Thursday, November 13, 2008

510th Post - Interview with Kool FM Program Director Rob Johnson!

Wow, the Lion's Head Tavern is a busy place for lunch! I was worried that my little digital voice recorder would be unable to pick us out amidst all of the din. But it did for the most part. From time to time, the yakking at nearby tables nearly overwhelmed us, but we persevered.

We selected that place because Rob Johnson works around the corner at the Pretty Pink Palace on Agricola Street in Halifax. We had originally decided to meet in late September. However, Rob Johnson was buying a house and had to postpone our meeting.

Before we started the formal interview, Mr. Johnson mentioned he had been to the blog, and was happy that there were other cat people out there. He also said that J.C. Douglas said hello. Hello right back, J.C.!

I had had a long morning getting my car fixed and then paying my permit renewal before picking up Patricia and making our way to the pub. Mr. Johnson met us there. We sat down, ordered our food, and began to chat. Patricia pipes in from time to time.

Bevboy: What is a day in the life of a program director?

Rob Johnson: By the time I show up in the morning, I have already checked my e-mails on my blackberry. I have a good idea of what I am in for, of what happened before I got in there. Usually, I start out the day with just going over the music for the day, making sure that everything looks good. If, for instance, it's a rainy day like today, I might go back and go, "Oh, let's add a few rainy day kind of mood songs", or things like that. Then the morning show gets off the air and I meet with them every day at 10 o'clock. We talk about what they did and what might be coming up. We cook up plans for what might be good topics to work on.

BB: Maybe some things not to talk about sometimes?

RJ: Well, yeah, sometimes. [chuckles] But, they're pros. They know what's appropriate. I was really fortunate to come here to a group of such pros that really get it. Once the reins were loosened a bit they all rose to the challenge.

Patricia: You say you came here. Where did you come from?

RJ: Charlottetown.

P: Because usually it seems that when people say (anyone that's from the tv or radio) they always seem to be from out West.

RJ: Well, I am from out West. I grew up in Saskatchewan. Bruce Frisko and I actually worked together when we were just starting out in radio at CKCK in Regina.


P: Why is it that people from out West, work here? And why do people here, go out West? Is there some kind of secret handshake or some kind of secret club where you switch coasts?

RJ: Well, I think it was a matter of coincidences that I ended up here. I was working in Calgary. I spent most of my career working in Calgary. I had a roommate from Nova Scotia. We were good friends. Air Canada had these weekend getaways fares back in the mid '90's that were really cheap. You could fly anywhere in Canada, so she talked me into coming down here for a weekend. There was a whole bunch of us who came down. And I instantly fell in love with this city. It left its mark. So I came back on holiday again the following year. I was feeling that I had hit the wall of where I was in Calgary, so I threw caution to the wind and gave my notice and moved down here. I was out of radio for two or three months before settling in at MBS [Maritime Broadcasting Systems]. And, then I met my wife. That pretty much cemented the Nova Scotia connection.

BB: Is your wife in radio as well?

RJ: No. She works for the bank. So, we lived here for a while. And then we went out to Vancouver, came back here for a bit, went to Calgary again for a while, then Charlottetown and now here.


BB: When hired as a p.d., is it necessarily to change a station's format? Or to change much of anything if the ratings are good and the advertisers are happy with the on air product?

RJ: People are hired in this position for a number of reasons. Sometimes it's because ratings are bad, revenues are down, and changes are needed. Sometimes a program director just leaves and goes on to another opportunity and leaves a wildly successful radio station. When things are working, you don't mess with it, but if there are signs of a problem it's time to start tinkering.

BB: What position was Kool FM in?

RJ: Kool FM was strong but not to its fullest potential. The feeling is that a lot of people had kind of forgotten about the radio station and the sense of fun and energy that should have been there but the music we were playing was just lacking. So there were just some minor little tweaks that we made, We changed the station voice [His name is Jamie Watson and he works out of Toronto] and modified the music just a little bit and basically gave the on air team a lot more leeway to be personalities and have fun at their job.

