Thursday, July 9, 2009

864th Post - Interview With Z103.5's Nikki Balch

Nikki Balch Interview -- May 22, 2009; July 9, 2009

Nikki Balch was kind enough to meet me for lunch in late May, at the Mongolie Grill, one of my favourite restaurants in Halifax. We met again in early July because I didn't record one of the questions I thought I had recorded. Silly me. More on that later.

We arrived at the Mongolie Grill. We grabbed our bowls. Filled them with food. They grilled it for us. And we started to talk.

1. How did you get your start in radio? Where have you worked?

Nikki Balch: I started in radio in Radio And Television Arts, at NSCC. I went to the Kingstec campus in Kentville.

Bevboy: With Dave Bannerman?

NB: With Dave Bannerman. He was my radio teacher. He's a phenomenal instructor. It was a two year program. After my first year, I had an internship at a radio station in Moncton, K94,5. It was an internship, and then I ended up getting the evening show job there. So, I worked there for about six months, and then Z103.5 came on the air here in Halifax.

BB: In 2006.

NB: Yes. Exactly. I was really itching to get back home. I mean, I love the Maritimes no matter what, but I'm from Halifax. So I want to get back here and get a job here. I was so pumped when Z was coming whether I was going to work there or not because there was no station back here that played good music for the younger demo. So, I was really excited about it. So, I applied and got a job. Actually it was supposed to be the evening show here at Z originally. I had a little introduction one day on the morning show, and I kind of did not want to leave [chuckles].

BB: And there are three of you: you, Shane, and Jeff Cogswell.

NB: Yes.

BB: Is it a struggle sometimes to get a word in, or do you divide the duties equally among ourselves? How does that work?

NB: We work closely together, so there are always struggles, but we're allowed to be ourselves. We all appreciate that. So, for the most part I don't think we struggle getting our words in; that might be because I have all the words [chuckles].

BB: So, this is your second radio station?

NB: Yes.

2. What is the best piece of professional advice you have ever received?

NB: I couldn't even tell you who provided me with it first. Just basically that if you're not having fun at what you're doing, it's not worth it. I'm lucky I think to have learned that at a young age, that you can have jobs that you enjoy, and that you should always be doing that, and that everything else will work out. You can worry about how much you're getting paid. You can worry about money. You can worry about all of the logistics of the job. But the bottom line is that if you're not having fun, it's not going to be the best in the end.

BB: That's excellent advice. I've worked at some jobs that paid quite well, but I was miserable. I hated getting out of bed in the morning.

NB: Exactly. And when you're doing what you love, you're going to excel at it, and I think that money will come. It will all work out.

That's probably the best piece of advice.

3. If you lost your iPod, and I found it, what tunes on it would surprise me the most?

NB: If it were Christmastime, you would find Kenny and Dolly. That's my favorite Christmas CD ever. And, you'd be surprised to find some Country on there. Not some Honkytonk Country or anything like that, more so New Country music: Carrie Underwood, Tim Mcgraw, Taylor Swift (she's crossing over into CHR formats too), the Dixie Chicks, one of my favorites.

I think it surprises people that I know all the words to country songs, but I do. But I love so many different types of music.

BB: Does that imply that you might listen to other radio stations? Do you want to go on record for that?

NB: [chuckles] I'll definitely flip around to see what's going on, more than anything. If I had to choose to listen to a radio station, I would actually choose ours. I love our afternoon show, and I listen to it for entertainment, not because I have to listen to it. I just love our station!

BB: I like it too, for what it matters. My mother loves Uncle Kracker.

NB: Oh really?

BB: Uncle Kracker did a song with Kenny Chesney. I was watching the video with my mother. After it was over, my mother turned to me and said, " I like Uncle Kracker!".

NB: That's hilarious! My grandparents will tune in to listen to me, and my grandfather remembers the songs now. And he says, " I like Beyonce!". It's funny.

BB: I love Beyonce.

4. What is the typical day in the life of a morning show radio host? What time do you get up, and what types of things do you have to do at the studio before going on the air?

