Photo: Bill King
Photo: Bill King

A Conversation With .. Ross Davies

I can’t think of a more personable easy-going industry kingpin than Ross Davies, the former President of the Ontario Association of Broadcasters, chair of the Radio Starmaker Fund and first Vice President of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS).

Davies served as Operations Manager and Program Director for CHUM FM during the '90s, helping it become the #1 ranked radio station in Canada. He was also part of the executive team that launched XM Satellite radio in 2005.

Recently, I was able to corner Ross and invite him to drop by my radio show (The Bill King Show) at community radio station CIUT FM 89.5. These conversations are from the vantage point of a musician whose career has straddled, radio and print and not that of an industry insider. It’s always about the music!

Enjoy…

Can you reflect upon being a teenager?

I can remember certain moments in time. When I say I've been in the business for thirty years, it's actually been almost forty-five years. I was kind of raised in the business.

My father, who is in the business, I once said to him, “I want to be in radio because I love music so much.” He said, “the first thing you’ve got to do is at least one year in university. If that doesn't work and you're still as committed, then you can do it." I did my one year and then I got in.

I remember those very early days and being in Vancouver at CKLG FM doing things like scrubbing carts. All of the commercials and music were put on tape and you had clean them with this big magnetic thing and re-record. I used to do things like that. I used to go get coffee and sometimes they'd ask me to go down to the beaches in Vancouver in the summertime to see how many people were listening to our radio station. In those days there was a big top ‘Top 40’ war between CKLG and C-FUN. Those are the two ‘Top 40’ hit stations out there.

I’d go down to the beach with my little transistor radio and walk up to people and ask what they are listening to and write it down in my little notepad and go back to the station and share. It was their informal research way back then. I remember things like that.  Lots of snapshots over the years as I kind of look back, but I don't remember the details as well.

When you are young and fall into a situation like that, you're quite eager. You're learning things and have the perspective of that young audience they are playing to.

That was one of the things I always felt I had a knack for. As much as I wanted to be on stage like you and play music, I knew I wasn't very talented in that area, but I thought I knew what good music was and how music could blend and how you could program music for people and take them on musical rides if you will. That was the part that got me into the business. I love doing that. That was the magic for me.

Back in those days Bill, I got on the air in Vancouver, a progressive rock station called CKLG FM which is now called C-FOX. We were one of the first progressive underground freeform radio stations way back in the early '70s. Before that, they were all ‘music of your life’, just ‘add-ons’ for the big AM stations. “We’ve got this FM thing and we don't know what it is”, they said. “Put classical music on there or put something else on. We don't care about it because we're making money on the AMs”.

Suddenly that started to change with music and pop music, and then the Beatles and all that stuff started happening - the British invasion. We thought, wait a minute here, there's some really good music out there, and there's more depth to the music. That's when FM started.

And back in those days, I can remember we had a studio maybe twice the size of this studio here (CIUT FM) and the walls were all albums. There was every album in the world, and we would pick our music for our shows. No one else told us what to play.

We would take people on rides, you know. We were based in rock, but that doesn't mean that we wouldn't be able to put in some John Coltrane if it felt right in that particular half-hour sweep of music we were doing. That was the creative outlet for me to do things.

Even jazzmen like Cannonball Adderley had hits and sold records then.

We were a rock-based radio station playing Pink Floyd and all that stuff that, but we could find tracks and say, “I want to go over here now, I'm going to take the listeners over here for a little bit. Put some of this stuff in, and then bring them back." That was the magic of it in those days.

The key to that was who was on the radio and behind the mic and the fact that they were well informed. I listened to Wolfman Jack when I was a kid. I did the thing most others did with the transistor radio late at night. Roam the dial. It was WLS, a Chicago station where I first heard the Shadows of the Knights, “Gloria,” and I thought, play that again, play that again.

You see in those days, and throughout my career, I was weaned on Top 40 radio, and it was about playing the hits. But it was also the entertainment and the packaging around it. The announcers were critical. So yeah, you and I can name off names of famous deejays that embellished that sound and took it to the next level. That for me today is a lost art, and it bothers me that we've lost that.

A good example that I look at these days at XM radio is a guy named Mike Marrone, who had a channel called The Loft. I don't even know if it's on there anymore, but I used to think he is the epitome of a disc jockey and what it should be today because he was playing music and he would tell you stories as to why he's playing this music and how good it was. And that's lost. We don't have people embellishing the music anymore. And that to me is a sad art that is no longer there. (Mike Marrone retired from The Loft in January 2018 after seventeen years.)

