking hot topics to mention like the Final Four or a Bush concert at the Tabernacle. Last Friday at midnight, he even pondered on the air whether he was going to hit clubs in Midtown or Buckhead. He says it usually takes him no more than 15 minutes to tape 25 breaks for a four-hour show.

Cox Radio in Atlanta has also upped its use of pre-taped DJ "voicetracking," as it's known in the industry. At Cox's Fox 97.1 (WFOX-FM), the radio group's weakest local radio station in terms of ratings and revenue, the DJ is absent 70 percent of the time. Everything between 4 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. weekdays and all weekends are taped ahead of time.

Cox executives say voicetracking the Fox morning team in the afternoons gives listeners more of its best DJs. "Randy and Spiff are the franchise and have an incredible following," says Lori Sheridan, general manager for Fox 97.1. (Cox Radio is owned by Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

The DJs take it as a challenge. "We're having fun doing it," says Spiff Carner, who lives in Acworth. The two-hour afternoon shift takes about 40 minutes to tape; he and his partner Randy Cook generally record it six hours before their drive-time show. There are minor obstacles, like not being able to banter with the afternoon traffic reporter. "Our morning traffic person doesn't laugh at our stuff anyway," quips Carner, "so it ends up the same."

Why they do it

Clear Channel executives believe importing DJs from out of town is a way to bring cities, especially smaller markets, better personalities. That rationale is weaker in Atlanta, given that the city is considered a large market.

Tim Dukes, who oversees several Atlanta Clear Channel stations, argues that a great taped DJ is better than a mediocre live one. "If we're doing our jobs as programmers, we can plug people like Domino and Gary Spears [from Los Angeles] into the local market, let them know what's going on and the end result is superior content," he says.

The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the airwaves in the public's interest, doesn't have a problem with voicetracking. But Mark Kanov, general manager for Star 94, says what Clear Channel and others are doing is inherently deceptive. "That's why we don't do it," he says. "The DJ is your link to the outside." (The average person listens to the radio about 20 hours a week, according to Arbitron.)

The best DJs over the years have become inextricably linked to the city, like Paul Drew, a colorful Atlanta DJ who heralded in the Beatles in the early '60s, and Gary McKee, a top 40 jock who dominated the scene with irreverence in the 1970s and '80s.

Even today, the anchor and primary revenue driver of most radio stations are the morning DJs like Moby on country station Kicks 101.5 (WKHX-FM) and the Regular Guys on 96rock. Tellingly, radio stations keep these shows very much live (though in a few cases, they aren't local, such as Tom Joyner on Kiss 104.1 [WALR-FM] out of Dallas and MJ Kelli on the Max out of Tampa).

"When a DJ tapes his show," says Program Director Chris Williams of 99X, an alternative rock station that is always live, "it loses some of its warmth, its immediacy."

Indeed, listeners say they expect a DJ to be in the studio live and ready to take calls. But few can tell the difference because it doesn't even cross their mind. "I had no idea," says Barry Dolan, a 51-year-old Marietta loan officer. "But it's kind of creepy."

Lack of 'spontaneity'

Axel, an afternoon jock at 99X who won't reveal his last name, says a recorded DJ can't respond to news. "I love the spontaneity of what I do," Axel says. One recent afternoon, for example, he heard that Puddle of Mudd singer Wes Scantlin was arrested on a domestic violence charge. He took listener calls debating whether Scantlin was getting a bad rap or not.

Clear Channel and Cox stations say they use their local news/talk stations to insert current news if a major event happens while a taped program is on the air.

DJs prefer doing it live but voicetrack for the extra money. At Clear Channel, DJs can earn between $5,000 and $15,000 a year to do a shift in another city, says Dukes, the local Clear Channel executive. This costs the station far less than hiring a new DJ, and with 1,200 radio stations --- by far the most in the country --- Clear Channel can save millions of dollars a year.

As a result, Tim Rhodes of 96rock moonlights on a Charlotte rock station. Steve Goss at Peach 94.9 (WPCH-FM) can be heard in Toledo, Ohio. John Wetherbee, morning guy at Peach, tapes a shift for a San Antonio station.

The out-of-town concept ticks off Wendy Ralph, a 31-year-old Atlanta dental equipment saleswoman who listens to the Max.

"It's going to end up so sterile if they aren't even here," Ralph says. But she admits she may not necessarily curtail her listening.

While voicetracking is increasingly common in the rock world, it has yet to take hold in urban radio. Stations like V-103 (WVEE-FM) and Hot 107.9 (WHTA-FM), which target black audiences, are always live. "I believe people who listen to urban radio have a real connection with it," says Silas "SiMan" Alexander, a former DJ on urban R&B Kiss 104.1, who is starting a morning show on the new classic soul 102.5 (WAMJ-FM) this summer. "You have to be live to do that."


Approximate percentage of time various Atlanta music stations have live DJs on the air:

Source: AJC research


There are some telltale signs that the DJ is not at the studio:

  1. The DJ doesn't say anything about the current temperature or traffic.
  2. The morning show personalities suddenly seem to be on the air all the time. They aren't living at the station. They're merely taping after their morning shift and it runs later, like Randy & Spiff during drive time on Fox 97.1 and Kelly & Alpha on B98.5 on weekends.
  3. A DJ mentions a song that didn't actually play. Or he/she gives the wrong time. Often, that's a goof on the part of a board operator dropping the taped bits in at the wrong time.
  4. Out-of-towners may mispronounce local names, like emphasizing the "For" in "Forsyth" instead of the "syth" or saying "De-kalb" instead of "De-kab."
  5. The DJ never says, "Hey, call me now!"