A Conversation with Shirley McQueen

Facebook in many ways is like a family reunion. Some family members hang on the fringe and eavesdrop while others show up with a bottle of wine and scrapbooks of past events and mishaps.

I got my start in radio at Q-107 back in 1985 hosting Q-Jazz Sunday mornings between the Canadian Countdown with John Derringer and after Ray Williams' reggae show, “Cool Running.” Live in the studio and in charge was one of the most supportive persons with the biggest smile, Shirley McQueen.

Q was a blast. Bob Mackowycz brought me on board. There was a coming revolution – New Age – the music of Windham Hill records – that soothing stuff you can get a tooth extracted without a freezing, that worked for me on commercial radio.  More Shadowfax and George Winston, less Coltrane!

This was jock world. Andy Frost, Jake Edwards, Wayne Webster, Pat Gonsalves, Cugliari, Debbie Dixon, - baseball, baseball, baseball! Celebrity basketball - Molson Indy – Molson radio baseball tournament up in Barrie – a stop by for wings and beer after every softball game at a converted service station, the big shows like Live Aid.

I hung in for a year and a half. Whitney Houston was becoming the “Greatest Love of All” and Kenny G, the guy blowing cotton candy out the end of a soprano sax. The jazz police didn’t take kindly to the music mix and me. I succumbed to the pressure. I had to live and work with these folks!

Q-107 had that feel of community and fellowship. Not something religious or anything, but like everyone was on the same page and enjoying a good page-turner. It was all those folks I named above; the front office, sales staff and us folk with weekend specialty shows that gave the place big heart and at the centre for me was Shirley McQueen.

Shirley is on Facebook, so I know how to connect and I did just that for this wonderful chat.

I’ve always thought of you as a radio version of Shirley MacLaine – talented, driven and accomplished. Have you ever had the good fortune to interview her?

The revered Shirley MacLaine. She is an absolute treasure!  Omg, The Apartment?!  Sadly no, I've never spoken with her.  My primary focus stayed with music radio and therefore I did not advance to the "junket invite" level for film and TV press.

Was Q-107 back in 1985 your first job in radio? You spent thirteen years there in what capacities and was there a period during those years you look back upon with fondness and why?

I started in radio in 1984 at Z99 (Rawlco Radio) in hometown Regina. After one-year there, I figured I had the tiger by the tail and it was time to hit the big smoke – Toronto, here I come! 

Upon arrival in January 1985, my first job was co-hosting a live, daily music video show called "Something Else" on CFMT (the original MTV) with the amazing Joel Goldberg. Joel went on to great things -development, producing and directing for CITY TV in the 90's and later on his own.

Gary Slaight (Standard Radio) owned Rock Radio Q107 - he called me up and asked me to join the team at Q107.  Are you kidding me!? I had literally been handed one of the golden tickets by Willy Wonka himself and the chocolate flowed. Cue the Oompa Loompas.  Bob Mackowycz, John Derringer, Dusty Shannon, Andy Frost, yourself Bill King, and so many others. It was an absolutely magical time in broadcasting, in music and in Toronto's cultural and civic evolution. I'm so grateful and humbled to be a member of the club.

It was a boy’s club around there. How did you fare in that work environment?

Yes, it was that, but even the fiercest alpha male respects someone who gives as good as they get.

You choose your moments and you fight the battles that are your personal deal-breakers. It was and still is the same in almost any work culture. I constantly chide myself for not having done more and I pat myself on the back for kicking in some office doors, literally - and for ruining some fucking awesome boots. 

Women face huge obstacles in basic acceptance, cooperation - in sports, the military - life or death are adversarial environments to a great extent.

Were there other broadcasters in-house that mentored you?

Not in the traditional definition; but I begged, borrowed, and stole all I could from everyone. And again, it was such a fluid creative culture at Q107 and our AM sister station (The Hog, AM 640). Gary Slaight was and remains generous and fiercely loyal.

There were a lot of changes in music. Q came down on the side of hard rock. Was this stylistically in your zone?

I love hard rock - if it's authentic and provocative. Metallica and Black Sabbath were two of the best shows I've seen in the last year.  But if I'm at home, I'm listening to Joni Mitchell, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Holly Williams, James Vincent McMorrow, Dana Radford, Madeleine Peyroux, Eva Cassidy, Bob Dylan. Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris. The list is long and deep.

