Sunday, July 02, 2017

Another reason why I have a podcast

I have one of the most useless talents of all-time. I’m really good at talking over the instrumental intros of records and finishing my sentence just before the singing starts. :08 second intro, :21 second intro – makes no difference. I can nail it. And without looking at a stopwatch or a countdown clock, thank you very much. If there are punctuated shouts in the intro (the Stones and the Boss do this a lot), I talk up to those too. I was the Blue Man Group of radio.

And at one time that was a highly respected skill… among radio people. I don’t think listeners really gave a shit. If I was funny and identified the artist they were happy. But fellow disc jockeys appreciated the timing. I’m sure Benihana chefs bow to the one who can flip discarded shrimp tails into his pocket.

Radio did teach me brevity. When you’ve got a funny concept but only a :16 second intro, there’s no wiggle room. You’ve got to construct the joke to fit :16 seconds exactly. And you learn to really polish your delivery. If you have too many words you wind up rushing and the comedy goes away. If you have too few words you finish your punch line early and then there’s four seconds you’re just standing out there with your whistle in your hand. You develop pace, tailoring your rap to the groove of the song. All of this is great training for a comedy writer.

But forget it because it’s all dead. Stations don’t have disc jockeys anymore. And if they do they’re generally not live or they’re Ryan fucking Seacrest (as part of his mission to take the job of as many workers in as many fields as he can).

Their “shows” are a series of pre-recorded voice tracks. There’s no call for talking up to vocals anymore. It’s like being a newspaper typesetter or Kathleen Turner’s body double.

Could personality disc jockeys work with today’s listeners? Sure. Who wouldn’t want a little entertainment on top of their tunes? But it’s a moot point because three companies own every radio station and they’re all looking to operate on the same budget as a lemonade stand. (Someday soon internet radio will be readily accessible in your car and a lemonade stand will be worth more than iHeart and Cumulus. I anxiously await that day.)

But terrestrial radio, as we know it today, has changed the music scene. The absence of disc jockeys also means there’s no one to tell you who sang what. You hear a new song you like, you don’t know who sings it. That’s problematic for the artists too. Listeners can’t buy your song if they don’t know whose name to type in. You can’t expect people to whip out their Shazam app every time you get an airplay.

So artists now have been forced to announce themselves in their songs. Usher springs to mind. He’ll sing “Usher, Usher, Usher” at the top of a song. And have you noticed that Lady Gaga manages to get “Gaga” into every song? Million-dollar talent are reduced to wearing Applebee’s name tags. “Hi, I’m Usher.” I say stop that nonsense and leave the introductions to the professionals!

I miss being able to talk up records. I worked hard to perfect that skill. And it’s a shame to just let that very special gift go to waste. So anybody in the West Los Angeles area, if you have a Springsteen cover band, please let me jam with you – and by jam I mean talk over the intro of Hungry Heart. I’ll get your name in, the bowling alley we’re playing in, and even a plug for Fall League sign-ups – all in :19 seconds. Trust me – it will MAKE the song!

33 comments :

brian t said...

Was that dig at Kathleen Turner really necessary? What happened to her appearance wasn't her fault - that's what taking steroids for rheumatoid arthritis over a long period will do to a person. She didn't handle it well, obviously.

Stoney said...

What record was the hardest one to stick? For me it was Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me". Knew the intro time but could rarely get it right because it was the same note repeating.

Somewhere there's tape of Joey Reynolds doing it with Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry". He fudges it, re-starts the song and tries it again. About five times before he got it.

On the aircheck album "Bootleg Top 40 Volume 2" Matt Guinn shouts K C B Q over the "1 2 3 4" of Rare Earth's "I Just Want To Celebrate".

Who was the master? Jackson Armstrong!

Alan Light said...

One of the most irritating things to me about the 60s channel on Sirius satellite radio is all the talking, including the talking over the opening of songs. Jabber. I'd rather just hear the music, sorry.

Stoney said...

Rick Moranis has an appreciation for it. (Being a former DJ himself) Remember "Take Off" by Bob & Doug McKenzie? "This is where the DJ talks. Don't say anything. OK."

JR Smith said...

Talking up records and hitting the vocals was one of the really fun aspects of working AM Top 40 and MOR radio. Miss that. Oh, and back timing a record perfectly into a live network newscast...that too. Network radio news...anyone remember that? Gosh, I am old.

tavm said...

