Max Headroom Lives?

From the New York Times, via Slashdot

Carson Daly rose to fame as the host of “Total Request Live” on Viacom’s MTV. Less well known is his side gig as a superhuman D. J. With a little help from digital editing, Mr. Daly can do a top-10 countdown show tailored to the phoned-in requests of radio listeners in 11 different cities without actually knowing which songs he is counting down.

Mr. Daly’s syndicated radio show, “Carson Daly Most Requested,” is produced by Premiere Radio Networks, a unit of the broadcasting giant Clear Channel Communications. The program runs each weekday on 140 stations — most of them owned by Clear Channel — although only 11 receive the digitally customized version that seeks to simulate a local program.

“Most Requested” has been on the air for nearly two years, but only recently have people not directly involved in the program become aware of the extent to which technology is allowing Mr. Daly to cozy up to local listeners. Radio experts say the program involves perhaps the most extensive use yet of digital audio processing to offer localized shows from a central location. And members of a major broadcasting union are investigating to determine whether the techniques violate local labor agreements.

Clear Channel executives and Mr. Daly declined to discuss the program and the technology. But according to former Clear Channel employees, Mr. Daly spends several hours a week in a studio in his Manhattan apartment, reading scripts with short song introductions and longer segments of D. J. patter. His audio feed is transmitted to Los Angeles, where the show’s engineers turn the segments into digital files and drop them into a database.

With a lot of cutting and pasting, the engineers create 11 customized hourlong countdown shows for cities like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, and two national pop and rhythm-and-blues countdowns for other markets. The customization means Mr. Daly can seem to be telling listeners in a particular city their most-requested songs for that day — without ever seeing the city’s top-10 list.

Clear Channel has been widely criticized for its use of so-called voice-tracking technology, which enables prerecorded D. J.’s to sound to listeners in a distant city as if they were both local and live.

Opponents of media consolidation say the technology allows Clear Channel to ignore its regulatory mandate requiring the company to have local stations serve local audiences.

In a case that will go to trial this week, the National Labor Relations Board is charging that Clear Channel violated the contracts of the staff at WWPR-FM in New York, a hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues station known as Power 105.1. The suit argues that the station began using a voice-tracked Los Angeles D. J. without union authorization.

The company has said that the show, “Power After Hours,” was a syndicated program, which the contract allows.

Mr. Daly’s show uses technology that is similar to voice tracking, but industry experts said that the digital manipulation of the host’s words and phrases is so extensive as to put the show in a league of its own.

“This tells you that Carson Daly, as a brand and a personality, is worth the extra studio effort,” said Tom Taylor, the editor of Inside Radio, an industry newsletter. “The technology has been advancing to the point where you can do that and make it sound really good.”

Steven Dunston, a sound designer and editor in Los Angeles who worked at Clear Channel’s Premiere Radio unit when the Daly show began in early 2001, said he helped build its innovative database, which had tens of thousands of audio samples in it.

He said that because Mr. Daly had only a few hours a week to devote to the program, phrases like “coming in at No. 4” were recorded once and stored in the database for reuse. The call letters and phone numbers of the 11 stations, in Mr. Daly’s voice, were inserted throughout.

“It really was fascinating from a technological angle,” Mr. Dunston said. “Nothing had been done to that extent before.”

People close to the current show said its operations had changed little since it began. A spokeswoman for Premiere declined to answer questions about the production of Mr. Daly’s show, saying that was proprietary information. She said Mr. Daly was unavailable for comment.

Not all of Mr. Daly’s sentences are digitally constructed. The show’s writers give him longer segments, like gossip roundups and customized introductions for New York and Los Angeles. But much of the material is written with recycling in mind, so a joke about Christina Aguilera that is used to introduce the No. 3 song in Boston can be used on another day when the song is, say, No. 6 in Atlanta.

Mr. Daly’s unconventional countdown only recently caught the attention of the New York chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents broadcast personnel and opposes voice tracking. Peter Fuster, the chapter’s assistant executive director, said the union had previously thought that the show was just a national countdown with local branding.

Mr. Fuster said, “We’re looking into whether the customized package that they are preparing for New York violates our collective bargaining agreement” at Z-100 (WHTZ-FM), the station that carries the show in New York. If the station is giving Mr. Daly’s show a list of songs to play, that would essentially be voice tracking, which is not allowed under the contract, Mr. Fuster said.

Mr. Daly is likely to be even more pressed for time now that he has his own late-night television talk show on NBC, “Last Call With Carson Daly.” But when he needs some time off from his radio work, the database lets the countdown roll on. Before he goes on vacation, the show’s producers try to make sure they have enough sound clips so his voice can introduce top-10 lists that have yet to be compiled.

That has not always gone smoothly. Mr. Dunston, the sound designer, said that at one point a new Michael Jackson song, “You Rock My World,” unexpectedly showed up on the charts. Mr. Daly was unavailable that day, and because he had never introduced a song by Mr. Jackson, the engineers had to dig through old recordings to find a segment in which he made an offhand reference to the singer. Then they hunted down bits of the song title and assembled all the pieces.

“We had to cobble things together,” Mr. Dunston said.

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