WHAT DOES A CLASSICAL DJ DO BETWEEN SELECTIONS?
AN INSIDER'S STORY FROM BEHIND THE MICROPHONE
by Jim Stokes
(copyright, 2001, James H. Stokes)
[Foreword -- This account from my radio life is excerpted from my longer
work, "A Radio DJ Life," an anecdotal collection about what really went on
behind-the-microphone in classical radio as well as other radio formats,
from the 60s through the mid-70s. For full details, my E-mail is
SETTING THE SCENE
Ever wonder what a classical music (CM) DJ does while the music plays? Drawing
upon my own experience as a CM DJ -- and it's similar to work at other radio
stations -- it wasn't spent dozing, reading poetry, or drinking espresso
with my feet up on the console! A plethora of duties befall any DJ when he's
not on the air. It's more so when classical records may easily play a half
hour or more, rather than the three minute pop music selections.
Well yes, there still may be those rarified atmospheres in broadcasting where
the announcer can read a book between breaks, as was the case in the bygone
days of television booth announcing. However, nowadays that task is mostly
pre-recorded. And there are the Sunday morning pre-recorded religious and
public affairs programs, where an announcer might doze a bit between station
breaks. But that's far from the norm, when you consider that the frenzied
"rock jock" only gets a potty break during the news.
I had the distinction of being the last full time announcer/operations director
at WLOL-FM -- "the Twin Cities Voice of Classical Music" -- from 1972 to
1975. It was one of the most memorable experiences in my life, proving that
real life overwhelms fiction.
The GM (general manager) Ray Ose and I were the only full-time employees.
There was a part-time weekend announcer as well. Therefore, it was a small
operation that was destined to get even smaller, since the programming would
eventually become easy-listening music pre-recorded tapes, replacing all
live air talent.
A LEGACY OF COMMERCIAL CLASSICS
The station itself, located at 99.5 MHZ on the FM dial, had the distinction
of being the first commercial all-classical station in the area. And it was
one of the first licensed FM stations in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market
-- which we call the "Twin Cities."
I spun the last classical tune on the turntable, Delius' "Prelude to Irmelin"
with Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic. That wonderful low string
counterpoint "groan" in the song said it better than any words about the
format change. And it was some form of poetic justice since it was also the
same hauntingly beautiful theme for New York's WQXR noontime classics show.
After the last note of that dreamy music, the format changed from CM to
fully-automated beautiful "elevator" music.
Ironically and prior to the programming switch, WLOL-FM enjoyed a popularity
that showed up in the Arbitron listener surveys for the first time. We had
"numbers." We can sell more ads! Alas, it was too late to rescue the format.
But more on that later in this article.
Here's the Monday through Friday program schedule, before the format switched
from classics to elevator music. In addition, weekends were mostly pre-recorded
automation tapes, except for certain specialized live-in-studio block
programming, which included opera records with live commentary and a live
German records DJ show. A pre-recorded Scandinavian music program and an
organ music program were also run in automation.
GENERAL MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY SCHEDULE
6am-8am -- Live morning drive with GM Ray Ose
8am-5pm -- Pre-recorded automation tapes
(5pm-10pm -- Live programming, as described below, which was my night DJ
5-6 -- "The Golden Hour" -- "Afternoon drive" light classics (between commercials
6-7 -- Sealy Dinner Hour (aka "Silly Dinner Hour" to us), sponsored by the
Sealy Mattress Company. Light classics in quarter hour segments.
8-9 -- Longer works, sponsored by Northern States Power Company
9-10 -- Classics -- mix of light music and excerpts from ballets
10-Midnight -- Pre-recorded tape, recorded on duty by night CM DJ
Midnight-6am -- Simulcast with WLOL-AM Talk Radio
"THE GOLDEN HOUR"
My night shift started at 5 p.m. with what we insiders called "music between
the commercials." Privately, I called it "the golden hour" for a couple of
reasons. First, what little commercial time that was sold during the playing
of automation tapes was certainly made up in this "golden hour."
Secondly, during this "afternoon drive" hour I got to play whatever musical
gems fit in between the commercials. I used a lot British light music from
a little niche of uncatalogued records in the music library, which also included
concert waltzes, Broadway show songs, marches, and an interesting collection
of production music from Radio Netherlands. Quite a motley album cache!
And never mind if the records aren't all stereo, since light music took an
unfortunate nose dive about the time that rock music dominated the air waves
and stereophonic records took over as well. Consequently, there was not a
lot of light music re-recorded or re-channeled into stereo since the record
companies had discovered a gold mine in rock music.
Amazingly, people would stop their cars on their way home from work and call
in from pay phones, since this was the age before cell phones; and ask where
they could get the music. Sure enough, most of the inquiries were for the
mono tracks. So, we were caught in the quandary between playing fabulous
out of print mono cuts or play newly recorded stereo "cliché classics"
like "Greensleeves" and "Clair de Lune," which were highly available in record
stores, but ruinous to any imaginative, fresh programming.
