A dynamo in business, Lesley Soldat is poised to be a dynamo in retirement as well.
That won’t exactly flabbergast those who have observed the indomitable Ottawa-born, Toronto-based broadcast exec, best known for pioneering syndicated radio in Canada and growing it into a highly lucrative, Ryan Seacrest-led behemoth, first for Standard Broadcasting via Sound Source Networks and more recently for Orbyt Media.
Soldat’s truly remarkable CV – which also lists early stints in punk and rock bands, a decade-plus as Director of National Promotion with MCA Records Canada and sidelines as a model and painter –reads like a kind of left brain/right brain experiment gone right.
At once fiercely creative but with the cool business acumen required to juggle countless contracts with countless radio stations from coast to coast for nearly 30 years, Soldat is the total package. Perhaps that’s why her April 28th retirement is filled not with chat of rocking chairs on front porches but rather, with retreats to Italy, yoga teacher certification and painting… lots and lots of painting.
Of course, if Soldat does put her feet up, she has some epic stories to unspool: thumping the bass with Canuck blues/rock bruisers McKenna Mendelson Mainline and proto-punk all-girl band Sleeze and playing esteemed venues like Massey Hall and the El Mocambo. Heading a national promotion department when the music biz was decidedly male-dominated. Recording some of the planet’s most exciting musicians live-off-the-floor for Command Performances. And observing as radio – like all media in the 21st century – weathered technological and cultural sea changes both daunting and humbling.
Soldat sat down with FYI mere days before she turned in her front-door fob at Bell Media’s Richmond Street West digs to look back and look ahead.
What do you reckon has been the greatest achievement?
Just starting this company and making it a success. There was no syndication in Canada when Jean-Marie [Heimrath, long-time Standard broadcast exec, now a sought-after content/media consultant] and I started. Stations in Canada were taking American programming for cash from American syndicators and it was Gary Slaight [Standard Broadcasting honcho] who had the idea that we should stop giving these American companies money.
Jean-Marie and Gary worked on that for about a year before they hired me (circa 1988), and we took it from absolutely nothing to the biggest and only one in Canada.
We steamrolled through the country and tied up every American supplier you could tie up. And it was such an amazing business; America had never really made any money on Canadian radio. As soon as somebody like us came in and conglomerated everything, we started making money.
We went from losing $1 million the first year to making a million dollars the second year, then $3 million, then $5 million… it just grew and we became very big. We distribute all the big programs: Ryan Seacrest, Nikki Sixx. Plus, we make money through services which are the tools that radio uses. Prep services which are the gossip [announcers] talk about all the time; audio bites and information they pull before their morning shows. And we have imaging services, sound effects to image their stations, their logos, jingles and so on.
Fast forward to 2017… can you speak to being a syndicator in an age of streaming and multiple other platforms?
It hasn’t really changed our business because all of the big stations – the ones you hear in your car - are still terrestrial and they are still taking that programming from us. If anything, other platforms want our content. Whether or not we can give it to them all the time is a different story but we are still very much in demand.
Any programming favourites from over the years?
Ryan Seacrest was certainly the biggest and his two shows (On Air with Ryan Seacrest and American Top 40) are monstrous. Of the stations that take Ryan Seacrest’s daily, four-hour show, it’s number one in most markets.
The weekend countdown show also does well, so we’re really proud of that. We used to do Command Performances – close to one a week for years. That was live radio… bands performing live off the floor in remote studios like Manta Sound. They were tricky and very stressful; if anything went wrong, you had dead air. They were satellite-d across the country which at the time was new technology. I hated doing those. They were just so stressful. Yet in hindsight, what a resource! All these bands from around the world. And people like Celine Dion we recorded when she was, like, 19 or something. And yet already so professional and so good.
We ended up putting them all in order and donating the master tapes to the University of Toronto [for archiving]. So, you can go there and listen to them. We started doing them in 1988 until about 1994, 95. We did hundreds of them and they were all two hours long each.
And your favourite Command Performance?
Oh! Probably Tom Cochrane in the early 1990s around the time of “Life is a Highway.” He was great and that song was just so electric. But there were lots of memorable performances and actually very few bad ones.
What’s the best advice you didn’t take?
People would always tell me not to take it personally when things went wrong but I could never do that. I remember we distributed the Raptors in the very early days and our programs were horrible.
We had no idea what we were doing because we had never done sports before.
The next day, radio stations were sending me those horrible, nasty emails about the program and I was walking around weeping. I was so upset. People would tell me to brush it off but I just couldn’t. Even to this day, I still worry about every single thing (laughs).
You have a passion for painting oil on canvas and are very good… was there ever a time you thought of pursuing that as a career?
No, I always did it on weekends or in my spare time. I do sell paintings and seem to be getting more and more for them. The timing has worked out nicely; I’ve had time to develop my style, improve it, make some connections with galleries. Now I’m retiring and I’m poised to start marketing them better. And I think I could make a little bit of money with them.
Now that you are retiring, are you worried about waking up in the morning without a job to go to?
Yes. Especially since the last two months have been really balls-to-the-wall in terms of organizing things. Turns out there’s a lot of labour involved in retiring!
All the forms you have to fill out, getting pension and RRSP accounts in order.
It took up so much time alongside trying to get the company in proper order to turn it over.
I’ll be happy to fall into painting. And I am going to be certified as a yoga instructor which is very organic (laughs). I am off to Italy for two weeks to basically reprogram my brain from ‘Go-go-go!’ to ‘Read a book and watch some TV.’
What will your legacy be?
As far as the radio business goes, I have basically taken care of every radio station in this country. I have managed 450 radio stations, with 200 pieces of product and 2,000 to 3,000 active contracts going at all times.
Every radio station knows me and has worked with me for years.
They trust me and know if they need something they can come to me and I can find it for them and that I’ll be fair with them. That’s my legacy within this industry; I’ve been like the syndication mother of Canada. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe my art will be my legacy. But I have done a lot of things. I played in bands, I modelled…
Any parting thoughts?
I’ve had a lot of fun. I worked national promotion at MCA for 12 years and that was a blast. I was the first woman ever to head a promotion division in North America. For years, I was always the only woman working with a million men… and I loved it! And they all loved me because I was so unique. It was fabulous. My whole career has just been fun. Really, never a dull moment.