I first saw the ad on Gumtree. I had recently graduated, with a relatively useless degree, and moved back in with my parents. I was in a somewhat awkward position, in that my parents house was situated in a scenic but jobless rural Northumberland. This meant that as long as I stayed at my parents house I would have little to no chance of finding a job. I needed to move to a city in order to have a chance of finding a job- however without a job I couldn’t afford rent. I guess my hope at the time was to find some sort of part time job to build up a slight cushion of money on which I could then move somewhere and find a more permanent job. The advert was for radio DJs who had their own laptop and microphone and were able to work from home. I remember vividly looking down at my MacBook and smiling at the small flower of holes on the north west coast of the keyboard, if we take north as being roughly contingent with the centre of the screen. I emailed for more information, as the advert suggested I did.
The reply didn’t come for a couple of days, but when it did it immediately clarified that the position was not a paid position, or at least was not initially a paid position although there was, a distinct possibility of, if the presenter in mind was keen enough to say, show that they were competent at presenting for a period of time that the management would consider the option of monetary renumeration. I wasn’t particularly surprised, the three months or so I had spent seriously pursuing a job had made it clear that any jobs outside of the sphere of retail/catering were likely to entail a period of voluntary labour, after which one would, again, be subject to a hypothetical consideration of potential monetary renumeration which would undoubtedly not surface. My mother had recently given me another informative short lecture on trying to avoid having gaps of time in your CV- this truly was something that terrified me, the prospect of my CV as a kind of timeline of my life, to be filled with wholesome, economically productive exercises. Since graduation I’d had one laughable job, which consisted of being paid to travel to various Scottish Islands whilst wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the latest ‘life-enriching’ project from Creative Scotland. Our nominal role was to hand out an artists publication (a wholly contemporary collection of bad poetry and equally authentic photos) to members of the public. As the people in charge had failed to consult ScotRail about the project the majority of our time was spent, well, just getting a train. In total this job took up about 4 days of my time, which in subsequent job applications I’d stretched out to two months, justifying this through the fact that the two, two days set of work had indeed been located in different months. It was with this in mind, as well as the almost crippling levels of boredom present at my parents house, that I replied in a jovial and friendly manner. My (genuinely) jovial and friendly friend Oscar always uses exclamations marks in his emails, i.e. Hello! How are you! I’ve realised lately that this, apply a little more selectively, is an excellent way of feigning excitement. I opted for two in my initial email, one after a ‘Hello!’ another after my sign off of ‘Thanks!’. I expressed that I was still willing to give it a go, regardless of the lack of monetary renumeration initially available.
The three people that I regularly talk to (both parents and girlfriend) all expressed skepticism when I told them about this. My girlfriend in particular re-expressed herbelief that I should perhaps, instead of aiming to get a job I actually had some interest in, follow the example of so many of my peers and just get a job that paid (Dennis, class of 2013, still doing care work, Jack, class of 2015, pulling pints, Lindsey, dropped out, also pulling pints). I explained that I was still aiming to do this, true in the sense that ‘aiming’ does not explicitly engender any physical action. Since my last round of real life CV distribution had garnered as few results as my earlier, more targeted circulation of url CVs (accompanied of course by interminably verbose, masturbatory statements of motivation, an unfortunate hangover from my degree) I had, it has to be said, pretty much given up, for the immediate future, at applying for jobs. I hoped that at least the nominal prospect of a paid job, that went somewhat beyond the always nominal prospective jobs that circulated, would at least somewhat lessen these kind of conversations. I reiterated to both my parents and my girlfriend that there was, a distinct possibility, if I was keen enough to show that I was competent at presenting for period of time, that the management would consider the possibility of monetary renumeration.
The next email I received from Iain (my contact at ‘Chat And Spin’) asked me to outline what area of music I’d be playing. While I was initially tempted to aim for some sort of hyper specific genre I decided to stick with what I knew- I sent him a few of my favourite alternative rock songs (Pavement, Sonic Youth and so on). I also said I was likely to aim to play a few more contemporary songs, bracketing after this a link to Kool AD’s new single ‘Hickory’ which I had recently downloaded as part of WORDOK. I would genuinely have preferred to propose a show that had focused exclusively on new music, however I had lately realised that save for a few exceptions (Kool AD among them) I mostly listened to old music (see my earlier references but add also the likes of 13th Floor Elevators, Wire and Leonard Cohen). I tried to be as honest as I could, expressing in somewhat gushy terms my love for music, and the range and diversity of my tastes. Iain didn’t ask for a CV, which I was relieved about. I didn’t feel like rehashing once more the paltry voluntary roles taken on during my student years so as to emphasise those elements that made me a viable radio DJ.