NB: 4:00 AM is wake up time. I don't know if that ever gets easy, but I so enjoy going to my job. I remember when I had jobs in high school, my Saturday morning shift at McDonald's, I called in sick so often because I was exhausted. It's too early to get up. I love my job so it makes it easy to get up out of bed in the morning even if it is the middle of the night, or when I would normally be getting home [chuckles].

We are at work around quarter to five. Then it's basically show prep, which you do the whole day through. I'm looking up entertainment news, and news for my Hollywood Headlines. Basically, what's going on, what people want to hear about. News that they basically have to hear about. They have to know what the word is, because they expect you to. A lot of that I did the night before; my blackberry as my friend because I'm always putting little show ideas in there, and my notes.

At 5:30 we're on the air until 10.

BB: 4 1/2 hours a day!

NB: It flies by. I feel like I don't even work; it's crazy. After that we will produce some commercials. We can do some more show prep, edit audio. I'm done that part around ten thirty or eleven o'clock in the morning.

BB: So, your day is done now?

NB: Yes. With radio, there are a lot of special events. Tomorrow, I will have to be out doing something. You're making a lot of appearances; you're in the community a lot, which I enjoy a lot. It's easy for me.

BB: You have nothing to do with the selection of your music, right? That's the role of your program director...

NB: And our music director.

BB: You don't know what you're going to play until you get there in the morning? You've no input in that. Maybe you can juggle round the order of songs?

NB: Yes. We can definitely do that. DJ NoLuv is our music director. He does all the research; he knows what people want to hear, and when. He has it all figured out. But, yes, we can switch around the order of songs if we want to. We can take a request or two. If there is a song our station isn't playing, that we really want played, then we can definitely have a meeting with our PD, and our MD, and we can talk about that too.

5. You won for best radio personality for the 2008 Coast Awards. Bevboy's Blog has not won for best local blog yet, not that I'm bitter or anything. How did winning that award feel, not that I'll ever know?

NB: Well, I will share it with you, first of all. It's really cool. I didn't expect it at all. I had an idea it was going on but I knew that people who had been in radio a long time had won the award in the past. It was totally unexpected. I don't know if I still even understand that. I was really excited. It's cool.

BB: Is it a plaque?

NB: It's a plaque, yes. It's in my hallway. I couldn't decide where to put it. I didn't quite want it in my bedroom, or in my living room, so it's in my hallway.

BB: How did you find out that you had won?

NB: They called me and they said they were calling the top three people to just ask them a few questions. I really didn't think anything of it. They called me back a week later, and they said, "You won! You get to go to the party!". I said, " Wow! That's pretty exciting!" And I didn't even vote for myself once! [laughter]

BB: OK. Were your friends impressed?

NB: Yes. Definitely.

BB: No jealousy from Jeff or Shane?

NB: No. Definitely not. They were really happy for me; they were proud of me. I think they were like me: They didn't expect that. We had not even been on air for quite two years.

6. What has been your biggest on air gaffe?

NB: Every once in awhile, I will make a mistake that I remember. I was actually in Moncton when I did it. It was a new song by Coldplay called Clocks. And I basically dropped the L!

BB: Oh, no!

NB: [chuckles] And there were children listening. I was mortified; I hadn't been in radio that long. I thought it was the end of the world. Looking back now was kinda funny, but it was horrible [back then]. I didn't just continue because I didn't know what to say; I didn't know if I should draw attention to what I said because I just said this horrible word on air.

BB: There are other ways to say that word I guess. That's the biggest error you want to admit to?

NB: Yes, exactly. I think it was worse when I drew attention to it. I didn't pretend like it just didn't happen.

I have no fortune [in my fortune cookie]. I must not have any future.

BB: Here. You can have mine.

7. Why do you refer to Halifax as "Hali" on the air?

NB: I wish I could credit myself with coming up with it.

BB: Dawn Sloane says it now!

NB: Does she? Basically, Halifax is one of my favorite cities in the world. When I picture Halifax, I picture Citadel Hill, the waterfront, all of these gorgeous things. Z103.5 came and we brought this night life back, which is just phenomenal. I think it was lacking here.

