Hey Mr. DJ
Known to thousands of commuters for his good humor, gentle drivetime companionship and, of course, great choices of “classic hits” to spin, Hilo-based DJ Darrin “DC” Carlson has been riding the Big Island airwaves since 1985. With his geeky glasses and friendly demeanor, DC has also offered his time and talents pro bono to hundreds of community service or charity events islandwide over the years, making him even more beloved by residents.
In an age of radio broadcast automation, stations that offer long-running, live personalities such as Carlson seem to be more and more rare these days.
“It’s a survivor, a station where we can still be live,” he says of his station B97-B93 FM.
“If you’re listening to a show and they don’t give you the time, it’s not live,” he adds with a chuckle.
Although Carlson does have a pre-recorded show on Sundays (“Cruisin’ Sunday”), most listeners know him for his weekday morning broadcast.
“While the programming technology they have now is absolutely amazing, there’s something about doing the live show that gives you a real social connection, a true immediacy with the audience,” says Carlson. “I love the live show aspect. The show is full of local things that are not piped in, giving us that authentic flavor of our community all morning long.”
During the Puna volcanic eruption in the summer of 2018, live calls from listeners helped Carlson offer onair, up-to-the-minute reports on the latest fissure activity.
Traffic accidents are called in or texted in by listeners as well, giving Carlson the opportunity to give a heads-up to drivers to take alternate routes or use additional caution during their morning commute. Unlike other islands, there are no TV traffic reports on Hawai‘i Island, so eyewitness accounts are crucial.
Running the morning show can be exhausting, Carlson says, as he also handles the Facebook and Twitter activity, requests, and his well-known features such as the “Pointless Poll,” “Brain Buster,” “Morning Moment of Humor,” “Music Master Trivia Challenge” and “Time-line Challenge,” among others. He’s up at 3:30 a.m., at work by 4:30, and on the air at 6. He’s alone in the studio, multi-tasking, and there are no assistants.
“I do whatever I can to let the listeners into my world, to let them see the idiot behind the curtain,” he says with characteristic humor.
So just what does Carlson do when a block of songs is playing? Is he out getting do-nuts or more coffee? Relaxing, catching a quick nap or taking a bathroom break? Well no, he says, none of the above.
“It’s almost as busy off air than it is on the air,” Carlson says. “Most of the time I’m answering phones, checking the B97 texts (and we get a lot!), checking my email, checking and updating social media and getting ready for the next break. There are so many avenues for listeners to get in touch with us. Texting is really a big one. People will text answers to our contests but also respond to things I talk about in real time … even as I’m talking on air. It’s fun. Sometimes I’ll blank on somebody’s name, and the listeners immediately respond with the answer. I spaced out the name of Pink Floyd’s drummer and immediately I got five “NICK MASON!” texts right away. Our listeners are the best!”
And the classic question every DJ gets: If you do need a long break, what song do you put on?
“Our music and commercials are all on the computer now, so if I have to take a long break I can throw it into autopilot, so to speak,” Carlson says. “The technology is so advanced now, and that’s made it so much easier. However, if I do need a long song, Stairway to Heaven is always a good choice. I usually don’t need that much time, but we do have our long-play favorites. Peter Frampton’s Do You Feel Like I Do immediately springs to mind. It’s 13 minutes long!”
Born in Davenport, Iowa, Carlson got his start in radio after moving to Loveland, Colorado. After high school, his mentor and speech teacher — who he kept in touch with after graduation — got him a gig at an AM country station in 1983. There, he learned all the old-fashioned ways of the DJ trade, spinning records and cartridges, starting with a turntable and learning to splice and edit tape with an razor blade. Today, in contrast, DJs have access to a giant database of songs, easily accessible in a snap by entering an artist or song title.
“I’m so fortunate to be able to experience the arc of technology (in radio) from back then until now,” he says.
Humor always came naturally to Carlson, a self-described class clown and natural emcee who gained fame among his peers doing impersonations and other voice impressions of the principal and other school figures. In 1987, KUAD, a station in Windsor, Colorado, that owned K-BIG on the Big Island at the time, offered Carlson a chance to work in Hawai‘i temporarily. He flew over and was instantly enchanted by the island, but especially by the people.
“We had local restaurants in Hilo that gave the morning DJs free breakfast every morning,” he remembers. “I was amazed by the ‘ohana spirit here.”
Shortly thereafter, Carlson moved over permanently — and never looked back. He met his wife a couple of years later. Never too shy to create a live promotional production, Carlson arranged for he and Vanessa to say their vows, live on air, in 1989.
One of the station’s most impressive projects of the year is the KWXX Ho‘olaule‘a, a giant free show featuring four stages of live, island-style music and entertainment. In its 25th year, it is the largest free musical event on Hawai‘i Island and possibly in the entire state.
“Before I worked for B97-B93, and was working for KBIG, I really, really wanted to be a part of the ho‘olaule‘a,” says Carlson. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s the ultimate community event. I’m immensely proud to help put it on.”
For the past 15 years, Carlson has also donated his personal time to charity events such as the Heart Walk and LGBQT Pride Parade, among others.
“I’m so fortunate to do what I love and love what I do,” Carlson says. “It’s wonderful to make a living doing this, but at the same time, I don’t take anything for granted. In this business, you have to always re-evaluate where you are with the technology because it changes so fast and you have to adapt. But what I love most — and the best thing about this job — is the one-on-one people connection. Working with the community, for the community is what radio’s all about. It’s like a salad bowl mix of community and connection.”