Since I'm currently listening to Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" on YouTube in chronological order-I'm now at May 1981-I admire how Casey talks up the intro up to the first lyric almost every time. I do know early on, he actually was doing that in real time while later broadcasts have him pre-recording his intros before the engineers cued them but still, he gets it right almost every time since he occasionally did talk over some of the lyrics! I guess I really miss him since he retired in 2009 and has been gone now for three years. They'll never be another him, that's for sure!

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Gads, wasn't it fun! Such a no-longer-in-demand skill. To immerse ourselves in the music and bring along the listener with excitement, brevity and entertainment was a privlege. Or something close to that. You were wonderful as Beaver Cleaver always with the comments and humor some of us heard in high school from the class cut-up. You kept "the room" entertained. Where can kids hear this now? Back in class, I guess, if they're lucky enough to have a Ken Levine in the third row.

Hard to explain to folks just how skillful He Who Was The Best demonstrated every weekday afternoon in Los Angeles at 93/KHJ. The Real Don Steele could pack more emotion, entertainment, double-entendre, humor and than anyone in the profession and he simply made me laugh out loud as a drove around L.A. between work and school.

...and tell us again how he had a bit of challenge confronting gravity while navigating your living room couch...

:) :)

If there's a Rock 'n' Roll heaven, I hope they have a mic, some carts, a log, headphones and some very loud monitors...

tavm said...

Let me also say that most of the "AT40"s I listened to on YouTube have the songs scoped.

Hollywoodaholic said...

Car radios today have screens that identify the song and artist as I discovered riding with my son in his 2012, including commercial radio, not just Sirius. Not that I don't miss DJs, but if you turn on in the middle of a song, there's the ID. And then there's Shazaam. I can't remember the amount of times I was in a restaurant or somewhere and heard a song and went into full detective mode trying to identify the artist and song, either waiting for it again somewhere, or trying to search by some fragment of lyric on the Internet. Now you just hold up your phone. Some tech things are welcome.

bbison said...

Most any car with Bluetooth already has internet radio readily accessible. My ride has AM/FM/SXM/HDMI/USB and all my kids want to listen to are YouTube clips or their Spotify channels. When travelling I'll always stream to BT, be it SXM/MLB/I❤/TuneIn...

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...

Ken;

I read your post with great interest.

Yes, hitting the post (a DJ speaking up to but not stepping on the first vocal) or hitting the ramp (a DJ speaking up to but not stepping on the first big musical beat) is a lost art form. But like all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Probably an equal number of people who loved the "artistry" hated that darn DJ when he/she yapped at the beginning of their favorite song.

It usually worked better at drive time when commuters were anxious to go home and needed pumped up after a long day at work.

I always appreciated a DJ hitting the post. It brought a smile to my face and I admired the ability.

Howard Stern talks about it often and will poke fun at it, but he still admires it, I believe. Here is an example:

https://youtu.be/vC7JfqCsm70

Also, the great WCBS-FM DJ, Broadway Bill Lee, is a master at hitting the post. He mixes humor and tries to match the style of the song. Here are several examples:

https://twitter.com/i/moments/880327292374929408

You should start a YouTube playlist on your on YouTube channel showing some videos of you hitting the post of your favorite songs. I bet you'd get a ton of views. Don't play the whole song, just the post and a few seconds after. That way, there would not be any copyright infringement.

I also agree with the commenter who suggested the Kathleen Turner "joke" was a bit harsh and unwarranted. Yes, you are a comedy writer, but you don't necessarily have to go there in every blog post. It distracted me from the point you were trying to make. The comment also reminded me of the "humor" and observations made by a certain president on his Twitter account when it comes to women.


Bill Jones said...

"Who wouldn’t want a little entertainment on top of their tunes?"

Me. Sorry. I listen to the radio for the music, not the DJ. I don't care how funny the jock is (or, more commonly, thinks he is). DJs who talk over the opening, up until the lyrics begin, drive me up the wall. The song doesn't begin just when the singer starts singing. Again, sorry. (I'm in my forties, so this isn't a millennial thing.)

