History of Famous Radio DJs
by Alex Cosper (8/28/16)

While it's unknown who coined the term "disc jockey" or "DJ," the history of how radio unfolded helps tell the story. Prior to the 1920s radio use was limited to military and hobbyists. It became a mass medium due to commercial licensing through the U.S. Department of Commerce in the 1920s. The discovery and invention of equipment associated with transmitting radio waves developed in the 1890s.

Another important invention in this era was the public address sound system, which started to surface in the immediate years before WWI. So we know from these events that there could not have been mobile DJs before the 1910s or radio DJs before the 1920s. Early radio broadcasts, such as the Grand Ole Opry, were live performance events. The beginning of radio announcers talking in between playing records was in the mid-1930s.

Car radio also began in the 1930s, as there was now reason to talk to audiences about local road conditions and places to drive, like stores and restaurants. Early owners of radio stations tended to be existing media outlets, such as newspaper publishers, along with schools, churches and businesses promoting their names.

During the Great Depression years some of the biggest names on national radio programs were band leaders and musical performancers such as Bing Croby, Fred Astaire and Benny Goodman. The term "DJ" emerged in the 1950s with the popularity of rock and roll. Some of the early big names in radio moved on as TV stars, such as Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem in the 1960s.

Block programming defined much of radio before TV challenged radio to become the top form of media in the 1950s. Radio then morphed into radio formats that catered to specific audiences instead of a diverse variety of programming blocks, which it had been. It used to be you'd hear baseball games, radio dramas, news and big band music all on the same station. The restructuring of radio in the 1950s led mainly to programming to adult and teen stations. Adult formats that played softer hits and oldies were called Middle of the Road, while teen and young adult stations played rock and roll and current hits.

The birth of top 40 radio came from a radio owner, Todd Storz, listening to a juke box at a bar. He noticed that patrons kept playing the same songs over and over, so he applied the concept of playing the most popular songs in a heavier rotation at his station in Omaha, Nebraska. It led to New York stations heard in many markets pioneering the top 40 sound of upbeat talk and short playlists of big hits during the 1950s. New York jocks such as Murray the K and Cousin Brucie set standards for top 40 radio presentation in the early sixties.

RKO stations began using an even tighter presentation in 1965 with short bits over song intros. This refined top 40 presentation started at KHJ in Los Angeles then KFRC in San Francisco, both owned by RKO.

Famous jocks from Los Angeles included Robert W. Morgan, Don Steele, Charlie Tuna and Dave Diamond. By that time, Dick Clark, who started out doing Philadelphia radio, was widely known announcing records on the TV show American Bandstand, which Dick Clark started hosting in 1956, although it began four years earlier at WFIL in Philadelphia, which was picked up by ABC for national TV programming in 1957.

Another TV show that had a DJ-like presentations included the syndicated dance program Soul Train, hosted by Don Cornelius, starting in 1971. The Midnight Special, launched in 1973, then was hosted by Wolfman Jack from 1975-1976. Casey Kasem's American Top 40 countdown show first aired in 1970. By the end of the decade Casey was a star from many TV appearances that related to his countdown.

The emergence of DJs as important role players in society was during the sixties, particularly with freeform radio jocks on stations like KMET in Los Angeles and San Francisco stations KMPX and KSAN. Each of these stations were programmed by Tom Donahue, who also hosted shows on the air. His approach was more laid back and closer to an intelligent conversation with the audience than short upbeat announcements with basis info like song title and artist.

The peak of creative freedom for DJs was certainly radio's "golden age" of the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-seventies, radio consultants began taking over the programming of radio chains in a way that restricted freedom and regionalism. A decade later marked conventional programming from market to market, but still allowing personality around the clock, particularly with morning shows.

DJs began getting celebrated in songs and movies in the 1970s. The 1973 film American Grafitti featured Wolfman Jack in a radio station. He was then featured on a number hit a year later called "Clap For the Wolfman" by the Guess Who. That same year the DJ was celebrated in the top ten hit "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me) by Reunion. In early 1975 the word DJ crossed over into the recording artist profession with Disco Tex & the Sex-o-lettes as the song "Get Dancin'" proclaimed, "here comes DJ Tex."

Another DJ film appeared in 1977 called FM, reflecting on freeform radio. Other songs that celebrated DJs included the 1979 hits "Pilot of the Airwaves" by Charlie Dore and "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles.

Howard Stern's talk format proved to be the biggest hit on music stations, beginning in 1986, when his show was launched and went on to be nationally syndicated. His focus on sex talk led to him becoming the most popular and highest paid terrestrial radio personality, until he moved to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006.

While it was common for radio listeners to have favorite stations and jocks in the 20th century, the new millennium became a different soundtrack for society. Radio became much more corporate, deciding to automate programming more with pre-recorded voice tracking. The spirit of live radio has diminished, along with radio jobs, as a result of the Telecom Act of 1996, which led to multiple mergers. Since radio chains have racked up enormous debt from consolidation, it has tried to cut costs by laying off thousands of announcers.

Today the most secure radio jobs belong to morning shows with great ratings and radio personalities who also know how to produce and voice commercials. As much as DJs were once captains of pop culture consciousness and experts at theater of the mind, the role has now been greatly reduced, shaped by corporate thinking and technology. Decades of radio jock history can be learned from the KROY Story Video Series, featuring interviews with programmer Johnny Hyde, who was friends with Tom Donahue.

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