My inner curmudgeon was stirred on a recent Saturday when my teenaged son and I visited the campus of my alma mater. We were there for a conference about science fiction and the classics (which was geekily awesome, thanks for asking) and to give my son his first look at a real college campus. Being back at school 24 years after graduating with my 15-year old in tow was a joy and a good indicator of how old I am. A sudden keen awareness of my advancing age, however, was not the reason for my cantankerousness. That mood emerged from a visit to the campus radio station, where, as a student, I had spent many Friday nights broadcasting the very best in heavy metal music. The trip pointed out that I have become a guy who occasionally forgets the world continues on, developing new tools and techniques to accomplish things. Bah, progress!
I entered the radio station’s broadcast booth and said hello to the two student DJs who were going about the business of sharing obscure music with the masses. Some things never change – like college DJs playing avant-garde performances by largely unknown artists – but other things do…utterly.
I explained that I was the metal programming director many years ago. We chatted about their shows and how things had changed. I observed that there were no records spinning on the two turntables in the booth. One of “jocks” –industry slang for “disc jockeys” – told me that some shows still use albums, but he prepared for his by generating a play list on his laptop. I was processing this bit of information when the most startling thing happened. It was the top of the hour, and the two jocks were about to switch shows. In my day, that would require the incoming DJ to cue up a song on turntable number two while the other watched the record on turntable one wind down. Then there would be a little dance at the console as the two jocks would bring down the pot – that is, the “potentiometer” or volume control – on table one, punch the button for the microphone, do a station ID, introduce the song, punch the microphone button off, and raise the pot for table two as the music started. But that’s not what happened here. Rather, the outgoing DJ clicked a button on the computerized console to play a pre-recorded station ID. There was a little dance, but theirs involved switching laptops: disconnecting a USB cable from one, removing it from the docking station, plugging in the other, placing it in the dock, and double-clicking for the music to begin.
I’m not oblivious to the incessant changes of modern life. For example, I am familiar with smart phones (albeit I do not own one because I am cheap), I am typing this on a MacBook (which I use to look at cat videos when I’m not writing), and I have responsibility for a software portfolio at work. It’s my job to keep up with the latest in technology, or at least to manage those who do, but I was unprepared for the technology upgrades that have occurred in the studio of a college radio station. It was, in a word, shocking.
If you had asked me whether radio stations still used turntables and LP records, I would have said, “Of course not.” I knew that the radio world had gone digital since I was a DJ, but knowing something is different than seeing something. I am aware of the Grand Canyon and its reported magnificence, but I suspect seeing the Grand Canyon would be quite spectacular despite my textbook knowledge. Watching the laptop exchange and the act of double-clicking on the next song brought the great chasm of time and change to life for me.
I avoided a curmudgeonly diatribe about “when I was your age…,” but I felt it, and I told these young men what it was like 25 years earlier when CD players, while not brand new to the world, were a recent addition to the broadcast booth at KUPS. Until 1989, we were still exclusively spinning vinyl on turntables to play music over the air.
I was dismayed at what seemed to be the loss of the craft of college – or other non-corporate, independently-minded – radio broadcasting. The college radio DJ no longer has to have physical interaction with the music. He isn’t removing a circle of delicately etched black vinyl from its cardboard sleeve, flipping it in his fingers to side two, placing it on a turntable, and carefully dropping the needle in the wide groove between tracks three and four. Nor did he choose that album from a collection amassed through years of combing through record store racks looking for the latest, rarest, or most coveted discs, sometimes chosen simply because of the compelling cover art. Everything – all the world’s music – is available online. True, the digital jock still has the job of selecting from potentially infinite options to curate a collection of songs and presenting it in an engaging manner. There is value in that, but those songs are, for the most part, forever and always available to the listener. He is no longer dependent on the jock to play a song. If he likes what he hears, he can listen to it again and again on Spotify. I can’t help but feel that we have lost some of the special-ness.
I won’t protest. I won’t refuse to listen to the radio when I’m driving to work, and I will still take pleasure in hearing a song that a jock has selected for me, even though I could double-click on it at my leisure (not while driving, of course). I will keep listening and, full disclosure, keep searching online for that song I heard on the air, hoping to find the lyric video on YouTube.
And, today, I will participate in Record Store Day and wallow in the past joys of flipping through stacks of albums, searching for that diamond in the rough, like that copy of Metal Massacre No. 1 with Mettallica’s (yes, spelled incorrectly) first recording that has eluded me. I’ll also keep an eye out for the new 7” single from Slayer. I hope I’ll see you at Rainy Day Records later today.
Stay metal…and vinyl, my friends.