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Radio Life Interview

I was interviewed last year for a radio industry website. Here’s the transcript:

How did your radio passion begin?

I loved listening to the radio as a child. It started with CHUM FM, when it was still a rock station. I remember calling up the morning show as a little kid with a joke: “How can you tell Ronald McDonald at a nudist camp? By the sesame seeds on his buns.” I loved Dr. Demento and the Sunday Funnies with Rick Hodge. In my teens, it was CFNY, and CFRB. CFNY was one of the first great heritage alternative stations in North America. My parents listened to CFRB, one of the great heritage talk stations at the time. I suppose it was lucky to be in the Toronto market when I was young. I loved talk radio, and often called up the ‘RB talk shows during my teen years; mostly Wayne McLean and Ed Needham.

Tell us how you landed your first radio gig?

OK. I’m going to give you a bit of history here. Bear with me. In high school, my goal was to become an actor/writer/director for television or film. It was almost a mantra. I was always involved in theatre and public speaking. Even though I loved radio, and was passionate about it, my main goal was TV and film. I considered going to USC for their communications program, but the tuition for foreign students was pretty huge money. I also wanted to get out of the house and go to a residential university. The program that most matched what I was after was at Windsor. I took a split Communications Studies/Drama major. My first radio show was Tuesdays 6 AM-Noon at CJAM, the university radio station. Totally open format. Strangely, it made it harder to do a show, because I’d have to program a 6 hour music shift working with vinyl. Years later I listened to some of those early shows, and I sucked. It’s one of those situations where I look back and think, if only I knew then what I know now. I think the main thing was the lack of energy in the delivery. In the middle of first year at Windsor, I decided to apply to Ryerson’s Radio and Television program, and was accepted.

The goal was still to write/act/direct for television or film. First year at Ryerson was all about radio. I won the prize for best first-year documentary for a 12-minute piece I did on “shock” comedy. It focused on Andrew Dice Clay (before he was washed up) and the type of comedy he was doing at the time. In the late spring, Clay was set to appear on Saturday Night Live, and there was controversy because cast member Nora Dunn was going to boycott the show. Opportunity knocked. At the time, CFNY (my favourite station) had a half hour newsmagazine show that ran weekdays at 9:30 AM. I cold called Mary-Ellen Benninger, the host of the show, and mentioned I had a timely documentary. She encouraged me to send it over. After listening to it, they invited me out to Brampton. Rick Charles, the news director at the time, and Mary-Ellen were impressed with the work. They said it had changed the way they’d thought about presenting news. I was pretty flattered. At the time, nobody was doing it montage-style with pop/rock music and interview clips, all with overlap — a more produced sound. They ended up airing the piece pretty much uncut the Monday after the SNL appearance. Late in 2nd year, I started pestering the folks at CFNY for a summer gig. Right around the time I was finishing up for the summer at Ryerson, I was encouraged to apply for a full-time job that was coming open in the creative department. Maureen Bulley was the creative director, and at the time it was the most awarded creative department in Canadian radio. I sent in some samples of my work, and wrote some sample scripts from information they provided. They liked my stuff better than anything else they got, and were prepared to offer me the gig with the option of going back to school, or staying on full-time at the end of the summer. I was ecstatic. I got a gig with my favourite music station. It was an incredibly fun summer, and introduced me to the radio lifestyle. I even did some on-air work, as comedy reporter for Live in Toronto – at the time hosted by Maie Pauts. I didn’t think it could, but the summer was about to get even more interesting.

Since my teens I’d been lamenting the fact that Toronto didn’t have a late night talk show on radio. I wanted to be that guy. I was a huge fan of Letterman, and also of talk radio on CFRB. That summer, a late night talk show was coming to Toronto. Through my teens I was friends with a music producer in Montreal who produced an hour-long weekly Just for Laughs radio show. The host was John Oakley. I visited often from my mid-teens on, and got to know John quite well and , helped him round up interviews during the comedy festival. I also interviewed him for my documentary. He was a great early mentor. Well, John was coming to Toronto to do a late night talk radio show, and he wanted me to be his producer. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. In one summer, the chance to work at the only two stations I listened to. We chatted quite a bit about his vision for the show, and how I’d be called upon to contribute on-air and perhaps host the last hour occasionally. I accepted, and went in with John to meet Gary Slaight for the first time. The gig was mine, and they handed over the building key and the tech manuals. With the excitement came some trepidation. I now had to go and give notice at CFNY. For a kid it was some pretty heady stuff, and I was in tears as I explained the situation to Maureen in the privacy of the voice studio. I felt like I was abandoning her after she put so much faith in me. And then one of the biggest forks in the road in my entire life presented itself.

