The term disc jockey (DJ) describes a radio announcer whose programs are based upon presenting popular music. The term ‘disc jockey’ is possibly derived from ‘record jockey’. Jack Kapp, the founder of the American Decca label, spoke of record jockeys when describing certain radio announcers in the 1940s who, while playing records, ‘rode the gain’—in other words, adjusted the volume—while talking over the music, thus blending their words with the music. Methods of talking over and/or manipulating music flow have long been the creative hallmark of disc jockeys the world over.
A number of programs of popular music hosted by disc jockeys in the United States became synonymous with the emergence of rock’n’roll and rhythm’n’blues music. American disc jockey Alan Freed rose to prominence in the mid-1950s by actively promoting the new forms of music on air and at dance venues. Popular music programs—some borrowed in style from the United States—appeared on Australian radio (particularly commercial radio) in growing numbers in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.
Australia’s radio landscape changed fundamentally during this period, due to the introduction of television, the growing sales of transistor radios, the introduction of seven-inch, 45 rpm single-play vinyl discs, and a burgeoning wave of teen pop culture. With concerns among radio executives that audiences may flock to television, it was incumbent upon stations to adopt fresh, innovative programming. Disc jockey shows were initially of 15, 20 or 30 minutes’ duration, featuring new releases and titles with established popularity among the record-buying public. These short-form shows were particularly appealing to teenagers, who were seen by station managements as a desirable demographic for advertisers. Disc jockeys were the conduit delivering new sounds and artists to the Australian public.
A significant development in radio that ran parallel with the rise of the disc jockey was the introduction of a weekly Australian Top 40. The Top 40 chart was a listing of popular contemporary song titles, and it quickly became the blueprint of programming for radio disc jockeys across the country. In 1958, 2UE Sydney launched the first Australian Top 40 shows, hosted by staff announcers including Gary O’Callaghan, John Laws, Tony Withers and a newcomer to Sydney, Bob Rogers. By year’s end, each capital city boasted a Top 40 station in the image of 2UE. These were 3UZ Melbourne, 4BC Brisbane, 5AD Adelaide, 6PR Perth and 7HO Hobart, as well as 2KO Newcastle, which then owned 2UE. In an era before the introduction of talkback radio and the prevalence of talk radio hosts, disc jockey shows increasingly populated the schedules of radio stations.
As the energetic, sometimes frenetic presentation style associated with radio disc jockeys took hold in the 1960s, a number of announcers cultivated huge followings in their market on a par with the pop music stars played during their programs. Disc jockeys such as Ward ‘Pally’ Austin (2UW Sydney), Stan ‘The Man’ Rofe (3UZ), Tony MacArthur (4BC), Bob Francis (5AD) and Keith McGowan (6PR) were particularly popular with younger audiences, faithfully tuned to their transistors. The pop star–disc jockey nexus was further enhanced by stations converting previous ‘block’ programming schedules into 24-hour disc jockey operations led by teams including the Good Guys on 2SM Sydney, 3AK Melbourne, 5KA Adelaide, 6PR and 7HO; the 2UW 11–10 Men; 3KZ’s Most Happy Fellas; the 4IP Ipswich Sound Guys; and the 7HT Hobart Showmen. Occasionally a unique ‘character’ disc jockey emerged, such as the American Mad Mel, heard on 2SM in 1963–64. There was some anecdotal evidence of, and disquiet about, inducements being offered to prominent disc jockeys to promote particular songs and artists, but the market was simply too small for ‘payola’ to become as entrenched as it did in the United States.
In the late 1960s, several stations instructed disc jockeys to play as much music as possible, leading to the More Music More Often format. The format was underpinned by the weekly Top 40 charts, and found popularity on a range of stations, including 2CC Canberra, 2NX New- castle, 2SM, 3XY Melbourne, 4IP and 6PM Perth. Listeners heard much less of the disc jockey’s voice, meaning that his (he was always male) capacity to support certain acts or recordings to their liking was more or less over. During the 1970s, disc jockeys were heavily promoted by their stations, and occasional television or other public appearances, included Sydney’s Ron E. Sparks, Melbourne’s Greg Evans, Brisbane’s Paul J. Turner, Adelaide’s David Day, Perth’s Gary Shannon and Hobart’s Tim Franklin.
Commercial FM radio, which was introduced in 1980, established itself in opposition to Top 40 playlists, promising greater diversity. However, in 1984 the radio production house mcm entertainment began producing the nationally syndicated Take 40 Australia from 2Day-FM. The weekly countdown was hosted by Barry Bissell and sponsored by Coca-Cola. A few years later came the Toyota Camry Solid Gold Countdown, produced by a subsidiary of Wesgo and heard on 40 stations.
‘Teen radio’ was abandoned as FM aged with its audience, and was replaced largely by ‘heritage rock’. In the 1980s and 1990s, the role of traditional music radio disc jockeys continued to wane while that of opinionated talkback presenters rose. The era of audiences flocking to radio for the latest trends in pop music from personality disc jockeys who were identified with their local markets, and were ‘connected’ or ‘in the know’, had passed. Parodies of Top 40 radio emerged, among them Sea FM 101.9’s poll for the top 10 worst songs of all time and 96.9FM’s Arse-About Countdown.
REF: W. Mac, Don’t Touch That Dial (2005).