The cult of the disc jockey, or DJ, grew up out of the transformation of radio stations in the years 1948–58 in America. Prior to these years, radio was a domestic medium, developed in the 1920s and aimed primarily at housewives. Radio programmes had previously been in-house productions by the major networks, which, because of its large-scale organization, involved a high percentage of specialized departments and jobspecification.
The initial role of the disc jockey was purely functional. His (as it invariably was a man) job was to cue the records, and ensure the smooth continuity of the show. DJs had no influence over playlists. When radio stations became more localized in the 1950s, career patterns within the industry changed dramatically, the most significant of these being the transformation of the functional radio announcer to personality disc jockey. This reshaping of radio was a key factor in the advent of rock ’n’ roll and through this, the disc jockey emerged as a star figure. On American radio, Alan Freed was the epitome of the showman entrepreneur disc jockey, but his downfall was guaranteed when he was exposed for succumbing to the practice of the ‘pay-to-play’ payola system, whereby disc jockeys would accept financial rewards in return for the promotion of a particular record or artist.
Record companies rely heavily on radio to introduce and promote its products, and disc jockeys are regarded as the ‘regulators’ or ‘gatekeepers’ of the industry. Disc jockeys now have the power not only to influence playlists but to make or break a star, playing a crucial part in determining chart success. Disc jockeys have played a crucial part in defining new genres and discovering new markets. Pirate radio, with the pioneering Radio Caroline in 1964, inspired a new brand of ‘pop’ radio in the UK, with such personalities as Tony Blackburn, John Peel and Kenny Everett. They eventually went mainstream, but John Peel continues to work towards the discovery and promotion of new talent.
Disc jockeys played a major role in the emergence of the twelve-inch single in the 1970s, by mixing the seven-inch single for prolonged playing time. By the late 1970s this became an industry standard, and by the 1990s it comprised 45 percent of sales. Due to the success of club culture, the disc jockey is now the key figure here as well, and can earn as much if not more than musicians.