Radio, Radio with Andrew Forsyth From CHOM to Now

Andrew Forstyth CHOM 1975.jpg

Submitted by Michael Williams
Photo: Andrew Forstyth CHOM 1975

With Radio, Radio, I hope to keep an active a conversation going about radio - a look at where it has been and where it is (or could be) going....

This week I spoke with another Montrealer, former CHOM FM DJ turned radio consultant, Andrew Forsyth. Who better to interview about radio’s glorious past, present, future and the Quebec

Star system? Andrew & I met through a few of my  favorite broadcasters, Geoff Sterling and Doug and Mary Kirk of Durham Radio Inc.

MW: What was the beginning of Chom Fm with Geoff Sterling like?
AF: I was at CHOM FM in the mid-70’s so several incarnations of CHOM FM had already happened. I was in the ripple with Les Sole, Peggy Colston-Weir, Bob Beauchamp and Serge Plaisance, just after Earl Jive (a Hudson Quebec neighbour who I worked with at CFCF) and Terry McElligott among others.  I recall hearing the launch of what was to become CHOM FM with Doug Pringle in 1968. It was truly free form – free spirited not only musically but personality-wise as well; a sharp contrast to the Top 40 on AM at CFOX and CKGM. To name a few, Reiner Schwartz, Dave Marsden, Angus Mackay, Andre Rheaume, Dave Patrick…there were many announcers (ring masters) who made listening to the radio a new experience. You got on the train and you didn’t know where it would stop. I knew Geoff best when I went out to start up OZ-FM – the son of CHOM FM – in Newfoundland. That is a story unto itself.

MW: What was so special CHOM FM broadcasting in English and French?
AF: As an Anglo-Montrealer, it was an awakening to the society I lived in. It was a reflection of reality. So real that the French broadcasters were afraid of the power of us talking like the listener they forced the change back to English only. Even so, we still chatted in both languages and played Quebecois music because that’s what our listeners did.

MW: What was special about CHOM FM and CFNY that radio has forgotten today?
AF: Spontaneity. Each show, each musical set was an adventure. Some of it planned some of it on the fly but always presented in a way to engage the imagination and challenge the audience.

MW: There has been a lot of talk by Bell about implementing the Quebec Star system in the rest of Canada?  Is that possible? Is that an uninformed statement with good intentions?
AF: The Quebecois star system has been around a long time. Quebecers have been forced by geography to produce their own stars. It is natural to have some own of your own culture to look up to and more importantly to reflect the emotions of their kind. It was, in the day, unbelievable to see the power of the music that Robert Charlebois, Diane Dufresne, Harmonium and many other Québécois artists had. The system is now less political and more entertainment oriented. It is Quebec that continues to produce programming like American Idol a long time before Simon Cowell. This came about more out of cultural necessity than for financial benefits.

CHOM FM The House on GreeneCHOM FM The House on GreeneMW: When did radio change and formats that were not made by Canadians come to Canada and why? What was it like before Consultants?
AF: Radio, like any resilient entity, is in a constant state of change. In Rock Radio Lee Abrams and Kent Burkhart along with Canadians John Parikhal and Dave Charles brought CHR mechanics to Progressive Rock and called it AOR. Stations like CHOM, KLOS, WBCN, WMMS etc. went from being cult status to hugely successful stations with access for a whole league of listeners rather than being just close knit clubs for musical snobs. In my day at CHOM FM we each programmed a different style of show. The PD’s trick was to keep a balanced crew of jocks who could keep the music broad enough to have mass appeal and unique enough to make be fresh and inventive. The early to mid-seventies were a golden time for creative music. The music was about the playing, the writing, having something to say and pushing the edges of production. The music was art that made money (for some). How the music was consumed was different as well. FM radio was THE source until Music Video came along.  The number of platforms to expose and explore music has multiplied. FM radio is now a small part of the audiences’ tool set. To still be a force and to optimize the listeners experience, radio has to change to compete and compliment the alternatives. Now It is rare anyone is listening to radio for more than a couple of hours a day. Radio has to acknowledge that fact and do its best to engage the listener in that time frame. Back in the day, there was more time to set up the music. They have since rescinded FM regs weren’t such a bad thing. Canadian FM programmers became very adept at making the required background information on artists interesting and entertaining. Today the audience demands more music tailored to the brand they have chosen.  This is apparent in all media; movies are faster paced, books are shorter, TV shows (with a few exceptions) never delve into character development thicker than a piece of cardboard.

MW: Did it destroy radio and creativity?
AF: No radio is constantly being re-invented. Look at All-news and the sports formats on AM. What is missing to the larger degree is personality that can engage in a meaningful way. In many ways what is old is new again.

MW: Why did you become a consultant?
AF: To give back to the industry, to share my 40+ years’ worth of experience and to keep challenging and be challenged by a business I love.

MW: Is the radio landscape changing for the better or worse with the Astral sale to Bell?
AF: Consolidation is inevitable. There are some very talented people programming stations in the big Multi-media groups. But big companies tend to be slow to react and more homogeneous in outlook. The independents usually foster creative invention if only because it is the nature of the beast and a necessity for survival. This week radio saddens me when there is a natural disaster and local radio has to shut down because it lacks resources to serve the public during their time of utmost need. In the nineties during the great ice storm Montreal radio showed what a unified industry could do to help pull their community together. NewCap also responded to the Community of Slave Lake last year but in general I fear radio has lost touch with the how it can and must serve the community.

MW: As you look at the radio ratings today what has changed if anything in general?
AF: Time spent listening has decreased with the arrival of new technological distractions and without any plan to engage teens they are no longer a force in listenership. PPM is passive way of extracting radio listening data but sample size is a problem. At the end of the day to do well in PPM (only in 5 Canadian markets) or Diary the winning tactic is to communicate to the audience in a meaningful and emotive manner.

MW: Does Radio as we know it have a future beyond news?
AF: Certainly it will survive if it provides emotional attachment and companionship along with a sense of curatorship.

MW: What happened to the Flow and is it being repeated by G98? Does race or ethnic based radio work in Canada?
AF: Race, colour, ethnicity have nothing to do with success or failure in these cases. It is simply a matter of numbers. These stations were designed as niche entities appealing to a smaller underserved portion of the community. They only fail if the expectations are bigger than the reality of the market.

MW: When it comes to race or ethnic based radio, why do we have foreign language radio in Canada, does that not keep these groups isolated through language? By the 3rd generation the languages are lost so what are we doing and why...And who knows what they are saying?
AF: A timely question. The CRTC will soon be looking for public input to the Ethnic Broadcasting Policy. There have been changes made over the past few years that lighten the requirement for third language programming with a goal of making the programming accessible to the 2nd and 3 rd generation children of immigrants. Recent licensing decisions have seen a unique blend of languages to form an English- Ethnic Hybrid format that might foreshadow the direction of the policy.

MW: What is the future of radio?
AF: It is in the hands of management. It is up to them to ensure the industry does not become just a brand extension or another platform on which to distribute corporate content.  Radio is an audio medium. It is at its best when it paints audio pictures whether through music or spoken word. If radio remains a jukebox it will eventually find diminishing audiences. In recent speeches CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais has made some very encouraging comments about the need for less regulation and more innovation to reflect Canada. I am optimistic and see talent with vision and creativity in Canadian radio and with that there is a good future.

MW: Thank you Andrew Forsyth.