BB: Griff and Caroline get along like an old married couple.

P: It doesn't even come across as work, for crying out loud. They laugh, they joke, they kid around, they play great music. It's not work.

BB: And they get paid every two weeks.

RJ: Exactly. They're like that off the air, too. Luckily, all of us get along really well.

P: I heard on the radio that Griff is on vacation for two weeks. I should e-mail her and say, "Hey, if you need a hand, I'll gladly be your bitch for mornings." [laughter]

RJ: She'd get a kick out of that. Ian [Robinson] will be in for two weeks.


What was your last on air job, and your first job as a program director?

RJ: Well, coincidentally, it was my last job. My first job as a program director in Charlottetown. I got hired from Calgary to come down and launch a brand new rock station. Newcap had got approval for a new FM station.

BB: Oh, uh, K-Rock 105.3?

RJ: 105.5.

BB: We can listen to it at the cottage in Pictou County. It comes in as clear as a bell.

RJ: We used to get a lot of calls [from Pictou County].

P: We're there, and Charlottetown is right there [across the water; we can see Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick from the deck]

RJ: So, I got the opportunity to come down to PEI and launch K-Rock, which was a huge learning experience for me. And I also did the afternoon drive from three until six. It was interesting, balancing all of those things: Being on the air, being the program director.

BB: Oh, you were both? That is unusual.

RJ: There are a few stations where [this happens]. We have a K-Rock in Newfoundland. Their operations manager is their morning guy.

BB: And the K-Rock in the [Annapolis] Valley? They have, uh, Greasy Gary... Gary Tredwell on the air. [He is their program director]

RJ: Well, it happens mostly in smaller markets where money's a little tighter. I don't know if I was ever really that good at it. [chuckles].

BB: Is the K-Rock format some kind of package that stations buy or something, like the KIXX format?

RJ: No, no. It's an idea, a concept, for a logo really that is memorable. We used it in Edmonton very successfully, and in Newfoundland very successfully. When we got the rock license in Charlottetown we looked at a few different names and we came back to [the K-Rock branding]. There's no K-Rock anywhere around the Maritimes, so why not go for it? It will be memorable enough.

I mean, every station is different. The K-Rock, which is now K-97 in Edmonton, was 100% classic rock. There was no new music at all. K-Rock in PEI was a bit more like Q104 where there was a lot more new rock. Even K-Rock in Newfoundland played a little bit of new rock, but mostly classic. The nice thing about Newcap is that they leave it to us at the local level to make the decisions for programming.

BB: So, you get lots of leeway?

RJ: Yeah. Absolutely. We have a V.P. of programming. His name is Steve Jones. He has an excellent radio mind, but he is there to guide things along, to monitor. But at the end of the day, the decisions for programming are [made locally].


How did you decide on the "we play anything" format? How broad a musical spectrum do you hope to ultimately tap into as you acquire more music? Can we expect big band tunes on the station? Some light jazz? Bluegrass? And Patricia is asking if you will be All Christmas music for the month of December?

RJ: Well, we haven't fully decided on the Christmas thing yet. That's something that's up for discussion right now and we're just trying to decide when the right time to do that is.

As far as deciding on "We Play Anything": It wasn't so much of a format as it was a slogan change. We didn't really change the music that much. It's funny. I've heard people say, "I'm hearing more '70's [music]", but in actuality, we scaled back on the '70's stuff. There is actually a little more '80's stuff. It was just some minor changes. It's essentially been the same format. We were just looking for a different way of describing what we play and what we're all about, so that seemed kind of fun.

We were actually sitting around debating playing "everything", or playing "anything". To allude to another question you sent [I had asked him what Griff Henderson had meant the morning he said that they play anything, but they don't play everything]: I guess it comes down to a matter of semantics. The way I look at it is: "We Play Anything" is a declarative statement. There is nothing after that. We play anything. To get into linguistics, but there are ellipsis after that. We play anything like. We play anything we have. It's a little bit more open.

