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Night Talkers

January 21, 2007

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''We're not here to kill you,'' he began in a tone at once robust and reassuring, surveying the tiny studio for encouragement. ''And we're not here to mug you,'' he added, in a sarcastic swipe at hip-hop stereotypes.

''We're here gettin' high on the Lord,'' he thundered, cueing a track with a boom-boom beat whose first verse rhymed the words ''gospel'' and ''hostile.''

So go the weekly proceedings on ''Gospel Vibrations,'' a religious rap program presented from 1:15 to 6 a.m. Saturdays on the noncommercial radio station WFDU-FM (89.1) here. When Mr. Cray, the show's host, is not bantering in the studio with guests like the two tricked-out Christian-rap artists from Brooklyn who stopped by to promote new albums during a recent show, he's taking calls from the devout, the lonesome, the sleepless and the bored.

And though he is certainly in a class by himself -- ''We're the No. 1 gospel hip-hop show in the New York metro area,'' Mr. Cray, 51, likes to crow, though he is hard-pressed to come up with competitors -- he is not alone as an overnight radio host.

Flip a radio dial in the New York suburbs, AM or FM, and a smooth-talking D.J. is as likely to rumble through your speakers at 3 a.m. as at noon. But with few exceptions, the late-night host who aims to soothe listeners with light-music favorites or stimulate them with titillating talk is -- quite unlike Mr. Cray -- a mirage.

''There's so much automation in overnight radio now, it's getting to be rare that you'll find a live show, even in a market as big as New York,'' said Robert Unmacht, a radio analyst based in Nashville. ''And it's not always easy to tell, because they voice-track,'' using pre-recorded D.J.'s to create the illusion of a live presence in the studio.

''It's a shame how little credence they give that time slot, because it's traditionally been a training ground for great D.J.'s, the radio legends,'' Mr. Unmacht said.

''Historically, it's the time of night when radio magic happens. It's a combination of entertainment, information and companionship, and when it's done right it can be brilliant. But with automation, which we started seeing in the late '80s, they're taking the companionship out of the mix. In such a large market as New York, it's the equivalent of Wal-Mart leaving its back shelves empty because they're too far back. It makes sense to use every bit of real estate you've got.''

Mr. Cray may be in radio Siberia, but at least he's on the air.

Of the roughly 275 public and private, commercial and noncommercial licensed stations in Connecticut, New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island, perhaps fewer than 20 staff the overnight shift with live hosts. Of those, fewer than five are high-wattage commercial stations with broad interstate reaches.

The independent end of the dial, where most late-night suburban D.J.'s lurk, is ragtag but colorful. In addition to Mr. Cray, hosts like Nick Fox, 19, who plays hardcore reggae and ska at WUSB-FM (90.1) in Stony Brook, N.Y., on alternate Thursdays from midnight to 3 a.m., and Leanne Kohlbecker, 20, who spins cutting-edge metal at WSOU-FM (89.5) in South Orange on Mondays from 2 to 6 a.m., satisfy appetites for fringe music and attract deeply devoted listeners. At WFMU-FM (91.1) in Jersey City, Stan Stolpiec's experimental music show on Tuesdays from 2 to 6 a.m. has been the forum for a handful of weekly callers, mainly artists and insomniacs, for 22 years.

What accounts for the willingness of smaller stations, many of them college-based, to keep live hosts on the air is their freedom from dependence on the listener numbers that dictate playlists and personalities at commercial stations swallowed by conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cox Communications. (Mr. Cray's station, WFDU, is among the few small stations that subscribe to ratings services; others can only guess at the size of their audiences.) It also helps that jocks at smaller stations often work free and tend to stick around for years.

''I've had people name their children after me,'' said Henry Brown, coordinator of nighttime radio for WRTC-FM (89.3) in Hartford and host of the ''Mr. Magic Man'' R & B show, which goes on the air when one of the 18 volunteer D.J.'s cannot make it to the studio. It is only the latest of many overnight programs he has run in 30 years at the station, which is owned by Trinity College.

The little stations, several D.J.'s said, are where friends are made, and where the sleep-deprived turn for trusted companionship.

But if the descendants of long-gone radio personalities like Murray the K and Alison Steele are holed up in tiny stations with tinier budgets easing like-minded subculturalists through the night, their brethren at medium-to-big stations are directing their own kind of late-night theater under a different set of house rules. In the small hours of Tuesday morning at the Cox-owned rock station WPLR-FM (99.1) in Milford, Conn., Jesse Gosselin, hired by WPLR seven years ago after he was host of a ska show on the small Danbury-based station WXCI-FM (91.7), could not help seeming tied to a formula.

As he checked listener e-mail messages from third-shifters and insomniacs during a Led Zeppelin track about 3 a.m., he glanced back and forth between his computer and a wall clock surrounded by banners heralding ''50 Minutes of Rock,'' the quota the station promises per hour.

''I can't miss my 16 break,'' he said, referring to the appointed time -- 3:16 a.m. -- when he needed to alert his estimated 11,000 listeners across Connecticut, Long Island, eastern New York, the lower half of Massachusetts and most of Rhode Island that the temperature on the New Haven Green was 31 degrees, and that they were listening to WPLR. Cox mandates four such breaks per hour.

