Author: McNeal, Brian


Liners, Drops, Bumpers. There are about as many different names for them as there are radio stations and musicians. Now, if you're not a musician or a radio announcer, what they are is those short little pre-recorded announcements in an artist's voice announcing their song on some specific radio program. Something like, “Hi, this is Dumas Walker and you're about to hear my new song, 'Headhunter Bluegrass' right here, right now, on WXYZ.”

The reason they are there is two-fold: radio stations and programs that use them, like them because it helps to customize their sound, it's like an endorsement for their radio station/show from a celebrity. Artists almost beg to record them because it generally helps to get their songs on the air. Disc Jockeys who have these recorded liners by a certain artist are known to play that artist in a heavier rotation than normal just so they can use the customized recording mentioning their name.

The problem is that most artists' recorded liners sound like … well ... let me put it mildly ... they sound like the bi-product of processed animal feed. Not much to brag about there.

This is a perplexing problem and not even the Association of Bluegrass Broadcasters can come up with valid reasons why.

Here we have some of the most talented and creative people on the planet! People who can memorize the lyrics to hundreds of songs. People who can string together just the right words to create a million selling hit song. People who spend hours and hours working on their craft to make it sound “Just Right”.

Yet, when it comes to recording these liners for their radio friends, it seems as if they give it cursory consideration at best and often just throw away the lines as if they were talking about something totally foreign to them. But WAIT! It's THEIR music, isn't it? How could it be foreign?

One radio announcer surmised that, “they seem to be out of their comfort zone,” as a possibility. Still, these are professionals with a business to run. If they sang their songs with the same lack of enthusiasm as some of them give the radio liners, no one would ever sell a record, much less have a hit.

There is a huge difference between using your normal voice and sounding natural. It's one huge reason so many actors get hired to deliver voice-only commercials or voice-over-video for television. It's not because the company wants to pay mega-bucks for the use of a famous person's voice – believe me. Often you don't even know the actor's name unless you're just extremely sharp enough to recognize their voice. The company isn't hiring them for a testimonial … just a professional voice. Actors, most likely because of their extensive training, now how to DELIVER a line as opposed to READING a line.

What many recording artists need to do is to work on this aspect of their career as much or more as they do any other part. Some will get the hang of it rather quickly and others will still be working on it. It's not easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it.

Here are some tips to help out, if you're in this dilemma:

First you need to know if you're recording the liners back stage and the radio people will be present or not. If they're there, simply ask them how they want it done … ask them to read the line and try to copy the way they delivered it. Don't be afraid of stumbling or afraid of not getting it right on the first take. Most of your songs aren't recorded in one take, are they? It's just another recording session – only in a micro studio which may be the back of the bus or the green room, but it's no different. Do as many takes as you need to feel comfortable that the final version going out over the air – ramping up the intro to your hit record – will be the best you can make it.

Next, if you're recording in your home studio or in your label's recording studio … USE HEADPHONES! There is a real reason disc jockey's use 'em. Of course, if you're in a professional studio with an engineer at the controls, you'll have a second set of ears to hear the flubs and get you to do re-takes. But if you're alone, a good set or a cheap set of headphones – either one – will give you the advantage of knowing exactly when you hit a word that didn't come out as you intended. Many of us, in normal conversation will slur over certain words or syllables in a string of words. At the time, we know what we said and so does the other party and no one really cares. But, put a microphone on it, record it and then listen to it time and time again along with millions of others and that little slur, flub, stutter, and stumble becomes magnified with every play. With headsets, you can easily spot the imperfection and immediately do another take.

Don't be afraid to stop and start in mid-sentence either. Radio people are used to editing and it's easy to take out the “uh … that wasn't quite right … was it … let me do that part again.” We can make you sound like you never even took a breath where there was once a guffaw.

Don't be afraid to deliver the same line more than once … several times in fact. But don't just read it exactly the same each time. Variance is what you're after. If one isn't exactly what we were looking for, maybe the other will be … or the third one. Many times, I've taken a part from one version and another part from the second or third take and sometimes, even more from another and totally different liner just to make one that sounds really good.

Pacing is also a good thing. Remember, even though this is bluegrass. not every song where that liner might get used is played at breakneck speed, so try also delivering the line at a much slower and calmer pace. Imagine it being used with the speeds of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Wandering Pilgrim”. Now you're getting it …

I remember hearing the advice that Levon Helm got from Tommy Lee Jones just before his audition for his first movie role. Tommy Lee told him to think of his music and pace his lines as he delivered them just like he would if he were singing them. I think something similar could be said to musicians for recording radio liners. Think of your songs and deliver your lines with some pacing. Put some melodic inflection into your voice. Add some sparkle into your delivery. Smile while you talk. Laugh. Get someone to tell you a joke and just at the end of your laugh, record the liner. You'd be surprised at how much that will add to the overall effect.

Next, remember that this is YOUR music, your name, your voice. Don't throw any of it away! Sell yourself and your music. Give the listener a reason to say “WOW! Let me sit up and pay attention.” Also remember that your recorded message may just be the very first impression you're making on a brand new fan. What do you want to say to that brand new fan? “Never mind me … I'm just doing these radio liners as fast as I can because I've got ten more to do”? Or, do you want to say, “Howdy … glad you're here, hope you like my song and want to hear more!”

Now when you hear an artist's liner on Prescription Bluegrass and you're wondering if it fits in the category of “needs improvement” or the other – where the artist accomplished the goal, let me tell you that we never put anything on the air we don't feel puts the brightest spotlight on the artist even if it's their own voice. If those liners aren't good enough, we just don't use 'em. The songs sound better without someone tripping on their tongue. So if you hear 'em on the air, they're tested, polished and stamped with the “Airworthy Seal of Approval” from the Prescription Bluegrass General Store and Front Porch Psychological Therapy Center.

Posted:  5/24/2014

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