Since the early days of radio broadcasting, the disc jockey or DJ has been an essential part of radio, not just playing records but serving as an intermediary between the listening audience and the stars of popular music. Disc jockeys enjoyed the most influence on their listeners in the 1950s and 1960s, when they introduced new music to Americans and made rock and roll the dominant force in youth culture.
In the first two decades of radio in the United States, the person who introduced records and made station announcements was usually a technician who worked the broadcast equipment. It was a policy of the large radio networks to avoid recorded sound as much as possible and rely on live programming. Thus there was little call for disc jockeys in the 1920s and 1930s. The radio networks were forced to drop their opposition to canned music as their studio musicians were called up to join the armed forces in the 1940s. Thus began the rise of the radio announcer who played recordings on the air, the so-called disc jockey.
The most popular was Martin Block, whose "Make Believe Ballroom" invited listeners to a pretend concert and entertained them with humor and records. His program was networked in the 1940s and reached a national audience. The monopoly of the three national radio networks—NBC, CBS and ABC—was broken in the 1950s and this allowed many small independent stations to go on the air. Lacking the programming resources of the great networks, the independent stations relied on recorded music. The man spinning the records also made commercial announcements and read the news. At this time an estimated 75 percent of all programming on American radio came from records, providing many job opportunities for young men with ambitions in the music industry. Many important entertainers, record producers, and entrepreneurs of the 1950s got their start on local radio
stations playing records, including Bill Haley, Norman Petty, and Sam Phillips.
African Americans in southern cities and urban ghettos in the Northeast were an important new market for independent radio and many urban stations began to realign their programs to suit a predominately African American audience. Ownership of black radio remained in the hands of whites, but gradually black disc jockeys were allowed to broadcast. It was this group that began to play rhythm and blues records and create a new kind of radio personality who was to inaugurate the era of rock and roll.
Most radio announcers maintained a dignified demeanor and spoke in clear, correct English, but some African American disc jockeys broke all the rules of on-air behavior and invented outrageous alter egos for themselves. Their antics were rapidly copied by their white counterparts, who also stole the most commercial songs from their playlists and introduced them to the great white teenaged audience.
It is significant that the term "rock and roll" was coined by a white disc jockey from Cleveland, who played rhythm and blues records and created an entertaining on-air personality for himself. Alert to telephone requests and the sales of records in local stores, Alan Freed responded quickly to the growing appeal of R&B and turned his show into a showcase for the music. In 1951 he started to call it rock and roll. Such was the success of his "Moondog's Rock and Roll Party" that he moved to New York in 1954 and a much larger audience. The program climbed to the top of the ratings chart as rock music became more and more popular. Freed was America's most influential disc jockey, a conduit through which the "race" music of the 1940s became the rock and roll music of the 1950s.
The disc jockey of the late 1950s and early 1960s was an extremely important figure in the business of popular music. Radio play constituted the main form of promoting a record and many stations allowed the disc jockey to choose what records were to be broadcast. He decided which up-and-coming bands would get the radio play essential to selling records and moving up to bigger audiences and better paying shows. Disc jockeys found that repeated play of a record could make it a hit and the mythology of rock and roll is full of stories of unknown performers becoming stars overnight because of a radio personality who "broke" the record to his listening audience. Disc jockeys did a lot more than play records—they managed bands, promoted tours and public appearances, acted as master of ceremonies in rock shows, and became friends and advisors to the stars. Their name would share equal billing on the billboard of a typical rock and roll performance of the 1950s and early 1960s, as announcer and promoter. They became active intermediaries between rock and roll musicians and their audiences. Several of them, such as Alan Freed and "Murray the K" Kaufman, became stars of popular culture in their own right. Murray the K of station WINS of New York played an important part in introducing American youth to the Beatles during their first tour of the United States in 1964. Kaufman certainly promoted the Beatles but his position on the Beatles' bandwagon also helped his own career and his station.
The great power enjoyed by disc jockeys in the marketing of recordings encouraged corruption. The practice of "payola" (a contraction of "pay" and "Victrola") in which the disc jockey was bribed with money or a share of the publishing rights of the song was widely used to get airplay. The smaller record companies commonly paid disc jockeys and juke box operators to use their recordings. This practice came under scrutiny of the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of the 1950s and the ensuing Payola scandal ended the careers of several influential disc jockeys, including that of Alan Freed. The payola scandal was only one of the factors reducing the power of disc jockeys in the 1960s. The move to the Top 40 format—in which the playlist was based on the Billboard charts—narrowed down the choice of records to be played, and the gradual consolidation of the radio industry—with one business organization controlling several stations—often took the decision about what records were to be played out of the hands of the on-air staff.
The great technological watershed of the late 1960s and 1970s was the migration from AM to FM broadcast bands, which brought a significant increase in sound quality and encouraged stations to use high fidelity long playing records rather than the 45 rpm singles that had been the staple of commercial radio for two decades. The typical disc jockey of the FM album-oriented station was much quieter and unobtrusive compared with the radio personalities of the 1950s and 1960s. The person playing the records was expected to have more knowledge of the music and indulge in less histrionics. Women were now finding it easier to get jobs in radio stations as the archetype of the disc jockey was recast.
Although disc jockeys were still instrumental in finding new music and introducing new performers, their power in popular music was in constant decline in the 1970s and 1980s. Commercial radio relied less on the individual in front of the microphone and more on the programming director and market analyst to chose the records to be played. The flamboyant radio personality survived only on the morning show; the rest of the days broadcast was handled by anonymous interchangeable voices. Disc jockeys did find opportunities to set themselves up as independent businessmen who played parties and clubs. The creation of rap and hip-hop came out of the activities of disc jockeys in the New York area, who kept the records playing while "toasters" or master of ceremonies spoke over and in between the music. The introduction of music television in the 1980s raised expectations that the presenter would wield some influence but the "vee jay" proved as disposable and ephemeral as his or her counterpart on the radio. The continuing pattern of consolidation in the American radio industry in the 1990s ensured that the disc jockey would be the person playing the records not the unique performer influencing musical trends and making the stars of popular culture.
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