While accepting the job at CFRB, and quitting the job at CFNY, my parents were away in Europe. Taking the ‘RB gig meant I would not return to Ryerson that fall. My parents arrived home and were pretty livid. Neither of them had completed university, and they were determined to see me get a degree. They’d also underwritten my first couple of years at university. So I had to make a big choice. I ended up back at Ryerson to finish off my degree. I broke the news to John, and went back to CFNY to see if I could finish out the summer there and perhaps help out a little through the fall. Maureen was incredibly gracious, and let me come back. I finished in the fall. I took a ton of ribbing back at ‘NY, and was pretty bitter towards my parents that year.

In retrospect, it was probably the right choice. I might’ve worked my way up to hosting a show through the years, but it wouldn’t have been great. I think to be a great talk radio show host you have to have life experiences. Get out and try different jobs, travel…live.

About a year later I was back out at the CFNY studios in Brampton, photocopying a bunch of scripts to add them to my writing portfolio. Pre-computer! I was introduced to Kim Hughes (who was the new host of Live in Toronto) and she expressed an interest in having me on board as a comedy reporter. We were back and forth for a few months, and I got the gig half-way through my last year of Ryerson. Through the spring I did comedy interviews and listings for Toronto.

At the end of the school year, I managed to get a U.S. work visa in a university exchange program. It meant I could get a job anywhere in the U.S. for 7 months. I packed up the car and hopped on Route 66 towards Los Angeles. I found a small apartment in Studio City and started the job hunt. Universal Studios was looking for guides to host the backlot tour. It’s quite a process getting the gig. There’s a multi-interview/audition process, then 2 weeks of paid training, followed by written and practical testing. A few hundred started out at the first audition, 30 were selected. It was a great gig. I had access to the Universal backlot and commissary, and spent the days with a really, smart, funny, outgoing group of people. They also set up preview screenings on the lot for guides, and had seminars where they’d bring in guest speakers. When I was there, Roy Scheider was a guest, as was director Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon.) I was the first ever Canadian Studio Guide. While in L.A., I became entertainment reporter for Live in Toronto. I’d call in once or twice a week and report on what was happening in showbiz. I pretty much just regurgitated stuff from Daily Variety and the daily version of The Hollywood Reporter. This was before anyone anywhere could access to that type of news via the internet. Today it would be a useless gig. My work visa ran out, and I made my way back to Toronto.

Once back in Toronto, I became the film/TV/comedy reporter for Live in Toronto. It was a part time gig, and I started doing acting stuff on the side; a whole bunch of TV commercials, and a small recurring role as a guy who tortured the weekly villain on the television series La Femme Nikita. The CFNY gig gave me the opportunity to cover the Toronto Film Festival. One year I watched 17 movies, did 15 interviews, and a bunch of parties crammed into a week and a half. I loved being able to sit down one-on-one for a half-hour with assorted filmmakers, as it was like a personal film school. At the time, I started doing stand-up comedy and improvisation including master class at Second City. A writing gig came open in the creative department at CFNY and I did that while continuing with the reporting. I also began contributing to the Humble and Fred morning show on CFNY (at this point called 102.1 The Edge.) The PD made some changes in the creative department, and I was out. With that the Live in Toronto and Humble and Fred thing ended too.

Before the next radio gig, I continued with acting, and secured a pretty lucrative writing gig for an internet company based in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it was a job that didn’t require me to go to California.

