It Was Thirty Years Ago Today: An Incredible Story of Dumb Luck That Changed My Life Forever.

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.

q94fm

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.

k97-1986

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.

david-marsden

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.)

cfny-83-kennedy-road-south
83 Kennedy Road South. At one time, the strip mall featured THREE different roti shops. You also couldn’t operate the microwave and the electric kettle at the same time because you’d put the station off the air.

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.”

cfny-studio-83-kennedy-road-south
CFNY-FM on-air studio at 83 Kennedy Road South c.1991

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.”

cfny-best-of-1986

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?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

27 thoughts on “It Was Thirty Years Ago Today: An Incredible Story of Dumb Luck That Changed My Life Forever.

  • October 3, 2016 at 9:35 am
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    That’s a great story and a great song…my wife and my wedding song~

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  • October 3, 2016 at 9:39 am
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    Nice! Thanks for sharing! Life is funny sometimes and opportunities often hide in the weirdest places.

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  • October 3, 2016 at 10:27 am
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    Forget the “what if’s,” it was fate…

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  • October 3, 2016 at 10:42 am
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    Thanks for sharing your story! I’m a former Winnipegger who got out and ended up in Toronto, and now in NYC! It’s so interesting to look back on your life in another city, province, or country and wonder what would have happened if you didn’t move forward.

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  • October 3, 2016 at 10:55 am
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    Great story. I am extremely grateful that you took the opportunity as well. Working graveyard shift as a teenager/young adult in a gas station 60km east of Toronto, I looked forward to the Ongoing History of New Music and your nightly spins. The OHNM became a focal point around which me and other guys working at the gas station would discuss on night shifts throwing out ‘what-if’ scenarios concerning our favorite singers or bands. This was only possible because you deconstructed the details for us and enable us to understand the bands and the individuals that make up the bands. Thank you!!!

    P.S. I promise that I don’t still work at the gas station, but I definitely worked the midnight shift there at the right time!

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  • October 3, 2016 at 11:06 am
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    Sometimes life seems to conspire into a crazy improbable chain of events that shouldn’t happen, but they do and it changes everything.

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  • October 3, 2016 at 11:08 am
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    I remember when you started Alan. I had been an ‘NY listener since ’79. I’m s night owl and would listen to your show even though I had to wake up early for work. For the record, it was not at all obvious that you were not from ‘the big smoke’. The only obvious thing was that you loved the music, your job & the station! Enjoyed reading this! Thanks for posting.

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  • October 3, 2016 at 11:44 am
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    Hey, great story! My cousins were “neighbours” with Dave Marsden on the F.ot.C road! I have fond memories of CFNY as being THE radio station that played all kinds of great “alternative” music. Live From London with Lee Carter was a Sunday night priority. I’m wondering what went through your head when you looked at that CFNY playlist for the first time, especially after coming from the previous station? Thanks Alan!

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  • October 3, 2016 at 1:18 pm
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    Love it! Thanks for sharing!

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  • October 3, 2016 at 1:21 pm
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    Fantastic story! I first started listening to CFNY during the fall of 1985, when I reached high school. After only listening to metal up until that point, it was a huge eye opener to have the station introduce me to bands like Love and Rockets, Chameleons UK, the Smiths, Skinny Puppy, etc, etc. You were part of that and I thank you for it.

    On a “someone had to say it” point, I thought I’d better mention that the first song on Peter Gabriel’s So album is “Red Rain”. “In Your Eyes” is actually the lead off track on side two.

    Cheers!

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  • October 3, 2016 at 3:09 pm
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    Love this story! I used to do my university homework late at night and into the wee hours, listening to you spin and calling in requests. You were always great to listen – and talk – to. Still are!

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  • October 3, 2016 at 4:11 pm
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    You reached down intoBuffalo. I loved your shows.

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    • October 3, 2016 at 7:48 pm
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      I got many, many calls from Buffalo and did many, many club gigs on both sides of the border over the years…

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  • October 3, 2016 at 4:29 pm
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    Love your history of Al Cross bit. Looking at the CFNY 1986 “Best of List”, It’s amazing out of 86 bands, singers – 75 are still as popular or their music is still available. Don’t know about “The Woodentops?, The Lucy Show? or The Rainmakers.

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    • October 3, 2016 at 7:46 pm
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      The Woodentops were one of those British bands that CFNY liked to champion (but no no avail, sadly) back in the 80s. The Lucy Show were an indie Toronto band who had several solid CFNY hits. And the Rainmakers were a pretty decent REM-ish band from Kansas City.

