By Joel Warner
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Brian Christopher, known to his loyal listeners as B.C., mans the 7 p.m.-to-midnight slot weekdays on the Fox, and he does so with an extremely local slant, talking knowledgeably about Denver happenings and interacting directly with Colorado callers who make the classic-rock requests that dominate the program. But there are a few things about B.C. that most of his fans don't know.
To wit: Christopher doesn't do his request-fest from Denver, but from his home studio in Panama City, Florida -- and the only portion of the presentation that's live is the first hour. By the time Denverites hear him sign off for the last time each night, he's likely been asleep for hours. As well he should be: During a typical day, he also does a morning show for the folks in Panama City and an afternoon-drive shift that airs in...San Diego?
A couple of comparatively new technologies make Christopher's transcontinental radio gymnastics possible: WAN-casting (the first three letters stand for "wide-area network") and voicetracking. The former gives a disc jockey in any fully wired part of the country complete access to a given outlet's music library. As a result, says Fox program director Mike O'Connor, "A DJ can do his show following the prescribed formula for our radio station from a distant location" with studio-quality sound, not the buzzy/clicky tone associated with calls over standard phone lines. Voicetracking, meanwhile, allows Christopher, with the help of a local producer (in the case of the Fox, Scott Less), to speak directly to Denver listeners about their favorite tunes, or whatever. Some of these conversations are heard live, but many others are taped and sprinkled throughout the subsequent four hours of airtime, when Christopher is no longer sitting in front of his microphone. Christopher also records the occasional rap, plus some generic phone greetings along the lines of, "You're on the air with B.C. What would you like to hear?" Producer Less then splices this query together with a sound bite from a caller making a request. When the song in question spins seconds later, it seems for all the world that B.C. is doing the listener's bidding even though they never actually spoke. O'Connor concedes that with some judicious editing, longer, more ornate back-and-forth chats could be simulated, but he says "that's maybe taking fakery perhaps one step too far. We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes."
That's debatable: Christopher doesn't talk about being in Florida on his show, and the Fox's Web site, www.thefox.com, makes no mention of it. Moreover, the results are so seamless that even people familiar with the media can be fooled by them: When MSNBC yakker John Gibson filled in for KHOW's Peter Boyles a number of months ago, lawyer/pundit Larry Pozner drove to the station with the intention of taking him to lunch -- only to learn that Gibson was doing the show from the East Coast.
Granted, it's still simpler for a station to run a syndicated program than a WAN-cast. But the disadvantage of syndication is its lack of local content. In the B.C. model, however, a station can take advantage of national-caliber air talent while at the same time speaking to the station's audience about things directly relevant to it.
Couldn't a local DJ do this in a much more uncomplicated way? Probably. But there's another consideration: money. O'Connor, one of the straightest shooters in local media, lays it out: Rather than having some $18,000-a-year kid hosting your nighttime show on a station in a small market, you can spend eight or nine thousand dollars on a top DJ doing a WAN-cast. And it works in a Denver-sized market just as well. Brian Christopher is a DJ that would cost me $100,000 to grab: He's that good. But with this technology, we're able to have him do a customized show for Denver for a much lower cost."
According to O'Connor, Clear Channel, the Texas conglomerate that owns the Fox, is on the leading edge of WAN-casting, and he expects the practice to become much more prevalent. He predicts that a number of other local radio figures, possibly including the Fox's Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax, will add shows for other cities to their agendas after the first of the year. Another prospect for such duty is KBCO's Oz, who had been doing a custom show for a Santa Monica, California, broadcaster until the impending divestiture of the station brought the gig to an end.
O'Connor doesn't soft-peddle the negatives inherent in this trend. He acknowledges that fledgling DJs will potentially have a harder time getting started in small markets, and suggests that wannabe jocks in bigger areas may have to slide through the door via, for instance, the promotions department. He also warns that "there's a risk for the industry if the technology is over-utilized. Radio stations, through their heavy amounts of research and fine-tuning of formats, have not allowed a lot of young talent to develop into personalities; they've been restricted to reading liner cards. That's one of the reasons why we've had such a terrible time finding good morning shows over the last two decades, and why so many stations have taken the easy way out and picked up one from the satellite."