At 3:17, back at his e-mail and with Judas Priest in place on the radio, Mr. Gosselin, 29, shared a request from a regular listener, Dave.

''Oh, he knows better than that,'' Mr. Gosselin said between sips of a Diet Pepsi, one of six he generally drains weekdays between midnight and 5:30 a.m. ''He wants me to play 'Rock Lobster' by the B-52s, but he knows I can't. I'm required to play exactly what's on this list, in the exact order,'' he said, plunking down a sheaf of computer printouts with song titles like ''Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin' '' by Journey and ''Baba O'Riley'' by the Who.

Mr. Gosselin says WPLR's music is limited to 300 songs selected through focus groups. But whatever creativity he loses in his playlist, he tries to make up for in the few moments when his audience hears his voice. In anywhere from 30 to 100 calls a night, ''I usually hear from Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford or Stop & Shop or Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford. These are guys stocking shelves,'' Mr. Gosselin said.

''So I have a thing where I say, 'Tell me your favorite slacker story,' because a lot of times, they'll get their work done really fast so they can spend the rest of their shift hanging out, listening to the radio. They'll call me and tell me how the boss is ragging them. We can't air the calls, so I'll do an on-air dedication or give them a quick mention.''

Or not.

''Sometimes I'll get a call from a regular listener who's working and really wants to hear a certain song, some 20-minute Allman Brothers live jam, and he'll say, 'Why don't you be the rebellious rock 'n' roll guy and play what you want?' '' Mr. Gosselin said. ''Then sometimes somebody who doesn't know how the station operates will write and say: 'You pick the best songs. I love the music you play.' ''

In addition to a paycheck and health insurance, the incentives for overnight D.J.'s at bigger stations include the larger audience afforded by a stronger signal. That gives them a broader understanding of the average local nightcrawler.

''You get your loonies, you get your drunks,'' said John Nolan, 52, a self-described ''dinosaur in the world of overnight radio'' with 25 years' experience on the weeknight late-late shift at WHUD-FM (100.7) in Peekskill, N.Y., a Clay Aiken- and Celine Dion-leaning station owned by Pamal Broadcasting that reaches across the Hudson Valley and pulls in 20,000 listeners a night. ''It's a 24-hour world out there.''

THAT world is populated by the chummy, according to Bill Beale of WSPK-FM (104.7), a pop station in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., also owned by Pamal Broadcasting and heard across Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Dutchess and Westchester Counties and into the Catskills. Callers, a small but important contingent of Mr. Beale's overnight audience, which the station estimates at 30,000, keep him convinced that live jocks are still valued.

''On the overnights you get more frequent, regular callers because they know you're there,'' he said. ''You're not some machine somebody pushed 'play' on.''

From midnight to 5:30 a.m. weekdays, Mr. Beale, 30, takes 25 calls or more from people who just want to talk, sometimes about a song, sometimes about what his life is like, he said.

''They want to know what I'm doing, how it's going,'' he said. ''It's chitchat, but it can be important to people at that time of night.''

If there is an overlap among late-night listeners of quirky independent programs and those of corporate-defined shows like Mr. Gosselin's, it is perhaps best identified by profession.

''I get people in prison, I get police, I get nurses and doctors,'' said Mr. Brown at WRTC. In addition to those standbys, Mr. Nolan said, he takes calls from Dunkin' Donuts employees trying to keep awake. Ms. Kohlbecker, of WSOU in South Orange, said she often hears from auto mechanics and gym rats, sometimes flirtatious ones. And Mr. Gosselin made a point of mentioning the herd of interstate truck drivers who regularly call to make requests or to thank him for playing their favorites.

But even with as many shout-outs, slacker stories, hip-hop testimonials and long-distance dedications as there are to go around, overnight radio can feel like a wasteland when the lines go quiet and the host's caffeine buzz wears thin.

''There are some nights where you sit there and you say to yourself, 'Is anybody out there?' '' said Richard Hughes, 49, a proofreader by day whose ''Local Insomniac'' program, which presents only music by Long Island performers, runs midnight to 3 a.m. Wednesdays at WUSB, the Island's largest noncommercial station.

Many D.J.'s would trade their nighttime shifts in a blink. ''If I get close to 7,000 listeners now, imagine what I could do in a different time slot,'' Mr. Cray said, sounding hopeful.

But for others, like those who said they fell asleep with a transistor radio tucked beneath their pillows as children, accompanying suburban night owls through the wee hours is an honor to be savored while it lasts.

''It's very intimate, very personal, the late nights,'' said Ron Hoffman, 41, whose '70s-themed show at WHPC-FM (90.3) in Garden City, N.Y., runs Tuesdays from midnight to 2 a.m.

''So many stations are automated now, it's like a club,'' he said. ''At that time of night, we can all relate.'' Mr. Stolpiec, 51, the 22-year WFMU stalwart, put it in slightly different terms.

''I like people, but I'm also a loner. That's why the overnight is good for me,'' he said.

''I don't sit there and put my feet up. I think about the songs, what I'm going to play next, and I talk to like-minded people.

''It's such a mentally expansive time of night.''

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