Where would the state of radio be without disc jockeys? They entertain us with stories and news, they tell us which songs are playing next, and they even talk to us on the phone if they're running a call-in station. DJs add much-needed flavor to the fun of broadcasting. Without them, radio wouldn't feel as human.
The history of DJ'ing has greatly changed over time. Do some research on the subject, and you'll learn there used to be more freedom involved in the art around the 1950s to the 70s. While present DJs don't quite have the same role as they did in the past, they're still an integral part of running a successful radio station.
Do you know how the profession of DJ'ing started? That's what we're about to explore in this week's History of Radio. Keep reading to learn about the first DJs, the rise of the profession, and how it's practiced today!
The First DJs
The history of radio disc jockeys starts around the time when gramophone records were first conveyed by experimental radio broadcasters. For many decades starting in the 1930s, the terms “disc jockey,” “deejay,” “jock,” or “DJ” were exclusively used to describe on-air personalities who played selections of popular recorded music on radio stations.
It's hard to pinpoint who exactly is the first radio DJ, as several broadcasting developments happened throughout the early 1900s to late 1920s. There was Reginald A. Fessenden, who broadcasted both live and recorded music from Brant Rock, Massachusetts on Christmas Eve, 1906. In 1907, American inventor Lee de Forest broadcast a recording of the William Tell Overture from his laboratory in the Parker Building in New York City, claiming "Of course, there weren't many receivers in those days, but I was the first disc jockey".
Then there was Christopher Stone, who in 1927 convinced the BBC to let him broadcast a program consisting of American jazz records interspersed with his ad libbed introductions. There was also Chicago broadcaster Halloween Martin, who hosted a morning program called the Musical Clock. She played up-beat songs, gave the time and temperature, and read the latest weather. Her radio format was unique in the late 1920s.
By the 30s, the role of a DJ became more defined. In 1935, American radio commentator Walter Winchell finally used the term "disc jockey" to describe radio announcer Martin Block: the first announcer to truly become a big on-air star. While Block's audience was awaiting developments in the Lindbergh kidnapping, Block played records and created the illusion he was broadcasting from a ballroom, with the nation's top dance bands performing live. The show, which he called Make Believe Ballroom, was an instant hit. Later on, ABC would negotiate a multimillion-dollar contract with Block for a syndicated nationwide radio show. Block even had an MGM film made that was inspired by his work in radio! (You can watch it below.)
Because of Block's fame, creativity, and alluring personality, the term "disc jockey" stuck. It first appeared in print in a 1941 issue of Variety. The term combines the words “disc,” which refers to phonograph disc records and “jockey,” which denotes the DJs way of riding the audio gain or interchangeably riding a song to success and popularity.
The Popularity of Radio Disc Jockeys From the 1950s to the 1970s
Between the 1950s to the 1970s, you would not be able to run a successful radio station without having an entertaining DJ at the forefront. It was during this time - the postwar period - that disc jockeys were hailed as celebrities separate from the radio stations they manned.
DJs from the 1950s to the 1970s had many more liberties than they do now. Radio DJs before were free to express their own personality between music. They weren't just reading gossip or the news to fill the air; if they had an opinion about current events, they were free to communicate their own takes on things. (Such as disc jockey Steve Dahl, whose opinions on disco would lead to the infamous "Disco Demolition Night".) It all meant DJs were more spontaneous, and were better able to create their own "brands".
Radio DJs between the 1950s to the 70s had more time to talk and entertain between songs. There were fewer music sweeps or songs that played in a row back then, meaning DJs needed to have high stamina and energy in order to keep listeners entertained. Additionally, radio DJs back then were expected to organize their own shows, while it's not uncommon for DJs today to take shifts on radio shows.
In the days before stations had control of music rotations, DJs usually followed their personal tastes when it came to choosing music. This made them more personable to listeners. They also played a big role in exposing up-and-coming rock 'n roll artists to national audiences. For example, radio DJ Alan Freed was known as the “father of rock and roll" thanks to his habit of playing the genre throughout North America. He even coined the term "rock 'n roll" and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
You've probably heard of the well-known DJs during this time period; DJs like Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, Tom Donahue, and Hy Lit, just to name a few. But there were also several wartime DJs, African American DJs, female DJs, and even pirate radio DJs making strides in the industry...
Unconventional Disc Jockeys of the Top 40 Era
During World War II, DJ programs such as GI Jive were broadcast by the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service to troops. GI Jive initially featured a guest DJ for each broadcast who would introduce and play popular recordings of the day. In May 1943, the format settled on a single regular host DJ, Martha Wilkerson, who was known on the air as "GI Jill." Axis powers radio also adopted the disc jockey format, featuring personalities such as Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally. (They played popular American recorded songs interspersed with propaganda.)