The problem of finding refreshing but neglected, non-cliché, light
music was solved by laboriously going through our heavy backlog of yet
uncatalogued new stereo records and making a separate Light Music file. In
the process, I discovered little gems that were used to fill out longer,
featured works on albums.
Some of those discoveries included shorter works by such composers as Lars
Eric Larrson, Elgar, and German. This new file also helped add new selections
to the Sealy Dinner Hour, which relied on short cuts as well, and the new
batch of automation tapes that we recording ourselves, replacing the older
syndicated program tapes.
GOLDEN HOUR MUSIC
At this point, I want to salute Capitol/EMI for several stellar LPs, a couple
of which I have now and continue to play at home. Whatever technology Capitol/EMI
used to record these European performances and whatever groove technology
went into the manufacture, these vinyl records have held up to this day!
"London Pops," with its closeup Rolls Royce album cover had an extraordinary
collection of light music, with George Weldon conducting the Pro Arte Orchestra.
The LP included my favorites, Alan Langford's (Alan Owen) "Waltz for String
Orchestra", Haydn Wood's concert waltz 'Joyousness' from his "Moods" orchestra
suite, and Anthony Collins' "Vanity Fair." I've yet to see an album like
this with the aforementioned along with other light concert melodies by Coates,
Elgar, German, Fletcher, Quilter, Tomlinson, Bayco, Vinter, Dexter, and Curzon.
Another Capitol/EMI LP worthy of mention had Britten's Matinees Musicales
and Soirees Musicales, and Malcolm Arnold's English Dances and Scottish Dances,
played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Irving.
Then from among the steady stream of new LPs, I discovered a most unusual
album, whose music would fit nearly every program format we had. It was an
RCA recording with Igor Buketoff conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
in Arnold Bax' Overture to a Picaresque Comedy. It was Bax at his usual best,
with this piece going back, astonishingly, to 1931. People would call and
ask what movie it was from. It could have been a score from a British
comedy/adventure movie. Music on this same record by other Brits included
Richard Rodney Bennett's "Symphony #1" and Lennox Berkeley's "Divertimento
And I'll leave this discussion of favorites with one piece also worthy of
mention. It's Don Banks' "Coney Island," played by the Sinfonia of London,
conducted by Douglas Gamley on Capitol. This piece has special significance
because when I was stationed in the army at Governor's Island, New York,
it was often played by WPAT, the light music station in Paterson, New Jersey.
And it made its way onto the play list as well on New York's "classic classical"
station WQXR. Every time I hear this ballet-like concert waltz, I think of
the steamy hot, dreamy summers in New York. It could quickly metaphorically
melt a sub-zero Minneapolis every time I played it on WLOL-FM.
"MR. CLASSICAL MUSIC"
Whatever revenue WLOL-FM took in could largely be attributed to our general
manager, Ray Ose, whom colleagues named "Mr. Classical Music." Ray was a
born salesman, whether trying to sell more radio time or trying to convince
announcers to somehow put in more hours without putting in for more pay.
Always the deal-maker, Ray would bargain with me to put in more hours with
"comp time" in return, which is time off, hour-per-hour, for the extra time
put in. Thus it was overtime without the overtime pay. At that point in my
life, I wanted the time off more than the extra pay, so that was a deal.
Like other devoted salespeople, Ray was obsessed with numbers -- Arbitron
listener ratings, sales figures, sales rates, and the like. A carefree lunch
away from the station, would morph into business talk. He'd figure on a table
napkin how much more revenue a new account might bring in. He never saw him
use a computer! And he would laboriously figure in longhand, carrying the
zeros, even after I tried to explain the convenience of powers of ten.
It was essential that he have that aggressive salesman ethic because, although
the station has its listener niche, it did not have heavy audience ratings.
It was a continual struggle to sell radio time. Later on in this article,
I'll deal with the changing market forces and how that led to a format change.
If you have the stereotype of a classical music station salesman as someone
stately and dressed in a three-piece suit, that wasn't Ray. With his Nordic
blond features and Minnesota farm background, Ray truly resembled a Scandinavian
farmer. He dressed "down home" as well. His year-round business attire came
from an eclectic collection of tweed jackets and dress slacks. And he always
had an earthy "Ole and Lena" joke, designed warm up a sales prospect.
If you've never heard an Ole and Lena joke, here's a printable example. Many
are rather ribald. The spellings, below, reflect Scandinavian speech.
Lena went to the drug store to get some sweet smelling bath soap, so she'd
smell good to Ole.
"Have you tried, Oil of Olay, mam?" asks the clerk?
"Yah sure, yew betcha!" exclaims Lena. "I get Ole's oil on me all dah time
fixin' the tractor. I came here to get somethin' dat smells lots better!"