BB: If a song exists in the pretty pink palace [where there are 5 radio stations of differing formats] and somebody requests it on a Friday morning, will you guys play it?

RJ: Most likely. Unless it's ridiculously out there. We're not going to play Iron Maiden from Q104's fan base on the Kool morning show. I think that would freak out a lot of people. We have to be within reason. We have a broad appeal, classic hits radio station. That thing is not precluding us from playing new music, if it fits. We don't have a grand plan. We're kind of winging it. [chuckles]

BB: A couple of weeks ago they played "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", by John Denver. They played the Muppets recently. [Patricia chuckles]. I requested "Midnight at the Oasis" from 1974 [it was actually 1973!]. I guess it's a light jazz song if it's anything. And you played it. So, there is a pretty broad range there on a Friday morning at least.

RJ: Yeah. Certainly our Friday mornings have been the most eclectic. If you are at all familiar with our musical selection scheduler, we have different categories of songs. I have a certain amount of category that a song is in that we play on a regular basis. And I have this one giant category of 2500 songs that we play just every now and then. We'll draw from it for our requests or if the mood fits or if it looks like it might be good variety.

BB: Like "Disco Duck" a couple of weeks ago.

RJ: Yeah, exactly. Nobody wants to hear "Disco Duck" every two days, but once every six months it's kind of fun.

BB: They played "Disco Duck" a couple of weeks ago. I was walking to work, and there it was [on my walkman].

RJ: I was driving over the MacKay [bridge], laughing my ass off.
I hope that explains the way we view [We Play Anything].

BB: You won't get so eclectic that you drive away your core listeners...

RJ: No, exactly!

BB: ... but you want to play stuff that will attract people who are thinking of sampling the station and may be drawn in a little more with some of those tunes you choose to play.

RJ: Certainly, ultimately what we want to do is give people a few surprises. We don't want to be predictable. I think there is a fun element to delivering a surprise. Maybe jogging somebody's memory of a song they haven't heard in a million years.

BB: And you won't ever have requests every day, just on Fridays?

RJ: We'll review that at some time. It makes for a very busy morning show, and I am not sure if they can handle the pace five days a week.

BB: You'd need a third person, I guess, to source the music.

RJ: Exactly. By Friday at 10 o'clock, they're looking a little haggard. [laughter] They're running around trying to find this music and taking calls and it's just a whole other level of work on an already-busy morning show. As I tell them every morning, "It was Griff's idea".

BB: Griff's idea to go all-request.

RJ: Yeah. He just said, "I think it would be kind of fun to do that". I said, "Yeah! Let's do it. If you want to do it, let's do it". So I can remind him, "It was your idea".

BB: Well, we love it. It's a lot of fun.


Is there room in this market for a private classical music station?

RJ: Oh, God, I wish.

BB: Really? You like classical music, do you?

RJ: I do. It's something for my own personal taste I will listen to.

BB: Such as?

RJ: I'm a huge Glenn Gould fan. I have a remarkable collection of Glenn Gould. So, therefore, I've become a bit of a fan of Bach. There is something about his music that's captured my imagination.

BB: If someone ever requested that on the [Friday] morning show, would you like to play it, but you'd say no?

RJ: I'd love to! [chuckles] I do have the 1955 Goldberg Variations in my office.

BB: Oh, really?

RJ: [chuckles] But I don't think anybody will ever request that. But, yeah, the private classical stations would be for such a small market. Even CBC Radio 2 has scaled back on the classical music.

P: Yeah, they have.

BB: They claim they haven't, but they have.

RJ: They have.

BB: You're a classical fan. You like the stuff...

RJ: It would never fly here.

BB: You wouldn't be allowed to?

RJ: No, we would be allowed to. I mean, anybody can do it. As a matter of fact, it would be fairly easy to get a classical music license provided you can justify your existence because it's something that is so diverse on the dial [that there wouldn't be a huge audience]

BB: You would be programming to used bookstores.

