Radio, Radio

Mr. Wah.jpg

When the DJ said ‘more music is coming your way’, I always waited!  As a kid, listening to my crystal radio under the covers with a flashlight and Superman comics was a nightly ritual. It was the prime source of entertainment in my parents’ house. Searching for “great radio”…from production to programming became a lifelong obsession for me. The universe of current radio formats is worn out.

In my search for great radio I go to the west coast of Canada and check in with an old friend, Mr.Wah, aka Benoit Dufrense, the legendary Montreal music personality from Chom Fm. When he left radio, it was less for it. But, like James Brown, Benoit is back doing the most innovative and necessary radio programs and programming in the country.

MW: What made you come back to radio?
BD: A new station went on the air, CKPM 98.7, in the suburb next to where I live in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver, literally 15 minutes from my house. I found out about it just prior to a trip to California in early April. It’s a local, independent station whose signal reaches the Tri-Cities, Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam. It reaches a significant amount of people on the East side of the Lower Mainland. More importantly, it’s independent, so very open to ideas. It’s the first time since 1983 that I have worked at an independent station. The other 2 are, CHOM Fm in Montreal for 10 years, and 9 years at CFMI in Vancouver.

MW: What was great about CHOM-Fm?
BD: The first 2 years I worked there it was still freeform so the announcers picked their own music. It was magical times. Then radio started to be compartmentalized. Specialized formats took over. Less diversity of music and less opinions. But CHOM Fm was also great in the 1980s when the station had a formidable CRTC requirement to create a significant number of hours of specialty programming. That’s how I ended up doing a program called the New Music Foundation from 1983 to 1989.

MW: What is great about this new station?
BD: It’s independently owned by Matthew McBride who has been around the Vancouver radio market for multiple decades. It’s a start-up so it operates basically out of a concrete bunker in Port Moody, one of the more beautiful suburbs of Vancouver. It operates on a very strict budget but it is, at the same time, rich in creative opportunities. A creative nirvana. Where else would you be able to convince the owner of a radio station to let you take over Monday evenings at 8 o’clock and play all types of music? It’s a 4-hour music program called 'Headphone Heaven' that features the best new music; Yo La Tengo, Tricky, BoC, The National, and mixes in all types of tracks from the lost and found department of the last 5 decades, from Miles Davis to Sigur Ros and everything in between.

MW: Is this part of the future of radio?
BD: I have no idea. I just know that a program like 'Headphone Heaven' sounds a lot more compelling than listening to one station, one format.

MW: Why should people listen?
BD: Besides the acts I mentioned earlier, people should listen because of the diversity of music, the creativity of the music, and discover some amazingly talented bands, new and old. 'Headphone Heaven' is freeform radio. I can’t think of any other commercial station here or elsewhere that has a program where the announcer gets to manipulate all these digital files rather than using music scheduling software or algorithms.

MW: Is your format in a constant state of flux all the time or set in stone?   
BD: Constant flux, constant questioning, but that’s thinking like a radio programmer rather than just trying to play the best music you think you should play. The station plays The National but it also is the only station in town to play the new Fleetwood Mac. And the station is not so cool that it can’t play some music from Pink or Rihanna. But it’s also the only station to play old Massive Attack and Cocteau Twins during the day.

MW: When did you start in radio Mr. Wah? Explain the Mr. Wah show?
My first name, Benoit, is not common over here and nor is my last name. So I use the name Mr. Wah instead – which stems from a letter I once received from a CHOM Fm radio listener in Vermont who addressed me as Mr. Wah. Ben-Wah. It sort of became a joke at the radio station at the time. I think the name adds to the whole vibe of the program.

MW: How can people listen?
BD: The station is at 98.7FM in the Lower Mainland and online at where you can listen live. Same with mobile apps like Tune In Radio on your phone or tablet. And if all goes according to plan there should be an archived edition of 'Headphone Heaven' on the site by the time you read this. There is also a 'Headphone Heaven' blog -  The station is also active on Twitter, @ckpm987.

Thank you Mr.Wah. i used to listen to Benoit Dufresne on CHOM Fm when I was at Loyola University in Montreal. The incredible music and artists that I discovered in Quebec daily thru Benoit and the other great announcers at CHOM Fm changed my life and made if richer in the process. Through Radio Radio!  -  Michael Williams