Iain seemed to like the email I sent to him, telling me that they’d offer me a test slot on next Tuesday, with the potential for me to being a regular late night slot on Thursdays. He also gave me his mobile number and told me to call him after downloading a program that would allow me to broadcast directly from my laptop. I was a little concerned about what the sound quality would be like from my laptop’s inbuilt microphone. I spent a brief period of time looking at various usb mics on Amazon. I decided that I would not buy a microphone for a demo slot. I went to the website that Iain had sent me. The software was designed for windows, so wouldn’t run on my MacBook. I emailed him and explained that I used a Mac. He emailed back, and directed me to an alternative program. We arranged a time at which I would call him. I downloaded the software, then rang him at the prearranged time.
He talked me through how to set up the software, so that it would be ready for broadcast. He explained that he would send me a series of jingles that I’d be expected to play at various points during the show- one at 15 minutes in, one at 30, one at 45, another at the hour, and so on and so forth. He explained that part way through the second hour I’d be expected to read out a series of announcements of local events. He also advised me to have a playlist ready loaded, and to consider how I’d link one track to the next, as well as what my ‘vocal vibe’ would be. I said I’d do my best, and asked if he could email the times I needed to play the jingles at. He said he would, and that it wasn’t a problem. I thanked him. He explained that I didn’t need to worry, that the show wouldn’t be broadcast to anyone but him and the other members of the management team.
I spent the next couple of days planning my playlist. I decided that I’d begin the show with ‘Dr Doom’ by 13th Floor Elevators. It’s maybe not the catchiest 13th Floor Elevators song but I only actually own a copy of their album ‘Bull of the Woods’. I felt like this song, or at least the band, were an important early touchstone for alternative rock as a whole. I can’t remember the playlist as a whole, but I know it included a song by both Kool AD and the Fat Whites. I put something by BAT-BIKE (signed to the Fat White’s Trashmouth Records label, as well as personal friends of mine) on the list as well. It was, as I’d expected, mostly vaguely punky guitar based music with a few hip-hop tracks in there as well- Yung Lean and Pharcyde for example. I made a Text Edit document with time markers, splitting the songs up into sections to be played before and after the various jingles, 15 minute markers put in bold throughout the document. I had a couple of tests of how this would work, keeping the text edit file open at the right of my screen so that I could see it while I ‘DJed’. I tried out various ways of fading from one song into the other, settling in the end for simply shifting the balance wholly from the left to the right at the end of one track. I made a note of how I would, after each track had finished, reload the next track into the virtual deck that was currently mute, how I would have the length of the other song to finish this brief process.
Before the day of the test I repeatedly informed my parents that on the day of the test I would need them to stay out of bedroom, to not come and knock on my door, to not shout loudly up to my room if I wanted a cup of tea, to not shout at the dogs. I was aware that, as I would be starting my trial slot at seven, around the time my parents typically got back from work, that they might forget what I was doing. I made a makeshift sign from an empty cereal pack, reminding them to be quiet and that their tea, which I had as usual (part of my attempt to endless delay any potential conversation about me paying rent) made for them, was waiting for them. I made another sign from a piece of A4 paper taken from my printer (ink recently exhausted by my last CV printing splurge) and stuck it to my door using blue tack.