The next radio gig was as a fill-in writer for vacations at Q107 and TALK640. Not long after I started Rob Mortimer, the Creative Director at the time, got a gig overseeing the writing for CHUM’s Ottawa cluster. I moved into Rob’s office and took over writing the imaging and promos for the station. Writing contest-type promos was fairly easy, as Darren Wasylyk is one of the best Promo guys in the biz, and always had amazing creative ideas. When I started at Q107, it was called “Pure Rock” and featured Howard Stern mornings and Howard Cogan afternoons. I was there for two years. During that time, our department won quite a few awards for our work. While there I also had the opportunity to become the Jumbotron host at Rogers Centre for a season of Argonauts football. Iain Grant, 640 PD, was kind enough to let me live out a dream, hosting a talk radio show. It was a one-off filling in over Christmas, but it turned out pretty well, and was a ton of fun. When I left, Q107 was Classic Rock with John Derringer, and TALK640 became MOJO.

After two years, I was itching to get back to my first love, performing on-air. I moved from the creative department at Q/TALK to take on an overnight shift, and weekend mornings at 102.1 The Edge…my third time working for the station. My pay rate was cut in half, but it was a lifelong dream to be a host on CFNY. I had a lot of fun with the show, though the flip back and forth from late nights, to early mornings was a body clock killer. I was a pretty outspoken, somewhat stubborn guy at the time. Creative differences caught up with me, and I was let go. On the way out I made a huge career mistake by burning bridges. Lesson: It’s a small industry, controlled by few companies.

I was out of commercial radio for a long stretch, though I occasionally contributed to the Humble and Fred Show on Mix 99.9. I hosted a weekly two-hour show at CIUT in Toronto. It’s the University of Toronto station and has a pretty big signal. More importantly, it kept my passion for radio alive, and well-tuned. During that time I continued to do acting and voiceover gigs. I also did a pretty interesting project for Scotiabank. They were launching a new program and wanted to train their Financial Advisors and Branch Managers. They did it across the country, and I was part of the Toronto team. We would role-play a couple looking for financial advice, with a Scotia F.A. After a few minutes, the simulation would end, and we’d give feedback and coach the F.A.s on how they could improve the way they were doing things. We also coached Branch Managers on coaching skills through a similar set-up. It was actually a helpful experience for improving my interview skills and how to present feedback.

All along I was itching to get back on the commercial airwaves. I read all the trade websites religiously, and always tried to keep track of openings. I saw that Calgary was granted a few new licenses, and that two of them – Alternative Rock and AAA – were suited to my skills and personality. I had relatives in Calgary and had visited a few times. I was OK with living out west. As soon as the announcement was made (it was August I believe,) I tracked down people from the two companies – Newcap and Harvard. I actually talked to Harvard before they’d even found a Program Director. Eventually Christian Hall became the PD of the Alternative Rock station being launched by Harvard. I pestered him through the fall. Finally he said he would call me on a Friday morning. I was really hurting cash wise, and my land line went dead the day he was supposed to call. Unfortunately it was Bell, so it meant my internet went down too. I had a cell phone, but no number to call. I had to call my sister at work, get her to log into my e-mail and send a message from me, asking Christian to call my cell phone. The call came in and we spoke for over an hour on all things radio. It was a really inspiring conversation, and we were on the same page about a lot of things in the industry. He came across as a really smart guy, someone who knew his stuff, and was still quite young. He was trying to figure out a way to get out to Toronto, or for me to get out to Calgary to meet. That was on a Friday, and he said he was still considering candidates and would call back later in the day. The day came and went, and nothing. As the weekend wore on, I became more and more despondent. I was resigned to the fact I came in second. By Tuesday, I’d lost all hope. I was having lunch with a friend, and explaining how close it had been, and how disappointed I was. At the end of lunch, I saw that there was a message on my cell phone. It was Christian and he wanted me to call him. I rushed home and called him up. He offered me afternoon drive. I was in shock. Good shock. It was one of those situations where I was at a turning point in my life…the acting/voiceover thing was unpredictable, I was doing a bunch of Joe jobs, and running out of money. Then it happened. My parents who’d been discouraging my efforts to get back in the radio game were really excited when I broke the news. I was offered the job on December 18th, and a few weeks later worked the New Years Eve X92.9 launch concert. At X, I hosted weekdays from 2-6PM and then co-hosted the Six O’clock Rock Report, before taking on the show solo after a couple of months. I wrote, produced, picked the music, and hosted the hour-long show with music news, interviews and live performances. I also hosted a bunch of X-Sessions where we’d go to a local studio, with about 60 fans for a live performance/interview. While at X, I consistently outperformed the overall station numbers. I was proud of being number one 18-34 with over a 20-share each book, but more proud of being second in A25-54, and M25-54 when I left. Calgary had a lot of choices for male ears: 3 rock stations, a Jack, a sports station, and a talk station. Not to mention country. I was also really proud of the work I did with the Calgary Humane Society. Every week I’d have a different adoptable animal visit the studio. As an animal lover, I felt really good about helping out. Thanks to our listeners we had a really strong rate of adoption. I relentlessly promoted the show, getting out in the city and meeting people, hosting events, and even taking out Facebook ads on my own dime. I enjoyed the gig, and was really lucky to work for Christian Hall. I learned a ton about radio, and was always proud of the innovative promotion and marketing of the station. I’m also a bit of a music snob, and was happy to say we were the most musically adventurous commercial radio station in the country. The gig came to an end, and I took a long wintry drive back to Toronto.

