Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dead Air Nightmare

I had a dream last night. I do not dream about the characters from books I’ve written. I don’t dream about magazine layout, arranging vegetables, or working in an auction house, though I’ve had those experiences. I rarely dream about the 29 years I spent working for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Like most people, I sometimes dream about being unprepared for class. Mostly, though, when I have a nightmare, it is about radio.
Working in radio did not create mind monsters that haunt my sleep. It did mark me forever in its unique way, though.
I was a rock and roll(ish) DJ from 1967 through 1976. After that I spent a few years playing country music at night, while I went to school during the day. I got in on the tag end of the days when DJs cued up commercials on reel-to-reel tape—except for those we read live, of course. I was replaced by a computer at one station in 1976, long before most people gave that a thought.
The radio business is full of “personalities,” not all of them on the air. But it is not the often slightly daft people who make me sweat at night. It is the concept of dead air.
During my radio days, at least, those of us who were on air obsessed about something most people don’t even notice. Dead air is any fraction of a second or longer in which that needle that indicates sounds is going out over the airwaves ceases to jump. Today, it’s usually a string of LEDs that indicates the station is still breathing.
It was the greatest sin to let that needle rest. You always had to have music, news, a commercial, or your voice making it bounce. I think we imagined that listeners were out there with their fingers on the dial ready to find another station the minute they detected a second of silence.
And, thus to my dreams. They all start out with me in the control room on a new job. I’m on the air and nothing is going right. I don’t recognize any of the record titles, there is no system in place to give me a clue about what to play next, the commercials are all about five seconds long, and I can’t remember the call letters of the station. The entire dream consists of me trying to find something else to play next. Something to keep that needle jumping. Usually, someone will come into the studio to witness my ineptitude, which just makes it that more difficult to find the next record. Polka!? Why am I playing polka?
Okay, maybe it doesn’t measure up to falling off a cliff or being trapped in a barrel full of spiders (or snakes, your choice). Nevertheless, the dead air nightmare is my most persistent dream, visiting me several times a year though the last time I cued up a record or tape was nearly 30 years ago.
I wonder if big time radio announcers have those dreams. I guess I could ask Jack Sunday. He could ask Charlie Tuna.

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