It was just another night doing my show at WFMU, but something was wrong. Horribly wrong. The song that I was playing was getting perilously close to ending, and I hadn't cued up my next song yet. I knew exactly what I wanted to play, but for some reason the CD itself was eluding me.
My heart was pounding. I was in a panic. WHERE WAS THAT CD?!?! I KNOW that I pulled it before I went into the studio to start my show. I'd stake my life on it -- and, in the moment, it feels like that is in fact what's at stake. Looming in the corner of the studio, and getting closer with every second counting down on the CD player, is every DJ's mortal enemy: the Grim Reaper of dead air.
It's not by accident that the phrase used to describe silence on a radio station starts with "dead." A radio station with no sound?? It goes against everything radio is about -- people turn on the radio to hear something: music, news, a ballgame, morons calling other morons on the telephone, something! Even at a station as diverse as WFMU, where periods of silence are sometimes part of the recordings that are played, we have a robot that starts frantically calling station management if more than 20 seconds goes by with no sound (or sound at an imperceptibly low volume).
So, more than selecting the "right" song, an even greater concern is just putting on any song, so that the dead air is avoided. But even that was impossible for some reason -- I was fixated on finding the specific track I had in mind (EMF's "Unbelievable," if you must know), and nothing else would do. I kept flipping through the cart of records and CDs that I'd wheeled in at the start of my show, sure that what I was looking for was there. Then I noticed something that gave me a chill down my spine and a knot in my stomach: the CDs that I was looking at weren't even the ones I pulled! They were all totally different... things I didn't recognize at all. Then I noticed a small box of singles sitting atop the CDs. I grabbed the box and started looking through it... Calypso records?! What the hell?! And suddenly it hit me: this was Irwin's record cart, not mine! None of my records were on that cart. There was nothing I could play. Dead air was upon me. I was doomed.
And then I woke up.
And, after the few seconds it took for me to be suitably relieved, I chuckled knowingly to myself: I'd had another one.
Next time you talk to someone you know who is a DJ -- or used to be one -- ask them about their radio anxiety dreams. Chances are he or she will immediately respond with tales of multiple recurring nightmares related to either an inability to find a song to play or an inability to get into the studio at all. What's striking to me is how similar these dreams are from one person to the next. For example, here's Monday morning man Charlie's recurring DJ nightmare:
I'm in the record library, getting ready to do my show, only the library is completely unfamiliar to me, and I can't find any of the records that I want to play. Time is running out, and I realize that I'm going to have to start my show with only one song prepared. Then I'm in the studio, and before I know it, that first song is over, and there's dead air. It seems that I actually have records there with me, but for some reason, none of them is playable. Panic sets in. What feels like an excruciatingly long time passes, as I try to figure out what to do. Then I wake up (thankfully).
DJ Tamar's subconscious mixes it up a bit, but still it all comes down to not being able to get that crucial next song on the air:
As recognizable a genre as they are, they seem to be different each time. Sometimes I start off looking for a record in the library (which tends to be more like the library in the old building in East Orange, or one from WESU or WRSU, but usually involves not enough recorded material on old wooden shelves) and I just can't find the record I'm looking for. In the process of looking for it, I realize that the entire library has been rearranged so that I don't know where anything is, or that all the records are warped to the point of unplayability and the CDs are too far away, or none of the CD cases have CDs in them or they are all the wrong ones, or my search keeps taking me further and further away from the studio and I'm lost, or all there is in the library/studio is in some format that I'm unfamiliar with and I can't find anything I know how to play. Or the turntable needle isn't there.
Eventually I wake up.
Other DJs chimed in, all reporting very similar dream scenarios:
I'm dreaming that I'm doing my show as normal, and somehow i get distracted or I space out. The result is that I end up exposing the poor listener to every DJ's nemesis: dead air, with no recourse or corrective measure taken to rectify this dire situation. I wake up.
-- Gaylord Fields
I've had a recurring dream for years now. It's the typical dead air, nothing is cued nightmare with very little variation. Sometimes the studio is different but it's usually the same. In my last one, about 2 weeks ago, Liz Berg asked me to fill in about 5 minutes before her shift and that was the variation. It's totally fascinating to me how I keep having the same dream. I guess it will never stop.
-- Debbie D
Debbie, I have some bad news for you: you're right, it won't. WFMU supervolunteer (and 2006 Listener Hour guest) Colleen Kane was on the air pretty regularly for most of the 90s, but hasn't had a steady radio gig since 1999. And yet, all these years later she still has dreams that are "some variation on not being prepared...the song's about to end, I have nothing cued up, nothing even pulled for the show...you know the drill." We know the drill alright -- only too well.
