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Published on August 18th, 2011 | by Alan Cross

25

The Non-Human DJ Gets a Gig. AAARRGHHH!

Her name is Denise and at first glance she’s kinda hot.  But she’s actually less real than a Penthouse Pet.

Instead, Denise is a James Cameron wet dream, a virtual non-human AI radio DJ.

Built by a company called Guile 3D, she was designed to be a virtual assistant.  In that guise, she can check email, do web searches, answer phone calls and various other tasks.  But then she was bought by a radio person named Domique Garcia for $200 and programmed to be a radio DJ.

Denise still requires a scriptwriter but has been refined to the point where she’s been given a f*cking airshift on a San Antonio radio station called KROV.  She starts at 1pm CDT on August 24th.

Great.  As if radio hasn’t been decimated by cost-cutting, staff reductions and an overall drain of talent.  Voicetracking–the practice of pre-recording announcer breaks and then having a computer automatically insert them at pre-determined times–is bad enough.  And it’s hideous that small market radio stations–the former farm teams for the big leagues–barely have any live people on the air.  Now robots are going to do the job?

Radio strength is its intimacy.  A good radio personality is your friend, companion and filter.  He/she is a source of news, entertainment and music.  

Without a genuine human touch, radio is nothing more than an unprogrammbale iPod.  With commercials.

Here’s what Garcia told MSNBC.com:  

“If you have a staff of five that is paid $100,000 a year each, that’s half-a-million dollars,” he said. “The entire (AI) program is $200, a one-time fee. You never have to pay an annual fee. It never has to go to the bathroom. It never goes on an egomaniac spree. It is always there.”

In other words, programs like Denise make it easier for the manager–what’s to manage?–and boosts margins because you don’t have to worry about paying human beings.  

Dude:  Do you think you’re saving radio?  Do you think you’re advancing the cause?  Do you think this is good for the medium?  If so, you’re on crack.  A big, giant dirty ball of crack.  It’s stuff like this that’s killing radio!

Fewer jobs.  Less engagement with the listener.  Less relevance for radio.  Another reason to tune out.  Or worse:  not to tune in at all.

And to make it even crazier, KROV is a community radio station, EXACTLY THE KIND OF PLACE WHERE THERE SHOULD BE REAL PEOPLE MAKING REAL CONNECTIONS WITH THE COMMUNITY!  WHAT THE F*CK, DUDE?

I hate this idea so much that I’m trembling.  Yet why do I think this is the way of the future?

If you’re a radio person–either someone in the industry or just someone who loves the medium and the art of broadcasting–here’s where you can send your complaints.  Please do so forcefully.  And often.

UPDATE:  This article has generated record traffic on this site and has reached some interesting places.  A company that’s currently wrapping up a documentary called Radio Wars has asked me to film a bit on this topic for the last part of the film.

 





About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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25 Responses to The Non-Human DJ Gets a Gig. AAARRGHHH!

  1. adam says:

    Radio is looking more and more like it will share the fate of the record store, pushing itself to irrelevance because of "cost cutting measures"

  2. Radio has been going down hill for a long time, and I think this is the straw that'll break it. I haven't listened to the radio on purpose since I was in highschool. I miss the old 102.1 of the 90's… I used to tape Friday and Saturday nights live from the Phoenix and Kingdom, and The Ongoing History of New Music on an 8-track player I picked up at a garage sale. I'd listen to them over and over.

    A couple years ago when the bus strike was on in Ottawa and I was getting a ride every day you could literally set your watch by what time "Wonderwall" came on in the morning and know if we where going to be late or not. To be honest, the DJ's in Ottawa aren't much better than a non-programmable ipod. It's the same 20-30 songs repeated all day, every day… at least if it was a computer program doing it I'd feel better that the programming was so terrible.

    If I want new and insightful commentary I look to blogs, podcasts and the internet. It's really sad because I miss the days when I couldn't get enough of the radio

  3. Greg O'Brien says:

    I've seen and written about a lot of bad ideas, but this has to be in the top 5. Why don't they just put on air whatever music they have when people calling are on hold, with an intermittent recording saying "your listenership is important to us" and be done with it?

  4. Ryan Paulsen says:

    My letter to KROV:

    To the management at KROV FM,

    I read about your new "DJ" – the admittedly technologically impressive AI unit named "Denise" and I had a few instant thoughts.

    In the 1930s, radio was the thing because it was the only option that wasn't a newspaper. It was the thing to do for news, music and entertainment.

    Today, however, listening to the radio is not about engaging in the only available mass communication option. It's not even, really, about the music itself. News, music, opinion, etc, can be found en masse and ad nauseum online, as everyone knows, and it can be pre-programmed and customized to each individual taste (particularly in the U.S. where regional licensing restrictions haven't hampered awesome things like Spotify, Hulu, Pandora, etc., unlike here in Canada).

