If you had told me on February 28, 1993, the night first Ongoing History of New Music episode aired, that I’d still be doing this job in 2018, I would have said that you were (a) insane; (b) stupid; (c) delusional; (d) high; or (e) drunk. Probably all of the above. But here we are.
It’s now been twenty-five years? Really? I honestly didn’t know until technical producer Rob Johnston–the guy who has heard my voice more than any other person except my wife–pointed it out yesterday. Crazy.
Truth be told, I never wanted to do this show. Back in early 1993, CFNY-FM (now The Edge, of course) had changed owners and management. For a while, the new masters considered changing the format of the station to country and canning the staff. But after doing some market research, they realized that thanks to groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and a few others, this new “alternative” thing might just have some legs after all.
“Let’s leave the music policy alone,” they said in one of their big-brained management brainstorm sessions. “But we need to inform people what we do. We need to give our audience more background on the music we play.”
“How do we do that?” someone chirped up.
“I dunno.” Said the Biggest Brain. “Maybe we should do a one-hour documentary program every week that focuses on the history of alternative music. Do we have anyone who knows anything about history?”
“That Cross guy in the afternoon has a history degree. We’ll get him to do it.”
“Done. Next item for discussion?”
And so the concept of The Ongoing History of New Music was born. And I had no idea it was coming.
Boss: You have a new job. We’re going to sever you from the payroll and then hire you back as an independent contractor. Instead of doing afternoons Monday to Friday, you will be on the air Saturday and Sunday mornings from 6 until noon. Then three days a week, you will work on a one-hour documentary program that will air on Sundays at 7 pm. It’ll be called The Ongoing History of New Music. Any questions?
Me: That’s a terrible name.
Boss: It is what it is.
Me: And I don’t wanna do this! I’m happy playing records and talking on the radio every afternoon.!
Boss: Too bad. If you don’t take this new assignment, you’re out of a job.
Me: Seriously? That’s my choice?
I had just gotten married and bought my first house, so I had a mortgage weighing on my mind. Afternoon radio announcers for alternative stations don’t have a lot of portable skills. What would you have done?
I set to work in the middle of January 1993. Remember, this was the pre-Internet days. All music had to be sourced from vinyl or CDs. If it wasn’t in the station library, I had to scour used record stores and order expensive imports from sympathetic stores. There were precious few books written about alt-rock back then and the ones that did exist were hard to find and expensive. Thank God for the old World’s Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto; they had the best music book section in the country for a while. I also spent many, many hours going through old magazines, newspaper clippings, and record company press releases. It was hard.
The first show was written and produced in time for 7 pm Sunday, February 28, 1993, and was designed as a preview of what was to come. I had no idea how the show was going to shape up, so I just guessed. Techincal producer for that show was Craig Venn. It went something like this.
I thought I’d have to do this for a couple of years and then I’d either quit, be fired or move on to something else.
Weirdly, though, I found that I kinda liked doing this. The music nerd thing really appealed to me. After hearing the first show, the big bosses left me alone and never once told me what I could and could do. Besides, I could tell my parents that my history degree from the University of Winnipeg was actually being put to use.
There was a strange side effect, too. Being the music documentary guy gave me new value to the radio station. I had a skill, an ability and a following that isolated me from much of the career foibles that plague other radio people. Ratings were good. Feedback turned out to be positive. The industry seemed to approve.
“We’ll keep this guy,” the big bosses said. Apparently.
Technical producer Rob Johnston has handed every single second of The Ongoing History since then Craig Venn moved on to greater things after the first 110 episodes. Rob is responsible for the final sound and construction of the show. That means editing (LOTS of editing), mixing, and distributing a one-hour show and five one-minute daily features every week.
Together we create about 35 one-hour episodes every year and at least 250 of the daily features. And over the past year, he’s also been in charge of editing the show into podcast-friendly versions.
By all the usual metrics of radio, this show should not work. Like I said, The Ongoing History of New Music doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue or stick in a person’s brain no matter how many years go by. People still come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re the guy that does that thing on the radio. The History of Rock, right?” That’s been dogging me for a quarter-century now.
The second reason the show should not work is that by commercial radio stations, the host–i.e. me–talks too much. And he–i.e. me–never says the name of the radio station within the body of the show. Anyone who’s ever been to radio school knows that’s a venial sin punishable by career execution.
And the final reason the show should not work is that because it’s often filled with unfamiliar/non-mainstream/non-commercial and occasionally disagreeable music. Again, a clear violation of Commercial Radio 101.
What does work, though, are the stories. People love stories. They love to know more about the music that soundtracks their lives. They love to learn things that they can tell their friends, showing them up with their superior music knowledge.
The best compliments I can receive are “I don’t even like the band/subject you were talking about, but the stories were so good, I couldn’t stop listening” and “I was listening in the car, but when I got home I sat in the driveway/drove around the block until the show was over because I didn’t want to miss anything.” That is humbling.
There’s a Wikipedia page created by–actually, I don’t know who did this. No clue. It just…appeared one day. (I tried to edit it once, correcting a couple of facts about me. Those edits were rejected with snarky  notes. Funny.) There’s also a Facebook page that was created sometime during the 00’s. The original administrator handed it off to me, so I now maintain it.
This would also be a good time to point out that even though this the 25th anniversary of the first show, Ongoing History has not been running for 25 years. There was a three-year hiccup in my relationship with CFNY/The Edge/Corus Radio, but we’re all good now. It’s like it never happened.
I must thank everyone who has ever listened over the decades. Without your support, I’d probably be a greeter at Walmart by now.
Anyway, here we are, 25 years and 813 hour-long episodes later (not to mention about 7,000 one minute daily features, four books, innumerable documentary appearances and 1.5 million-ish downloads of the accompanying podcast) later. The show runs on radio stations across Canada and even in the US. And as far as I can tell, this is the longest-running rock music documentary on commercial radio anywhere in the known universe. And as far as I can tell, there is no end in sight.
Who’d have thunk, right? Not me. Nope. Not in a million years.