Help Not Wanted

Thanks to voicetracking, radio stations need fewer DJs than ever before.

 Jackie Selby certainly isn't a radio novice. A native of Scottsdale, Arizona, she's been a disc jockey since the '80s and has held high-profile roles at stations in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Vail. This trend continued after her 1994 move to Denver, where she was heard first on the Peak and later on Alice.

But in January, her bosses at Alice gave her the heave-ho as part of a cost-cutting move by Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, which owned the outlet at the time -- and despite her skills and the high esteem with which she's held in the local radio community, she's yet to find anything new.

"It's really tough for talent right now," Selby concedes. "There are fewer and fewer jobs out there, and more people looking for them."

Thanks to cost-cutting measures, veteran 
DJ Jackie Selby is without a job.
Anna Newell
Thanks to cost-cutting measures, veteran DJ Jackie Selby is without a job.

A big reason for that is voicetracking, a technique in which DJs record their contributions in advance for subsequent placement in broadcasts. A primitive version of this system debuted in Colorado in 1992 courtesy of Rocky Mountain Radio Network, which interlinked stations in Vail-Avon, Aspen, Hayden, Gunnison and Sun Valley, Idaho. At the time, the notion that a single jock could helm shows at six stations simultaneously, as was commonplace on RMRN, was so startling that industry publications Billboard and Radio Ink both profiled the firm.

But by decade's end, many of the country's larger radio ownership groups had adopted the method, and voicetracking stars began to develop. One such secret celebrity was Brian Christopher, nicknamed B.C., whose 7 p.m.-to-midnight weekday show on the Fox, Denver's most popular classic-rock station, actually originated in Panama City, Florida ("Live From Denver -- Almost," December 16, 1999).

Today B.C. can still be heard on the Fox from his Florida studio, albeit at a different time, 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays. But his program is hardly the only one on the station that utilizes voicetracking. Lamont & Tonelli, the Fox team heard in Denver from 8 to 11 p.m., is actually the early crew on KSJO, which serves San Francisco and San Jose. And that's not to mention the so-called "second shift" of Fox regulars Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax; their live morning program is compressed to two hours in length and rebroadcast weekdays beginning at 6 p.m.

Why do so few listeners realize how commonplace voicetracking has become? For one thing, the computers and other assorted doodads that make it possible have improved exponentially since the early '90s, virtually guaranteeing a seamless presentation. Moreover, the approach isn't quite as impersonal as satellite broadcasting, in which programming is beamed from a central location to distant branches (and now to individual drivers); it allows DJs to tailor material for each locale, thereby giving listeners in towns big and small the illusion that the person they're hearing is speaking to them live from nearby when that's often not the case.

In addition, voicetracking gives jocks the tools to complete multiple shows for assorted markets during the span it previously took to make only one, thereby saving a considerable amount of money for stations. Gregg Stone, better known to listeners of hard-rocking KBPI as Uncle Nasty, is among the most in-demand voicetrackers in Denver; he says he gets paid about one-third of what a DJ in a given market would receive for each station he voicetracks for.

Whether voicetracking results in better radio is a subject of debate. But there's no doubt that the practice has resulted in fewer DJs being heard from coast to coast. During overnight periods and on weekends, in particular, live broadcasts are becoming rarer than an uncooked steak. Selby laments this fact. "If it's snowing on Sunday morning, voicetracking isn't going to tell you that," she notes. "And if you want to go mountain biking and you want to know about traffic on I-70, voicetracking won't give you clue one. There's the basic expectation among listeners that there's a live DJ on that box when they're listening to you; they don't expect you to be recorded. But a lot of times, you are."

Mike O'Connor, director of FM programming for Clear Channel Denver, concedes that point. But in the age of media consolidation, he has to deal with economic realities -- and the fact remains that Clear Channel, which lost over $365 million in 2001's fourth quarter despite an enormous portfolio that includes 1,200 radio stations, has stockholders to satisfy. "Wall Street drives all of this," he says. "It's about reducing costs and improving operating margins. There are two ways to do that: You could fire all the disc jockeys and segue into music, or you can use technology to make better talent go further. And we believe that a great talent in Denver can be a great talent in Tampa."

Examples of this philosophy abound among Clear Channel types in these parts. For instance, JoJo Turnbeaugh, known here for his work on KISS-FM, voicetracks stations in Fargo, North Dakota; Waco, Texas; and Atlanta. Even busier is Robbie Knight, midday host for the Fox, who does imaging, or station promotion, for outlets in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Baltimore, and also supplies programs for stations in Albuquerque; Medford, Oregon; Asheville, North Carolina; and Santa Maria, California.

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1 comments
ncaagoalie
ncaagoalie

I goal tended vs Stock back in the day and he was awesome!  Unfortunately I got a chance to get to know him later in life and he was the biggest pussy and in love with himself guy I have ever met.  The dude had never been in a fight in his life and he was just a coke and alcohol addict masquerading as something he was not.  (a tough guy)  At least I respected him as a soccer player, but as a person he was a drug addicted loser who wasn't interested in having friends, just having stooges around him to sooth his massive insecurity and feel like the coolest and best looking dude in the room.  Sam was intimidated by others who were better looking, tougher, smarter or better than himself and did not want those people around him.  He surrounded himself by losers to boost his shameless ego.  It is one thing to burn out as a rock star, but to burn out as a wanna be, talentless, punker hack is hilarious!  Quit glorifying drug addicts!  They are losers.

 
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