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Voice-tracking, also called cyber jocking and referred to sometimes colloquially as a robojock, is a technique employed by some radio stations in radio broadcasting to produce the illusion of a live disc jockey or announcer sitting in the radio studios of the station when one is not actually present. It is one of the notable effects of radio homogenization.
Strictly speaking, voice-tracking refers to the process of a disc jockey prerecording his or her on-air "patter." It is then combined with songs, commercials, and other elements in order to produce a product that sounds like a live air shift. Voice-tracking has become common on many music radio stations, particularly during evening, overnight, weekend, and holiday time periods. It is seen by most radio station owners as an economical alternative to employing live disc jockeys around the clock.
The process goes back decades and was very common on FM stations in the 1970s. At the time, elements were recorded on reel-to-reel magnetic tapes and broadcast cartridges and played by specialized professional audio equipment. It has become more controversial recently as computer technology permits the process to be more flexible and cheaper, allowing for fewer station employees and an effective illusion of live, local programming.
Most contemporary broadcast automation systems at music stations effectively function as high-tech jukeboxes. Pieces of audio are digitized as computer files and saved on one or more hard drives. Station personnel create "program logs" which list exactly what is supposed to be on the air and in what order. The computer follows the instructions set out in the playlist.
In some cases, voice-tracking is done in order to give station employees the flexibility to carry out other responsibilities. For example, a DJ may also have managerial duties as a program director or general manager. Voice-tracking allows that person to record a three-hour air shift in under a half-hour, freeing him or her up to do office work. Alternatively, a popular live weekday morning host can record voice tracks for a Saturday show, allowing him or her to be on the air six days a week without actually spending extra time at the station. This can also be used if a DJ is on vacation, is ill, has jury service, a bereavement or has to cover an event as a journalist. Voice tracking is also helpful during holidays like Christmas and Easter, when station employees are off to spend time with their families.
Companies that house more than one station can use the technique to stretch out their air staff. For example, the live midday disc jockey on a country station can then record voice tracks for the overnight shift of the sister rock station (often using a different name).
Undoubtedly, the most notorious form of voice-tracking involves using out-of-market talent. In this form, the station contracts with a disc jockey in another city (often employed by the same corporation, but sometimes as a freelancer). The outsider will add local color using information provided by the station and news stories gleaned from newspapers available on the Internet. The recorded voice tracks are then sent to the station by shipping tapes, e-mailing the file as audio attachments, FTP, or dedicated networks. DJs of this style often make a point of trying to sound as local as possible, sometimes going so far as falsely claiming to have visited a local landmark or attended a station promotional event. However, sometimes the DJ has actually been to the location previously, or monitored the event online and can speak with knowledge about it without making a claim to having been there that day, although it may be implied.
One motivation is to provide smaller-market radio stations with a polished, "big-city" sound. Using experienced professional disc jockeys can avoid mistakes often made by younger or less-experienced talent. Another motivation is for companies to use smaller market talent (who are paid less than their counterparts in major markets) to voice-track on their larger stations, thus eliminating the need for higher salaried employees in the larger markets. See the "controversy" section below for more.
Some "cyber jocks" provide voice-tracking services for several different radio syndication stations (and in several radio formats), sometimes affiliates located hundreds of miles away from each other that are all part of a radio network.
Some voice-tracking technology is so advanced that the end of one song and the beginning of another can be previewed by the DJ recording the voice tracks, making the recording of the voice actually live, though it is played back at a later time.
Depending on how the system is set up, a cyber jock may be able to plug the sound directly into the station's automation system remotely, meaning the local staff doesn't have to do anything at all (other than shipping local information and logs to the disc jockey).
When it is done correctly, the average listener (and even many professionals) cannot tell the difference. Time checks can even be added which can make the broadcast sound absolutely live.
Different radio stations want their DJs to speak only at certain times, so cyber jocks have to be made aware of each station's rules. What follows is an example.