BB: Live radio, for one thing.

NB: Live radio, exactly. We're out at the bars; we're out at the clubs. We are approachable by all these Hali people, and that to me is "Hali". When fun things are going down, that's "Hali". You'll notice when I'm talking, if I'm doing the weather, I'll say, " Right now in Halifax", because it's in Halifax. But if something is coming to Hali... It's probably not right but [chuckles]

BB: No, I was just wondering where that came from. It's on your face book. It's sort of spreading, going viral.

NB: yes, definitely. It's a popular city, and you need a nickname.

BB: And "Fax" would not work.

NB: I like Hali. It's like Cali as in California.

8. What is it like to see a picture of yourself on the side of a bus?

[By way of explanation: Bev forgot to turn on the digital voice recorder for Nikki's polished, nuanced response to this question. She graciously agreed to meet with me again some six weeks later. Here is the transcript of this single question]

BB: All right. I swear I'm recording this time. The little red light [on the recorder] signifies that I'm recording. It is July...

NB: 9th, already.

BB: 2009, already. We've reconvened ...

NB: In the boss' office!

BB: In the boss' office. I see a lady up there in lingerie.

NB: It's Fergie!

BB: Fergie. Of course it is.

NB: And Nicole Scherzinger from the Pussycat Dolls. It's because of the music, not because of the way they look!

BB: Of course not, because that would be degrading to women, and you know how I feel about that.

NB: They're doing it to themselves though.

BB: They are. Nobody's holding a gun to their head.

NB: Exactly. Just a camera and a whole lot of money!

BB: That's right. I would do it. [Nikki laughs]

What is it like to see a picture of yourself on the side of a bus?

NB: It's similar to when I notice a picture [of herself] on Facebook that I didn't know was being taken, and didn't expect to show up there. It's not like, "Oh, my God! That's me on a bus." It's more like, "Oh, that's me." And you look for a minute and it's over. It's surprising in the moment, not just because it's on the side of a bus, but because it's you, something you're not expecting. You're not expecting it when you go to the grocery store. I make fun of us on it, anyway. We all do.

BB: Do you think of it as being another woman? Another person?

NB: Kind of. When you see a photograph of yourself on the internet, you go, "Oh, I didn't know that was going to be there", and it's you, and you continue on. It's different.

BB: That's why on my blog I'm always 11 years old. It was all downhill from there.

NB: [Chuckles]. We like to make fun of ourselves on it.

BB: Has anyone listened to your station, having been interested in the picture of you guys on the side of a bus?

NB: I don't think so. I think it's cool for people to be able to put a face to a name, but I don't think people are listening to the radio because of the way that people look. Maybe it just makes us more familiar when we're doing all the public events that we do. People are a little bit more familiar and are a little bit more willing to chat with us because we're just big losers. [chuckles]

BB: I wouldn't say that. I watched Jeff roll down a hill the other month...

NB: See? We're big losers!

BB: I shot it for the blog. It was the funniest laugh I had had in a long, long time.

NB: We just have fun. We don't take ourselves very seriously.

BB: That's awesome. And, further to that, how did you guys come up with the idea of the Stupid Sh*t day?

NB: Just one day, I said, "We need to do some stupid sh*t on Fridays". I don't know how I came up with it. Maybe I was mad at Jeff that day. I said, "I want Jeff rolling down Citadel Hill". And Dan said, "Wrapped in bubble wrap!". We're just big kids and come up with stupid crap that we wanted to do. The only way to put it out there was to say that we're doing stupid crap. But I think people are really enjoying it.

BB: I saw Jeff and Shane dressed up as very attractive women ...

NB: [Laughter] Yes. I think that was my favourite moment so far on the Z103.5 morning show. That morning was so fun for me. I got to Nair Jeff's legs! It was nasty and fun. [chuckles]

BB: I'm not sure if his wife would do that to him.

NB: I had so much fun. That was hilarious. They were such good sports for doing it.

