When you join our radio station, after you go through the process of shadowing shows, working the board, and passing the written test you come up to the final test: on-air clearance. This is about a fifteen minute long period of time where you are going to be left on your own, and you have to show that you’re capable of doing everything that will be required of you on your show. It’s a simple process to look back on because all that it truly tests is whether or not you feel comfortable being on the air yet, but it also provides you with a bit of a defining point. This is the first chance that you have ever gotten to choose a song to play over the radio.
This ‘defining first song’ theory admittedly doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of what your show will be, but I would bet that 90% of our DJs they would say that the first song that they played over the air meant something to them. For me I didn’t choose to go with a classic or something trendy at the time to define myself, I went with a message: “Most People Are DJs” by the Hold Steady.
This was a comforting notion in my mind. There was a bit of doubt about whether or not I was actually qualified to be a DJ, to be the guy who decides for other people what music they are going to listen to next. In reality it takes a lot of confidence in your music taste to be able to take this step, and while I knew I had a good taste in music I wasn’t sure if it was going to be good enough for me to feel deserving. I knew it was something that I wanted to do badly though, and I entered the station despite my fears with the mentality that most people in this world are DJs, and I was going to find my way at the station in time.
Most of us are DJs in some way. We all have found songs that worked really well back to back while we walked with headphones on from class to class. We’ve all been at a party and thought about what track would be perfect to hear right now. What more is a radio show than organizing a set-list, a mix tape, and letting that play itself out. If the masses like it, than great, if not, who cares? The wisest advice I’ve heard since joining the station came from DJ Show at a meeting when he stated to just play what you like, and other people out there will like it to. You don’t need to know what the public is hoping to hear because for the most part they don’t know what they’re hoping to hear, all that they want is good song selection and good transitions. If they want to hear a song, they can use the request line.
I’ve been a DJ with WCDB now for about two years, and I’ve stayed very active within the organization and developed my radio show into something that’s routinely well done, at least in my opinion. I was thinking about my first song recently and why I chose it, and it made me consider whether or not I still did believe that most people are DJs. The true points are still true, but I saw more faults in the logic after actually being one for an extended period of time. For one, DJ is shortened for disk jockey, and even I don’t work with turntables or record players. In that sense surely most of us aren’t DJs, but I like to use the term in a more loose sense where it’s an accurate label to anyone organizing and playing music for the masses. One of the largest differences in being a DJ in this sense is how you control your transitions. It’s not acceptable to do what you do on your iPod where you wait for song A to end and then click on song B. Two seconds of dead air can truthfully destroy an entire mood which your show was attempting to create, you have to find a way to make the ending of one blend into or introduce the next. You learn to appreciate the art of doing that so much more from the experience of being a DJ, and it’s a common courtesy to be quiet in the on-air studio while a song is about to end so whoever is on the air can find the right way to do it. It’s a serious thing that takes time to get down.
Another large difference that came to my mind was how genres were defined. The way that I usually categorize songs in my head that I play are into loose categories of Alternative-Rock, Alternative-Folk, and Alternative-Pop. The point of stating this is to say just how wide and expansive those labels are, and just how much of a variation of artists is within each. For instance, I view both Belle & Sebastian and Of Montreal as Alternative-Pop, but you have to understand that there aren’t going to be many good transitions you can make between those two artists. There’s some odd sub-genres which mesh together and some sounds that seem compatible with each other despite being categorized as completely different. You can’t just choose twenty-five pop songs and order them, you’ve got to play around with it a bit to make sure that you have it in a good order with compatible moods and sounds. Everything should make sense, everything should be in the right place.
My initial viewpoint that most people are DJs is still true in my mind. Most of us are capable of throwing together a playlist that an audience will enjoy, but there’s a difference between that and what people do on the radio. The nice part is that it’s not hard to learn how to do it for the radio, and you get introduced to a ton of great new music in the process and meet some really great people who shared your interest. In closing, most people are DJs, but few of them are trained.
For some added fun, here’s the full playlist of my on-air test.
The Hold Steady- Most People Are Djs
Spoon- Don’t You Evah
Okkervil River- Rider
The National- Secret Meeting
The Strokes- Between Love & Hate
The New Pornographers- The Laws Have Changed
The Black Keys- Everlasting Light
Wilco- I’m Always In Love
Beirut- A Candle’s Fire