Network: How to give a DJ an easy life

My Technology; Heart FM Radio's David Jensen and his state-of-the-art Denon CD system, with selector.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When I first started in radio, we had passed the cylinder stage by then, but not vinyl. That was 30 years ago. Each technical component for the radio show was independent of every other; at Radio Luxembourg I would arrive and do my programme in a room separate from where the engineering, the commercials and the music played. We broadcast in the middle of a park in a chateau with a moat, and our studio was simply a round table. The commercials and jingles played off quarter-inch tapes put on massive, open-ended 18-in discs, tightly wound and pinned on to sprockets. Some of that technical equipment was installed when Lord Haw Haw was broadcasting! (Just to digress - we had huge metal discs with German writing we would use as Frisbees. Eventually we discovered that these discs were recordings of Lord Haw Haw's broadcasts, real archives worth money. But by then, they had been dumped.)

Radio Luxembourg was a leading modern station. But it was different for me to be working somewhere where I wasn't in control. We did hand-signals and hoped the guy had come back from the loo or from getting a cup of tea. For instance, to turn the microphone off you rubbed your index finger across your throat (and for hours would have a red line across your throat). The technology was rudimentary, but at least it worked. A listener could hear the mistakes. One of the skills of live radio is to paper over the cracks; some of it is your own doing, and you should never blame technology, ever, ever. But, with hindsight, it was an odd way to broadcast.

I went from there in the mid-Seventies to Radio Nottingham. It was always my aim to move to Britain, as pirate radio was all the rage so there was plenty of opportunity. When the government shut them down I went to the BBC. The BBC virtually built and designed all the audio equipment then. For instance, everywhere else you turned faders away for increased volume, but at the Beeb they were the other way round. It was like learning to drive on the other side of the road.

In the late-Eighties CDs came in. Before then every radio station had three turntables, two you used and one as standby. At Radio 1, they spent a lot of money on an instant turntable; you used to have to cue records, back them up several inches from the start point, because there was a slow start-up. It was a real big deal to have instant-start turntables. They were pretty chunky bits of machinery, not at all decorous. But previously if you coughed, moved or banged your knee, the record would jump.

Here, as a fail-safe thing our CDs are played in a plastic envelope. It's like a floppy disk. For a presenter CDs were great, because the thought of taking vinyl out of its wrapper, cueing it up in the hope that it would start when you wanted, became a real chore. In the past few years fewer and fewer radio stations have had turntables any more; they are consigned to clubs and antiques stores. Everyone uses Denon CD machines now.

It's pretty user-friendly. And we are always given training on how to use them. A listener who is pretty alert can sometimes tell when new technology has been brought into the studio but I like to think we are able to cover up those little mistakes.

Here at Heart it's completely different. Two screens have taken the place of paper and CDs; one screen gives you the running-order of what is happening at any particular time in the hour you are on, and the other plays the music. We are not physically putting in CDs any more. Our system is RCS. There are about 4,000 titles on the hard disk and new titles are added each week. Basically, a computer system schedules the music and we give it certain rules, such as: these are the 10 most popular of the week.

The programme is called Selector and it's universally used. The difference between our system and elsewhere is that our Selector system interfaces with the hard disk. So instead of spewing out a piece of paper and going to find the CD, it is there on the screen for the DJ. So all the DJ does is hit the button, and the next song begins.

This is, without a doubt, the easiest system I have ever worked with. But as with all technology you can never really be complacent; you can never sit back and say, "that is great", because if you do it will bite you. If you treat it well you will be rewarded with a system that plays out your programme for you.

The thought of not actually touching music was odd at first. But I suppose that, in a way, it's no more different from going from a manual transmission to automatic; you get used to it. And the ethos of the studio itself hasn't changed; it's still an environment I love - the excitement and "aliveness" haven't changed. Our job has just been made easier by having this machinery doing this stuff for us.

`The Drivetime Show' is on every weekday, Heart106.2, 4pm-7pm

Comments