This fall, I started a contract at CBC Radio. I’m writing and producing station promos and minis for CBC and CBC on Sirius. It’s quite a different experience from the commercial world. I really like being in a giant building filled with people working towards one objective: broadcasting. I’ve had the chance to produce a series of short comedy pieces for CBC radio. Not So Olympic Moments ran during the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver. I’m currently developing a new series of ongoing comedy shorts.

Walk us through your career highs and lows. Paying your dues.

I think I’ve covered off the career, so let’s deal with the highs and lows. There have been plenty of both. As far as lows go, it would be getting fired. It’s an unusual experience as a radio host. There’s no real line between Josh Holliday the radio host, and Josh Holliday the guy. In many ways your role with the station defines your life. So when that’s suddenly gone, it’s a bit of a shock. Who are you without the radio? I hope that makes sense. I think people in the industry who’ve been through it will understand. Many of your friends and social contacts are made through the station, and when that’s gone, sometimes people distance themselves from you. It’s a lonely experience, and you question your self-worth. I’ve suffered from depression for as long as I can recall, and the sudden loss of job and identity takes a huge toll. After being let go from The Edge there was a period of about four months that I couldn’t really eat. It felt like a four-month flu, and I ended up losing about 25 pounds. I really bottomed out emotionally. There were some relationship issues at the same time, that didn’t help. I was let go again about a year and a half ago, and was quite down, but not nearly as much as the Edge experience. You really wonder if you’ll ever work again. I’ve done many things I’m proud of, and also had my fair share of mistakes and regrets. I often wish I could go back and do things differently, but the best I can do is use those mistakes as lessons, and not repeat them.

I know, boo hoo…woe is me. I’m also quite proud of many things I’ve done through my zig-zaggy career. I’ve always cultivated a following of devoted listeners, and love that connection. If someone calls and tells me that I made them laugh, and they sat in their driveway listening before going inside the house, that feels better than any amount of money.

At Q107 I was really proud of the transition from Pure Rock to Classic Rock. I think I had about five days notice, and had to re-image the station completely. I helped define the new sound of the station. The Pure Rock sound was more edgy with a thinner sounding imaging voice. We got David Kaye (the incredibly talented and versatile imaging guy) on ISDN, and I got him to voice it like he had 10 pound balls. He killed it, and with Gary Whidden’s production magic we had a new sound that kicked ass. We also managed to change everything at midnight, and not have a single element of the old imaging slip through in the days and weeks that followed. I was always happy to hear some of the Q imaging I wrote still on the air years after I’d left.

More recently, I was pretty proud of what I accomplished in Calgary. I mentioned a few things earlier, including the numbers, and it was nice to see success quantified. I was voted favourite commercial radio personality in FFWD Magazine’s readers’ choice issue, and 2 of the 5 pieces nominated for the 2009 Canadian Comedy Award in radio were work I did at X.

Describe your air style.

My air style is pretty much just me, amplified. I hate that classic affected radio voice, where people talk like they never would in real life. We’re already ten years into the new millennium!

What makes great morning radio?

I think this is a bit of a loaded question, because too much emphasis is put on the morning show. Listener habits are changing, and we should be working on making all dayparts great. That said, I think a great show is real, relatable, and can be equal parts funny and serious. I’m a fan of funny, and believe that being able to make people smile as they’re getting into their day is a huge plus. I’m not a big fan of a whole bunch of people on mic laughing uncontrollably at something that’s only slightly funny. Again, keep it real.

