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"Dead air... Burt! Dead air! Go to a song, commercial, anything!!"
—Radio Producer Lucy, Dead Air 2009

Dead Air, the terror of radio show producers the world over. Since Radio is an auditory medium, extended periods of silence is one of the worst things you can have as part of your programming, as it will often cause impatient listeners to switch over to competing stations. For this reason, many radio stations would even prefer airing commercials over dead air, as an advertisement at least has a chance of keeping the audience's interest.

Dead Air can be caused by the failure of equipment, either through mechanical breakdowns or loss of power, which will send studio technicians scrambling to find a solution as quickly as possible. In other cases it can come about due to a radio equivalent of stage fright, or a Heroic BSOD on the part of the DJ. If the DJ in question has been under pressure from their higher ups to become Lighter and Softer as part of studio policy, a brief period of Dead Air can herald the moment where the DJ throws caution to the wind, and decides to tell his bosses (and everyone else listening, of course), exactly how he feels about it.

This trope can also be used to show the lengths radio crews will go to avoid Dead Air. A trusty sidekick may ramble on in place of their suddenly mute comrades, or a dedicated DJ may risk his or her own life to keep broadcasting while disaster strikes the studio. In worst cases it can lead to Nothing Is Scarier.

An instance of Truth in Television, much to the chagrin of radio broadcasters everywhere. Some stations will even pre-record interviews and re-edit them just to avoid it, or have songs on standby to use at a moment's notice if needed. Additionally, many stations around the world (particularly public broadcasters) are programmed to switch to an emergency broadcast system, often if there is dead air for any more than 30 seconds, making this something of a Justified Trope. Since Dead Air can occur for almost any reason in Real Life, only notable instances should be listed in the examples section.

Compare Performance Anxiety. Contrast Silence Is Golden.

Not to be confused with the zombie flick or the Left 4 Dead campaign of the same name.


Examples:


Film

  • In the punnily titled zombie flick Dead Air 2009, TV news broadcasts of the burgeoning Technically Living Zombie Apocalypse shock the protagonist DJ and his sidekick into momentary silence, leading to a panicked reaction from their producer, Lucy.
  • The Brave One: When New York DJ Erica Bane resumes her first radio broadcast after her vicious attack (and subsequent vigilante slaying), she falls silent in the middle of reading her opening monologue. Her savvy producer decides to let the scene play out, and a few seconds later Erica starts over with a raw and emotional impromptu dialogue about how terrifying the once familiar city can become after being victimized for the first time.
  • In Almost Famous there's a radio interview scene where the overnight DJ, higher than a very high thing, falls asleep and the band being interviewed realizes the air is dead. Not for long, though.
  • In The King's Speech, there are a few instances of Dead Air, most notably in the first speech shown where he stood there for over two minutes trying to talk into the microphone without being able to get anything out and even after that there was a lot of stuttering and long pauses.
  • The Boat That Rocked: With the government out to shut them down, Radio Rock promises that there will be no Dead Air if they can help it. The first time the official on their tail thinks he's finally finished them, there's only a few seconds of silence before the Count busts in reassuring their audience that they have no intention of shutting down. Later, as the ship is going down, the Count solemnly decides to broadcast until the very last. The former is certainly a Crowning Moment of Awesome, while the latter tugs at the heartstrings.
  • Grosse Pointe Blank has Martin interrupt Debi's show, and she is so distracted by his re-appearance that she sits there staring when she's supposed to be talking. Then she remembers herself and puts on the Specials, playing ... one of their songs ...

Literature

  • In Radio 5th Grade by David Korman, a guest on an ELEMENTARY school radio station pauses briefly while reading a story he had written. The announcer, 10 years old, immediately tells him that's all the time the have for his story and moves on to the next segment to prevent a second of dead air.
  • After John Galt hacks the radio transmissions and delivers his speech in Atlas Shrugged, the other characters do anything to fill up the dead air afterward, but this is treated more as a Follow the Leader response of the radio producers that came before them.


Live Action TV

  • WKRP in Cincinnati, unsurprisingly as it's about a radio station, had at least a few examples.
    • In a one-off joke, DJ Johnny Fever went out to the receptionist area to chat up Jennifer, who rather than shooting him down just turned on the radio monitor, letting him know the air was dead. He gallops back to the control room.
    • A remote broadcast ran into trouble and went dead. Station manager Andy wanted to run some PSAs since that'd at least be something, but Les decided to go live with one of his irrelevant anti-communist speeches instead.
    • There was a bomb scare at the station so DJs Johnny & Venus were sent to the broadcast tower to do their show. It turned out that the bomb was at the transmitter rather than at the station, so they suddenly went off the air. They had to field calls from confused listeners.