At example station ZZZZ, the DJs have to follow certain rules. These are called formatics. Armed with the knowledge of these rules, and with the station's music log, the cyber jock can recreate what the finished radio program should sound like.
- DJs have to backsell (or give the title and artist of a song played previously) three songs before playing the commercials at 22 minutes past the hour.
- DJs have to read or play a pre-recorded weather forecast at 44 minutes past the hour
- DJs have to play the station's legally required identification near the top of the hour
- DJs are allowed to speak only over the song's instrumental portion at the beginning. (As depicted in the example below)
As song one begins to fade out the next song begins. In this case, the DJ does not start talking until the second song starts, and he stops at the point that the song's vocals start. This interval is called an intro, ramp, or post. This is the most common method. If the cyber jock knows the song that his voice will be played over, he knows how much time he has until he has to stop talking to avoid talking over the vocals of the song. If he times his speech correctly, he will do just that. DJs call this "Pegging the Post" or "hitting the post".
If the station employs other methods of doing this, the cyber jock should be familiar with them, and can alter his speech and timing to accommodate them. Cyber jocks can also listen to tapes of other people on the station to get an idea of the overall sound the station is working toward.
Voice-tracking is a hotly contested issue within radio circles. Claims have been made recently that claim that the sense of locality is lost, especially when a station employs a disc jockey who has never set foot in that station's town. There is also concern about voice-tracking taking away job opportunities and providing fewer opportunities for disc jockeys in the amounting consolidation of radio ownership.
Still, supporters of voice-tracking contend that a professional presentation on the air by an outsider is preferable to using a local DJ who is not very good. They claim listeners generally like the sound, usually can't tell that there is not a live disc jockey, and often couldn't care less about the issue even when told. This, however, is not always the case, especially in towns where names have unusual pronunciations; if an out-of-market disc jockey cannot pronounce the name of a fairly common town in the market (for instance, a common barometer in the Milwaukee market is the proper pronunciation of the suburban community of Oconomowoc), it is often a dead giveaway that the jockey is voice-tracked from out of market. Because of this, out-of-market DJs will often avoid making references to local information to avoid any possible faux pas. Some DJs will be trained to pronounce location information or be briefed on local news and events in the area they are serving.
Proponents also claim that the cost savings gleaned from judicious use of voice-tracking can help keep a struggling station afloat. In those cases, they argue, the process is actually saving other jobs.
Since voice-tracking is designed to work without human intervention, stations using the process may have no one in the building at all outside of business hours. However, a station manager can often log into the station's main computer system from home (or other remote location) in certain instances, such as if a song track is not working properly.
Another concern is how to alert the public in the event of emergencies, such as weather emergencies like tornado warnings, oncoming hurricanes and blizzard situations, along with other emergencies such as a train derailment or hazardous materials situation. In these cases, other automated systems come into play. Emergency Alert System (EAS) equipment is programmed to automatically break into whatever is playing and deliver information to the listener, usually using audio from a local government weather radio service. Often if severe weather conditions are known, a live person is "on-call" to stay at the station and give out details about the situation. For other stations, a 'news sharing' agreement with a television station allows them to carry the audio of a television station during a breaking news or weather situation, allowing warning of the events without the costs of hiring extra staff.
In The Simpsons episode "Bart Gets an Elephant", two DJs bring a lot of negative publicity on their radio station after making a gag to Bart when they offer him an elephant or $10,000 as a prize. Bart insists on the elephant, which they have trouble obtaining. The owner of the radio station shows the DJs a voice-tracking machine (called the "DJ 3000") which changes records and makes comments akin to "Let us play another Top 40 hit!" The owner tells the DJs they have 24 hours to give Bart an elephant or the DJ 3000 has their jobs. This was a likely zinger towards both voice-tracking as well as the career of radio DJ, who not only can be easily replaced, but is also a job that does not require much use of working with one's hands or one's mind, and as such is rather unessential to society.