I was an in-flight music programmer 

Rocking the friendly skies

In Tiffany Morris' world, there are two types of radio. The first is in-flight radio, the stuff that broadcasts out of your armrest on long-haul airplane flights. The other--the standard AM/FM variety--falls under the grand, in-flight industry rubric of "terrestrial radio."

As an undergrad at Kent State, Tiffany Morris, 29, did terrestrial radio. These days, though, she makes her living bringing music to the skies as an in-flight music programmer. It's her job to research bands and singers, sift through piles of free CDs, and put together DJ-hosted shows that no one on Earth will hear.

It's an anonymous task -- there are no bylines or credit reels for most in-flight music programmers -- but Morris has one of the most distinctive touches in the industry. If you flew on Delta or Air Canada in the last year and a half and stumbled on something interesting -- Alice Cooper talking about the New York Dolls, say, or Superchunk singer Mac McCaughan introducing songs by the Sea and Cake -- chances are you have Tiffany Morris to thank for it.

Morris ended up making mixes for airplanes more or less by accident. Graduating from college with a lucrative journalism degree, Morris had headed straight into the temp pool. Killing time as a receptionist, she happened across an ad for a mysterious production job that had some involvement with the music industry. She interviewed and, a few days later, was working as a production coordinator.

For a lifelong music geek like Morris, being surrounded by CDs all day almost seemed too good to be true. As she got comfortable in her new job, Morris started trying to push the envelope a little, suggesting music that strayed from the usual formats. The airlines weren't so into the idea of disturbing their captive audiences with Morris' eclectic tastes.

"People get really upset when you start messing with things," she says by phone from her home in Hamilton, Canada. "They like to have classical, they'd like to see an opera channel. They like to see a jazz channel. They like to see a country channel. A lot of people ask for a white noise channel."

Still, over time she managed to work some miracles. Whether it was a celebration of Broadside, the seminal folk music magazine, or a retrospective of '70s glam rock, Morris brought college radio's anything-goes aesthetic to the notoriously sterile loops of in-flight radio. The current rotation of the alternative show Morris lovingly programs for Air Canada includes everyone from Bay Area sunshine rockers Call and Response to British symphonic drone kings Spiritualized.

Despite the latitude she enjoys, though, there are some lines she's not allowed to cross. Songs about airplane crashes are verboten. DJ patter is never allowed to include mentions of the plane's altitude. Songs with "fuck" and "shit" are out, as are songs about drugs.

Even within this, though, there is room to maneuver. I ask if she could ever include a song by plane crash casualty John Denver, and Morris laughs. "Sure," she says. "They would never say 'Don't play a Buddy Holly track' or 'Don't play Aaliyah.'" And she did slip Crooked Finger's "Black Box Ocean" into the rotation, along with songs by the British band Black Box Recorder.

Despite the small victories, though, it looks like Morris' days of meticulously chosen, innovative programming are coming to an end.

"After September 11, the budgets almost disintegrated," she explains. Since the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, airlines have been looking to offset losses by dumping costly extras. So instead of having DJ-hosted, handpicked playlists, airlines are asking Morris to recommend compilation CDs.

For Morris, the airlines' decision to axe one of the few tangible things that might provide nervous flyers with some emotional comfort is typical for an industry that values profits above all else. It's also a perfect example of why she can only laugh when I ask if she would recommend her job to other aspiring music geeks.

"You think the music industry is cutthroat?" Morris says, chuckling. "Not even close. The airline industry is a bunch of sharks. Everyone's only looking out for themselves -- it's terrible. I would never suggest anyone go into it, especially within the sphere that I'm involved in. It's like the Mafia, but legal."

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