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How Ten Rogers Stations Flipped To Gord FM Tragically Hip

Source FYI Music

The following is a personal story shared by Canadian broadcast veteran and current Rogers Media Rock Radio Director Danny Kingsbury on his blog – All The Web’s A Stage. And All The Men And Women Merely Players – on October 21. The post is republished with permission.

As a radio programmer, I go through periods of confidence and insecurity. This week, I had lots of the former and a bit of the latter.

We all knew it was coming, but still the news was difficult to hear. I read my breaking news alert at 8:36 am Wednesday morning,  “Gord Downie has died”.

Behind the scenes, we had been preparing for his passing for months and months. I work with a great team of passionate and caring and talented broadcasters who take their roles and responsibilities seriously and gosh, did I mention they are talented. They have balanced the morbid nature of planning for someone’s death with the audience expectations when it arrives. Where will our listeners turn at a time when they need comfort and have their feelings validated with like-mindedness?

Our team, our company, really came through. There was so much material prepared for Gord’s memorial and celebration of life that I wondered if we could use it all. I’ll add that everything that was prepared and produced was a labour of love, done by fans for the fans.

As much as we were ready, it wasn’t until that morning that we decided to re-brand all 10 of our Rock stations to GORD FM and play Tragically Hip songs 24/7 until Sunday at midnight. Unheard of. It wasn’t meant to be a “stunt” or a “gimmick”, but rather a way to show listeners how much Gord meant to us and his fans.

Break the rules.

Programmers play safe sometimes and for good reasons. There are proven and successful programming rules that we should never forget, but we can’t operate with blinders or be too afraid to colour outside the lines. Many PDs are influenced by their station’s Facebook wall, and they let negative comments affect their judgement. For example, D-bag2389 might write that he thinks “this is a stupid idea, overkill, the band sucks, and so does your station, thanks for telling me, I now know not to listen”.

Radio gets them all, and one post leads to another and the next thing you know, there’s invariably a huge fight going on. Usually progressively degrading in intellectual and thoughtful content. It’s exhausting. It’s the world.

We get far more compliments, kudos and positive thoughts than complaints and I love to be able to get instant feedback on our stations. Listeners want that outlet.

We also need to manage our halls. If you are a programmer (leader) and do not believe something will work, your team surely won’t either. In that case, better that you pass then move ahead uncommitted.

It was a great time to be in radio on Wednesday. That was the easy part. Many stations played 24/7 Hip.

But Thursday, it was all over….and that’s what stuck with me when making this call. I honestly didn’t think it was fair to Gord, the band, the team that did all this work in advance or the audience to let this event just fall prey to the news cycle churn.

Thursday, we knew we were doing the right thing. Great reaction, incredible engagement and lots of warmth.

I admit that on Friday morning I was listening to CHEZ early, like 5:40 am early, and for just a moment I wondered if becoming GORD FM for four days was the right call.

It wasn’t the trolls that crept into the thinking, in fact there were surprisingly few negatives. I mean really, what can you not like about paying homage to Gord Downie?

It was just my gut saying, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be playing Led Zeppelin at this time, and isn’t Doc and Woody supposed to be teasing Bonehead of the week, and snake stories?” Why yes, that’s right, they usually do.  But not today I thought. We’re doing something brave but genuine and thoughtful for our audience. They want us to play Tragically Hip music and tell stories of the band and have listener’s stories and memories on air.

It’s our gift and obligation at the same time.

I have never played the same band on-air for what will turn out to be 111 hours straight. In fact, I can’t remember any station doing that unless it was a format change stunt.

But it was more than just playing the music……the on-air talent made it really special. Some announcers think they are becoming less important or relevant……they certainly are not, they are more important than ever. Everyone can play the same music. That’s easy. But the difference from good to great is the personality behind the mic. Being in the cockpit of the station behind the board, directing the content as it comes in isn’t easy. Answering phones, recording caller’s stories, finding clips, relaying personal anecdotes and having a genuine love and respect for the audience and our craft. I can hear it when it’s there. And when it’s not.

Thanks to all of our announcers who made this special. And thanks to all our team who did the right thing.

For me, The Tragically Hip is a special band, and I’m really grateful to have been a fan since before they were huge Canadian stars. I have a couple of stories about the band but full disclosure, I can’t honestly remember for certain if the first story is even about them. The story is true for sure, and my memory has always told me it was the Tragically Hip, and this is far from the first time I’ve told this story, so I’m sticking with it until proven otherwise.

Story 1

So, in 1986? I was at CITI FM in Winnipeg. Often, we would record live Rock shows at a nightclub. Back in the days of regulation, if a station recorded a Canadian band playing live, it counted as foreground programming. One week, the band booked was The Tragically Hip. They were to play for 3 or 4 nights (Wed-Sat) at this club, and we would record the Thursday show. Only lesser known and up and coming bands ever were considered for this club but it was live music, and it was cool. I remember getting a call from the Hip’s manager on Thursday morning (I’m pretty sure it must have been Jake Gold), and he asked if I knew the club owner and could I put in a good word for his band. I asked why? He said because they were fired last night. I had to ask why, again? He said the crowd was throwing pennies at the stage and Gord responded by, shall we say, returning expectorate. The owners didn’t like it and boom, gone. The story goes that Gord thought it was awesome. I wasn’t able to change the mind of the owners.

Story 2

A few years later, I was at CFNY in Toronto, and we hosted the CASBY Awards. It would have been Fall of 1989. The awards show was at RPM Club. Packed house, Rock crowd, and crazy. We had several of the nominees at the event, and that night The Tragically Hip were there, as Group of the Year I think. When I saw the PA stacks, I thought, wow, are we at Maple Leaf Gardens? This is crazy. When the moment came, the emcee yells, ‘The Tragically Hip” ……. boom, that was and still holds the record for the loudest show I’ve ever witnessed. Buns were shaking off the side plates, and liquid in glasses reacted as if an earthquake had hit. I credit the band for contributing to my left ear hearing deterioration. Loud was good, but even the best sound systems were a lot noisier than they are today and it was like a Concorde taking off. It was a complete wall of sound. Pretty great though. And thank goodness for much better fidelity in PA systems these days.

Story 3

My other Tragically Hip memory came after we signed Y95 on the air in 1991, we played Fully Completely like we were a Top 40 station. It was released in October 1992. Honestly, we played the crap out of it. One day my phone rings, “Danny?” “Yes, sir.” “It’s Jake Gold……. just want to say thanks for playing the hell out of the new record…the band appreciates it”.

That was cool. I might have even asked him, ‘do you remember that night in Winnipeg”? I don’t think I did and don’t think he would recall anyhow. Oh well…maybe it wasn’t them, but I’m still sticking to that story.

Thanks, Gord. As he said numerous times to everyone in his incredible movie Long Time Running,

“I love you”.

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