 How can we announce that we are off the air when we are off the air?

And Les was a little confused about how radio works.

 Les: How'd you like it, Andy?

Andy: How'd I like what, Les?

Les: My four o'clock news report. Didn't you listen?

Andy: Les, the transmitter blew up!

Les: Of course! That was my lead!

Johnny: You led off the newscast by telling them that we're off the air?

Les: No. But I can include that in my update.

  • Full House: Used for a brief joke when some of the family is visiting Jesse and Joey at their job at the radio station. At one point, they all realize that nothing is being broadcast, and rather than allow the dead air, they all begin chattering, singing, etc. into the mic at the same time.
  • In the Quantum Leap episode "Good Morning, Peoria", the air goes dead when an intimate conversation between the radio station owner and Sam (who has leapt into a DJ) extends past the end of the record. He picks it up well, though:

 Sam: "For the last couple of minutes you folks have been listening to something by Dull Needle and the Statics. A lot of people find it repetitive, I like to think of it as just plain old daring."

  • Happens on the episode of Dharma and Greg when Dharma creates a pirate radio station. She gets into an argument with Greg for several seconds before realizing she's left dead air and panics, bringing out all the instruments she has on the table.
  • SCTV once had an episode about an up-and-coming boxer who was slated to fight the champ on their station. The entire episode is spent hyping up the underdog, even making a short film about him. At the end, when the fight begins, the underdog is knocked out by a single punch, leaving SCTV with nothing but dead air for the remainder of the program as they desperately looked for something, anything they could fill it with.
  • On Frasier when the cast put on a murder mystery show his over-directing caused Niles to rush through to the end, leaving him with nothing to fill the nine minutes remaining.
    • Another episode has, due to a long and tangled series of events, Roz call the show pretending to be a genuine caller. The conversation then becomes increasingly difficult as Roz unexpectedly finds herself revealing her insecurity over a recently failed relationship. Frasier ends up pulling her into a hug to console her... but the heartwarming moment is ruined when their station manager runs into the studio frantically gesturing at the 'On Air' sign.
  • Andy Kaufman's first appearance on Saturday Night Live was supposed to invoke the TV equivalent of this: He stared at the camera for uncomfortably long moment, then turned on a recording of the Mighty Mouse theme song, and lip-synched the line "Here I come to save the day!" and nothing else.


Radio

  • There's an Alan Partridge sketch from the original radio version of Knowing Me Knowing You in which Alan holds a two-minute silence for some departed celeb, but keeps talking over it to let people know their radios haven't gone wrong.


Theatre

  • This is the ending of the play Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian. The protagonist, Barry (a shock jock who has been dealing with progressively stranger callers all night) has a Freak-Out about how much the callers scare him and about how he doesn't want to do it anymore. He opens up the lines, we hear callers, he quickly hangs up on them, until a caller is nice to him and invites him to a house for a drink. He just stops talking, and his producer, Stu, prods him to speak. The last lines:

 Stu: Sixty seconds left in the show, Barry.

Long Pause

Stu: This is dead air, Barry. Dead air.

Long Pause

Barry: I guess... we're stuck with each other. This is Barry Champlain.


Video Games

  • In Barrow Hill, the radio DJ you've just phoned gets chased from her beat-up winnebago by the stalking menace. If you hang up the phone, go back inside, and check the radio, all you hear is dead air. This can be fixed if you visit the now-abandoned winnebago and reset the equipment to broadcast a station-identification message.
  • This happens to James Pedeaston, host of The Wild Traveler in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. His audience stops calling in after a few insulting and disturbing comments. When the silence begins, he starts begging people to call him, and only receives two calls, one of whom was a jumper.


Web Original


Real Life

  • Billy Joel invoked a live-performance version of this trope during the 1994 Grammy Award Show. The director of the show cut short Frank Sinatra's acceptance speech for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, and this pissed Joel off to the point that he stopped his performance of "The River of Dreams" in the middle. He sat there, grinning at the audience, while pretending to check his watch. After a couple of minutes, he resumed playing the song.
  • This clip can serve as an example of how dedicated some DJs are to avoiding Dead Air, as a fire breaks out in the studio during a live radio broadcast in Athens, Greece. The DJ keeps talking away while futilely trying to stomp out the quickly spreading fire until some assistants arrive with water and fire extinguishers.
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