Blow It Out Your Ear with Trevor Risk

 Thomas Maxey, 66.6%

Thomas Maxey, 66.6%

Local man describes everything terrible about the music business in Vancouver.

It was announced recently that Rogers Media will acquire Vancouver AM radio station CISL 650 from Newcap Inc. and turn the beloved, but waning smooth and easy station into a sports format. To those in the know, the acquisition comes as little surprise. Much like readers of TV Guide, CISL’s listenership is aging (and subsequently, dying), and apart from vintage fetishists like myself who only get AM radio in their cars, there is little interest to keep the ratings up.

What’s probably most upsetting to fans of the station is that CISL feels like the only station on the dial that has proper DJs, selecting their favourite songs rather than a list handed down to them by a music director. Jack FM has the nerve to use the slogan “Playing whatever. Whenever” when there is literally no difference between Vancouver’s playlist or the Jack FM in London, England. CISL still felt like you were living in the fictional world of WKRP where Dr. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap were plucking their most-enjoyed vinyl and slapping them on the platters. I firmly believe Sunday afternoons in this city can be best spent by the non-beach-loving crowd listening to our city’s most legendary selector, Red Robinson, not only playing his most favourite songs, but also blessing us listeners with first-hand anecdotes about the artists. It was a deflating day for me when I found out that there is basically one person right now running CISL; handling everything from the technical side of things to the social media engagement. Apart from Tom Lucas, Robinson was often the only person who was live on CISL, and he was an open book. He spent his time yakking about his wife and his favourite songs, and was never shy to answer any emails people like me would send him, asking for more depth on his stories, or for names of songs he played that we didn’t quite catch while driving. I wonder what he’s going to get up to next. My fingers are crossed that it is not retirement. 

Terrestrial radio is a complete mess right now, and it doesn’t seem like anyone on the continent is taking any initiative to save it from its own demise. It’s crooked, it’s bland, and I don’t blame people for tuning out. Technology has obviously done its part in burying the relevance of the FM and AM dial. Most cars today come with a myriad of ways to play music whether it be a streaming service, or satellite radio. The broadcast has turned to a narrowcast. Why listen to a Hot 100 station or Sportsnet when, with the help of streaming or satellite services, one can listen to all Pitbull all the time (*blows own brains out*), or a channel devoted solely to the New York Giants? These are ways we choose our personality type and our identity, and we sit in it. Curators are less and less relevant. Radio DJs, like music journalists, don’t really move the needle or drive the culture like they did in the ’70s, despite our society’s current stylistic obsession with that dark decade. 

Especially in this country, where we have an aversion to hiring young people for media jobs, terrestrial radio has barely made any moves to stay in touch with current trends. It was rumoured for years that the music director of the biggest station in Toronto refused to go to shows, and satisfied his quota of adds and drops for his station by removing and replacing the same hits from the ’90s every cycle (which is why you may or may not hear Temple of the Dog on that station, depending on the season). We think about the CanCon rules as an opportunity to promote young, Canadian artists, but that ideology falls apart fairly quickly once you realize that Bryan Adams (and not cool, young, disco Bryan Adams, unfortunately) was just having his back catalogue added and removed constantly, not giving any opportunity to a Canadian group on the grow. 

Now, a young artist trying to make it on the radio basically has no shot at it anyway. To get on the radio, you need a lobbyist. Music directors only listen to hired lobbyists regarding who to add to the rotation. The reason is: a large chunk of that money goes to benefits for the directors. Why would you add a song by a young artist that you believe in, when a Canadian major label is sending a stooge to buy you $500 dinners and take you to Raptors games? It’s not legally payola, but everyone knows what’s up.

Even more off-putting are the radio tours that the major label artists have to go on. Every artist you have listened to on the dial over the last quarter century at least, has had to go into the station, play an acoustic set for the station employees (often demeaningly at lunch as just background music in the cafeteria) until the music directors have decided those artists have done a good enough job playing ball, and gives them a spot play or a medium rotation add. What I’ve always found confusing about this is that a live performance really has nothing to do with a recording that is meant to be enjoyed by listeners. The lunchtime show is just to glad-hand the
station employees.

I’m told that the only thing music directors concern themselves with is “Is this song recognizable enough that listeners will not change the station and lose us advertising money?” So there’s your free-market capitalism, love it or hate it, steering your art (if you still consider music an artistic medium). When I found out about this mildly unsettling protocol regarding radio play I placed a phone call to a trusted colleague in Los Angeles. As I told him what I had learned he laughed deep from his belly and said “Oh, son. I am going to spare you what it’s like in America, then. I don’t think you’d be able to take it,” and I didn’t probe him any further because I was quite sure that he was right about that.

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