Historians talk about something called “hinge points,” seemingly small events or developments that end up changing the future forever. The biggest hinge point in my life came at about 3:45 in the afternoon of Tuesday, September 16, 1986.
I was the music director at a Winnipeg adult contemporary station called Q-94FM and, as usual, I gathered up all the new release (all on 7-inch singles, of course) and headed for the program director’s office for the weekly music meeting. I was especially high on one particular release which I thought would be a slam-dunk add to the playlist. The PD quickly disabused me of the notion.
Without even listening to the song, he said “We will never add a record from an artist like this because he used to be the singer in a rock band,” pronouncing rock with a slight condescending sneer. “This isn’t what we promise our listeneners when it comes to the sound of Q94-FM.”
Wow. The song was “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Was this guy for real?
By the time the meeting was over, I’d decided that I couldn’t work for this guy anymore. I loved radio but I couldn’t continue to work at a station that championed Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie. I had to get out. Fast.
So, as all disgruntled radio people do, I gathered up some aircheck tapes and returned to the station at 2am to put together a demo tape for a couple of radio stations where I thought I might like to work. Back then, you needed a proper professional studio to edit and dub material onto cassettes that would be snail-mailed. It was a long shot–neither of the two stations I had targeted (K-97/Edmonton and CFOX/Vancouver) had advertised any openings–but I had to try.
There were two production studios in the CHUM Winnipeg building. I’d planned to use Dan’s because it was wired in stereo (an important consideration when applying for work at an FM station) and, more importantly, it was always open. Always.
To my horror, though, it was shut tight. He never locked it. Never.
This left George’s mono-only AM production down the hall. This was a lost cause because he was very protective about his space and hated it when people touched his stuff. I’d never known it to be left unlocked. But because I was so desperate, I thought I’d try anyway.
A miracle: It was open.
I immediately got to work, selecting the best on-air breaks from a pile of aircheck cassettes, recording them onto reel-to-reel and then editing everything neatly together by physically cutting the tape and splicing the bits together. Once I had a three minutes “greatest hits” type of demo, I dubbed what was on the reel to cassette.
As the clock ticked towards 4–I had to get out before the morning show turned up; they often needed the studio before they went on the air–I began the real-time dubbing. The tape bound for K-97 was first, followed by the one destined for CFOX next.
As that second tape was being dubbed, I noticed a magazine off to the side under a pile of debris off to the side of the console. It was that week’s edition of RPM, which, back then, was the bible of the Canadian radio and music industry. In the pre-Internet era, this magazine was the source of all music news, radio news and chart news for the country. We all used this information and data to make important decisions about the music that made it onto the radio.
A subscription to RPM was expensive, running about $365 a year–over $700 in today’s dollars–so each issue was precious. Each copy needed to be shared between the program directors and music directors of both Q94-FM and our sister AM station, CFRW. And as the MD for Q, it was my responsibility to make sure that each current issue never, ever left the music office. I’d written many, many memos threatening people with grievous bodily harm if they ever removed a copy of RPM from my office without my permission.
How did this magazine get into George’s studio when I hadn’t seen it yet? I was the guy who opened the mail, so I always saw it first.
Yet here was this week’s issue. Under a pile of crap. At 4 in the morning. In a studio that I wasn’t supposed to use. A studio that was always locked.
Fine, I thought, I’ll deal with this later today. George is gonna hear from me. He knows he’s neve–Hello. What’s this?
RPM also ran classified ads for job openings in the radio industry. And there, right at the top of the “Positions Available” column, was an ad for a late-night position at CFNY-FM.
I’d heard about CFNY-FM and its “Spirit of Radio” slogan (I was a Rush fan and learned about the station through the liner notes of the Permanent Waves album when I was back in high school. “Wow. My favourite band wrote a song about a radio station,” I remember thinking. “Wouldn’t it be cool to work there one day?”)
