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, the radio station, Radio Dead Air, or the Left 4 Dead campaign of the same name.
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This "security camera footage" (actually a viral campaign for a now-defunct FM station in Greece) shows a fire breaking out in the studio during a live radio broadcast. The DJ keeps talking away while futilely trying to stomp out the quickly spreading fire until some assistants arrive with water and fire extinguishers.
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 ...
In Gremlins, The Unseen DJ Rockin' Rickie gets attacked by gremlins during a broadcast, but is back in the studio and boasting that he's still on the air soon afterward.
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 they have for his story and moves on to the next segment to prevent a second of dead air.
To be fair, the announcer's inner monologue shows that said guest did this every time; he'd come in and rant himself into a frenzy over something, mainly as an overreaction to some perceived danger, before reaching a point where'd he just sit there seething until someone else spoke. The announcer recognized the signs and reacted quickly to prevent the dead air from lasting any longer.
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.
Both literally and metaphorically the subject of Iain Banks' novel Dead Air. The protagonist is a radio presenter who purposefully avoids moments of silence of radio, but his lifestyle is shown to be a a sequence of meaningless, empty events, of no consequence to humanity despite his celebrity status. A British response to Bret Easton Ellis, if you will.
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?
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:
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.
The biopic Man on the Moon has a scene depicting the filming of this sketch. The SNL producers face-palm over Kaufman's apparent stage fright and the resulting dead air, because Kaufman never told them that the awkward silence (and the awkward doing-nothing-while-waiting-for-his-cue) was the entire joke of the sketch.
The phrase is frequently invoked by cast and channel alike when there are no puppets on stage on The Funday Pawpet Show.
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.
When Chris Moyles was presenting the BBC Radio One Breakfast Show, at one point he & sidekick "Comedy" Dave decide to play a game of Chicken, by staying silent for as long as possible before the automated emergency broadcast took over. They never got that far, as the show's producer interrupted the silence by pointing out how long it would to restore normal service.
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.
Stu: This is dead air, Barry. Dead air.
Barry: I guess... we're stuck with each other. This is Barry Champlain.
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.
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, checking his watch and saying, "Valuable advertising time going by", and then he resumed playing the song.
When the MTV studio caught fire back in the 80s, the old-school live VJs stayed on the air and kept introducing videos while the blaze was put out.
Plenty of phone-in radio show DJs in Hurricane Sandy's path kept broadcasting as long as their stations' power held out, even if their phone lines were down and they had no one to trade quips with except each other.
In a stiff upper lip example, during the 9 o'clock radio news on 15th October 1940 the BBC's Broadcasting House took a direct hit from a German bomb. Seven people were killed but Bruce Belfrage the newsreader, who was covered in plaster and soot carried on the bulletin after a brief pause as if nothing had happened.
Deliberately invoked during respectful "moment of silence" ceremonies, such as during Remembrance Day in Ontario (more likely on community radio stations than commercial ones.).
BBC Radio 3, being a non-commercial classical music station, does not fear Dead Air and is quite happy to broadcast long periods of silence, for instance at the beginning and end of a piece.