During the Vietnam War, United States Air Force sergeant Adrian Cronauer was a notable Armed Forces Radio disc jockey whose experiences later inspired the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam. Cold War radio DJ Willis Conover's program on the Voice of America from 1955 through the mid-1990s featured jazz and other "prohibited" American music aimed at listeners in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.
As for African American radio DJs, they emerged in the mid 1930s and late 1940s, mostly in cities with large Black populations such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit. Jack L. Cooper was on the air each week on Chicago's WCAP and is credited with being one of the first Black radio announcers to broadcast gramophone records - including gospel music and jazz - using his own phonograph.
Black DJs such as Herb Kent, Hal Jackson (the first African American radio sportscaster), Al Benson, and Nat D. Williams all made strides with their shows. But perhaps the biggest Black DJ to thrive during the disc jockey golden age was Jocko Henderson. He was known as the “Ace from Outer Space" and revered for his rhythmic tapping and buttery baritone. Some even claim his musical intro raps contributed to the early development of hip-hop. He also had the energy to do mornings in New York and afternoons in Philadelphia!
Besides the aforementioned Halloween Martin, popular women DJs of the past have included Judy Dibble, Marge Anthony, Alison Steele (A.K.A. "The Nightbird"), Maxanne Sartori, Yvonne Daniels, Donna Halper, Karen Begin (the first shock jockey), and Annie Nightingale. They all rose to prominence once the Top 40 era of radio kicked off. Before that, the disc jockey industry was heavily male-dominated. Why? Well, for a number of sexist reasons, but mainly because broadcasters complained the tone quality of early receivers and speakers made women’s higher-pitched voices sound shrill and dissonant. This prejudice remained even as higher-fidelity receivers became available in the early 1930s. The conventional wisdom was that “audiences don’t like or trust women as announcers” and “only male voices can speak with authority.”
Fortunately, attitudes shifted during the 60s, when FM station WNEW in New York City experimented with an all-female format. Thanks to Alison Steele's exemplary work there, the barriers holding back female disc jockeys gradually faded away by the 70s.
Finally, we can't talk about disc jockeys and their golden age without mentioning the pirate radio DJs of the era! During the 1960s, pirate radio stations flourished off the coast of England in response to popular demand for new music not provided by traditional radio outlets like the BBC. DJs such as John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett, Tony Prince, Emperor Rosko and Spangles Muldoon pioneered an innovative, American-influenced style of presentation. They often programmed their personal music choices rather than adhere to a strict playlist, thereby winning listeners who yearned for youth-oriented sounds and the latest musical trends.
Format Changes Change the Role of the DJ
After the 1970s, the AM Top 40 format began to transition into the FM album-oriented rock format. Bigger stations also adopted more profitable programming such as news and call-in talk shows. As these changes occurred, the impact of the radio DJ on popular music lessened.
That's not to say the format changes completely killed off disc jockeys. Shock jock personalities and morning zoo formats kept DJ's thriving, and had their role change from music host to cultural provocateur and comedian. However, a combination of financial pressures and new technology such as voice tracking and the Portable People Meter (PPM) had negative effects on the role of radio DJs beginning in the late 90s. It prompted Los Angeles radio program director Stella Pradoto to comment, "There was a time when the ‘Top 40’ format was ruled by legends such as Casey Kasem, or Wolfman Jack, and others who were known for both playing the hits and ‘talking to you.’ That, of course was in the age of ratings diaries. Now with PPMs, it is all about the music, commercials and the format."
Once new modes of music distribution arose - such as MP3 players and online music stores - they led to the demise of radio DJs' reputations as trendsetters. DJs don't have as much influence over the music industry as they did back in the day. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to gain a following as a personable DJ if you wish to become one. Internet radio (such as Live365!) allows broadcasters to create their own programs, just like DJs back in the day. One could even say podcasters are something of a reincarnation of old school DJ'ing, as they boast their opinions, express their personalities, and gain a following with each new episode of their own audio show.
That's it for our recap of disc jockey history. If you're a DJ reading this, we hope you learned a lot about your broadcasting ancestors. Keep riding the airwaves, and happy broadcasting!
- Learn About the Fascinating Era of the Superstar Radio Disc Jockeys - Mr. Pop Culture
- The Women Who Overcame Radio's Earliest Glass Ceilings - Radioworld
- Udovitch, Mim. "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life The History of the Disc Jockey By Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton Grove Press" - New York Times Book Review.
- Meet DePaul Legend Halloween Martin - DePaul University Archives.
- Mackenzie, Harry (1999). The Directory of the Armed Forces Radio Service Series. Greenwood Press.
- Christopher H. Sterling (1 March 2004). Encyclopedia of Radio 3-Volume Set. Routledge. pp. 45
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