    People listen to the radio for the people. The only reason to tune in to a radio station is to have a personality that you have come to know and trust make selections for you, offering you things that you may not have considered or encountered before, but that you're pretty sure you'll like because you like the one recommending and offering them.

    There's an intimacy to radio that just doesn't exist in other media, and that's the only reason that people still flock to the medium when scores of other choices for musical entertainment are available at their very fingertips.

    An artificial DJ is a little like someone offering an artificial horse at a ranch or a petting zoo, or expecting people to be okay with their horses being replaced by automated vehicles. Horses, like radio, used to be the a priori choice for transportation and utility. Since the advent and availability of motorized transport, they have become a much more niche market entity – one that people own and befriend for their personality and the relationship involved. That relationship, in essence, is really the only reason that people own horses anymore. Take away that personality and relationship, and what do you have? Nothing.

    Ditto for radio. Don't do this.

  5. Ed Stephens says:

    This is part of the reason I listen to podcasts and not radio. I abandoned radio nearly a decade ago because there was to many commercials and to much chatter when I want music. This won't save money as much as lose more listeners. Perhaps robotic managers are next.

  6. BillG says:

    Alan,

    Agree with your sentiment but I'm also 100% in agreement with Jesse's statement above. Even "alternative" stations have a predictable playlist that has no more variety than the classic rock stations. I never get the sense that they can play what they want and that its programmed already. I think this, over time, makes DJs lose their geniuness – they are the filler for the playlist. I'm an internet radio listener now and only listen to "real" radio in the morning on my alarm clock.

  7. Ryan says:

    Radio will always have a special place for me. I remember spending hours sitting with my finger on the record button waiting to tape my new favourite songs. That however, was back when it seemed like you could still discover new and innovative ideas on radio. I have since switched to satillite radio where I can actually find new music and not the greatest hits of the 90's or a bunch of "new" music copying the greatest hits of the 90's. Radio has become insanely predictable and offers nothing in the way of music discovery or challenging listening experiences. I get that it is about pleasing the most # of people that you can so that it can be played in stores and offices. Radio has lost its most dedicated fans, the ones that needed it to find new music. I have now moved on to a commercial free medium that actually tries to expose fans to artists that will never get a chance on terrestrial radio. The FM dial would have to jump through some incredible hoops to get me to notice again.

  8. valerieinto says:

    – Five members of staff each making $100,000 a year? For a "community" radio station? In SAN ANTONIO? There's part of your problem.

    – When I first opened this page and saw the non-human DJ was female, I thought, "That means they'll have her on middays." Yup. 🙂

    – I was one of those midday females in '95 when they first made me voicetrack. Would drive to get lunch before starting my canned afternoon drive news shift and hear myself talking out of the wrong song because the CD jukebox sequence screwed up. Voicetracking was the beginning of the end of radio as we knew it. This AI thing is just part of the trajectory. Most on-air people have been made to be liner-reading machines for long enough, they might as well be actual machines. Unless independent ownership that gives a shit is encouraged, there's no reason to think this path will change.

    – You know full well this station couldn't care less about our outrage. They don't get their numbers, they'll switch back. This story only gives more owners and GMs ideas…which you know is usually dangerous. 🙂

  9. chrishon says:

    I don't know any station that has 5 dj's paid $100 000 each. 'She' may be a gimic larger markets use, but I think the medium and small markets will continue to use real (and much cheaper, though no less talented) people. It's what their listeners want.
    The competition is fierce enough for on air right now with companies downsizing and 'She' is an obsticle for those of us who want to get into the mojor markets.
    My question: What will 'she' do when the powers goes out? Who will give the comminuty the information they need? That's right, the human who gets panicked phone call from their PD at 2am.
    Still stinks though.

  10. Miranda says:

    I was just going to reference the DJ 3000! Haha you beat me to it, Alan.

    "Don't.. praise.. the machine!"

    Seriously though, this is ridiculous. Another example of why radio is going down the toilet, as well as the economy. Who needs to create jobs when you could save a corporation thousands of dollars?! … Ugh.

  11. MadameFLY says:

    I hope the manager who has figured out how to reduce his management responsibilities in this way is getting a nice hefty CUT IN PAY since he's got less work to do now… After all, that would also save the company money, which appears to be the only "good" left in the world….

