A Conversation With ... John Donabie

I abide by that sportsman’s chant – “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Over meaning – lights out and custodian wearing blue gloves stuffing green peas in a feed pipe down the neck.

We truly want to go out like quarterback Peyton Manning – on our own terms – winning – then grab a few beers - hang around and talk game with whoever will listen until the horizon dims.

John Donabie has been one of those great radio voices that resonate in tonality and pierces the listener’s bones. Donabie prefers talk – actually, he says it’s the interviews that most excite.

I happen to know he loves music and loves playing it. He also likes for you to hear what he’s listening to and this is why a return engagement – set for Saturday March 19, 2-4PM on community radio station CIUT 89.5 FM - University of Toronto campus - has been arranged.

In 2013 Donabie was inducted to the Canadian Industry Broadcast Hall of Fame. In the beginning Donabie sounded off at CKLB in Oshawa in 1965, then CKFH, CHUM-FM, Q 107, a fifteen year stint at CFRB, and, not so long ago, Jazz.FM.

Early week I caught up with John just as the weather was breaking for the better.

Bill King: What excites you about your return to radio?

John Donabie: I’m so very, very excited about the show. I don’t think I’ve been this excited in many, many years. There was always one type of radio I wanted to return to and never believed it could ever happen – then suddenly, it’s thrown in my lap and I’m asked, “How would you like to do a free-form radio show much like I did in the early days of CHUM FM?’

I thought to myself, this is going to happen only one more time in my life so I obviously grasped it. The reason I’m coming back to a regular program again is because I’m going to be given the freedom to play whatever I want and interview whoever I want. That is something you don’t find anymore unless in this case you are part of community radio.

B.K: Community radio is terrific!

J.D: You would know, you are part of it as well.

B.K: I’m part of both and understand the reason and strengths behind both community and private. Community radio is where you do what you feel you must do.

J.D: Absolutely. It’s interesting how program director Ken Stowar and I met. It was at a tribute to John Finley of Jon and  Lee and the Checkmates. John asked me to bring him on – Ken was the emcee and I walked up to him and told him “We’ve never met but I know who you are.” He says, “Well, I know who you are.” Ken was a very big fan of those early days of CHUM FM with Reiner Schwartz, Pete and Geets, I and others, and I just happen to say to him – this is last October – “Hey Ken, it would be great if I could do a program on your station” and he said, “Well, that’s something we should talk about.”

I’d never met Ken Stowar before until I sat down with him, then I realized, Oh my God, there’s somebody in management that actually has the same passion for music that I do – especially, the same passion for radio. I could sit with Ken for hours over a coffee or beer or whatever and just talk radio. He just loves it as I do.

B.K: Ken came in at the tail end of my show with music journalist Karen Bliss and wanted to tell me he had little sleep and had been up all night downloading a playlist of music provided by my son Jesse – and how many really cool and rare recordings he’d never heard before. Now that’s a music man. It reminded me of my early days at Jazz.FM when it was CJRT FM and station manager Chuck Camroux would slide in every time a musician or live music was playing to meet the players.

J.D: Emails went back and forth for months and it was finally in January we sat down and I showed him some of the playlists I had come up with and he says, “Oh man, this is what I’m talking about.” I have to tell you I have been in touch with the record companies from the past and new labels and they are very, very excited.

I’m going to be interviewing a lot of artists – that’s what I really, really want to do – my favourite thing in radio and to play a lot of music I wasn’t able to play in the past and now I’ll be able to do that.

B.K: How many times have you rearranged the play list for the first show?

J.D: Thirty or forty times.

B.K: First time in – just getting off the ground I assume drives the mind to undermine itself?

J.D: A buddy of mine called me up who has known me throughout my career and says, “I only have one question.” What’s that? “What’s the first song you’re going to play?” I thought – that was good – so I told him - then called him back three days later – “No Barry, it’s not going to be that one, it’s going to be this one.” He says, “O.K cool.” I called him back again and said, “I’ve thought about it and it’s going to be this one.”

I’ve actually worked on a number of playlists. That’s the fun part - putting songs together, taking some spoken word – dropping in between. I have thematic playlists – they have to flow – I’m looking forward to doing it.

I’ve lived in Toronto since the sixties and have never been in Hart House in my life. Convocation Hall - hundreds of times. So I climbed up to the third floor and went “Wow!” This is cool – turntables – and all the other things that go with it. I have such a large collection and I’m gathering most of the music for the show from here at home. It makes it easy to put together.

B.K: There is something uniquely special about Hart House – walking into that building – the architecture, students and surroundings are comforting.

J.D: I must admit walking up to the third floor made me think I must find an easier way to get up there. Ken said, “We do have an elevator.”

That word comfort is what hit me. I haven’t felt that immediately comfortable in many years. And of course the volunteers were there. Some knew who I was and sat me down and helped me go over the board. I went back the other day and learned how this worked and that worked and once you get those things out of the way then you can focus on exactly what you are going to do.

I think CIUT has such an upfront audience who really, really listen. You are going to have to be on the ball. I’m prepared to do that.

B.K: There’s an assumption when the word ‘community’ is bantered about in conjunction with radio, the station’s signal reach only extends as far as the campus grounds. Not true for CIUT. This is a 500 mile radius reaching across Lake Ontario as far as Buffalo and Rochester, NY. This is big signal radio.

J.D: And, on the Internet Bill they can hear all over the world!

I’m a very, very big fan of WFUV in New York. Pete Fornatale and Vin Scelsa who were big jocks at WNEW FM and ended up at WFUV and guess where that is – inside a Jesuit University (Fordham University) and they had been there for years.

As I walked into Hart House I thought about those guys, listening to them on the Internet as well as CIUT and thought – wow, this is sort of the same thing but in Toronto.

I met John Valentyn when I dropped in who has been doing his blues show a long time at CIUT, you doing your show and so many others and this is what Bob Laine used to say at CHUM FM – “I’ve got a whole bunch of musicologists here.” And he said, “You all bring something to the table.”

B.K: You’ve had your ups and downs in radio. There are times you felt in control and confident of what you were doing and others when you felt your role had been diminished. It must have pained you, yet now it seems this is a kind of spiritual rebirth.

J.D: In a business I have loved since starting, this is the first time I’m doing it just for me. I’m doing it because I’m going to have a lot of fun. I’ve had so much fun prepping - spending weeks putting together music lists, destroying them, putting back together again - burning some CDs and seeing how this sounds and that sounds. I’m doing it for the fun of it and really looking forward to March 19th – 2- 4PM. I’m a little nervous – it’s been four years since I’ve been on sabbatical. 



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