I hesitated. Was I good enough to work in Toronto? Would they even look at a guy who worked for a station that played Whitney Houston like its life depended on it? Did I know enough about that weird music they played to even be considered?
What the f**k, I thought, I can’t keep working here.
I looked around. I had an extra cassette. Printing up another cover letter and resume was no problem. I had one more manila envelope. And I had just enough postage–76 cents!–to be able to send off one more demo tape. Why not?
I ran off a third cassette and left the studio just before 4:30, popping all three envelopes in the mailbox on the corner.
I never heard from K-97. I never heard from CFOX. But a on a Sunday afternoon a little more than a week later, Don Berns deposited me at David Marsden’s house on Forks of the Credit River Road in Caledon for an interview. They thought enough of my last-second demo to fly me from out from Winnipeg for the day in order to grill me about radio, music and to see if I had The Right Stuff–whatever that was.
Despite the mullet and a sad skinny-tie attempt at looking New Wave-ish, I must have done okay because David offered me the job. But it wasn’t what I expected.
“Here’s the position. You will assume the all-night show Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. You will also work Saturday morning from 8 until noon.”
“But that’s six days a week! And I thought this was a late-night shift, not an all-night one.”
“Correct. And the late-night job is going to a young fellow we like very much named Scot Turner. And the salary is $17,000. But because I think you have potential, you will get $17,500.”
“But I’m making $23,000 for five days a week!”
“Yes, but you’re in Winnipeg. When you work in Toronto, you’ll have all kinds of opportunity to make more money and to advance your lot in life. Your position at CFNY will allow you to do many things you will never, ever be able to do in Winnipeg.”
I took the job, of course.
The next day–September 22–I handed in my resignation and set about packing things up and subletting my apartment. And on the evening of September 30, I put whatever I could in the trunk of my Honda Prelude, met my dad for dinner and then set out on the road.
Not wanting to take the Canadian route over Lake Superior–a lovely fall drive but with miles of nothing–I decided to duck through America, the Fargo-Minneapolis-Chicago-Detroit plan. The night of October 2 was spent in a hotel off the 401 in London. I figured I could make the two-hour drive to CFNY the following day. (Turns out that the station was above a strip mall in Brampton, not Toronto. ANOTHER surprise.)
I rolled up to 83 Kennedy Road South a few minutes before noon on Friday, October 3, 1986. I was met by Diana, the receptionist, who was listening to a special news report–the station had an eleven-person newsroom back then!–of the sod-turning ceremony for a new stadium that was going to be constructed on some old railway lands in downtown Toronto. The big news was that it was going to have a retractable roof.
“Shh!,” she said, “I want to hear this.”
Once the special report was over, Diana turned to me. “Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” I said, “I’m the new all night guy.”
She gave me a smile. “You’re the Winnipeg guy! Welcome to the Spirit of Radio.”
For the first two weeks, I lived in a nearby hotel that was paid for by the station. I managed to find an apartment in a complex near the old Shopper’s World in Brampton, but was told that it wouldn’t be vacant for another six weeks. That meant living with some cousins I barely knew at a townhouse in Mississauga. But by the December 1986, I had my own place and given the Best 86 of 86 year-end list for the station.
Interesting that the station’s number one album of the year was So from Peter Gabriel. Side one, track one? “In Your Eyes.”
Every time I think back on this story, I get the shivers. What if my old boss had liked “In Your Eyes?” What if Dan’s studio had been open? What if George hadn’t taken that issue of RPM without permission? What if I hadn’t seen it at the last second under that pile of junk? What if I hadn’t seen the ad? What if I’d chickened out? And what if I didn’t have enough postage?
That last question is the one that haunts me the most because I clearly remember thinking that having enough stamps was the dealbreaker. If I had enough, I’d apply. If not, well, fine.
In some alternate universe, there’s a copy of me that made one slightly different choice. I wonder how that guy is doing?
You never, ever know where life will take you. And good lord. Where does the time go?