While the term disk jockey (commonly shortened to ‘DJ’) was coined in the 1930s, it did not see widespread use until the 1960s, concurrent with the popularity of rock and roll. Disk here implies phonograph disk records and jockey the announcer riding the audio gain or the song to success.The term disk jockey, commonly shortened to ‘DJ’, was coined in the 1930s, yet did not see widespread use until the 1960s concurrent with the popularity of rock and roll. Disk here implies phonograph disk records and jockey implies the announcer riding the audio gain or the song to success. During the 1960s and 70s radio DJs were incredibly influential in the field of pop music. What they played or did not play could make or break a band. Record labels were well aware of this, and often bribed DJs to play their music in a process commonly known as ‘payola.’ Payola became a widespread issue in the 1970s and was soon made illegal.
Curmudgeon is an apt word to describe John Peel, iconic UK DJ and radio personality. Peel liked what he liked and did not give a hoot about what anyone else said about his taste in music. He was always pushing the boundaries of the public’s listening habits. In the 1960s he introduced his listeners to reggae and eventually to punk in the 1970s and early techno in the 1980s. One of his earlier radio shows in the 1960s called The Perfumed Garden introduced psychedelic and progressive rock to the wider listening audience of the BBC. These were genres the modern listener often disliked, and Peel did not care at all. He was a major proponent of smaller indie bands, often asking them to come into his studio to record a ‘Peel Session’ of four songs. In doing so he gave valuable airtime to largely unknown groups.
Christopher Stone was the first radio DJ to broadcast on the BBC in July of 1927. He suggested to the BBC that his program be centered around playing records back to back. The BBC was initially hesitant as it was an unexplored format, but eventually they came around to the idea. Stone is largely seen as the founder of music radio and radio DJs before the term DJ was even in use. He would play largely American music and jazz with a little bit of chat in between.
One of the most influential early Hip-Hop DJs, Westwood has been a major part of UK radio broadcasting for well over 20 years. During the 1980s he was a pirate radio DJ, playing hip-hop on an illegal sea based radio station, thus avoiding all licensing regulations and restrictions. Eventually he was hired on at the bbc as the only permanent DJ for BBC Radio 1’s hip-hop program. In this role, he was one of the first DJs on legal airwaves to play any hip-hop at all. Westwood has frequently been the target of criticism for his lack of ‘street’ credentials, considering he was born into an upper class white British family.
Alan Freed is famous for being the DJ who coined the phrase rock and roll in the early 1950s. He was always sure to play the original versions of African American songs before their covers by white artists. As with many DJs in the 1950s, Freed was eventually Fired for accepting payola.
You wouldn’t expect a radio DJs looks to be as iconic as their voice, but that’s exactly what Wolfman Jack was known for. He was one of the most famous DJs in America during the 1970s and 80s, known not only for his particularly gravelly voice, but also for his hair. He was a part of the second generation of radio DJs and was inspired by the likes of radio icons like Alan Freed. He would often howl during his programs, playing true to his name which was influenced by his love of horror films. Wolfman Jack was also one of the first DJs to have a syndicated rock and roll show, broadcasting throughout America, making him a household name.
If you have any favorite radio DJs we may not have mentioned here, let us know in the comments! Tune in next week for the next feature in our Radio History Month.