Hello, Honolulu and Amarillo, my Austin secret is . . .
I'm your DJ

By Dale Smith
Special to the American-Statesman

Published: July 22, 1999

The designers who built the radio studios inside 600 Congress Ave. understood the subdued edginess of postmodern, corporate decor. Microphones, soundboards and other equipment rest on wood desks. A colorful painting of a cartoonish DJ spinning tunes hangs in the reception area, and the receptionist's desk is shaped like an oversized, art-deco radio. Decorative stars rim the ceiling, and a red and gold neon sign in the shape of a star radiates from a back booth. Its large letters read: "Lucky Star."

The combinations of retro and modern, hip and square create a look that evokes the past while simultaneously announcing the new.

What's new and currently in hyper-drive thanks to advanced radio technology is the Star System, a network featuring Austin-based disc jockeys who can be heard on local radio dials from Temple to Honolulu. From their 10 booths on Congress Avenue, these jocks play music picked by the individual stations and chat up the local audiences as if they were just down Main Street.

The sleek operation, which is not well known outside the radio industry, is a digitized nerve center where actor-DJs perform for listeners hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. No racks of records, CDs or tapes fill their booths because the music has been prerecorded and stored for them in a centralized computer database. Wanna rock? Or got your boots on for country? The Star System is designed to play it all with top talent hired by the nation's largest radio conglomerate, AMFM Inc. (The system had been under Capstar Broadcasting until last week's merger with Chancellor Media and creation of the new AMFM name).

"Time to pop the top on your '80s haircuts," DJ Willie Welch says in introducing the '80s metal band Quiet Riot to a Midland/Odessa rock station. "Come on, feel the noise on FZX."

Welch's enthusiasm charges the booth as he introduces songs, comments on them after they're played and promotes local events. Each segment is individually stylized and recorded for stations in seven towns in Texas and Louisiana. He treats each station as if he were there live, following scripts closely. There's a lot holding his attention. From local news and weather reports sent to him by employees at the stations to caller requests for songs, everything demands that he stay focused. Multiple phone lines in his booth enable him to hold contests and speak directly with his audience. The interaction with listeners is recorded and then sent to the stations the next day.

"We're not real public about telling people we're in Austin," Welch admits. "But the average radio listener listens to a station for the music, not the jock."

His voice is heard in Beaumont, Lufkin, Tyler, Amarillo, Midland/Odessa, Lubbock and Alexandria, La.

"We try to provide services," he says, referring to Star System's conception of itself as a central support center. "It's difficult to find a good jock in a small town to work weekends or overnight. The goal is to get good talent on the air and make more money. For our fee you get two full-time jocks. You don't have to pay benefits on them. It's about improving the product."

Star System DJs even attend promotions and special events in the towns where their voices air, but certainly with less frequency than other jocks who live in the area.

Welch, an eight-year radio veteran, notes that Star System doesn't decide what music to play from its stored list of 13,000 songs. "The station managers are in charge of what goes on their playlist," he says. "So you don't get the same vanilla playlist."

More like a movie

The Star System, developed three years ago under Capstar, delivers its talent pool via a Wide Area Network of fiber-optic cable links.

It's a relatively simple process: The DJs in Austin and a similar facility being finished in Fort Lauderdale upload their recorded shows, music and intros included, to a computer server. Employees at Star System stations across the country download the shows. The signal is broadcast to local listeners from the radio towers of the stations, mostly in small markets and sometimes between shows by station-based DJs.

Ninety-nine stations in 42 markets now get at least part of their programming this way, and the merger means even more stations will be added in the coming months.

While the company boasts of the cost efficiency and professionalism the Star System brings to its stations, critics and competitors say the result is radio homogenization and deception of listeners who think they are hearing local DJs. "It's taking the local flavor away," said one competing station manager in Midland/Odessa who asked not to be named.

Dave Gracian, operations manager for KLAA in Alexandria, La., is also competing with a Star System station and does not like what it portends for radio. "It's the whole deregulation thing," he says. "I find it hard to fathom that a company can own 500 or 600 stations and still serve the public interest. Before you know it, there won't be any people here. This is a situation where technology is changing things and a lot of stations are being set up to fail."

Star System director Jason Kane says the computers and fiber-optic lines allow radio to step up from the equivalent of live theater to a polished, movielike product.

"Our personalities are more like movie actors because the technology lets them go through it a second time," Kane said. "People performing live on the radio address an audience that's more like theater because it's live."

In an article in Radio & Records magazine last year, Kane said writers, producers and marketing executives will become increasingly more important as Star System grows. He said the role of radio jocks will change and suggested that those who want to thrive in the new world of radio should study acting.

"Technology changes the way people are used," he said. "This kind of technology inflicts change."

Is something missing?

Although Kane's disc jockeys praise digitized songs and Star System's automative capabilities, music played on site at a station sounds better to some others.

"When you automate, you lose some of the quality of the CD due to the compression," said Paul Wittman, chief engineer for KLBJ, an Austin station not under AMFM Inc. "You lose some of the depth and width, and you get less stereo separation because you're losing some databits."

Wittman notes, however, that the majority of listeners can't tell the difference between CD and automated sound called up from a server. And for Star System, the ease of transmission from database to database justifies the use of automated sound. It also limits mistakes, dead air and unwanted surprises.

"A voice track can be manipulated to ensure the best quality," said Welch, the Star System jock.

While the company downplays the cost reductions of long-distance programming, savings can't be ignored as an important factor in Star System programming. By keeping a tight staff of talented DJs, the system primarily serves radio stations that can't afford expensive, experienced talent. (In Austin, KASE, KVET and KFMK are under the AMFM Inc. umbrella. While the smaller KFMK relies on a considerable amount of Star System material, the other two stations limit its use to some late-night hours.)

"We have around 20-25 full-time staff and a lot of part-time people who come in and handle the weekend shifts," Welch said. "Our part-time employees are paid by the shift, and they set their own hours."

Critics of the system say that it all boils down to making more money. "Radio is more truly a business now than it's ever been," said Rob Balon, president of The Benchmark Company, an Austin-based radio market research firm. "The pressures from Wall Street are enormous. The demand to improve the bottom line is critical. The savings become exponential.

"But the big question is: Will the audience accept it? Audiences are critical. The strength of radio has always been its localism, so the ultimate argument will be made by the audience. If ratings stay high, it will be acknowledgement that this hasn't harmed radio. Revenues and ratings have to stay in sync."

In the towns where Welch's voice is heard, Star System stations dominate the top 10 ratings in the broad 12-years-old and up demographic. In Beaumont, Lubbock and Tyler, four stations in the top 10 ratings are owned by AMFM Inc. Amarillo, Midland/Odessa and Alexandria, La., all have more than one company station in the top 10.

As long as listeners keep tuning in to produce ratings like these, high-tech's grip on the future of radio appears strong.