Being a Radio Station DJ in 2016 Is Fresher Than You Think

Los Angeles alt-rock DJ Jake Dill explains why his job, improbably, still kicks ass.

Does anyone still listen to the radio on purpose?

I used to commute across town, and in the early days of that gig I’d make mix CDs to kill time. Then I got lazy and I just started checking out L.A. radio. I never went back to CDs or even plugging in my phone. I’m perfectly fine listening to whatever my car decides upon as I repeatedly hit the scan button. I can’t tell you what station I’m listening to 95 percent of the time, and I’ve even made my peace with hearing the same song twice in an hour.

The only time I stop zoning out is when Jake Dill is on. He’s the night DJ at alternative rock station ALT 98.7 in Los Angeles. I met him through standup comedy several years ago, and now at night I’m occasionally surprised by the sound of his voice in my car. Dill is a master of the form who brings a mix of standard DJ conventions and his own choices — including an hourly break for Two Seconds of Slayer, which really does cleanse the palate after a Kings of Leon song. He also takes “unrequests” from callers, wherein people can request not to hear any Coldplay that night, and he obliges.

I honestly have no idea what state the radio industry is in, so I gave Dill a call to figure out what kind of person works in radio in 2016 and whether it’s great or a total bummer.

Jake Dill wants a burger.

Jake Dill

Jake, how did you decide to get into this line of work?

I had a year off between community college and starting real college. I worked in a hardware store and listened to this radio station every night, and I thought I could do it better. I decided to record a bunch of prank phone calls — this was back when the Jerky Boys were popular — and I took them down to the radio station. They loved me, so I started working there at nights, and I worked there all through college. This was up in Seattle. I got into standup in that time, which was good, because the radio station immediately flipped formats and I lost my job. I wound up following standup comedy down to L.A. and realized I needed to get back into radio pretty quickly.

Where’d you apply?

I went to [famous rock station] KROQ first, because I thought that would be amazing. I wrote my résumé in crayon. That was a risk and it did not pay off. Two and half years later, I got my foot in the door at 98.7. They weren’t exactly my sound. I think a billboard claimed they were the “new rock alternative” but that mostly meant a lot of Maroon 5 and Gin Blossoms. About six years back, it became more Nirvana and Muse, and that’s closer to my tastes.

Did you get a spot on the air?

Haaaaaa. No. I did an air check — a demo — and I sent it in. I got offered a board operator position and I took it because I needed the money. Because comedy. I love doing comedy but years and years in, my net profit on the whole thing might actually be zero. All I wanted to do was be on-air. It was an outlet to be funny. It was an outlet for comedy. You just keeping making things and doing things and hope to not fuck up. That’s before you even get on-air. At some point, they’ll take a chance on you. It was my creative outlet.

How’s your persona different on the air from Jake Dill in the street?

Jake Dill on the street is more reserved. Jake Dill on the air is basically who I am at a party with my friends, with maybe an extra 10 percent on top. Now, Jake Dill back in Seattle? That guy was a mess. I did a lot of things on air because the technology didn’t allow my station manager to review what I’d done the night before. If he’d had access to tapes, I’m sure I would’ve been fired in the first month.

What are the pros and cons of the current state of radio?

The highs are pretty great. Any time I try to get down on it — like today, it’s the first day in a new studio — I’m not as fast because the buttons are in a new place. I get mad and then I remember I get to talk shit on the radio instead of doing landscaping. My boss also gives me a pretty long leash. The con right now is that I don’t play any of my favorite bands. It’s not that bad — I don’t hate it. I’ll admit it: I have Foo Fighters records. I own a Cold War Kids album. I hardly ever listen to the radio while I’m here because I’m putting stuff together for the next break.

What’s the dream radio gig?

Get paid like morning work pays, except in the afternoons. By the afternoon, I’m awake enough to do stuff. I haven’t done standup since last summer because I have no nights free, and I usually get out of town on the weekends.

Where is the radio business moving?

It’s hard for me to say. There’s a lot of ways to listen to audio in your car now. The hardest part for me is a lot fewer people call radio stations these days. People aren’t texting or calling and that makes my job harder. I used to do “crowd work” and would always have dozens of calls in an hour. Now, I might get five in a night? And those aren’t great odds for great material.

What’s the most unpleasant call you’ve taken on the air?

I did a story about a guy getting busted bringing ferrets into California from Arizona. Apparently, they’re illegal here? Two of his friends called in, furious, threatening litigation. People hear what they want to hear and it bothers me. I try to keep my show as positive as possible, so when someone undermines that it pisses me off. Then my boss might get mad at me for a joke that has been taken out of context. …

You can see the crowd in standup. …

In radio you can never hear the reaction. Standup has that wave of laughter and emotion and that’s why standup is my favorite thing. If you were at a show and someone booed me, everyone in that place would shout “shut up” at that person. But if you say it into a broadcast microphone, people take it at face value and who knows what they’ll do to react.

Jake Dill's Show Logo.

What’s the coolest thing that radio provided for you?

We put on private shows all the time, so getting to see those is just crazy. I walk into rock concerts now like a rock star with my VIP pass. I get to introduce bands. That’s the only time I get to do standup these days. Sometimes it’s just 30 seconds of brand new material about the venue or the band or something before screaming the band’s name, but that’s always exciting to engage a large crowd like that.

I think there’s a perception that radio is kind of in a sad place right now, but I’m not sure why? Podcast culture is no different from radio, but that seems fun and new. Any ideas or experience navigating this concept?

Look, I get it. The on-demand availability of podcasts is great, but my show is also available through the iHeartRadio app. Everything that’s streaming makes people think it’s the end for radio. When Pandora came out, everyone shouted “radio is dead!” Well, you forgot how lazy people are. It takes time to make playlists and keep it fresh, and we have people that do that professionally. Radio, in the way that I do it, will always be around.

I was just going to say that radio feels like something my laziness enabled. I guess I’m glad that I’m not alone?

Everyone in the company has this line in their email signature: “Reaching a quarter billion consumers every month.” So yeah, I think radio is doing just fine. You’re not alone.