When overburdened by his constant sales call routine and programming work,
Ray longed for a farm. Not surprising after the classical music format demise,
he eventually bought a farm and divided his time between managing the farm
and advertising sales on his own. In the last couple of years, I've lost
track of him.
"HOW'D YOU GET THIS NEAT JOB?"
When I was a child back on the farm near Britton, South Dakota, I had two
ambitions in life -- to be on the radio and to be in the movies. I've been
incredibly lucky to attain both those goals. That is, a little fame without
fortune. Eventually, I settled on being a CM announcer because they had access
to lots of music. That wish was prompted by my parent's put-down of any
phonograph. "What good is it?" asked my father. "You have to feed it records,
and you can't eat it." One could hardly argue that practical viewpoint!
KUSD, Vermillion, the non-commercial University of South Dakota radio station,
provided my first opportunity to play CM on the air, while I majored in English.
It was there I learned how to say "Vagner," not "Wagner," and the host of
other composers' names correctly.
Along with a university degree, there were two other essential items I acquired
that kept food on my table for many years -- how to type and a First Class
FCC Radiotelephone License. Paradoxical as it seems, the latter was by far
the most basic criteria to getting a job in broadcasting.
There was a very practical reason. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission)
required by law that every broadcasting station had to have a First Class
License holder either on duty at the station or on-call. An option was to
have a Third Class "meter reader" announcer on duty. It was by far preferable
to have a fully licensed "broadcast engineer" on duty just in case an FCC
inspector pulled a surprise inspection. And that does happen. Stations are
known to be fined, or in worst case scenarios lose their license to be on
the air, because the chief engineer was nowhere to be found or the transmitter
logs weren't kept up. Thus the night announcer at a small to mid-sized station
might well be an announcer stumbling over words. He may not have verbal skills,
but by golly, his First Class License is posted on the wall!
To this day, when you visit a radio station, you'll see at least one First
Class FCC License hanging on the wall alongside several Third Class Licenses.
That essential license, aka a "First Phone" or "ticket" could be acquired
by studying long hours from a license study guide, then taking a series of
Third, Second, and finally, the "holy grail" First Class License exam. There
were formal trade schools a person could attend. But if you were already
into electronics as a hobby, which I was, it could be done by many hours
of studying the thick red Kaufman Manual from Ryder Publications. And now
I've lived long enough to be "grandfathered" into a Lifetime "First Phone."
No more running frantically to the nearest FCC office to renew my license
every five years, where if you missed that window of opportunity, you got
to take the test over again. 'Tis a strange set of hoops to jump through!
So there I was back in the summer of 1960 with all the essentials for making
a living in broadcasting. I had a university degree; I knew how to type;
and I had the "First Phone." There followed a succession of jobs at radio
and TV stations in South Dakota and Minnesota, broken only by two years draftee
service in the U.S. Army. Alas, none of those jobs required any knowledge
whatsoever of classical music.
However, that opportunity finally arrived in 1972 when I took a part-time
engineer/producer job at listener talk station WLOL-AM in Minneapolis, which
led to my first commercial CM DJ job at sister station WLOL-FM, which was
tucked away on the opposite side of the same building as the AM.
RIGHT PLACE/RIGHT TIME
Although a few radio announcer jobs come by way of formal audition tapes
and resumes, a great many jobs follow the rule of "right place/right time."
Such was my luck at both WLOL's. At the time, I was the in-house PR and
Audio-Visual Director at a large health agency. A series of provocative and
comic anti-smoking and air quality radio "PSAs" (public service spots) that
I produced got the attention of WLOL-AM. That prompted my "radio bug" to
resurface. And I thought I was all done with radio after my last experience
as a producer/engineer for a frantically-formatted Minneapolis pop music
There's an old radio adage, "hang around a station long enough and they'll
put you on the air." It's true, largely because of the large personnel and
format turnover. I kept coming in the door with my produced PSAs and subject
matter experts for the talk shows. In this case, my return to radio was as
a board operator/producer for WLOL-AM "Talk Radio." The station had a fast-paced
atmosphere that made my adrenalin run.
FROM ALL-TALK TO ALL-CLASSICS
The fast-paced format required a bevy of separate control board operators.
And there was a lot of turnover for part-time "board ops." Thus, my jump
back into radio was part-time at first, since I was the likely candidate
with my proven flair for production -- and the FCC license. It was a great
way to keep my AV day job, earn extra money, and see if I still liked the
That led to my jumping into a vacated CM DJ shift on the FM side, since the
former announcer had simply taken some time off and never returned! That
tactic is done quite frequently in the transitory world of broadcasting.
For around two months I was an AV director by day and a CM DJ at night.
Although I labored long over quitting the AV job to get into CM radio at
FM, there were the naysayers on the talk radio AM side. "Are you NUTS? You
want to take a 'fool-time' job in radio when you have a good steady day job?
Let me know when you quit. I'll take your AV job!" But I figured this opportunity
might not happen again. Thus, the quirky adventure began.