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  • October 3, 2016 at 9:26 pm
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    Great story Alan, still love listening to your show today – wish todays Edge would actually have its old edge though – great local bands like PUP get no airplay while Heathens is played 30x a day.

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  • October 3, 2016 at 10:31 pm
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    This really resonates with me, as many of the chance encounters and opportunities I have been awarded have been from this same form of chanice.. So much so in fact, that I teared up reading the end of this. I’m still looking for this defining moment, or perhaps I have it and it hasn’t revealed itself yet.

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  • October 4, 2016 at 10:49 am
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    This reminds me of visiting that studio one night in 1985 with my friend Ross to see Live Earl Jive who was the evening host at the time. We were both in high school at the Science Centre School at the time (yes and you can still do a semester of high school there) and CFNY was the “Holy Grail” of new music in the GTA. It seemed like it was the only station that played music worth listening to. That is if you didn’t want David Lee Roth 24/7.

    It was a hot spring night, and my batik print shirt stuck to the seat of Ross’s moms car and I had no idea of what it was going to be like. I think it was a Thursday.

    When we pulled up I thought “What are we doing here? It’s a strip mall with some sort of restaurant on the main floor.” But we went up the stairs and waited in reception like we had an appointment. Which of course we didn’t. Someone took pity on us and let us in.

    We hung out talking a bit to Earl (who looked much older than I thought based on photos I’d seen) in between the songs he was playing and the calls he was taking from listeners on his headset.

    All in all it was a bit confusing as I never knew if the mic was on or not because he’d just start talking all of a sudden and I didn’t know if he was talking to us, or someone that had called the station.

    Anyway we brought a dozen donuts which Earl happened to ogle but his wife/ girlfriend Beverly told him he couldn’t eat. Because of course, he said, at his age he had to watch his weight. Which was especially hard as he just told us that the sprinkle donuts reminded him of “acid”. I just smiled and acted as if I knew what that meant…

    That was just before I spilled someone’s abandoned can of coke on the control panel. I thought Ross was going to throttle me right there but Earl just motioned like it was no problem. Beverly was no where to be seen. I mopped up the coke with some old copies of the show notes and slunk back to the corner of the studio.

    I still have the dot matrix printed top 50 songs of the week from CFNY (“The spirit of Radio”) somewhere but that era of radio will never come back.

    Maybe It’s just moved online.

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  • October 4, 2016 at 9:07 pm
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    This is a very inspiring story. Thank-you for sharing it.

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  • October 4, 2016 at 11:09 pm
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    I forgive George for stealing that copy of RPM.

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  • October 6, 2016 at 9:40 am
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    Lucy Show had one or two Canadian ex-pat members but they were a British band formed in London. They also topped the CMJ charts, supported REM for their UK tour and had pretty substantial presence on MTV. Mania is a great record.

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  • October 6, 2016 at 2:08 pm
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    Great story. We must all have similar small events that made a significant difference in our lives. I met my wife in 1982 because I made the decision to cook dinner outside on the hibachi at the exact moment she and a mutual friend walked by. If I’d stayed inside and eaten a frozen dinner I’d be married to someone else.

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    • October 6, 2016 at 5:11 pm
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      Love those stories. Somewhere, in an alternate universe…

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  • August 1, 2017 at 9:52 pm
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    I am so glad to you came to CFNY Alan. From program director with a sense of taste of Winnipeg to CFNY (Pete and Geets were always talking about the giant chicken head across the road). I was still living with my parents when I started listening to CFNY, late 81 or early 82. I could arrange my room only 2 ways, that my radio could pick up the station (we lived between Sandhill and Bolton. The AM station played CFNY at night. I listened for a month before going to Yonge St to do the vinyl record run. I bought two – a Gang of Four album, and a Psychadelic Furs album. The station was fun before you came, just coming out of punk and into alternative rock, but the knowledge you slipped in between song made your programs must listening. Thank you so much for what you have done for the station, for being there under the Eaton Center and willing to talk about music with me, thank you soooo much for the Ongoing History of New Music – I had no idea I was into goth music, but that episode in your ten part series about types of alternative music spun my world, as every group you played and talked about was one of my favourites. I’ve bought two of your books; I wish I could find the others. Music has always been important to me; I’m a lyrics first person, and if the music is great, that’s even better, and now that I have PTSD, music is what gets me through the day. 9am is Alan time if we are driving in the ambulance, even for my friend who thinks a good time is listening to the CBC. I was the walking encyclopedia of 80’s alternate music, and that came from YOU. Always talking about the bands, the albums, interesting history. I thank you so much for coming to CFNY, and raise my hands to the sky in thankfulness that you had enough postage.

    Reply

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