  12. Opposing this development feels a little like closing the barn door after the horses have run. Back in the day, the benefit of the DJ was their unique curation of the vast swaths of music available — the careful selections that they would make, or the obscure selections that they would discover. The vast majority — as far as I can tell, nearly all — of the radio that I can find these days seems to run pre-programmed playlists set by a committee somewhere, on heavy rotation. Speaking to people in the industry has given a similar impression; I often hear a refrain of not blaming the DJ, because they have no input whatsoever in what they play. Well, at that point, what's the point of having a DJ? You could say that it's the banter, but that's self-serving at best; if I want great banter, I'll listen to talk radio. And the popularity of "hilarious" DJ "personalities" means that the vast majority of the banter on the radio just makes me angry. I know countless people who have turned to the titled-by-genre-only channels on their satellite radio or digital cable specifically because you can hear music without the irritation of inane DJ banter.

    I've certainly loved a lot of the work you've done as a DJ over the years, but in reality it's ridiculously atypical, and if I'm going to have to listen to an artificial personality crafted to be as "edgily" obnoxious as possible doing phone-in polls about what the naughtiest place you've ever "done it" was or whether you've ever slept with your boss, interspersed with the same ten mass-marketed pop "hits" on heavy rotation and hours of commercials, then it's hard to feel bad about them just swapping in a piece of software to that mix. (And in truth, either way I won't be listening.)

    Perhaps there are still havens of broadcast music out there playing individually curated selections interspersed with knowledge and background about the music itself, but if they exist (outside of college radio and programs about jazz on the CBC), I'm not aware of it.

  13. Chris St Clair says:

    Jeez .. Another dark day for radio .. and there have been so many over the past 20 years. The great days of engaging personality "live" in all markets and originating in all markets is gone. Why it's hard to find a half dozen "great personalities" in large markets. You know what, television is more than half way down a path that radio blazed for it … the path to irrelevance.

    There are a few gimmicks left that work – for a while, all of them mentioned in the comments to this item.

    There are still great story tellers and engaging people who do an excellent job of creating entertainment, but the vehicle to deliver the entertainment has changed. Radio needs to get back to the basics.

    Greed always seems to destroy what is good, remember when a market of 100,000 people had 2 radio stations .. now there are eight or ten .. no wonder no one can make bottom line.

    Hey radio conglomerates .. put four great people on one station and juke box the the other 3 .. you might notice that if the music is mass appeal with a library bigger than 500 titles – lot's of people will listen .. you could even creatively move your audience from one station to the other for specific events.

    I get frustrated looking at the TV listings and saying "gee there's nothing on" sadly local radio has been that way in many markets for a long long time.

    Be local, involve and include everyone; entertain and innovate, hire some visionaries, spend some money on the community, knowing that it's simply the cost of being there – rather than a price to pay to snag some 18-24 year olds for this book.

    I hope it works out for you radio .. even on shuffle, my favourite U2 and Springsteen songs need someone to string me a story now and again.

  14. DJ Formaldehyde says:

    Time for more people to fire up some pirate radio transmitters to show their displeasure. 500 mili watts and a high antenna is good enough for a whole neighborhood on FM. There are plenty of cheap, half decent transmitters available by mail order. Granted, finding an open frequency might be an issue.

  15. Amanda says:

    The station I worked for had an entire music department, that slowly was cut down to just me. Then I was basically replaced by a computer. Then came in voice tracking. All of these changes save money but I think they have really damaged what makes radio so special. A robot computer is going to completely take away what little is left. Radio is already losing to people using their IPODs for music and computers and social media to find out the weather, news, local events, etc. The only thing that's left in radio is the jocks personality and the human connection that you can feel from listening to a real person talk. This really could be the last straw that breaks radio's back. Disgusting.

  16. DJ Enigma says:

    Broadcast radio died a long time ago. It was mortally wounded in 1996 by the passage of the Telecommunications Act. It's been decomposing ever since.

    It's way too late to get angry about it now. All this really amounts to is someone pissing on the grave.

  17. Are you sure this is a first?? It Seems that Radio has had inhuman Brainless wanna jocks for too long. The last time i heard good music first programing in Toronto was Insomnica Theater and Mod Club Radio ( on the Edge when Allan was incharge ), It was still only just kinda like the original days of Club 102 or Deadly Headlys late night mixes ( "Wheel" ). The Late night Alternative houre has yet to be ever replaced. The Ongoing history of new music was excelent but It's only on the weekends ( and monday night lol ). Even the other so called Live To airs didn't sound like they were live cuz of the predictalbily of tunes. The day time is Too much sports & sex talk not enough music veriety ( like how cutting edge is Pearl Jam or king of Leon ?? But never playing Magnettic Man, or for that matter Sonic Youth and the Screeaming Trees ?? ). Top 40 Dance Radio (in Toronto z103) plays more cutting edge music with less talk about picking up girls and drinking beer and Smokeing weed. I'd rather listen to a computer than any of Toronto's Current edge radio hosts. It will more likely enjoy its job more wont be a dick just trying to get laid. You Can Bring on The Robot and let the hakkers have there ways and it will be amazing 🙂 lol!!