Y. Knott said...

Stoney -- Rick Moranis (as "Rick Allen") was a DJ for a few years on CHUM-AM, at that time Toronto's top 40 powerhouse. This was pre-SCTV, of course. There are airchecks floating around: try rockradioscrapbook.ca

Stoney said...

I may have posted this before but I remember watching an early 80's show on NBC called "Games People Play" where there was a contest of talking up a record between Larry Lujack and 'Dancin' Danny Wright. Talk-up wasn't really Lujack's style so Wright was the victor.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

There is a special place in the skills graveyard for you alongside the sub-editors who were expert at figuring out the exact headline that would fit perfectly in the allocated space in print publications.

I was one of the people who wished the DJ would shut up sooner.

wg

Will Hansen said...

I also am an ex-D.J. from the long ago 70's and 80's. I also took great pride in being able to talk up to the vocal of a song. If the audience didn't like it they could wait until the "3 in a row" where each song segued into the next. Do you find that you are still able to unconsciously "back time"? I will set a timer for 16 minutes, leave the room, and walk back in the room, without looking at a clock, with about 10 seconds left. Just like returning from the break room at the station.

Peter said...

I know this isn't a political blog, but yeesh, surely even ordinary Republicans must be just as disturbed as the rest of the planet at the latest tweets and antics of the sociopath sitting in the White House. It's not even amusing anymore. The guy is pathologically thin skinned and unhinged. All of a sudden, Watergate seems like a golden age.

If there's one positive to come out of this, it's that the Democrat candidate in 2020 will win by a landslide.

Arthur Mee said...

Henry Ramer isn't a well-known name, but he was a busy Canadian actor who also did voice over work for years. He did Shakespeare; he did movies and TV; he worked with Orson Welles; and he did quite literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of radio commercials over the course of his career. He had a rich, authoritative-but-friendly voice well into his 80s, but he also had another talent which I've never seen duplicated.

He had the ability -- and I saw him do this -- to time his read to the quarter of a second, just off the top of his head. In the studio, he'd get the copy for the first time, and ask if the engineer/producer wanted it to be 29 and three quarters seconds, or 28 and a half or whatever. When he got the answer, he'd then read the copy perfectly at that EXACT length, without a stopwatch.

And if the engineer asked for a different length (say, 27 and a half) on the next take? He'd nod, quickly run over the copy with his index finger, and then without seeming to alter his delivery at all, deliver it at EXACTLY 27 and a half.

Producers would give him 46 seconds worth of copy, and he'd deliver it in 25 and a quarter if asked, without seeming to rush.

It was astonishing. Producers and tech staff loved working with him -- he could get it on the first take, to order, with a minimum of fuss. Yes, he sometimes would ask for a second take because *he* felt he could do it better, but it was rare that he was *asked* for a second take.

(Well, except by engineers who wanted to see if he really could duplicate the read at the exact same length without a watch or timer. Or do it again at an arbitrarily different length, say a quarter of a second shorter! Which he could, and did.)

KoHoSo said...

In one way I would say that I do miss the old style of DJs talking up a record into on the old Top 40 and MOR stations. I know I loved doing it as nailing them intro after intro is indeed a pretty cool rush. On the other hand, where most new DJs are so terribly uninspiring, I would rather they just shut up.

Perhaps what is worse is the old album-oriented-rock DJs that are now forced to talk up records when it doesn't fit their style or the music. The most awful example of that right now might be poor Cynthia Fox on KSWD "The Sound" in Los Angeles. Her intros are so terrible and so rarely relate to the song she's talking over that I have to believe she is being forced to do them (or, as you said, recording them in advance).

I do want to add that, in my observations as a long-time radio geek and former DJ, for most people, things like nailing a song intro or a good segue is all Greek to them. They like the presentation if it's consistent but they have no idea why and their eyes glaze over if you try to explain it. It could work again if done properly but, as you said, iHeart, Entercom, Cumulus, and the others will never spend the money on it.

bigdgib said...

I grew up during the 60s, and I hated the jocks talking during the intros.

Andy Rose said...

@Will Hansen: I know what you mean about having time ingrained in you. When I set my oven, I always know just how much time I'll have to do things before I return. I set the timer for safety, but it never beeps. I'm always back before zero.

