Don Shafer
Don Shafer

A Conversation With... Don Shafer

Next week, Don Shafer — known affectionately to friends and associates simply as ‘Shafe’ — will be celebrated as the 2015 inductee to the Canadian Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame. Shafe has dedicated more than 50 years to the broadcasting industry, earning respect, and recognition for his strategic ability to turn around radio stations, revive their image, restore their profitability, and make a difference in their local communities. Working both on and off the air, he has collaborated with many of Canada’s best broadcasters developing legendary brands such as CHOM FM, CHUM FM, The Fox, Rock 101, SUN FM, and Q107. He has also dedicated much of his life to helping others, and in the next several months he will be launching Roundhouse Radio, a community talk radio station in Vancouver. Bill King caught up with Shafe last week to discuss his past achievements, his passions, and the Roundhouse Radio project.

Bill King: Who were the key mentors in your radio career? 

Don Shafer: It’s a growing list as I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some wonderfully talented teams across Canada who taught me about radio, music, and life. Bill Varecha, Geoff Stirling & David Marsden who invited me to Canada in the late 60s to work at CKGM FM aka CHOM FM. Bob Laine at CHUM FM. Pierre Morrisette at Pelmorex Radio. John Honderich at the Toronto Star. Roy Hennessey, Ted Smith & Ron Bremner at CFOX, Rock 101 & Q107. Roy Mckenzie who shared a lifetime of selling media. Bob & Danny McBride who allowed me to learn about music and artist management. Professor Borgers at USC for sharing his love of media. 

I am indebted to “the Chief” (Gary Slaight) for sending me to the BC Interior with Standard Radio as well as more recently Rod Schween & Rick Arnish and the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group. We have a great owners group at Roundhouse Radio (RHR) and each have been supportive and inspirational during this “start up” which has had a few challenging moments.

Special thanks to those closest to me include my wife and partner Yvonne Evans, my kids (Paisley, Heath, Shalon (RIP) Ally, Evan, Monique), Gail & Cliff Goldman, my little sister Khris, Eric Rothschild, Terry Mulligan, Ray Danniels, John Parikhal, Sam Feldman, Bruce Allen, Shelly Zavitz, Tracey Friesen, Red Robinson, and my coach, Anne Newlands. They have hung in there with me in good and not so good times.

Reflecting back on a 50 year career, my biggest influences “on air” were HG Wells and a cast of Top 40 disc jockeys that I listened to as a kid. Maybe my grandmother who loved to listen to theatre and soap operas on her short wave radio….

Bill: What advice do you have you for young people coming in to radio today?

Don: The best advice I can offer is from David Whyte who reminds us “to apprentice ourselves to ourselves”. It’s easy to get lost along the way in a career and a busy life so learning how to live, to be fully present and alive; knowing who you are is critical to being happy, creative, and contributing to the world we live in.

Never stop learning. Study as much as you can. Improve your craft, feel and engage. Leave fearful environments and people that are too small for you. Take acting classes, get involved in your community and give back as much as you have time for! Get that degree you didn’t finish no matter how long it takes.

Read as much as you can about everything — that includes business, personal interests, and global issues. Some suggestions include Ed Catmul Creativity Inc., Bernadette Jiwa Difference, Connie Zweig Meeting the Shadow, David Whyte The House of Belonging, Al Etmanski Impact and anything by Sally Armstrong and Christine Downing. 

Bill: There is a great sameness in radio these days, can you see this changing or is at a hand-off to Internet streaming sites?

Don: I have always loved radio and remain passionate about what it can do. Great programming and content started on the radio. Gifted storytellers, artists, and creative people from all disciplines will always find a way to be heard, as will driven journalists who are committed to witnessing the world we live in. Radio can do so much good work in local communities and I believe that the companies that encourage innovation and allow creative teams to do what they do best will be the most successful on air or online! The ones that ignore the sign posts up ahead will eventually have to reinvent themselves to compete with initiatives like the Toronto Radio Project, Blast the Radio Project, NPR’s Serial, and hundreds of other amazing creative efforts!

Bill: Your latest project is Roadhouse Radio — how is this coming along? 

Don: We are at a very exciting stage. RHR is a commercial radio station with a community focus. We’re small and very different from mainstream radio. As an “urban” talk station that plays a little music, we’re all about the street and the 20-plus neighborhoods that make up Vancouver. 

Building a radio station from the ground up with an independent owners’ group, a few close friends, and staff of three has been incredibly invigorating as each piece of the station comes together in a very organic way. I have never been more convinced about our timing and the need for a new format and purpose that offers something different that will bring the city and many communities closer together to create an impact and bring about social change. 

