I'll never be a Kirby Carmichael or a Melissa Chase, but for a long time, I thought about volunteering at a community or college station, where fewer vocal acrobatics are required.
That assumption held true, but you do need to enunciate, give the call letters at the top of the hour, read two public-service announcements, keep songs cued up and — above all — not allow bad words to cross the airwaves. A "hell" or "damn" in a song is forgivable, but nothing beyond that or you could get fined by the FCC, cautions Phil Ford, my mentor at WRIR 97.3 FM, Richmond Independent Radio.
Phil, whose full-time job is running Richmond Public Library's Bookmobile, hosts Friday Breakfast Blend from 6 to 8 a.m., an eye-opener of a show with a mix of Japanese and French pop, Gypsy punk, fast-paced alt-rock, and the occasional William Shatner ditty. He often chooses songs on the fly, staying about two tunes ahead of what's playing. WRIR's DJ training schedule is three sessions long, with increased responsibility (and fear, at least for this trainee) each week.
RIR sounds low-key to listeners, but the studio is anything but. I learned how chaotic it can get during my third session, when I was responsible for an hour or so of programming. During week two, I created a 20-minute playlist on my iPod, which kept things running smoothly, but Phil said I needed to know how to cue up the four CD players. So, for week three, I dug up some Beck, Lauryn Hill, Ben Folds Five — notice anything? They're more than a decade old and not terribly indie, because buying a whole album instead of downloading a 99-cent single is a big commitment. I haven't bought CDs regularly since I got my iPod four years ago, but that's changing. I visited the budget bin at Plan 9 recently.
Phil saved me from dead air a couple of times. Switching between CDs and MP3s is a bit more complicated than it would seem.
To get a broader perspective, I talked with Janet Lundy, the station's music program director. She hosts the Thursday Breakfast Blend , but her style is the polar opposite of Phil's. She takes an average of eight hours to plan out her weekly playlist, which is saved on her laptop. This meticulous style originated when she had a 3 to 6 a.m. shift. "At 4:30 in the morning, you get a little spacey," Janet notes.
Despite all of the responsibility, DJing is a lot of fun. It's like playing the world, or at least the immediate area, your own mixtape, Phil notes.
In the station's music library, which lines the walls of the studio, a volunteer-written synopsis is in each jewel case, recommending certain songs and letting us know if any are not FCC safe.
Many of the bands may not be familiar to a casual music listener, or even a halfway serious one. I prided myself on my musical knowledge until I heard Phil wax rhapsodic about Polysics and Molice, two Japanese rock bands, and other groups I'd never heard of. It's up to me to become familiar with a wider array of music if I hope to make the substitute-DJ list.
Janet compares a WRIR show to a cupcake — unfamiliar but good music should make up the cake, but it's OK to include a few more widely played songs, because they may attract listeners to the obscure stuff. She likens those songs to sprinkles on top of the icing: "You try to make sure the whole show isn't sprinkles."