Iain rang me shortly before the test, telling me that it would be fine, and that he’d tell me the point at which I’d be expected to play my first track. I didn’t really understand why I needed to be so precise about the timing, seeing as how the only people listening were the the management. I presumed it was a test of some sort, and did my best to pass, pressing play so as to start the ready loaded track. I tried my best to relax and enjoy ‘Dr Doom’. Inevitably I found myself overanalysing the track in a way that I never had before. It was not a song I felt a particularly great emotional attachment too. The song lasted 3 minutes and 14 seconds. I had tried my best to keep all the songs on my playlist down to those that were around three minutes long – playing 5 minute long songs seemed like the wrong thing to do. It also made my continual time keeping easier. I switched to the microphone as Dr Doom was fading out and briefly introduced myself, mentioning some of the bands I’d be playing throughout the show. This was something Iain had advised me to do. I felt a little surge of satisfaction, imagining Iain listening to me following his instructions. I played a couple of more tracks. I played one of the jingles- a non time specific that simply promoted the radio station as a whole. I switched back to the microphone. I was about to play ‘Hickory’ by Kool AD – one of the songs I had originally sent Iain. I had spent a reasonable amount of time planning the exact method I would introduce this track. I guess I felt a certain amount of excitement about the fact that the management (I guessed) wouldn’t have heard the track. I explained that it was a track of Kool AD’s latest album, and that people could download it from Koolad.bandcamp.com on a pay what you like basis. I guess in part I felt like doing this on an actual radio show (so two days from now) would make me feel a little better about the fact that I had downloaded the album for free, and that I had also been listening to it so much. I didn’t fade ‘Hickory’ in at all, leaving a brief silent pause before it blasted out full volume. I’d been listening to it so much, initially on youtube, then off my iTunes, that I automatically began to clap along with the beat, then 10 seconds in, joined in quietly with Kool AD’s characteristically laid back flow.
Oh my god,
what the fuck
oh my god
it’s all up
sometimes we gotta do it for the kids
other time we gotta do it for us.
At about 30 seconds in, my phone started ringing. I didn’t notice initially because I had my headphones on. I assumed it would be my girlfriend. I thought it would be a cute to pick up, tell her I was busy being a DJ then promptly hang up. I saw from the screen that it was in fact Iain. I hoped he was enjoying Kool AD as much as me. I picked up:
“Yeah? You enjoying Kool AD?”
“John! I have detected a swear word!”
“Oh right- sorry is that not alright?”
“John, we’ve taken you off air. I need you to change the song, then we’ll bring you back on air. Can you do that for me?”
“Yeah, right sorry am I not allowed swearwords?”
“Have you changed the track?”
I stray from my playlist and drag ‘Tubas in the Moonlight’ by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band in from my iTunes library.
“Yeah, one second”
This is the only track I can think of off the top of my head that doesn’t have any
“Have you done it?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s playing now.’
“Ok, one second we’ll let you start broadcasting again”
I feel somewhat amused by the contrast between the tracks.
“Sorry I thought I was allowed swearwords since I was doing a late night show”
“No, no we have a no swearing polecat. We have a zero tolerance policy towards swearing. Now what I want you to do, after this song ends is to apologise to all the listeners.”
I apologise some more, whilst frantically trying to determine which of the songs on my playlist have swearwords in. Most, I realise. Iain tells me not to worry, and that he’ll call me again once the show is over. I hang up. Once the track is finished I apologise, then play a couple of jingles. I have to reshuffle my playlist several shades towards the less offensive end of my iTunes library. I sweat profusely. I mess up a couple of jingles. After the show my phone begins to ring. It’s Iain. He tells me they’ll have a chat then ring me about their decision. I go and tell my parents about what happened. They assure me that it won’t matter. My girlfriend calls. I tell her what happened. She tells me that she’s sure it’ll be fine. I hang up. I head upstairs again. My phone rings again. it’s Iain.
“Hello” says someone who is not Iain.
“Oh Hi, sorry who is this?”
“This is Paul. I’m afraid we’re not going to be giving you a show, because of the unfortunate incident with the song which wasn’t a radio edit”
“Oh right. I’m sorry, but I mean I really didn’t know you had a no swearing policy.”
“Well you were told”
“I don’t think I was- I’m sorry but I think it’s a little unfair- especially seeing as how I didn’t know”
“I’m sorry, but that’s just our policy”
“Look I mean, that’s just ridiculous, I didn’t know. The show wasn’t broadcast live in any case. Could you at least give me another shot at it?”
The man who is not Iain is quiet for a little while. I hear him talking to the others, but this is carefully muffled so as to stop me hearing the exact nature of their discussion.
“Sorry, but no.”
“Look, it’s not just the swearing. It’s your voice, it’s just quite monotonous.”
“What? My voice?”
“Yeah, monotonous. Our listeners said they found it boring.”
I hang up, and put the phone carefully down on my desk.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
JDA Winslow posts things on the internet at jdawinslow.co.uk