A funny radio story?

I was doing an evening shift at The Edge in Toronto. I had a female friend from out of town watching the show. The first break in after 7PM, I wanted to involve her. I went on air, and said that a ruling had just come down from the CRTC mandating that 25% of our broadcast had to be French language. My friend was fluent. I brought her on explaining that she was an accountant from the station, and was the only one in the building who could speak French. I got her to talk in French about a contest we were doing at the station. My intention was just to have one silly break, but the phones exploded. I started taking calls from people who were outraged, and a few who liked the idea, including a high school French teacher. I ran with it, acting like I was unhappy about having to do it, and continuing the bilingual breaks. I took tons of calls, and talked about how the station planned to fight it. I encouraged people to write to our PD if they were upset. Bad idea. I also encouraged people to call Input 102…a feedback line we had for recorded listener calls. It was insane all night, and everyone bought it. I love practical jokes, and was pretty happy with how this bit had spontaneously combusted.

The next morning I was in at the station, and my PD was furious. He hadn’t heard the bit and had a whole bunch of e-mails complaining about the new French rule. He was going to forward them to me, and I’d have to answer each and every one of them with an explanation. Our production director was a little grumpy because he had to listen to the Input 102 calls…and there were over 300.

About a month after doing the bit, I talked to someone who was in a broadcasting course at one of the local schools. She mentioned that the French CRTC ruling had come up, and was discussed in depth in her class. Listeners would ask about the bit for months and months after.

Radio idols?

I’ll do a list sort of chronologically:

Pete and Geets

Wayne McLean

Ed Needham

Don Berns

John Oakley

Jed the Fish (KROQ afternoon drive)

Tami Heide (also KROQ)

The Poorman (Jim Trenton, original host and creator of Loveline)

Humble and Fred

Howard Stern (the most influential, talented radio broadcaster of all time. My favourite.)

John Derringer

Joe Scott (incredibly talented guy who was doing a hybrid of rock/talk evenings in SW Florida. He battled addiction, and died before his time at 46.)

Adam Carolla

Those are all on air people. On the programming side, to list just a few, I’m a fan of Walt Sabo, Bill McMahon, Mark Ramsey, Fred Jacobs, and Christian Hall.

Your thoughts on radio today?

It’s a bit of a cliché at this point, but terrestrial radio is at the crossroads. I’ve always believed in the power of personality radio. Unfortunately, as a commodity, great personalities are in short supply. Music radio is in a huge battle. With so many options available to listen to music online – often better than the fare on commercial radio – how does a station that plays music distinguish itself? Head to head music-only it loses. What can commercial radio offer to compete against other music providers? Content and personality. Unfortunately, many music stations are interpreting the PPMs as a call for more music, less personality. Of course people are going to change stations when the music stops. They’ve been doing it for years. People don’t want to hear commercials, but the fact is, it pays the bills. How do you keep listeners from tuning away when the music stops? Engaging personalities. If you don’t have them, when the music stops, there’s no reason to stick around. The solution isn’t ball-gagging the hosts, it’s finding hosts that people want to hear. They aren’t easy to find. Not just people who are friendly and able to communicate, but entertainers. I also think we might see a revival of FM talk…which is sure to make Walt Sabo happy. It’s more expensive to produce than music, but it’s a financially lucrative demographic, and harder to emulate online.

What’s your next step in your journey?

It’s not completely in my hands. I’ve been keeping active with a podcast. I’ve been developing a few television ideas with a local production company. I’m enjoying CBC and there might be more opportunity there. I‘d be happy to return to a Rock or Triple-A formatted station, but my true goal is to host a Sabo style talk radio show. Irreverant, Intelligent, Entertaining. Maybe a late night talk radio show.

We leave you with the last word.

I think I’ve already babbled on too long here. Thank-you for taking the time to read this, and I’m always excited to talk about radio.

The original article appears on the Airchecker radio industry news site.

One Response to “Radio Life Interview”

  1. Bob says:

    That was nice to read about my Uncle Ed Needham being an early influence.

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