Monday, December 29, 2014

If Ebenezer Scrooge Was a DJ

Charles Dickens, Age 49
Photo Credit: George Herbert Watkins
In Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three apparitions of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Initially, Scrooge chalks up his nightmares to poor diet, but as we all know, the messages from the 'mares is more profound. This may be the most popular instance of recurring nightmares recorded in English Literature.

Dickens would likely have had a field day writing about our current culture at Christmas. Probably could have written as many volumes as the author of the Harry Potter series, especially if he examined the nocturnal visitations we sometimes receive as our mental overdrives spin down at night, and the nightmares they can bring. That still happens to me, dreams generated from situations at Radio stations past and present. I imagine the ghost of stations future is waiting in the wings.

The dream is recurring, but evolves over time. The constant is a setting in a Radio station air studio for which I am responsible. There's music playing, with a countdown clock showing less than a minute remaining in the tune. I can't locate the next song to play.

I've talked to countless colleagues over the years, and we all have them: a nightmarish scenario in which panic has strangled our ability to execute the next event in time, resulting in every DJ's worst fear, Dead Air.

Dead Air is that awkward silence that disrupts the smooth and snappy patter you generally hear on the Radio, except for NPR listeners. (Those guys thrive on silent spaces big enough to drive a truck through between stories and network rejoins. Maybe they're living their own nightmares, I don't know.) 

Most Radio listeners don't even realize a mistake has occurred in the booth, but for announcers and newsmen, producers and DJ's, even a half-second lapse sounds like half of Eternity when you're behind the mic, on the board, or at the switch.

In the olden days the most common reason for Dead Air was a lost record, a lost commercial, or a lost DJ. There are legends still being recounted about some poor schmuck who stepped out of the studio to "lengthen his attention span," and was literally caught with his pants down. Or worse, the dare devil DJ who put on a long record calculated to give him enough time to drive to a Dairy Queen and back...and was wrong. 

Every Radio station in America has its own epic adventure tale of a DJ scrambling to get back into the booth as the song ends--or worse, the same seven-bars of a song are being repeated as the needle skips (hic) repeated as the needle skips (hic) repeated as the needle skips...
It's a horrible sound.
It's a worse feeling in the pit of your gut.

My personal on-air nightmare dream has evolved with the changing technologies in the industry. My nightmares are now digital, and often involve a recalcitrant computer. Like last night, for example, in which the stack of clustered computer monitors had somehow become separated, and were strewn around the room, just out of view. In an interesting, diabolical twist, not only was the song running out, but a live band was setting up for a performance in the studio, which had grown in size to the dimensions of a full-on outdoor venue. A robot was positioning loudspeakers over the stage, and testing each one in the voice of Ed-309 from Robocop, just as I was about to open the mic. 
Most all Radio stations that play music these days do so with a computerized playlist and a software system to manage the library. You won't see actual "records" anywhere but in frames on the wall commemorating artists' record sales achievements.  That piece of music software cannot fail, or if it does, there'll be...Dead Air.

In my current nightmare iteration, as the screen monitors march to the four corners of the studio, and Ed-309 is testing concert hall speakers as I open the mic, the music software decides it's time to "take a dump," and reboot itself for mandatory upgrades. Not only is the song running out with less than 60-seconds to play, but the computer screens have gone dark, with nary a next number to find.

It could be worse, I suppose, waking to discover myself inside a snowglobe, realizing 'it was only a dream.' As it is, I awaken to find myself inside a silent, darkened room, next to my peacefully sleeping wife...realizing, thankfully, 'it was only a dream.'

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