11 September 2023

Baby, we were bored to death : 2000 : FM radio station market, Toronto

 Why does Toronto have such insipid and boring radio? Our city is vibrant, artistic, culturally diverse and entertaining, so why is none of that reflected in our uninspired radio stations? Travelling in Europe and North America as a radio consultant, I listen to a lot of radio and it is tragic to concede that my own city has some of the most boring radio stations known to mankind.

Opportunities to change this sad state of radio in our city are everywhere, but have too often been ignored. When Shaw Communications purchased 'Energy 108' a couple of years ago, it could have reinvented the station as a cultural focus for Toronto's young people. Instead, Shaw fired 'Energy's most knowledgeable DJ's, introduced Sarah McLachlan songs once an hour (in a dance music format?) and changed the name to … 'Energy 107.9'. Wow! How many minutes did it take the marketing department to devise a strategy that unambitious?

Rogers Media's purchase of 'KISS 92' last year was a complete no-brainer. Can you name any other city of similar size in North America that has had no Top Forty radio station for a period of even a few months? And yet Toronto suffered this malaise for several years. Even if Rogers had hired a helium-voiced bimbo DJ to front a Top Forty format, it still could have captured a huge audience hungry for what used to be called 'pop music'. And that is exactly what they did. 'KISS's ratings are noteworthy, not just for the hordes of spotty grade nine students who naturally gravitate towards Backstreet Boys soundalikes and terrible Canadian techno. But the station's substantial audience over the age of twenty is a sad reflection of the lack of any other remotely exciting music station in Toronto. For those of us past our teen years, 'KISS 92' at least makes you feel good to be alive, compared with other FM music stations that treat listeners like senile geriatrics with one foot already in the grave.

One would hope that 'KISS 92's runaway success might encourage its competitors to try and become a little more imaginative in their programs. The signs so far are not particularly encouraging. 'EZ Rock 97' revamped its daytime line-up last week to introduce even more soporific DJ's and has changed its slogan from 'My Music At Work' to 'Soft Rock Favourites'. Station owner Telemedia appointed a new Program Director drafted from its Calgary operation to oversee these changes. Yes, Calgary – that hotbed of radical, imaginative radio formats! 'EZ Rock' looks certain to retain its nickname of 'Radio Slumberland' in our household.

Milestone Radio, scheduled to launch next year, has an incredible opportunity to turn its black music format into an exciting, inclusive station that could electrify the city. After all, black culture has never been so predominant, nor so imitated, in mainstream music and arts. With imagination, Milestone could be a very successful radio version of 'City TV'. Whether its owners can grasp that challenge, let alone succeed with it, depends upon the station's ability to overcome three obstacles. Milestone's programming plans are the obvious product of committee debate, with too many worthy (but commercially disastrous) ideas generated by individuals who have particular axes to grind. Its recent effort to recruit a Program Director in the US rings alarm bells that Milestone is creating a cookie-cutter US-style urban music station that would reflect nothing of Toronto (listen to 'WBLK' for days on end and you will learn absolutely nothing about Buffalo, but everything about 'strong songs'). And lastly, the spectre of minority shareholder Standard Broadcasting might be waiting quietly in the shadows for Milestone's ambitious plans to fail in the first year, so that it can take control and resurrect the station as a smooth-jazz format, fitting perfectly alongside its mind-numbing 'MIX 99'.

As for 'Edge 102' and 'Q-107', their owners should have been bold enough to extinguish these dinosaur formats years ago. There is so much exciting new music in the world, but you will certainly never hear any of it played on these two stations. The malaise is so bad that Toronto radio critic Marc Weisblott felt obliged to apologise in a recent column (radiodigest.com) for spending so much time listening to New York City radio via the internet. No need to apologise, Marc. Our only ray of hope is that one fine morning, some bold senior executive in Shaw/Corus, Standard, CHUM or Rogers might suddenly understand that radio which is stimulating and challenging can also be a commercial success. I would prescribe that executive a quick radio listening visit to any major city in the world to understand the potential. Otherwise, Toronto radio is condemned to be a mere revenue-generating asset designed to send us all to permanent sleep with yet another Celine Dion or Bryan Adams song.

[Submitted to Toronto weekly what’s on paper, unpublished]

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