Friday Song: “The Last DJ”

With RadioGPT — an AI DJ bot — coming, have we seen the last DJ, as foretold in this 2002 song?

“The Last DJ” was the lead song on the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 2002 album of the same name. At the time, independent radio stations were being gobbled up by media conglomerates imposing regional and national programming standards on localities, automating production via satellites and computers, and boosting profits by pushing individual DJs out of their jobs.

The loss was more than economic — it was cultural. DJs were often taste-makers for a market, in addition to serving as local personalities — making appearances, building music fan bases, and hyping concerts, among other things.

Their jobs gone, some set up shop just over the Mexican border to broadcast into cities like El Paso and San Diego.

Petty wrote the song about a particular DJ from Jacksonville, FL, who followed this path when his station was bought out.

However, Petty said later:

Radio was just a metaphor. “The Last DJ” was really about losing our moral compass, our moral center.

The song was banned by Clear Channel Communications, one of the largest emerging radio conglomerates — a move which thrilled Petty, proving his point and providing free publicity:

I was elated when my song was banned. I remember when the radio meant something. We enjoyed the people who were on it, even if we hated them. They had personalities. They were people of taste, who we trusted. And I see that vanishing.

DJs helped to “break” many major bands who might have otherwise disappeared into obscurity, including Petty. Many bands started out with local beachheads (Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta), expanding gradually until breaking into the mass market. Without these local starting points, many bands simply never emerge.

Now, we may be seeing the last human DJ, with the announcement of RadioGPT, an AI-driven localized music streaming station hosted by AI voices. As I’m just outside of Boston, I was listening to SpringfieldGPT, the AI station in the area. All the DJ voices are AI-generated, and they are surprisingly good. However, perhaps for licensing reasons, the music consists of highlights, with songs significantly truncated and chopped up. And while the company claims their goal is not to replace human DJs, you’d have to be less-than sentient to believe that. Not having to pay voice talent to read ads, stay up all night, and present the news could be just what the radio station conglomerates ordered.

Terrestrial radio remains a powerhouse — for instance, more Americans listen to radio than use Facebook each week, and 55% of Gen Z listens to AM/FM radio every day.

To this comes a genuine application of AI. As the song tells us:

There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say, hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
There goes the last DJ

With a distinctive 12-string guitar intro and amazing high harmonies, the song’s anger is evident from the start, and it never abates. Petty was famous for his successful battles with the music industry, but radio was something he could only influence. But he knew a trend when he saw one.