RJ: Yeah, exactly. It attracts a very small segment of the population. The perception is that it is 65 plus, people over the age of 65. Listeners are dying off. If the truth be known, it is such a small sliver of the population. I mean, News 95.7 up here [gesturing up the road to that radio station on Young Street] is having a hard time making a go of it.

BB: It's a good product, but...

RJ: Well, it is, but news stations take a long time to develop a following and make a go of it, but anytime somebody launches a news station you're going to have to expect to face losses for at least 10 years. It just takes a long time for the loyalty to build up, for the awareness. It's a tough format to build up. Classical would be even worse. Washington D.C. lost its classical music station. WGMS was a great classical station.

BB: Where were they on the dial? Was it AM?

RJ: No, FM. It was at 103 point something. The Washington D.C. market you would think have the support, but [it didn't]. But having said that, KING in Seattle does very well. But this market [in Halifax] is too small.


Toronto is probably the biggest radio market in the country. How large is the Halifax market in real terms? I guess I mean in terms of audience and revenue stream.

RJ: Well, it's not considered major. We're the 13th largest market radio market in Canada. There's Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg...

BB: Is this the biggest this side of Montreal?

RJ: Yes.


RJ: There's a bunch in Ontario: Kitchener, London, Hamilton. They lump the Niagara Peninsula into one big market, so they're slightly bigger than us, too.

As far as revenue, [Halifax] is certainly the biggest this side of Montreal, for Atlantic Canada. This is the largest city and the most important.

BB: And there's no lack of interest in starting new stations here. Global Television had a license and for whatever reason they let it lapse, and now Evanov wants to acquire that license if it can.

RJ: I don't think that's ever been officially released. That certainly seems to be the consensus. They can apply for it, but there's no guarantee that the CRTC is going to award to allow another station. I think at this point in time things are tight. I'm not sure that adding another station to this market at this time is the best for the health of the radio industry in this city.

BB: Things are a little constricted now, are they?

RJ: It is. It's getting tight as far as revenues go and that's happening all across North America.

BB: The global economic crisis.

RJ: Exactly.


BB: How do you decide when the station is not live, when it is voice tracked?

RJ: Really, it comes down to man power. However much we can do live, we do live. When we can't, we go voice tracked. We're live from 5:30 until 7pm Tuesday till Friday. Kelli Rickard is in live from 7 till 11pm on Monday nights. The rest of the evenings are voice tracked by Frank [Lowe]

BB: And [it's voicetracked] most of the weekends, except that Kelli is on in the mornings and the afternoons.

RJ: Yes. She and the newsperson are the only live people in on the weekends. Hopefully, as we become more successful, we can make an investment in more talent. It's a matter of economics. You can't overload yourself with extra salaries.

BB: Is there an appetite for live, local overnight radio? I guess I'm saying: I wish you guys were live all night.

RJ: We don't hear that so often. I mean, moreso in the evening. There's an interest in our part at least going live till midnight as often as we can, and overnights would be brilliant. I did overnights in Calgary for years and it was an interesting experience.

BB: A lot of drunks calling you up, I'd imagine.

RJ: Yeah! I also did weekend mornings in Calgary. We'd get at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning the drunks who hadn't gone to bed yet. [laughter]

BB: What is the best piece of professional advice you have ever received?

RJ: Probably from a program director in Calgary. He said, "We're not saving lives here. It's just radio." [laughter] The tendency is in a lot of professions you build undue stress on yourself. Everybody who's working at our station has a passion and drive to win. At the end of the day you're making this a lot more complicated than it should be. I was just trying to drive home the fact that we're just here trying to have fun. This is a fun industry, so at the end of the day if something doesn't work out nobody's gonna die. The worst-case scenario, you might lose a couple of bucks. You learn from your mistakes.

BB: It's not your money anyway!

