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Live radio takes the lead

Canned programs are set aside as DJs and fans celebrate Michael Jackson

“For our generation, this is Elvis ...’’ Jay Beau Jones (left) of Mix 98.5, said of Michael Jackson’s death. DJ Dierdre Dagata is at right. “For our generation, this is Elvis ...’’ Jay Beau Jones (left) of Mix 98.5, said of Michael Jackson’s death. DJ Dierdre Dagata is at right. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Healy and Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 27, 2009
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The death of pop megastar Michael Jackson brought new life to Boston radio this week, as local stations scrambled to capture the moment. Station managers called for all hands on deck, replacing automated voices with live talent to talk about the man and the music, take calls from nostalgic listeners, and saturate the airwaves with Jackson’s hits.

It was a historic day in an era of corporate radio, controlled play lists, and canned voices. At Mix 98.5, DJ Lady D played Jackson tunes and interviews from 7 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, the day of Jackson’s death. Caught in a week when the regular morning team was on vacation - and repeat broadcasts were running during the high-profile, drive-time show - the station called in three of its top personalities from around the clock, who sat together yesterday morning, live on the air.

Jammin’ 94.5 called back its morning crew for a second shift after the news broke. They talked about Jackson and spun his music until midnight. The pop icon was the only topic of conversation on Kiss 108 yesterday morning, and Oldies 103.3 played nonstop “Thriller,’’ “Billie Jean,’’ and other Jackson favorites all day.

“For our generation, this is Elvis, this is John Lennon,’’ said Jay Beau Jones, program director for Mix 98.5 and Oldies 103.3. “It just shows the power of Michael Jackson, and what an amazing talent he really was.’’

In cars, living rooms, and offices, listeners set aside the solo experience of their iPods for a day and gathered around the radio to tap into something bigger - memories of college years, albums shared by millions across a range of musical tastes, dance hits two decades old that can still fill a dance club with another generation of fans.

“It’s a good reminder of what live radio can do, of the role that radio can play in bringing a community together,’’ said Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch in Rochester, N.Y.

Many stations no longer have live announcers, using canned voices for part or all of the day, and so can’t react to a major news event, he said.

DJ Deirdre Dagata, 39, has been working at Mix 98.5 part time since May, after being replaced at Kiss 108 by recorded programming the month before. And yesterday, she was back in action for the biggest radio day in memory.

Dagata was in constant motion during her 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. Sitting in an elevated office chair in front of four computer screens, she punched blinking phone lines, tapped on keys, and slid knobs - simultaneously editing recorded calls and fielding a steady stream of new ones from listeners who wanted to share stories about Jackson. “They’re kind of getting to be a part of the station,’’ Dagata said.

Michael Almeida, 29, who said he was a regular Mix listener since high school, phoned in to share his heartbreak over Jackson’s death. The radio station “is a family - even though they don’t know me,’’ he said. Almeida of Fall River said the station “is somebody to talk to.’’

And listeners did talk. Dagata put one caller on the air who, laughing at the memory, told about the time she and her father talked her mother out of buying a red Michael Jackson leather jacket at Burlington Coat Factory. The caller wanted Dagata to play “The Way You Make Me Feel,’’ from Jackson’s album Bad, circa 1987.

At Magic 106.7, a soft rock station in Boston whose usual play list is about 350 songs, the staff was able to find three Jackson hits for the first hour after he died. Later, they had to go digging for CDs to play more material through the night and yesterday, said Don Kelley, vice president and director of programming. The station decided not to go all-Jackson, he said, in part because of Kelley’s own experience: He was on the air at a Natick radio station the day Elvis Presley died, and recalls being told to play everything he could find by the King.

“You run out in no time,’’ he said. Not necessarily so with Jackson, but Kelley wanted to stick to the hits people know best.

There were some outliers yesterday, stations that did little to acknowledge Jackson’s passing, sticking to their usual focus and format. WBOS 92.9 fired its DJs last year and now features canned announcers between its alternative rock hits - “voice tracking,’’ as they say in radio - all day. It played just two Michael Jackson covers by other artists, said program director Ken West.

But its sister station, WROR 105.7, played Michael Jackson all through the morning show with longtime Boston radio personalities Loren Owens and Wally Brine, even though “he’s not one of our core artists,’’ West said.

Jackson had more fans across a broad spectrum of listeners than perhaps any pop figure of his generation, radio executives and music critics said. Fybush, the Northeast Radio Watch editor, observed that with more stations abandoning the live, local personalities of the past, “this may really be the last of these moments as far as music radio goes.’’

David Beard and Michael Warshaw of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com, Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.