Radio Days — Programming Clocks

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

General programming was taken seriously at the college radio station where I spent the bulk of my hours during my undergraduate years. As opposed to many other student-run stations whose inners workings I’ve been privy to, WWSP-90FM reserved most specialty shows for the weekend and expected on-air staff to strive for a more consistent sound during weekdays. To ensure that happened, DJs were told to only play music from the station’s library — no cartons of personal records hauled into the booth — and anyone on the air between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. had to follow the general programming clock.

The programming clock was hardly some unique invention of our little broadcast outpost, of course. It is a longstanding component of proper radio program directing, or at least it was before the time when playlists and other scheduling matters were turned entirely over to computer programs that inserted panel-tested media content into broadcast blocks with ruthless efficiency. I had no pror familiarity with the tool, so when it was showed up it was like discovered a big of behind-the-scenes magic, the gears of a pocket watch exposed by a glass back.

By design, our DJs had a lot of leeway when working with the clock. At the most regimented, when the wedge on the circle called for a cut from the Heavy Rotation stack, the staffer could play any song from one of fifteen to twenty records that represented the newest releases in the station. So they probably had roughly one hundred fifty options to choose from (that admittedly dwindled each time the HR abbreviation appeared because we had a strict policy of not repeating an artist during a single shift). Variety of sound was encouraged, but plenty of DJs managed to skew the selections to their preferred taste. The host of our weekly showcase of heavy metal subbed in on general programming shifts every once in a while, and he was a master at programming a show of a thudding hard rock while following the clock meticulously.

I think some DJs chafed at the clock, feeling frustrated and hemmed in by its modest dictates. Though I started my tenure in the station in the late night slot, which would soon be highly coveted because it allowed for a more freeform approach to selecting music, I really loved settling in general programming shifts. My radio-obsessed brain hummed with glee as I figured out the purpose of our clock’s design, how what might have looked randomly assembled really wasn’t. For example, we put a more familiar song (when I started, songs that crossed into the Billboard Top 40 were barred from the air for a few years and then marked with a gold dot) at the top of the hour, right after the news break. The theory was that a dial-spinner might have paused on the weather report and they could be enticed to stick around for the older pop hit they knew and liked before we started slipping in the newer, more obscure material.

I also liked it because adhering to the clock pushed me to play things I wouldn’t have found my way to already, and discover splendid new — and new-to-me — music in the process. I eventually gave up the late-night show, in part because I was getting too repetitive when left totally to my own devices, playing the records I new I liked, instead of letting myself be nudged in the direction of the unfamiliar. In a way, following the clock gave me some of the happy surprise that came with being a listener, with the next song not up to me, at least not entirely. The clock told me which part of the station library to go to for the next song, and it was like following a treasure map pointing to sonic rewards.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

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