BB: What's the stupidest thing they made you do?

NB: I've had to do so many things. I was down in the ferry terminal one morning asking to borrow a condom from somebody. [Nikki and Bev laugh]. Oh, I had to return Froot Loops because there was no fruit in them. That was probably the dumbest. I had to go to two different stores and return Froot Loops because I was mad there was no fruit in them. I actually got my money back both times, oddly enough.

BB: [laughter] And you guys just sit around and kibbitz and think of the dumb things to do? Do you accept suggestions from listeners?

NB: Absolutely!

BB: I'll put on my thinking cap.

NB: We love suggestions.

BB: I have a new feature on my blog called Stupid Things Bevboy Has Done". You can check that out if you like.

NB: We may have to derive some ideas from that.

BB: LIke the time I went hitchhiking when I was 15 years old. This car stopped to pick me up. I tried to wedge the front seat forward so that I could crawl in the back. And then the guy told me it was a four door car.

NB: [laughter]

BB: I'm not sure if that could be replicated too easily today.

NB: That's a good one. I'm surprised I haven't tried to pull that one yet.

BB: I"ll have a whole series of that up on the Blog. But, if I think of other suggestions [for Stupid Sh*t Fridays], I'll send them to you via Facebook.

NB: Sounds good.

9. What is the most mis-understood thing about hip hop music?

NB: I'd probably say the most mis-understood thing about hip hop music is that, first of all, it's not misunderstood as much as a lot of people tend to think that it is. They think that we're misunderstanding these rappers, that we're misunderstanding these hip hop artists. We're understanding them; we're just not necessarily happy about what they're saying, and what they're rapping about, and what they're talking about, because it seems kind of negative.

But. the thing is, it's their lives. I think that's the biggest misunderstanding there, is that they're creating controversy for no reason. I was just talking to a friend. He is here, [but] he is from California. He was talking a little bit about the gang scene there, and how people are brought up. It's a rough go. It's hard in some of those cities that they're from. This is all they had, was to write and make their music.

We forget that, number one, it's an art, and that they should have the right to express themselves in any way that they want to. We're also forgetting that it's real for them. Just because we're listening, and wondering, "Why are they talking about women that way?" It's because they're walking down the street, and that's how people are treating women.

BB: As a woman, are you bothered by some of those lyrics?

NB: It's real. It bothers me, but then I think about why it bothers me. It's because it's true. They're the only one who'll say it, but we all know that it's there, and that it's offensive, but it's society's fault. They're just rapping about what is, in my opinion.

BB: What is in their lives, in their point of view, when they speak about women as (and I'll say it once only) "bitches" and "ho's"? Are they speaking about all women in general, or are they speaking about the women in their own lives? I guess there's a slight distinction there.

NB: I'd say it's a reflection of ... most rappers want to rap about where they're from. That's why, [if] you listen to Classified from Enfield, he's not rapping about bitches and ho's. He's not, because most rappers want to rap about what they know.

And, so, I don't know if they're talking about the women that they're with, or all women in general, but either way, it's a reflection of the way that society feels.

People put such a problem on there. The way things are portrayed in the media, like women's weight, but I think a lot of the women are doing it to themselves. How can you feel bad that they're saying that women are dumb when Paris Hilton is out there acting dumb and encouraging young people to do that exact same thing?

BB: Yeah, women can be really hard on other women, too.

NB: Yes. Absolutely. So, I'm not mad at them for rapping about it, though, because it's a reflection of society.

BB: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but they have a right to do what they're doing, and if you're personally bothered by it I guess you have the right not to listen to it.

NB: Absolutely. I think that people complain about their kids. I think that is one of the big problems. They don't want their children to listen to it; they're angry that their children listen to it when they're not monitoring what their children are listening to, and they're not there to teach them the difference. I think that's a problem, and it all goes back to parents not spending enough time with their kids, which is why they're rapping about it. They're rapping about it because it's a reflection of society.