Sometimes, the dreams don't even allow the hapless DJ to get into the studio, as one staffer reports:
I used to have this dream frequently when WFMU was in East Orange. Driving there from NYC can be very convoluted, especially when there are freeway gridlocks and unpredicted detours. My repeat DJ nightmare was being beset by one traffic detour after another through Harrison and Newark when I'm supposed to be on the air and I'm trying to get there.
It was a little like living the old geometry puzzle -- that if you halve the distance between yourself and a destination, repeatedly, you never actually reach that destination.
These dreams are the ONLY recurring nightmares I have. Nothing else affects me that strongly, for some reason.
Veteran WFMU DJ Rix also has a tough time getting to the station in his DJ anxiety dreams. But even when he finds himself on the premises, things don't go well:
I suddenly realize I'm scheduled for a show, usually within the next half-hour, I'm completely unprepared, and I cannot possibly get to the station in time. Where I am when I realize this is sometimes an anachronism, like my childhood home.
My dream WFMU is nearly always based on the East Orange studios, although the journey there may resemble the one to Jersey City. The building and studio are always configured strangely. Usually the board looks very old. Often, there's only one turntable. and even if shelves filled with CDs and records are in the room, I can't think of anything to play, and it never occurs to me to just grab anything.
If I use the music library, it might be split between two different floors, and the filing system is unfamiliar. This part of the dream comes from when, during shows, one runs into the music library during a 3 minute song only to forget what one is looking for. In both real and dream worlds, the Music Library is a Temple of Forgetfulness.
The nightmare came true only once, the day we officially moved from East Orange to Jersey City. I had the first hour slot that morning -- I won the gig by lottery -- and had picked all the music in advance. Hardly anything worked right.
Another WFMU DJ whose anxiety nightmare came to life is Antique Phonograph Music Program host MAC, proving that these dreams are not just the province of those who traffic in the more contemporary music heard on the station:
I dreamt was at the station, knowing that my show was about to start, and I was procrastinating. I knew that others around me were aware that I was supposed to be on the air soon, but no one said a word as I scrambled around the different floors of the station trying to look busy.
10 minutes to go. I knew I was in trouble since I did not have my 78 rpm records with me, and since my show was so specific the FMU record library did not have any for me to pull from. Finally, Ken said to me "MAC, shouldn't you be in studio B ready to go on the air? I gave him a confident acknowledgement that I was aware of the situation, doing my best to hide the fact that I had NO IDEA what I was about to do for a show. The clock had ticked down to 2 minutes. I heard Brian on the house intercom in a pleading and desperate voice saying over and over "MAC, Where are you? Please call me in the studio". It was time to go on and I just had nothing. I felt like I was just going to hide. I then woke up at what would have been the most interesting part of the dream.
About two weeks after this dream, I was at the station for my show. I usually use original 78 rpm records and cylinders for my show, but this day, I was using a CD of a "virtual guest" which I do from time to time. About 5 minutes before my show, I put the CD in the player and IT WOULD NOT PLAY! I tried every CD player and even the computer and NOTHING!!! Oh my God! My dream was coming true only this time I could not just wake up! I scrambled around the library like a chicken with its head cut off for a minute until I realized that IT WAS TIME to go on the air. Only one thing to do... The Antique Phonograph Music Program became The Frank Zappa Hour (RealAudio file) for that week.
Lastly, Inner Ear Detour host David Suisman describes the "omnibus DJ anxiety dream" that he had before his last show on the regular schedule back in June of 2004 in this RealAudio clip. (Like Colleen, David reports that despite not having a weekly show for the past couple of years he still gets these dreams.)
I wonder, do people in other occupations have consistently themed recurring dreams like this? I'm sure that work anxiety dreams in general are fairly commonplace, and I'm equally sure that police officers, firefighters, air-traffic controllers and others with critical high-stress positions have anxiety dreams that I couldn't even conceive of (or just don't want to, so I don't start having those dreams instead). After all, it's not like anyone gets hurt if a DJ doesn't get a record on the air in time. But, if you walked the streets of Manhattan and asked, say, hot dog vendors about their nightmares would they consistently describe not having any buns on the cart, or opening up the metal lid, fork in hand ready to skewer a dog for a waiting customer, only to be greeted by sloshing water with no actual hot dogs? Do movie projectionists dream of film reels loaded out of order or celluloid melting before their eyes, helpless in the face of the audience below? Does every vocation or avocation have its equivalent of the dead air menace that haunts its practitioners' sleeping hours?
Tell you what, why don't you sleep on that and get back to me.