RJ: Yeah. Exactly. [laughter] So, that was probably the best advice I ever got: Take it easy!


BB: What is your opinion of satellite radio?

RJ: I think it's interesting. The first real intimate experience I had with satellite radio was in May. I was in Miami for two weeks. I had a rental car with satellite radio, XM. We kind of flipped around and there was nothing on there that really caught my attention. A lot of the stuff that I would listen to I could also find [locally]. Granted, this was south Florida where there is a fair amount of diversity. Most things I could find on the FM dial, or AM dial. I listened to WIOD out there. But the thing I found I used most with satellite radio was the traffic reporting service. Miami! [laughter] That was easy to get around with that on. The traffic reports were pretty accurate.

But other than that, I understand the appeal. [With] people who are absolute music fanatics, commercial radio will probably never fully appease them.

BB: There's an extraordinarily broad range of programming available on satellite radio. I can't get over it. But I like listening to my cheap old transistor radio.

RJ: Well, I like the local aspect of it, too. It just seems nicer to know that it's coming from where you are.

BB: During the morning show, there is a lot of chitchat, goofing around and so on; but after that's over, the morning show is over, you have these long sets of music punctuated by a little bit of talk, an updated weather forecast, [or] a traffic report if necessary. But mostly it's music, and I've always wondered why you can't have more of that interaction with the audience during the day.

RJ: Well, we could. A lot of people are busy during the day. The appetite during the day is for more music. People when they're going home or going to work are maybe more interested in what's going on. They want to hear some stories and then hear some music. In that 9 till 4 or 3 range the research tells us that people like more music, so we give it to them.

BB: And that's why the news hits are fairly short as well?

RJ: Yeah. Exactly.

BB: They could be a lot longer.

RJ: If we wanted them to be, but people aren't coming to KOOL for hard-hitting news. We give them the basics, which is what they're coming to us for: What's happening, what's going on.


BB: Can you give me one piece of Kool FM breaking news for my readers?

RJ: Yeah, I've given this one a lot of thought. We're currently deciding when to play Christmas music. [laughter].

P: I'll be making requests!

RJ: We tend to like to try to plan things in advance, but oftentimes they get changed at the last minute, so I've learned to never really count on things 100% coming through because a lot of times we have to kind of scramble and get something on that's more topical.

BB: When CJCH was still on the air, they would go wall-to-wall Christmas music on December first until after Boxing Day. Do you see yourself doing something like that?

RJ: We really haven't given it a thought. How would you guys feel about that?

BB, P (in unison): Oh, God, we'd love it.

BB: And to hear it in stereo would be awesome. And they played some pretty broad stuff: Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, more pop stuff, symphonic music, orchestral music. They played old time radio shows. We just adored it. It's something where we'd listen to it at night. We'd listen to it rather than watch television. We'd have the radio on. It was just a fascinating experiment. I thought it was relatively successful for them. But we're just two listeners. But, our two cents. Our four cents! [laughter]

RJ: So, that's about all I can give you right now.

BB: Fair enough. We'll wait and see.

I got up and paid the bill for the three of us, while Patricia and Mr. Johnson chatted. I left the digital voice recorder on, so I know they talked about me, but in glowing terms, of course.

Upon my return, we talk about what model of BlackBerry Mr. Johnson had. Turns out it is the same model as mine, the 8130, Pearl 2. He told us that it crashes on him all the time, too. Sigh. Like my boss said at coffee on November 12, "pearls are for girls!".

BB: Thank you very much for doing this, Mr. Johnson. We appreciate your time. And we want to interview everyone else in the building, so spread the good word. I am absolutely honest about this.

P: If you interview Caroline [Parker], I want to be there!

For more amazing interviews, keep checking out Bevboy's Blog! A couple more are in the works!
For my past interviews:

If you want to read my interview with Deb Smith, click here.

The J.C. Douglas interview is here.

The Dawn Sloane interview can be found here.

And don't forget about the Jeff Cogswell interview!

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