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A Day in the Life of a Disc Jockey

Whether you’re a disc jockey for a radio station or a nightclub, the best aspect of the job is the creativity that it allows (and even requires). Radio disc jockeys play music, chat, deliver news, weather, or sports, or hold conversations with celebrities or call-in listeners. Club DJs mix music, sound effects, and special effects and occasionally provide chatter between songs. Each DJ must be in command of his or her specialty genre of music or demographic of audience —and sensitive to listener responses. A radio disc jockey must be able to spin off on an item in the news or a hot new song. “I think about how things connect,” said one. Being extremely organized and synchronized is critical to the radio station. Songs must fill a certain span of time; commercials have to be aired during specific blocks. Disc jockeys must be able to coordinate what plays when within time and audience constraints while on the air. A radio DJ must build an audience. Most DJs specialize in a specific musical genre, have a consistent approach, and field calls and requests from interested listeners to develop a consistent, loyal listening public. Since only one person is usually on the air at a given time, the DJs get lonely. More than 75 percent of our surveys mentioned “isolation” as one of the biggest drawbacks. A club disc jockey keeps regular hours, usually working from 8:00 P.M. to 4:00 A.M. Most DJs don’t socialize regularly with people who do not keep the same unusual hours. Isolation, again, creeps in. Club DJs must keep the crowd interested in dancing, so they must know a wide variety of styles and songs that appeal to different groups. Record promoters and agents try to flood high-profile DJs with new albums, hoping to provide exposure for their acts. More than 40 percent of all DJs work part-time and find it difficult to land regular, reasonably paying gigs. Many club DJs move to large urban centers to find a market that will support their services, but it’s still difficult to get hired initially without a following that you can be expected to draw to the club.

Paying Your Dues

No specific educational requirements exist to become a disc jockey, but most radio disc jockeys have experience at college radio stations or in small markets; others intern while in school to learn the equipment used in the industry and to get a taste of the style of successful radio personalities. Many aspiring disc jockeys create tapes of their shows and save clippings to use as introductions to professional radio stations. Radio jockeys must be familiar with current or specialty (subgenre) musical trends and how specific songs fit together. They must be able to fill empty space with information and have a clear, clean speaking voice and a certain amount of technical skill. A club or nightclub disc jockey must know how to mix beats so music progresses smoothly, how to design a night of music around a specific theme or requested type of music, and how to use lighting and special effects to best advantage. As first introductions, many DJs must work free at established clubs on off nights. Close contact with record promoters is important in getting unreleased demos or other songs that can distinguish you from other DJs. DJs trade on their reputation, so staying current with musical trends and responding to listener feedback is critical to success.

Present and Future

The first commercial radio station started in 1920 as station KDKA, broadcasting from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During the “golden years” of radio (the 1940s), radio personalities were paid as much as movie stars and treated with the same celebrity. Club disc jockeys reached their apex in the mid-1970s/early-1980s, when disco was the craze and nightclubbing was de rigueur for those in social circuits. Radio stations are finding it cheaper to buy nationally syndicated shows rather than produce their own, so opportunities for radio DJs could shrink in the coming decade. Successful club DJs will always have followings, but opportunities for success could be limited by an uncertain market for clubs.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Opportunities are difficult to come by. Aspiring DJs pursue auditions, running from club to club or radio station to radio station, actively self-promoting. They bring clippings, taped samples of their work, and recommendations to prospective employers. Many DJs take “test nights” at clubs, where return engagements are determined by the size and activity of the crowd that shows up that night. Radio DJs often take internships or menial jobs at radio stations to get themselves introduced to people who make decisions about on-air talent. The hours are long and often unrewarding.

FIVE YEARS OUT

If disc jockeys are making a living at their profession, they’re doing well. The majority have regular stints at a number of clubs or functions or have earned at least secondary on-air responsibilities, and are very busy between promotion, work, and keeping current on musical trends. A number of disc jockeys have made connections in the record industry by this point and spend a significant amount of time scouting emerging bands for signs of talent.

TEN YEARS OUT

DJs who have survived the club circuit for 10 years are on the back end of their careers because the life is rigorous, and it’s rarely forever. The connections 10-year DJs have provide them with ample opportunity to enter the record industry, the promotion industry, or the club-managing scene. Radio disc jockeys who have lasted 10 years in the profession have solid followings, an established taste and attitude, and a regular stint on a local radio station. Individuals who wish for national syndication must make their shows unique, exciting, and creative. The hours increase for those pursuing fame; salaries may become significant between years 7 and 15.