After Q-107 you spent nine-plus years working for CTV, CITYTV, Much Music, the Life Channel and Metro Cable 10. How did this impact your career? You are now visible outside of the control booth.

I started hosting television in tandem with radio, so it was a natural fit. In many ways, I felt more comfortable in a TV environment, because with TV there are always others in the room that provide a human element/connection. With radio, you're often in the studio alone with only your imagination.

 Was meeting people through the lens of a camera an easy transition?

 Yes, it was a natural for me. I started in TV even before radio in my early days. And, again, in TV, there is often more interaction with other people.

Are there any interviews, encounters both positive and unsettling, that stay in mind?

It’s true what they say - established artists most often are the most congenial and forthcoming. Gene Simmons, John Fogerty, Sarah McLachlan, Rick Mercer, Bob Odenkirk and Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) among many others.

Off to Vancouver, farther west – Classic Rock 101 and morning host. Was this the change you thought would be a final stop, not a stopover?

I left Q107 Toronto in 1998 to pursue acting in Vancouver primarily. My dear friend and former Q107 colleague Brother Jake Edwards was hosting weekend mornings at Rock 101 Vancouver, our Corus affiliate there, and they had offered him weekday mornings.  He endorsed me as his weekend replacement, bless his heart. There were other friends and colleagues, both old and new, that made my five years in Vancouver exceptional as well. 

I was acting - mostly day parts in film and TV.  I loved it there but I've always had designs on coming back to Toronto.

Is Western Canada a perfect fit for you? The lifestyle and long vistas?

 Oh man, now I'm torn. Seriously, the weather is pretty sweet on the west coast.

You hosted  Living Saskatchewan on CBC television and then moved to Regina, and now  work inEdmonton. Are you really a morning person, and how do you handle the pressures of hosting mornings?

I married a radio programmer and after Vancouver we started moving around with his career.  I spent a couple of years in Winnipeg when my ex, Christian Hall got the programming gig at Power 97.  I was the morning show host for Izzy Asper and family as CanWest launched its first ever radio station, 99.1 Cool FM.

A minute and a half later Corus offered Christian the programming gig to flip the Peak 107 in Calgary, which he suggested they simply brand as Q107 Calgary and flip to classic rock. I was their imaging voice while at home with a toddler and pregnant with my second.

Christian and I eventually split and I left Calgary for hometown Regina. When my oldest - Sam - was five, he had already lived in all four western provinces.

Regina's film and TV arc were at a high point and so I started acting again.  My biggest film role - The Messengers with Kristen Stewart and John Corbett - was shot there. I did a couple of episodes of Corner Gas and then I landed the host slot for Living Saskatchewan--one of nine CBC "Living" shows across Canada. Great people, great fun. Loved that show even as the hectic pace of an hour-long daily magazine format almost killed me as a single mom.

After two seasons of that, I was offered the morning show on 94.5 Jack FM Regina, sister station to Z99 - full circle back to Rawlco Radio where I started back in 1984. 

It was the Tim, Shirley, and Woody show - one of the most creative and talented teams ever. Woody - Cory Reaume - is truly an unsung genius outside of Regina.

What have you carved out for yourself at CRUZ FM?

Family reasons prompted my return to Alberta.  I'm now hosting the afternoon drive show on 95.7 CRUZ FM in Edmonton with my old Winnipeg pal and colleague Lochlin Cross as our morning anchor. The format is a mix of classic and 80's-2000's rock, right back in my wheelhouse.  The people here at Harvard Broadcasting (again full circle, I started with them in TV in Regina in 1983!) are exceptional.

How much longer do you plan to stay in radio?

As long as they'll have me!  I'm endeavouring to shore up an agent and start booting in the door on more voice work.  I'd like to carve out my space in the audiobook market and waddle off to a beachfront studio in my golden years.

There have been profound changes the past 35 plus years. Which of these have had the most impact?

Technology and social media, definitely.

It's no longer simply voicing a radio show. One must be posting, hosting and present on all digital platforms. Staying on top of each learning curve is always challenging.

What do you do in your free time?

What is this free time you speak of? 

With my job/s, and two teenagers, split between their dad who programs X 92.9 in Calgary and me here in Edmonton, there's precious little of that! 

I am going to volunteer at Carnivale, at my daughter's school tomorrow. And go see Blackie & The Rodeo Kings tomorrow night. Otherwise, I try to fill it with Jeff Woods Radio and Marc Maron's WTF podcasts and as much yoga as I can.

Plus, wine. I like wine.