    Seriously even Robyn is in love with a Robot.
    Time has come people of the world are unnessary Unfortunatly. Corperations belive money is more important than quality.

  18. Steve Gunn says:

    Wow. I just got my first radio gig just over a month ago, and if this keeps up, it'll be my last.

    This is shameful.

    Excuse me while I drink heavily.

  19. James Edgar says:

    Inevitable and yet disappointing as well. And it almost is the future until the lights go out on radio forever. As you say in the article radio’s charm is that connection between the DJ and the listener. I personally don’t feel that connection anymore. Martin Streek at the edge was the last DJ I really felt connected to in Toronto. His firing and the aftermath were that last straw as it were. Playlists are pre-packaged DJ’s are generally not music fans they are robots either spewing banalities or trying to shock the listeners.

    So an actual robot? No surprise. And I won’t be listening.

  20. Henry says:

    This is terrible news. I host a show at Carleton University and I would be pissed if a volunteer position was taken by some robot.

  21. Hey Henry don't worry about your volunteer position at a University station. They are more likely to pull the licesnce (like at CKLN) than let a Robot take over.

  22. DJ Enigma says:

    This has been nagging at me, so I've come back to add something else…

    I grew up listening to DJs. Real DJs. They knew the music. They knew the artists who made the music. They shaped my own tastes, exposed me to stuff I wouldn't have heard otherwise. Because of those DJs, I started making my own music. Because of those DJs, I now have thousands of artists in my own library. Because of those DJs, music matters to me.

    And because of those DJs, I stopped listening to broadcast radio well over a decade ago.

    Radio changed. The DJs I used to listen to all went away. They were replaced by a new breed, a new generation that was as vapid and bland as the talking heads on cable news. You could hear their comparative lack of investment in what they were playing. All personality, no depth, no passion.

    If anything, this virtual DJ is at least a more honest presentation.

    But here's the thing, and the reason why I came back to comment again…

    There is a need, a desire, a demand for DJs like the ones I grew up with. Screw the medium. The medium is dead. Find a new outlet, a new vehicle, a new way to connect and share. Compile, collaborate, create, make something new, and we will come.

    There is an audience waiting. They just need a way to get to you, the real DJs.

    I spend a lot of time these days hunting. Hunting for music. Even with all the bells and whistles that exist now to make that process easier, it's still a haphazard and lonely pursuit. I once came across a band that had been around for 10 years before I finally found them. A decade! At the time I thought to myself, I would've known about these guys the minute they appeared, had I DJs to listen to like the ones I had when I was growing up.

    The digital world is great, but it's scattered, unfocused. And its vast. Overwhelmingly vast. There needs to be something around which an audience can coalesce. Something visible. High profile. An anchor. The few real radio DJs who're left out there are the people who could actually make something like that happen.

    Don't lament the virtual DJ. She was inevitable. Instead, answer her. Provide an alternative.

    It's not just the intimacy of human connection people want. It's the expertise as well. And hearing their own passion reflected in another person's voice. Sharing and relating with the excitement of discovery. Interactivity.

    There's a sad lack of that experience available today. We might stumble upon a certain podcast or a certain blog, but I find it to be poor consolation.

    People are, I think, hungry for something more.

    Give it to them.

  23. Michelle Z says:

    Here is what I wrote to KROV:

    I got word that you guys are "hiring" a robot DJ for your station and I want to let you know I think it's a ridiculous idea. Radio is about PERSONALITY! When listeners call into the station requesting a song, who will pick up the phone? Who can your listeners RELATE to? The one special thing about radio is no matter what, you can always turn it on and hear another human being. If listeners know it's just a robot on the other side, they will stop tuning in because what's the point? They know it's all pre-recorded and there's nothing there, no emotion, the robot isn't concerned about issues that affect them, and there will be no dialogue happening between the two! Listener by listener, they will turn to different stations looking for a human element they are no longer getting from your station. This will most definitely be the beginning of the end for KROV.

  24. Let's Get Real says:

    Alan, can you think of any example in the past 10 years where people came back to a medium that stopped serving them?

  25. Billy Joe says:

    Well, I was about to attempt a stunt like this for fun using a pirate station, now however they beat me to the chase. And this stupid version is a disgrace, I can understand if one person did this as a joke, but on an actual station, and for them to be proud of themselves, this makes me sick.
    Now i’ll have to release a free software like this on the internet to make theirs totally pointless.
    BWAHAHAHA!!!

    JK.

    P.S
    I am actually going to release the software though. Just wait… You’ll see.

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