John Derringer started out in radio as John Hayes at 680 CFTR in Toronto in the spring of 1979. He stayed for two years, then moved to Rogers' Sarnia AM, CKJD, for an equally short stint.
Somewhere along the way Hayes became Derringer (like Dillinger, but different and only slightly less threatening), landed a job in Ottawa, went from there to become a name to reckon with at the mighty K97 in Edmonton and then did some more jumping around, including a spell at Q107 and as a sportscaster, before settling down at the Toronto heritage FM at the turn of the millennium. He's been ruling the roost ever since.
There have been numerous awards, threats of law suits, a mess of stuff that has only served to increase his brand, and win him unflinching loyalty from his AM drive-time audience. Bill King caught up with the legend in his own time last week. Surprisingly, we find him almost shy outside of the studio when the red light isn't 'on'.
Bill King: You sure spoke eloquently about the recent departure of your pal Kim Mitchell from Q107 after eleven years.
John Derringer: I’ve got nothing but respect for Kim and I’m glad you said that and I meant every word I said and he’s an awesome guy.
B.K: It’s hard to replace a person like Kim, so many road stories and such great rapport between the two of you.
J.D: No question. It’s amazing when you go back to when he first started and nobody had the slightest clue if he’d be able to do it. As a musician you kind of go in and are on the other end of radio interviews your whole career and I’m sure about every musician who’s ever been interviewed on radio thinks it’s the easiest job on earth. He struggled a little bit at first and man when he caught his stride it was a beautiful thing to behold and he kept on getting better and better and better at it.
B.K: What brought about that change – becoming less self-conscious?
J.D: I would say that – I think maybe one day he woke up and said, “Maybe I can do this.” One thing about Kim that separates him from so many others in this business — Kim never tried to sound like a radio guy. For most of us who have been in radio and wanted to be in radio you couldn’t help when starting out getting that radio guy sound. Then it was a process to kind of get rid of that sound. It was never a factor with Kim until that day when he realized he wasn’t a DJ but a radio personality. As someone who has been doing this over thirty years there were lots of days I would listen to Kim and learn things because of his ability to be totally natural.
J.D: A great story teller.
B.K: Isn’t radio about the story?
J.D: You see with Apple and Apple music – music is truly available everywhere. Wi-Fi in cars – pretty well any song you could ever want to hear is pretty much there on your phone – which is pretty incredible when you think about that. The one real thing with a few exceptions radio has going for it is local personality and that does need storytelling.
B.K: How did you find your groove in all of this?
J.D: I think in some ways it’s a more intriguing idea being on a music station than being on a talk or sports station. On the other two; that segue to the radio world is a pretty natural one cause it’s what you’ve been doing anyway. For music radio the risk we run is not playing any music and going too much towards the personality and then you have a harder time establishing the station's identity. When you look at a morning show it’s a real struggle for music-based shows now – how much music do we play and how much spoken word? I think we are kind of feeling our way here as is everybody else.
B.K: You have to be topical – like this morning you were talking about big money actors. How do you know what amount of time to allot to this before getting back to the music?
J.D: I’ve always been of the belief I would rather have somebody say we didn’t talk enough about something than, “Oh my God, won’t these guys just shut up.” When you get to a point of belabouring a subject, or anytime you are essentially repeating a statement or a question – one thing I’ve always found when you are doing a break if you can end on a high, a laugh or a really good point then “boom” into a song — then you know you’ve done it right. So often you hear people get to that point and reach a good crescendo and then they kind of go back and belabour the point again. Those are the ones you have to admit went too long.
B.K: Now that the Blue Jays are in an upswing and you spent five years at the FAN with Pat Marsden, you must wish you could talk about the Jays? It’s the topic the city is most engaged in.
J.K: No question. It’s funny you say that. The last week has been tremendous and we had a lady on the show this morning – a mom with a little kid and she said, like myself and so many other people, I’ve watched more Blue Jays baseball in the last five days than I have since 1993 and that’s the sentiment we are hearing a lot of in the city. In the last fifteen years since I left the FAN talking about baseball was really, really painful where you knew by the beginning of August the season was already over and that’s the downside of a 162 game season. The way I see it, right now the city’s in a great groove, the team is in a great groove and who cares about next year, let’s just enjoy what’s going on right now.
B.K: Did you ever lose your mind with Leaf talk which, to me, borders on insanity? It must be difficult squeezing in time to talk about the Raptors or other sports – it always drifts back to the Leafs.