NB: It's all a bunch of things. They'll say, "I don't want you listening to Eminem." But, you should listen. My children, I'll make sure to listen to every song by an artist before I'll take them to a concert. I think that it's totally up to you, and I might decide to let my children listen to it, and teach them the difference. Other people may decide not to let their children listen to it. It's their choice.

Basically, I think that people beating on hip hop artists so much just gets them riled up.

BB: It encourages them.

NB: Exactly.

BB: Well, there are a lot of rock songs that are about similar themes.

NB: Exactly!

BB: Maybe they don't use words like "bitches" and "ho's", but they use others words that mean the same kind of thing. I grew up listening to that kind of music, and I don't have a criminal record, or anything like that. I guess it's how people choose to internalize it, and what they think of it, and whether they think of it as entertainment, or if they think of it as a way of life.

NB: Exactly. I think it's their art; they're rapping about their lives. There are some things that offend me in songs. I'd be lying if I said they weren't offensive, but I can't be offended by the fact that they're saying it because it's their art, and they're allowed to write about what they want.

BB: Maybe you wouldn't know; you're not the program director or music director. But do you ever get flak from listeners for playing certain songs? Or do you play the radio edit of songs so that the "bitches" and "ho's" are edited out?

NB: I don't know about that, honestly. I think I know that I don't notice. My mom might say the same thing. I don't think people are noticing any more. It's kind of old that they're saying scandalous things in their songs. It's kind of old, so I don't know that people were trying to censor their kids instead of trying to teach them the values. It's kind of hard. You're going to hear it on the Country station.

BB: But, listeners aren't calling you up and saying, "Why are you playing that song?"

NB: No. I've never had anyone do that.

10. You probably have to play some music sometimes that you personally don't like. I have always wondered how jocks "sell" those songs to their listeners. How do you get yourself in the mindset of pretending to be enthusiastic about songs or artists you don't like very much? Should how you feel about certain songs even matter when it comes to playing them?

NB: I would say no. The way you feel definitely is not a factor, I wouldn't say. I love our music. There are very few songs, I can't even think of one off the top of my head, that I don't like. I think it goes back to that I feel that it's an art. You'll never hear me say, " I hate this!", or, " I hate that kind of music!". If you can't appreciate it for what it is, even if it's not necessarily your taste, not what you choose to listen to all the time, then you're not taking it for what it is.

I can listen to just about anything once. There are very few times I have to shut off the radio because I don't like a song on any station.

BB: On any station? So you will listen to the Country station, and very seldom will you hear a song [that you don't like]?

NB: Yes. Exactly. Maybe like an old old Country song, I'd be like, " I don't want to listen to that". But my grandparents would love it! And I would understand why they do. Music is a personal thing, and I haven't really closed my mind to any type, yet, anyway.

But I've been really lucky in my career so far. I've never really had to play music I don't like. I've never worked at a Country station. It hasn't happened to me.

BB: If Z103.5 decided to change formats tomorrow, but they wanted to keep you on the payroll, which is good for you, but they decided to change formats to a Classical station with Montovani and Beethoven and so on, would you be able to get yourself behind playing that?

NB: I could play it, but I don't know if anybody who likes type of music would want to listen to my voice and my energy. I might kill it a little bit [chuckles]. It would be a little bit insincere for sure.

BB: How about a classic rock format? I mean, you have to do what you have to do.

NB: Classic rock, I would be good to go. Maybe classical music or bluegrass I might not be down for.

BB: David Lee Roth of Van Halen did a bluegrass song a couple of years ago. Do you remember " Jump"?

NB: Really? How was that?

BB: The way you would expect it to be. Pretty uncomfortable to listen to.

NB: But I still get that the people who are playing those instruments are working really hard. It's such an art form for them.

BB: So, music is an art to you? It's not just a form of self expression? It's not a commodity. It's really an art?

NB: It's art. There is good art, and there is bad art. There is art that you appreciate more than others. But I definitely think they are artists. We're so hard on musical artists, I find. Whereas, they're just music makers. Somebody does a painting, and then they go crazy and do something, then that painting's probably going to be worth more. If a musical artist does that, we are going to ban or not listen to their music. I don't get that.

