- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

Thanks to the magic of technology, Rockville, Md., disc jockey Jon Ballard is the host of daily radio shows in two cities at the same time.
Mr. Ballard is the popular afternoon-drive host on local rock station WWDC (101.1 FM). Since January, he has also been the afternoon man on Detroit oldies station WLLC (106.7 FM).
Each program is customized for each city, with Mr. Ballard peppering his commentary with references to local faces and places.
"It was a little wild at first because I had never even been to Detroit until April. I had to rely on the Internet to know what the hot spots in town were so I could talk about them on the air," he said.
Mr. Ballard's feat is made possible through voice tracking, a practice that is transforming one of the most local forms of media radio into a national business.
Unlike syndication, in which a host such as Howard Stern or Tom Joyner produces a program for a national audience, voice tracking allows a DJ to make each program sound like a local show.
Some folks don't like it.
The American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, the industry's largest union, has asked companies such as Clear Channel to restrict voice tracking, arguing that the practice eliminates jobs for DJs.
Some DJs say the practice also strips them of the opportunity to hone their craft in smaller markets before getting jobs in bigger cities. Privately, they refer to voice tracking as the "bastardization" of radio.
"Voice tracking is the best way to get the best talent on as many stations as possible," said Bennett A. Zier, an executive vice president of Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's largest owner of radio stations, including WWDC in Rockville and WLLC in Detroit.
Mr. Zier could not say how much Clear Channel programming is voice-tracked nationally, but he said it is not widely used at the company's eight Washington stations, including WWDC, soft-rock station WASH (97.1 FM) and oldies station WBIG (100.3 FM).
Voice tracking is most common in smaller cities, where stations often cannot afford to hire big-city talent such as Jon Ballard.
A station in a small city might pay between $4,000 and $6,000 to "import" a DJ's voice, whereas it might have to pay him many times that much for salary and benefits if it were to hire him to do a live, in-person show.
The practice would not have been possible before big media consolidation in the 1990s, which created conglomerates that have stations in cities across the nation, said Jake Balzer, media analyst for the Edward Jones investment brokerage.
Mr. Ballard tapes all the commentary for his Detroit show at WWDC's Rockville studio. He even records banter with the station's traffic reporter, who does his reports live.
Mr. Ballard often makes references to the previous night's Detroit Red Wings hockey game, pausing so the traffic reporter can react to his comments. Listeners who hear the show have the impression that the two announcers are interacting in the same studio at the same time.
When Mr. Ballard is finished recording his portion of the Detroit show, he beams it to the station by satellite. Then he goes on the air at WWDC, where he does a live radio program.
"We're lucky that Washington is the seventh-largest radio market and we can afford to hire great talent [to do shows live]. But if there is an opportunity to get somebody great through voice tracking, we will take it," Mr. Zier said.
A second type of voice tracking allows DJs to tape their show in advance so they don't have to be in the studio to do the program live.
For example, Diana Hollander, the weekend-morning host on classical music station WGMS (103.5 FM), often tapes her programs on Thursdays. The station tells her which music will be played on weekend mornings, and she records the introductions to each piece.
Some analysts say fears that voice tracking will eliminate jobs have been inflated.
"If you're a good DJ, you're going to get work," said James B. Boyle, an industry analyst for Wachovia Securities.
Analysts also say stations that import voices from other cities aren't necessarily trying to fool listeners into thinking their programs are live and local.
"Does it matter, as long as you like the DJ you're hearing?" Mr. Balzer said.
He cites television as an example. If every TV station were responsible for producing its own prime-time programs, only viewers in New York and Los Angeles would see shows of the "Friends" and "ER" caliber, he said.
Mr. Ballard concedes there is a certain amount of deception involved in voice tracking. When he visited Detroit in April, he met many of his fans for the first time. "They just assumed I lived there. I guess that means I'm doing my job well," he said.

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