Voice tracking, also called cyber jocking, is a technique employed by some radio stations. This produces the illusion of a live disc jockey or announcer sitting in the studios of the station. This is not the case in a growing number of instances.
In order to describe voice tracking, an explanation of computer automation is in order, as it applies to radio. Songs, commercials, "voice tracks", and other elements of the program (the final product that comes out of your speakers) can all be stored on computer, sometimes as mp3 files. The automation program simply plays each element as required, according to a script.
Automation on radio is widespread and common. Three radio stations can be run with a handful of people. The reason behind "cyber jocking" (another term for voice-tracking) is usually monetary. A station in a small town cannot normally afford to hire big city talent. Yet, they may be unable to find suitable airstaff in their area. In those cases, voice tracking is often the solution. For a fraction of the price of hiring a live, experienced, talented person to come to a small town, the station can get the talent they need by purchasing and configuring computer automation. Then they hire the big city talent to produce only the short periods of speech, scripted to fit into the station's overall sound. The small town station can then sound like a big city station.
The voice tracks themselves can be recorded by anyone with access to the station's computer network, whether it is someone who actually lives near the station, or is located 2000 miles away. By obtaining the station's music log (schedule of songs that are to be played) and knowing the station's formatics (the schedule of elements within the broadcast day), a "cyber jock" can record what he would normally say live in that situation.
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. At its most basic, having the music list is enough, as the cyber jock can find out how much time is available at the beginning or end of the song for him to talk over, as the station's formatics dictate. After recording the "break", the cyber jock or a technician encodes the song, or changes it into the form that the station needs, and ships it to the station via dedicated computer network, or the internet.
Technicians or programmers at the station receive the files, then place them in the proper order under the proper file names for the automation to play them. Sometimes this can go wrong, or other errors can occur. If you have ever heard two songs playing over each other, or two people talking over each other for more than a few seconds, it is very likely that the station you were listening to was automated. If a station is staffed by a live person, they can usually locate the error, and turn off the offending noise source quickly. Automated stations only run as well as they are programmed.
When it is done correctly, the average listener cannot tell the difference. When it is done wrong, or an error occurs, it can be startling.
How voice tracking works
Different radio stations want their DJs to speak at only certain times. 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 list, the cyber jock can recreate what the finished 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 at 58 minutes past the hour
- DJs are allowed to speak only over the song's instrumental portion at the beginning. (This is the one important to our example)
As an example, consider at the following graphic. Picture it as a tape running through a player from left to right.
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. 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.
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.
How to spot voice tracking
The radio station you are listening to could be voice tracked if:
- The DJ never gives away any prizes
- The DJ only says generic things about current events, like the weather
- The DJ says local names wrong
- The DJ does not have a picture on the station's website
- The DJ never gives out a local telephone number for listeners to call
- The DJ does not make appearances for the station, as in a remote broadcast
- The DJ never ever makes a mistake. Though exceedingly rare, it can happen.
A controversial issue
Voice-tracking is a hotly contested issue within radio circles. Some claim that the sense of locality is lost, that a DJ who has never stepped foot in the town cannot possibly convince listeners that he or she is a resident. Others claim that the overall presentation on the air is improved, and changes can be made to formatics or other rules to accommodate these cyber-jocks. Still others say that voice-tracking removes a job that could be performed by a professional.
Currently many smaller markets are voice-tracked to a certain extent. Most overnight (midnight to 6am) shows are voice-tracked. In most of these cases, the station is on the air with no one in the building.
Another issue is how to alert the public in the event of emergencies. If a warning of some kind (tornadoes, hurricanes, acts of war, blizzards, etc.) is issued by public officials, how will the public be alerted? In these cases, there are other automated systems that can come into play. In these cases, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) can automatically break in to whatever is playing and deliver information to the listener. If the EAS is not activated, then someone is usually responsible for getting the information to the station and deliver on air as soon as possible. If the EAS is not activated, then it is usually not a life and death emergency, but may be a breaking news story.
Each time a station makes a decision to voice-track, it is possible that someone is losing a job. However, proponents also note that voice tracking can save the station money, allowing some of the staff to keep their jobs. Deployment of voice-tracking to date has generally been left as a purely business decision.