Back in the 1970s, radio meant the world to many a folk. One avid fan of album rock station WNEW-FM, he says;
“I learned more about music from its disc jockeys than I had as a musician. They didn’t call the program director and afternoon DJ Scott Muni ‘the Professor’ for nothing. One could hear a WNEW DJ, on a whim, play a set of Tom Lehrer, just because it was germane to something he or she had said. Morning man Dave Herman could play something as starkly not-rock as Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano every morning. They made radio spontaneous, interesting, and fun.
During fall 1977, as a Rutgers freshman in my first media and Journalism class and already one of the main DJs on the campus radio station, I came upon an article in one of the music business trades about WYNY-FM in New York, formerly WNBC-FM. The station had recently changed format to what it then called ‘adult pop.’ I found the format more troubling than fascinating, but the method of delivery rocked my world. NBC had decided to automate the station. Computers would run the whole thing, even cuing the DJ, who would be known thereafter as an “announcer,” and later as “on-air talent.” The innovation became the topic of my first major college paper.
A dearth of available literature on the subject meant that most of the paper would have to rely on firsthand observation. So I went to the station, talked to the station’s GM (a very young – though not as young as I was – Bob Pittman), and sat for an hour with the announcer. The announcer’s booth and the control room both showed signs of the recent construction. On one wall was the announcer’s booth, with just a 12-inch wide, square Plexiglass window as its link to the outside. The booth looked like someone had just put it up; no one had even primed or painted the raw wallboard. Through the double pane, one could see the opposite wall, where about 20 feet of then-state-of-the-art radio automation machinery stretched from one end of the room to the other. Two floor-to-ceiling apparatuses held about 200 tape cartridges into the “play” position. I recognised the tape cartridges from the college radio station – we used these tapes for the songs that the program director deemed “in rotation” – the songs literally rotated.
In the center of all this was another device I recognised, a circa-1977 computer, complete with a half-inch drive transporting a reel of tape from spool to spool. It stood about six feet tall, and controlled the whole thing. It primarily operated a new program, created specially for automated stations, called Selector.
In the booth, the announcer, who until several weeks earlier had actually had a hands-on relationship with the music he played, sat with a dot-matrix-printed list of the songs that would play during his shift. Also listed were the commercials and breaks during which he had to back-announce the earlier tracks, read an advertisement, and then preannounce the next song.
In his book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, Richard Neer recalls when Selector came to WNEW:
Computers were just beginning to be used to program stations. The knee-jerk reaction is that this represents a bad trend, and certainly, given the direction radio has taken in the last decade there is justification for that viewpoint. But the computer saves the jocks and programmers a lot of work by replacing… paperwork with a mouse click… Despite some initial bugs, Selector works at most radio stations where the music director simply feeds songs into it and the computer spits them out at random.
The music could then be perfectly balanced according to the factors the PD views as important.
Nearly 30 years later, both Selector and automation have taken over radio. Between 85 and 90 percent of all radio stations use this program to create their playlists. Some maverick stations remain free-form; some use other programs. The automation has gone from a wall worth of equipment to a desktop PC with the music on a hard drive. But it has changed the entire gestalt commercial radio.
As Neer notes, the program itself is not inherently evil. For six years I worked with Selector in what may well be the purpose for which it is best suited, programming an automated, 24/7/365 music service with no advertising or “on-air talent.”