So, we’re creating studios, starting to hire our dream team and purposely looking for people in and outside of radio, creating programming schedules and building towers and antennas and looking for sponsors and local businesses that like what we are all about. While we wait to go live we are meeting every one that we can to learn more about making a difference on air, online and on the street, and hoping to flip the switch on our transmitter sometime this summer.

Bill: What does it take to turn around either a radio or television station? What do you see that is a commonly problematic?

Don: Radio is much easier than television to figure out. Most stations, regardless of what they do, forget that a movement is bigger than a brand; so figuring out what a station stands for is the most important place to start. The rest is simple in terms of figuring out how to make a difference and stand out from the pack. The rest is vision, leadership, and as the 'Chief’ always reminded us, don’t to forget to have fun!

I think television has to figure out a new model that doesn’t rely on a Hollywood lens and reruns. This requires a complete retrofit and a room full of creative thinkers that can see their way to a more local, innovative, and more cost effective model.

Bill: Are you more fascinated by the architecture of broadcasting or the music being played? 

Don: I was always fascinated by the magic that came out of that little box, how it worked, and I have always been a huge fan of music. So I’d have to say both! 

I was a pretty average drummer and having to move the bands’ Hammond B3 and other equipment in and out of clubs in LA got old, so radio allowed me to do what I was passionate about and play music. 

The architecture of radio was changing from AM to FM in the late '60s, music was incredible, and there were no rules. I have been fortunate to work at stations and organizations most of my career that were new or reinventing themselves and we were encouraged to take chances by their owners and managers. They were all a little bit crazy and we loved it!

I’m still doing the same things I have always loved doing with RHR — inventing new architecture with a creative and collaborative team and exposing new music. I suspect we will do some amazing work along the way as well.

Bill: Do you see the looming battle for listeners fought out in the car as Internet and streaming become more accessible?

Don: Approximately 40% of all radio tuning is being done online. I don’t think the platform or device matters anymore and smart programmers will create great programming. I think at the moment there is more creativity and experimentation in organizations like CBC, NPR, Community and Campus radio than many commercial stations. The most compelling, relevant, and most creative content will ultimately win market share regardless of the delivery platform. 

Bill: What would you do if you weren’t bound to the media business? Is there an outside passion you’d have given as much to?

Don: I have always been passionate about radio and the impact that it can have, one listener at a time, and the social change that it can initiate. I’ve never felt bound to it and always privileged to be a part of it. 

John Honderich and I used to often ask each other the same question a different way which was, “If you couldn’t do what you do anymore for whatever reason, what would you do?” 

I had played with the idea of being a lawyer, pilot, or dive master. I am fascinated by 14th century history, philosophy, psychology, and Carl Jung, so going back to school and traveling with Yvonne has always been on my horizon. There are hundreds of books to read. A motorcycle tour of Canada and the US is on that list and who knows what’s next as there is no shortage of interesting things to do and people to meet.

Bill: You’re a community activist. What has this done to enhance your life?

Don: When Sally Armstrong was in Kelowna she said that “there is no such thing as an innocent bystander”. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution. When in doubt, I defer to Sally and do what needs to get done or said. This motivated Yvonne and I to open up the Hamilton Media Group to assist the Not for Profit sector and NGOs wherever we can.

Words like legacy, sustainability, and change have more meaning today for me than ever before. We want to do more for the forgotten, the marginalized, and those who can’t or don’t know how to help themselves. Giving whatever I can is incredibly rewarding and I encourage everyone to do what they can to affect a positive change in the things you care most about.

I have been privileged to help the LGBTQ community, Red Cross, Variety, the Children’s Charity, and many local community groups across Canada and I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can in Vancouver to help make a difference.

Bill: Thoughts on being inducted into CMW Hall of Fame?

Don: It seems like yesterday when Ray Danniels and I were eating peanut butter sandwiches in his car behind the CHUM building, talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up. So it was a real surprise and very humbling to receive the call from Neill Dixon with this news. 

Many friends and mentors who I admire and respect have been on this stage and I am truly honoured to join them. I grew up in Pittsburgh listening to CHUM AM and that I got to apprentice at CHUM FM many years later, to work with an incredibly talented team and then this — is pretty amazing!

If it were not for the people that I have been fortunate to work with and the many friends and family who supported me over the years, this could never have happened. I can’t say it’s all been easy as there have been many challenges, but I naturally feel very fortunate and truly blessed.

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