You know you enjoy the DJs when they can make you forget they haven't played a song for five minutes. And you know a DJ team is clicking when they've completely forgotten about playing music because they're riffing, bouncing jokes off each other as if they are reading each other's minds.

If you're the general manager of a music station, though, you might not be thrilled that your Top 40 format has turned into talk radio, no matter how much fun anyone's having. That's a lesson John Hines learned while working with WLOL teammate Bob Berglund in the 1980s.

"Me and Bergy, we'd gone maybe 45 minutes without playing a song," Hines recalled. "The GM came into the building and never paused and walked right into the studio and said, 'It would be nice if you played a song now and then.' "

He did what the boss suggested — sort of. "I took six music cartridges and hit [played] all six at once. Said, 'It's not 10 in a row, it's six all at once! Instant contest! First person who can identify all six will get $99.' I hit them all again, the songs started all at once." He grinned. "And the calls started to come in." He'd invented a new radio contest format! And how long did it last?

"Ah, it was cute once," he admitted.

That's radio: It lives in the moment and moves on.

That's also a description of working in radio, a profession whose practitioners move from market to market, living or dying by the ratings book or finding themselves out of a job because the station is changing its format from rock to country and all the DJs will be replaced by new twangy talent.

It's a rare thing to stick in one market for a long time. Unless you're Hines. Currently holding down mornings from 9 a.m. to noon at WCCO (830 AM), he has been on the air in the Twin Cities for 43 years.

The humble beginnings

"I was 18, just out of Roosevelt High School," he said. "I knew I wasn't a college guy, no self-discipline. One day I walked by Brown Institute, when it was on Lake Street, and I looked in the window and saw all these pictures of broadcasters — including Casey Jones. I thought, 'I could do that.'

"I was there for two weeks before I realized it wasn't a school for railroad engineers." He stopped and grinned. Had he been on the air, this where a producer would have added a rimshot.

After 10 months of instruction at Brown, he was off to the real world: the prosaically named Bloomington-Normal in Illinois. How long did that last?

"Thirteen months, three weeks, four days and 37 minutes."

If you get the sense of someone doing time, scratching marks on the wall to count off the days, you're not far off the mark.

"I wanted to come home," he said. "Everyone knew what mattered: my family. I ended up at WWTC."

The TC stood for Twin Cities, of course. He started a run that included hosting overnight movies at KSTP-TV. "I took the job because I didn't want to paint my house," he explained. "I took what they paid me and paid someone to paint my house."

Then he moved to morning TV, but "it was 60 hours a week for an hour of TV! I didn't want to work that hard. So I went back to radio."

A lowlight

The radio to which he returned was much looser than what we have now.

"Between midnight and local sunrise, there was a time that the FCC referred to as the experimental period, and you could do almost anything as long as you didn't upset community standards," he said.

He and Berglund hosted the early morning show, signing on with what they called "The Hines and Berglund Get-Me-Up Jingle." It had a long musical introduction that they could talk over, except instead of doing that, one morning Hines started answering listeners' phone calls on the air without having a producer screen them.

" 'It's Pete in Plymouth,' a caller would announce. 'It's Morty in Chisago City.' One caller just says, 'Hey, [blank] you.' A few calls later, '[Blank] you.' "

Hines took it in stride. "I said, 'That [blank] you? I get all kinds of callers saying [blank] you.' "

Were there fines? Huge, terrifying FCC fines? "No," he said. "That was 'the experimental period.' "

And a highlight

"I got a call from a family having roadside trouble. It didn't sound like they had two nickels to rub together. They'd had to unload everything in the car to get to the problem, and the woman who called said one kid had lost his teddy bear and prescription medicine."

"Twenty minutes later, I got a call from a guy. He had the teddy bear and the medicine. I put them together, and that was just … great." He smiled. "The power of radio, at that local level."

That's evident when storms hit and a certain portion of Minnesotans realize they are hard-wired to turn to WCCO because … well, because that's what Minnesotans have always done during storms.

"During a serious storm there was a woman in north Minneapolis, where the storm did a lot of damage. She called and said 'CCO had been her barometer for what was going on in the storm. She had no Internet or phones, they were in the basement, and they had 'CCO on. Even if it's only one, that's why you did it."

Hines hasn't completely escaped the vagaries of his business. He's gotten the dreaded call to the general manager's office announcing a format change that will mean his services no longer are required. He recalled one of those days, when WLOL was sold to Minnesota Public Radio.

"The station was sold on the day I was closing on a house," he said. "My boss called me in and said, 'I need to talk to you. We finally sold the station.' I said, 'All right!'

" 'No, not all right. Everybody doesn't have a job anymore.' I'm adding up the negatives: Everybody. Doesn't. Anymore. He says they're going to keep the janitor."

On a February morning in 1991, WLOL died, re-emerging as the new home of KSJN. In a bittersweet ending, "I got to be the last voice, the last signoff for 'LOL," Hines said.

Fade to black? No: Two days later he started on K102.

That job lasted 16 years. (In radio this is like being elected to 20 consecutive presidential terms.) But at some point, as everyone in radio knows, it has to end. It's a chancy business in which livelihoods are determined by the whims of listeners.

"When I was let go from 102, a co-worker said, 'Don't let this job define you.' I smiled and said if there's an opening at UPS tomorrow, I'm fine with that. If not, well, I'll be saying, 'You want fries with that?'

"Those are all honorable jobs. Those are hardworking people. I learned from my father — he worked. He was an NSP accountant, then on Saturdays he went to a meat market and cut meat and waited on customers all day. I don't think that he ever took a paycheck home. He took it home in meat."

There will come a day, of course, when Hines is no longer on the radio. But it's hard to imagine him being far away from a microphone. Perhaps he'll take that fast-food job, after all, just to keep his talents sharp. You can imagine pulling up to the drive-through speaker and hearing a familiar voice rattling off the specials with brio and cheer.

"I know that voice," you say. "Is that John Hines?" And then the guy on the speaker cracks wise and riffs on the names they give the burgers.

Yeah, that's Hines.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858