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[Photo from MetroMode]

Michael Jackson’s death caused radio’s roboprogrammers to take a back seat for a while. Increasingly, over the past few decades, broadcast radio has ceased to be a local affair. As the FCC regulations on local ownership of media outlets has faded towards corporate behemoths, radio programming more and more these days is done by databases and distant decision makers. For those of us who remember real radio dj’s who made personal decisions about what song would come next, this has driven us more towards our own music collection, rather than being stuck listening to the corporate drivel. Pandora and Last.fm are okay, but they lack the personal touch.

With Michael Jackson’s death announcement, the clacker driven music machine was taken off line, if only for a few hours and only on a few stations. Human beings again ruled the airwaves of some radio stations.

“It’s a good reminder of what live radio can do, of the role that radio can play in bringing a community together,” said Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch in Rochester, N.Y.

Many stations no longer have live announcers, using canned voices for part or all of the day, and so can’t react to a major news event, he said.

DJ Deirdre Dagata, 39, has been working at Mix 98.5 part time since May, after being replaced at Kiss 108 by recorded programming the month before. And yesterday, she was back in action for the biggest radio day in memory.

Dagata was in constant motion during her 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. Sitting in an elevated office chair in front of four computer screens, she punched blinking phone lines, tapped on keys, and slid knobs – simultaneously editing recorded calls and fielding a steady stream of new ones from listeners who wanted to share stories about Jackson.

Back in the day, I recall listening to the radio knowing something unique was happening. The radio announcers had their own tastes in music, and they helped to create a following around their musical tastes. Sometimes there was dead air as the dj missed the cue for a variety of human reasons, some more innocent than others. This caused me to volunteer at and work at several radio stations in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I actually chose my university because I liked the on air feel of the campus radio station, which turned out to be a very influential organization for me. At the station, I did on-air work, production of public service announcements, newscasts, dj training, and eventually became Program Director. The audience’s active listenership of the music and programming was exciting to be involved with.

Back then, radio was a public service to be provided to the community, not just a marketing opportunity. Almost radio programming was done with people at the microphones, nearly always they were playing actual records, tapes or cds. Even the commercials were created in-house, except those for national campaigns.

Do you miss real radio? There are a bunch of college radio stations around, and most of them depend on the student body and sometimes local community members to create their programming. With web streaming, it is possible to listen way beyond the broadcast range of your favorite station. WERS in Boston plays a good mix curated by communications students. KEXP in Seattle has a wonderful mix of live performances and genuine djs choosing the music they play. Transom and Youth Radio are helping to cultivate the new voices of radio that we need. Public Radio Exchange has a channel on XM radio, and features a mix of voices that you may not have heard before.

With podcasting and the great suite of computer software and hardware available for free, just about everybody has the radio recording studio in their laptop, desktop, cellphone and digital camera that I had in my bedroom as a high school kid. If you want to broadcast, you may want to build your own transmitter. Sending out your homebrew radio programming out to your house or close neighbors could be a neat experience. You could record some short pieces like songs, jokes, or seque buffers, drop them into your music library and set your music player loose, sending your personalized radio program out to the transmitter.

Radio used to be a LOT of fun as a listener and programmer. Now the tools are much easier to get and use for us regular folks. Hopefully, the corporations will lighten up on their centralized programming and return to the human touch of radio, but even if they don’t we can realize that we can choose what radio we listen to or create. If you have any stories of making your own or listening to real radio, pirate or otherwise, tell us in the comments.