J.D: You are absolutely right and that’s a tough one. Being local and being about the city you live in is truly the key to successful radio. Good or bad it so often comes down to the Leafs – whether something really good happens, which can be something of a rarity, or when something disastrous happens you are really doing yourself and the audience a disservice by not talking about them. It’s truly, I believe, the most dysfunctional relationship in sports in North America and that includes the Chicago Cubs and it’s one of the things about the Leafs we all say and I think is a great comparison with what is happening with the Blue Jays right now and their place in our minds. People keep coming back to the Leafs as those tickets are all sold and people are going to watch anyway and there’s never been great inspiration for the team to do well. Yet, the Blue Jays don’t hold that same place in our collective psyche so they have to make these moves to be talked about. With the Leafs – what other team could get as much publicity in the off season for making managerial moves. Yes, there are times when they make you completely insane but because it’s Toronto and it’s the Leafs you just can’t avoid it.
B.K: It’s the big story all year round.
J.D: All year round. When you look at sporting highs and lows in this town – right now – David Price’s start for the Blue Jays is the high and kind of sits with us and if you ask just about anybody – the low that sticks in memory is the game seven loss to Boston for the Leafs in the playoffs. Until they do something to erase that from our memories that sucker will sit there like a big old tumor. Look, I’m pretty positive about the direction Brendan Shanahan is taking the team. I’ve always said there is a really great book to be written on a psychologist's perspective on the dysfunctional relationship between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto sports fan. You rarely hear someone say, I totally care nothing about the Leafs.
B.K: You’ve come of age during the reign of provocative radio which I’m guessing began with Morton Downey Jr. and trash TV in the 1980s’ and, later, Rush Limbaugh — those flame throwers that alienate and play to what’s called the “angry pant’s crowd." How do you temper your opinions so they don’t conflict with the music?
J.D: That’s a very good question. I think many have seen immediate benefits to doing that. I guess that comes down to if you look at radio success or radio life as a long term thing or short term. My life changed when I was 16 years old and wasn’t doing well in school and I walked into the control room at CFTR which is now 680 News in 1979 and “boom” I said to myself – this is it, my life has changed and I’ve found the thing I want to do. I have always taken a look at radio from a very long term standpoint. I think many who go “shock jock” — and there are exceptions — are looking for immediate gratification – how do I get my name in the newspaper? Nowadays, it would be – how do I get some social media action going on? Really the best way to do that is offend people. The problem is it doesn’t endear people to you. They may go – the guy’s good for a laugh but there’s nothing about that type of personality that would make people want to spend an hour or hour and a half everyday in my car with you. I’ve always taken it as a tremendous compliment somebody would invite me and my team into their lives. I try to be respectful of that time and I want that time to not only be today and next month – I’d like it to be ten years from now. Being a decent human being in one’s opinion with a world view is a much more valuable ticket to doing that than being funny and sarcastic and just not very nice.
B.K: Could you see yourself doing talk radio in the future?
J.D: I think I would enjoy that but I would probably wonder about when you say 'talk radio' if it is about being a little more confrontational and talking about issues in a more serious bent. I’m sure there is going to be some rather seismic shifts in radio in the next five years or so when almost everything is going to be talk radio based with the possible exception of top forty, where kids just want to hear the hits. It still gets back to – how much do we talk and how much do we play? I don’t think I’d ever want to do that cranky talk about serious issues – the federal government stuff.
B.K: Do you enjoy working on air with personalities you can spar with?
J.D: Yes, I think it’s so important particularly in a morning show context. I think once you get into the heart of daytime there are folks who can do it on their own. Often callers become an important part of that as well – that traditional radio where the personality talks and opens up the lines to callers. Finding people you can really get along with and you don’t have to agree on everything but you do have to know how to present your argument without drowning out the argument of somebody else. When I say argument – I did that with Pat Marsden and we had such a fun time doing it. We were so similar and knew it would be impossible to find in somebody else. We used to really go hard at each other and we’d have a laugh at the end. Still to this day I talk to people – it’s been sixteen years ago since I left there –and I hear, “did you guys really dislike each other?” We were best of friends and always did it with a wink and a smile.
B.K: Is there a radio moment you’ll forever cherish?
J.D: That’s a tough one to think of. If I had to think of one I think it would be my very first break on the air in Sarnia in 1981. I was seventeen years old and much like that first moment when I went in a couple years previous – I just turned on the microphone for the very first time and said to myself, “ I don’t have to worry about a future anymore because I have found what I want to truly do for the rest of my life. I can tell you Bill, one of the things that makes me enjoy life so much is there isn’t a day I don’t go into work happy to be there or look forward to going to work. There is nowhere on earth I’m more comfortable than when I have a mike in front of me. There have been some real ups and downs since then but that day set the groundwork for thirty-four years later and I’m still enjoying every minute.