Tune in your favorite radio station and chances are you'll hear a DJ talk about her family, an upcoming concert or the station's latest contest.
Now listen closely.
Your local DJ may not be so local. She may not even be in the same state. And while you're listening to her show on Buffalo radio, she may be running errands in Boise, Idaho -- thanks to voice-tracking technology.
Voice tracking is far from new. The concept allows a DJ to prerecord her part of an on-air shift, which is then combined with music, promotional announcements, contests and commercials to produce the complete radio show.
For years, voice tracking has enabled syndicated radio shows hosted by big-market DJs, like Rick Dees and Ryan Seacrest, to build national audiences. It has allowed DJs to record celebrity interviews for playback during their time slot. It also freed them to leave the station during their show to conclude their broadcast live on location.
But it wasn't until the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that the use of voice tracking caught fire. Signed into law by President Clinton, it eliminated limits the FCC had placed on the number of radio stations one company could own. Whereas the previous cap was 40 stations per owner, the industry is now dominated by media conglomerates -- Cumulus Media, Entercom Communications, Clear Channel Radio, Viacom Inc., Cox Radio -- each owning hundreds of stations sprinkled throughout the country.
"There's a time and a place for [voice tracking]," said Chet Osadchey, market manager for Cumulus Media Buffalo. "There are certain situations where it may be convenient, that it's operationally efficient. There are other times when it makes no sense at all, and you would want to use a preferred local personality who has equity in the marketplace and in the community. Those things are invaluable."
When WGRZ-TV meteorologist Kevin O'Connell was hired at WECK-1230 AM/102.9 FM The Breeze to host an afternoon drive-time program, his television duties presented a conflict.
"Voice tracking enabled me to hire a guy like Kevin, who would totally have a conflict at the time of day I want him on the air," said Dick Greene, WECK president.
Since August, O'Connell has prerecorded the voice portion of his three-hour show during two morning sessions each week at WECK studios on Genesee Street. It takes O'Connell as little as 10 minutes to record one installment of the "Kevin O'Connell Show," which airs from 3 to 6 p.m. daily. That's not counting the time he spends researching content.
There is a certain amount of topicality forfeited when it comes to voice tracking, according to O'Connell.
"What you lose in topicality you gain in flexibility," he said. "You're able to knock off in a timely manner several shows focusing more on information that is related to the music, as well as community events that don't necessarily have a time stamp on them.
"The fact that it allows me to be two places at once, my main commitment is to the TV station," O'Connell said. "So voice tracking allows me to fulfill my main commitment, but also allows me to do something I love."
Last May, Joe Siragusa, program director and DJ at WHTT-104.1 FM/Classic Hits, went shopping for a midday host in the Cumulus talent pool. With more than 550 stations, the broadcast giant's roster of DJs is deep.
"I was looking for someone for a music intensive show who is upbeat with a good personality," Siragusa recalled. "Technology makes it easy with everything digital."
It didn't take long for Siragusa to find Heather Gersten Perry, who works the morning drive shift as Heather Gersten for Lite Rock 105 in Providence, R.I. Perry, who lives 15 minutes outside Boston, commutes to Providence daily for her show from 5:30 to 10 a.m.
Every afternoon, she is heard as Heather Perry on WHTT in Buffalo from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"I record the show sometimes days in advance or one day in advance," Perry said during a phone interview. "Over Christmas, [WHTT] sent a week's worth of material, and I was able to get it done all at once. I don't like to go too far in advance because you don't sound current."
The music logs and station updates Perry regularly receives help to familiarize her with Western New York. "You're doing a disservice to the audience if you're not researching the market you're in," said Perry. "I actually know about upcoming concerts and information about the artist that's current."
Perry, 30, who described her on-air personality as "young mom," studied communications at Seton Hall. She interned at New York City's Z100 and worked with Danny Bonaduce as his on-air sidekick before nailing down the morning spot in Providence.
She sees two sides of voice tracking.
"As a live DJ, you don't want to be replaced by voice tracking," she said. "That would be a nightmare. In today's economy, you need to make money where you can make it."
Another concern about the use of voice tracking is that it may lead people to believe they are listening to a local voice recording live in local studios.
"I never say anything that's not true on air. I just talk about my life, the station and the music," said Perry. "There's a whole East Coast mentality. I think I'd have a hard time doing a show in California, where things are more laid-back."
The increasing use of voice tracking has launched many talent agencies online that become clearinghouses for DJs looking for work as well as program directors looking to hire. Companies such as Voice123, Skidtrax; Voice-Finder and TheProductionGuys offer services from voice tracking to voice overs for radio stations in all major formats.
Bruno Productions out of Las Vegas grabs attention with this ad: "Attention radio programmers!!! Free yourself of the hassle of dealing with difficult prima-donna air personalities."
John Hager, program director of WGRF-FM 96. 9/9 7 Rock, uses voice tracking for some holiday programming. On Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day, for example, the entire day is programmed with voice-tracked shows.
"On Memorial Day weekend, I like to have our two best guys J.P. and Carl Russo [voice track] the whole weekend show together." Hager noted. "We do a 500-song countdown. In the past I'd have part-timers doing it. It was live, but it wasn't good."