By Nigel Cassidy
Digital technology is turning commercial broadcasting upside down. But the fightback has begun. Radio stations are trying something new - and firing some of their disc jockeys. Now the idea is crossing the Atlantic.
In some parts of radio the DJ remains sacrosanct
Online, satellite, cable and DAB stations are booming like never before. As a result, traditional "analogue" stations are counting the cost in lost advertising revenue and are having to re-think traditional ideas of music broadcasting.
Ever since radio stations started broadcasting popular music, they've employed disc jockeys to tell us what songs they are playing and to generally keep us entertained.
As the industry has opened up to competition, more local and national stations have taken to the airwaves, playing music tailored to every taste from Easy Listening and the Top 40 to smooth jazz and specific kinds of garage and dance music.
Yet it seems as ever more of us choose to listen to a wider range of tunes on our personal music players, the very proliferation and specialisation of on-air stations may be contributing to their downfall.
Formulaic stations with unvarying playlists and inexperienced DJs are increasingly unattractive to the rising generation of listeners.
With the home computer now the preferred device for storing music collections, many are choosing to be their own DJs, programming their personal listening by downloading ( or "ripping") the tunes they like to iPods or MP3 devices they can use on the move.
But, in the United States and Canada in particular, the industry is fighting back. In an attempt to woo listeners, a number of them are broadening their playlists, putting all the tunes on shuffle and ditching the DJs altogether.
They call it Jack radio and dozens of North American stations have adopted this new format.
Now a British one is to open this Spring in Oxford, alongside its existing station on 107.9 FM.
Radio station boss Clive Dickens, a former boss at London's Capital Radio, says his company Absolute Radio Group has licensed the Jack format from the United States.
"With the proliferation of stations all over the world, the DJ has become a figure of ridicule.
"What Jack tries to do in its market places is to be an "anti" radio station, giving you a surprising and entertaining mix of music, but achieved without that annoying DJ."
The Oxford station will retain presenters at drive times, but hopes listeners will be surprised at how creative and engaging it can make its advertising and programming when it no longer has to squeeze its budget and pay presenters for the entire day.
For the owners of radio stations, it is easy to see the attraction of replacing DJs with digital music files that don't demand fancy salaries or a Porsche Carrera to stop them changing channels, and taking their audience with them.
Sites like Last.fm bring social networking tools to radio listening
However, many people still actively choose the radio to keep them company - so it will be interesting to see if Jack format stations can find a niche in the UK.
Thousands of online music stations already compete for the ears of computer-users on the internet.
Many of these simply stream music, having never seen the need for DJs.
One of the fastest-growing is the social networking radio station Last.fm.
It has a million songs on tap. You key in details of your favourite artist and it effectively creates a radio station in line with your tastes, learning more about what you like as you use the service.
The only way the service makes money for its backers is if you decide to follow its links and buy the music you are listening to.
Martin Stiksel, Last.fm's founder, says: "People want to have a custom station of their own and they can't do this if a DJ is in control.
"Then the only control you have is to change the channel. But on Last.fm you can configure your own radio station and the more you use it, the better it gets."
Other companies, such as Pandora.com, also offer a similar personalised radio experience.
But changes to the arrangements music companies use to gather royalties on streamed music is currently threatening the future of many smaller internet radio stations.
But whatever happens, it seems unlikely we have seen the last of the DJ as a species.
Engaging, celebrity DJs may always have a place on traditional radio, especially at drive time when we are getting up or returning home from work.
But it could be that the days of inexperienced local presenters with their cheesy links may be numbered in the battle for the ears of the iPod generation.