By Scott Overton
The aspiring writer is always told, “write what you know.” Good advice because the research is already in your head, and because, along with a good story, readers enjoy gaining some insight into occupations and lifestyles different from their own. So when I wrote my first novel, the mystery/thriller Dead Air that’s what I did.
I’ve been a radio broadcaster for more than thirty years, 26 of those years as a morning show host (like the protagonist of my novel). I had so much insider information I wanted to pass on to readers that the first draft was gargantuan—I eventually trimmed it by about 60% to get something readable. There’s still a lot of insider stuff in it—I’m sometimes a bit surprised that my radio bosses didn’t give me any trouble about that when it was published. (I did run it by them first for the sake of my job.)
What are these radio secrets I’ve promised? Well, they’re not bring down the industry secrets, just peek behind the curtain secrets, so if you’d rather not know how the magic trick works, stop reading now.
I’m really dating myself, I know, but when I first started in radio I actually played music from vinyl (and yet I still have all my real hair, honest). Usually it was 45’s but occasionally tracks from LP’s. Commercials and station jingles were played from tape cartridges or “carts” that looked like an 8-track tape but had a continuous loop of tape inside that used a sound tone to cue itself up at the beginning again after each play. Some years later, the vinyl was gone and the music was also played from carts. Then it was CD’s, but used in special players for broadcast use (much easier to pick the desired track).
Fast forward to today when most radio stations play everything directly from computers. All of the songs, commercials, IDs and jingles are loaded into the system, and played according to a schedule also programmed using computers. Sorry, if you picture your favourite radio personality cueing up records, swinging the microphone around while they talk, singing along to the songs and swilling coffee (an image forever imprinted in our psyches thanks to Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP In Cincinnati) the truth is a bit different. OK, the singing along and swilling coffee part is still true, but the turntables and tape machines are long gone—picture a computer touch screen instead. We sit in front of multiple computer screens, constantly surfing the internet for the latest information, while the music, IDs etc. could easily carry on without us—we only stop the computer when we need to talk.
Which brings us to the first actual secret: we can record our talk breaks too.
We can record hours or days ahead, in another room or another city (I’ve never recorded my show from home, but it can be done). With the announcer parts slotted in, the system is quite capable of running itself for days at a time without human intervention. And in many radio stations it does just that, especially overnight, on weekends, and on holidays. In fact, in smaller centers, there’s a good likelihood that substantial parts of weekday programming are pre-recorded.
Why? Because it enables announcers to cover more hours of the broadcast week without overtime, or do their show for several different cities with minor tweaks to localize the content. That saves the company money on salaries—it’s as simple as that.
So how do you, the listener, know if your favourite radio personality is “live” and not Memorex? If you think about the nature of recording something ahead of time or from another location (weather or traffic conditions are two clues, for example), you might get a few ideas.
As the host of a radio morning show for most of his 30+ years in broadcasting, Scott Overton has learned to entertain and inform as he entices thousands of groggy people into beginning a new day. He brings those same skills and instincts to his writing. Scott’s stories have been published in such places as On Spec , Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, and the anthologies Tesseracts Sixteen: Parnassus Unbound, Doomology: The Dawning Of Disasters, and Canadian Tales of the Fantastic and some of those stories are available on Kobo in two different digital chapbooks: Disatrous! and Body of Opinion. Scott’s thriller, Dead Air, about a morning radio show host trying to stay one step ahead of an anonymous listener who has started to make death threats on his life includes plenty of industry insider details and insights.