11. Nikki asks Bev a question.

BB: I asked Ian Robinson this question. I'll try it with you. Is there a question you want to ask me?

NB: OK. If you were doing something with your life completely different than what you're doing now, what would it be?

BB: Radio.

NB: Radio? Really? So, why aren't you?

BB: Why am I not? It's a very fair question; lots of people have asked me, and I'm happy to answer the question. I'll go on the record. I was so shy when I was growing up that, I remember I went to a different high school for Grade 10. It was a small school, and there were only two grade 10 classes: 10-A and 10-B. My name starts with a K, so it was right on the dividing line between "A" and "B". For the first month, I was registered in the wrong home room class. My "home room" teacher, who really wasn't my home room teacher, for the first month was doing roll call and not saying my name. In the other classroom, where I wasn't, I was being marked absent.

NB :Oh, no!

BB: They discovered the error. They asked me why I hadn't said anything. It was because I was too shy to put my hand up and say something.

So, here I am with this life long love of radio, and intimidated into submission at the thought of entering that field. I thought, "How the Hell would I ever go on the air, as awkward as I feel?" When I play back this interview that you and are doing, I will hear your lovely voice and my own naisily, whiney, mumbly voice. That's all I'm gonna hear.

NB: Really?

BB: I am a shy person and it would be difficult for me [to be on the radio]. That's one reason I joined Toastmasters a bunch of years ago: To help overcome my fear of public speaking.

NB: That's great.

BB: So, if I were a young fella again, your age or younger, I would probably do it, with the confidence I have now. But, back then, frig, no way.

NB: Reallly?

BB: I had to go into Computer Science. Something simple.

NB: Simple! My God, yeah, right!

BB: If I had it to do again, that's what I would do.

I've talked to a bunch of you guys [radio personalities], and a common thread for many of you is that a lot of you are shy anyway.

NB: Yes.

BB: I just can't believe it. I find it so hard to reconcile being on the air and talking about what you did last night, and being really enthusiastic about it, to being off the air and being shy and not looking me in the eye. It is hard for me to marry those two up. Shyness is a common thread with a lot of jocks, isn't it?

NB: I definitely think so. I wouldn't call myself shy, but I've definitely met a lot of people in the industry who've been shy. I've always been kind of an outgoing person,. and talkative; but I've found for instance this: You interviewing me, made me more nervous than me interviewing somebody else. I find it easier when there is a spin on somebody else. Obviously you can hear my voice; I'm doing it. But it's easy when the pressure is off me.

BB: Why did you agree to my interview [request]?

NB: Because you sounded like you had such a love for radio, and everybody that is in radio and loves their job has a love for radio as well. I read your blog and I really enjoyed it. And, I am an outgoing person. I do love chatting with people.

BB: And, besides, I'm paying.

NB: Yeah! Exactly! And I got some lunch.

BB: All right. That's my secret origin. If I had it to do again, I'd go into radio. I don't know what format I'd be in. I'm not sure if I'd be any good at it. But I still think that radio is a pretty cool thing to listen to. I bought an mp3 player a few months ago. After work tonight, I'm taking it back because I want to listen to radio all the time [on my walkman]. I don't want an mp3 player any more.

NB: Good for you!

Wrap UP

BB: Nikki Balch, thank you so much for coming out today. It's a lovely day, about 30 degrees.

NB: It's gorgeous!

BB: I have to go back to work, but your work day is done. I have to work until 4:30 or 5 o'clock or whenever they'll let me out. You get to finish your work day at...

NB: 10:30, 11 o'clock. It's a tough one.

BB: Anyway, thank you so much for coming out again. I appreciate your time. And... spread the word of the blog. I want lots and lots of readers. You have a personal blog on the Z103.5 website.

NB: Yes.

BB: I would not be offended if you linked to my blog from your blog.

NB: I should do that. I should definitely do that. I might do a little facebook postage of it, too.

BB: I want to win for best Blog this year.

NB: I want you to win, too! I will campaign for you.

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