At work, I almost always sit down at my desk 60-90 seconds before my shift starts, even though I'm not on the air anymore. I can't stand to be even a minute late. That's dead air! (figuratively speaking)

James Van Hise said...

I note your photo of Wolfman Jack. I first heard and saw him in American Graffiti and was highly entertained. Then a couple years later he turned up as a DJ on a Miami radio station where I lived at the time and I discovered that a little Wolfman Jack goes a long way. What was entertaining for several minutes in a movie turned out to be grating when heard on the radio every day as the weird voice became an annoying voice. I think he only lasted in Miami a few months before he moved on to another city.

Don Beno said...

If all you want out of radio is music....there are other alternatives.CD's, on line services, i.e. Pandora, music choice, etc.


I've always said....it is up to the disc jockey to make the song they are playing sound fresh.
I mean.....we're playing Stairway To Heaven for the millionth time. The jock needs t make that song sound great, even though I've heard that GD thing too many times by now.
At the same time, if I'm a Top 40 (CHR) jock....I'm playing that same Justin Bieber song every 7o minutes! You need to keep it sounding fresh.

Unless you're Alan Light who wants no interruption in his repition, you will become bored quickly.

Don R said...

Another thing that killed the personality DJ: promo cards. Ken, you've referred many times to the Program Directors that would tell you to shut up and play the music. As the 70s became the 80s I had several PDs tell me to shut up and just read the promo cards...uninspired pieces of crap, usually consisting of no more than the station slogan, written by the PD as a way to keep the sound "uniform." The only thing worse than a station where all the jocks sounded the same is the station that sounds like it's your iPod programmed by somebody else. With commercials.

Pat Reeder said...

I have a friend and fellow radio guy who regularly attends luncheons with a group of older DFW radio veterans at various restaurants. He says he always laughs at the way all conversation briefly stops as soon as the vocal starts on the song playing on the background music speaker. It's that deeply ingrained in all us ex-DJs.

And to Peter: yes, there are some of us who specifically come to blogs like this so we can escape the constant political sniping everywhere else. I get it: you wanted Hillary. You don't like Trump. Grrrrrr!!!! Okay, noted, now let's get back to the topic everyone else was discussing.

Pat Reeder said...

To Don R: Ah yes, the notorious blue cards! I was doing evenings on one of the top-rated stations in Dallas, one known for its personality DJs and talent-listener personal connection. They brought in a new PD who ordered us to start saying only what was on the cards, like human tape cart machines. Our popular morning guy quit. The rest of us were forced to do as told. Naturally, the ratings tanked, and of course, the PD blamed us DJs (who were only doing as he ordered) and fired all of us. That didn't help the ratings. I'm happy to say he was the next to get canned, and shortly thereafter, I heard he was no longer in radio. Too bad he didn't find his true calling before he ruined a good station and his stupidity cost us all our jobs.

Steve said...

I always thought DJs did that because they were worried someone might be trying to tape their favourite songs off the radio (something kids did to save a buck before there were mp3s) and wanted to ruin it for them.

jean satzer said...

I didn't think it was a dig. A lot of actors do not do nude scenes, they use a body double. And Turner is past the age of doing nude scenes, requiring a body double. And she was in a movie called ... Body Double. Not a dig.

ChipO said...

"as part of his mission to take the job of as many workers in as many fields as he can"
writes the baseball announcer, disc jockey, comedy writer, director, playwright, and author (what did I leave out?)

Ken Levine said...

ChipO,

You left out that I don't make any money doing any of those things. That a lot of what I provide is free.

DestinJohn said...

I still bust out the DJ voice over while listening to the car radio. It makes my wife laugh.

Dave from WI said...

Other great songs or artists with great intros to hit the post with....almost any Eddie Money song...Billy Joel, Quarterflash, Chicago, ELO! earth, Wind and Fire....just to name a few. Only major market morning shows have any live people
Dave from Wisconsin

gman said...

Part of me says of course I miss talking up to the intros. What a rush it was especially during the golden age of top 40 radio from the Beatles era thru the 80s. It was what I looked forward to grabbing those ear phones turning them up real loud for another air shift. Who was worried about hearing loss.

The other part of me says I wish I would have worked harder on the more down to earth one on one communication rather than the bigger than life jock persona.

I was a big Larry Lujack fan from the time he was on KJR Seattle. He had the perfect balance.