Music wasn't perfect. The first time I heard “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, I thought, that’s really raw, and not a perfect track or one of the great ones from the Rolling Stones like, “Honky Tonk Woman.” It was rough. It started at one tempo, sped up and finished at another.

Maybe it was the energy contained in it. You just got captivated by the track, much like you like “Louie Louie."

In my late teens I made my way to Bloomington, Indiana to audition for the School of Music at the University of Indiana. There was a malt shop with a jukebox and it was playing Booker T.& the MGs – “Green Onions’, in repetition. I was mesmerized. Booker T. was a student at the time and if I recall, the track was recorded in Memphis. A grinding groove with gritty organ. I kept dropping nickel after nickel down the machine. The goal was getting your ’45 on the jukeboxes. Build from there.

So, it wasn't the radio station they were going after but the jukebox.

You’d try to get the attention of those placing singles on jukeboxes, and they were mostly mob controlled. Someone behind the scenes had to pay. Over time, the fun was playing the flipside. Sometimes those tracks were far more adventurous.

That's kind of what FM started doing because all the AM stations were playing these big hits and we wouldn't touch those. We wanted B-side and wanted the album tracks. That was one of the big separating points between AM and FM in those days. We almost made it a science not to play the hits on FM because we wanted to be different. We went deep into album tracks and things like that.  In those days, I mean look at some of those great albums. There's not just one or two tracks. There's like eight or nine tracks that are all killer tracks.

Great example, Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection. Start to finish. You could play every track.

Absolutely. And that's what we did. And that was kind of the birth of progressive FM radio. We got into that stuff and we slowly kind of grew from there. You talk about bad tracks and it's probably not a fair analogy, but you know one of the things that I've always had lots of thoughts on is Canadian content. It bothered me back in those days and I'll be forthright about this. I didn't like those regulations in the early days when they were thirty percent CanCon and we were forced to play songs. The problem was the quality and the quantity.

It was Anne Murray over and over again. Gordon Lightfoot over and over again and we burned them out - radio burned out because the other tracks weren't quite so good. When you stacked those up against the international acts - the American stuff and the British stuff; it was a challenge.

However, I do think CanCon regulations, in hindsight, some 40 years later, were the right thing to do. Look at the phenomenal industry we have now.

I was thinking about this when I was driving down here and remembering CKLG FM or ‘LG FM”, as we called it back then. We thought we should play local bands. Why? Because it made sense to play our local bands and one of them was called The Collectors. Howie Vickers?  And they became Chilliwack.

We played them and other bands in Vancouver, in the Lower Mainland because it made sense. We played them because we felt we should, and it was good to play.

Good radio singles came from that.

Exactly. I always thought that’s the way it should have been. I think that's kind of ‘pie in the sky’ thinking.  I think the broadcast industry kind of needed to be pushed a little bit. And that's why these regulations came in.

Here’s my take on this.

I'm a guy coming from the States, and I'm coming into a situation that is foreign to me. There was no shortage of great music on the other side of the border, and we competed with the Brits. That's what I always thought because the Brits were way ahead.

Then I hear what’s being played and recorded here by local groups and to me, it was lacking in production quality. It would be the work of Terry Brown, Doug Riley, George Semkiw, Jack Richardson – the Mantas, Eastern Sound, Toronto Sound, RCA - and others that helped raise the bar.  ‘State of the art’ recording facilities were needed.

We didn't have the producers who could coach the musicians to produce them properly. It was tough in those early days. 

That's why we would end up playing the same artists over and over again - whether or not they had international deals or whatever, but the quality of those recordings was better than some of the other stuff. Yeah, it took a lot of growing pains back then.

To air, I imagine you must think on three or four different levels; the quality of the recording, the performance, the vocals and the quality of the tune. All these things must be taken into consideration because you're going to stack it next to somebody else.

And it's got to fit. It can't stand out. Not in a negative way. It can in a positive way, yet it also had to fit. And those are some of the challenges.

I understand why we did it, but I also think it was a defensive mechanism to go back and say OK, I'm not going to play that one, so I'm going to play Neil Young again or play Gordon Lightfoot again.

When you've got a Joni Mitchell to play, you could play the entire catalogue, and few recordings would rise to that level of artistry.

When we first started talking to each other, it was at the El Mocambo. And I'm thinking, here's this radio guy hanging out and why isn’t he playing this music. I assumed the format had changed and wasn’t as open as previously. But you were an Ernie Smith fan?

Yeah, reggae Yeah. You are bringing back memories now.

I was there a few times with reggae great, Everton ‘Pablo’ Paul. I ran into you, and we started talking, and you were a big fan of this Ernie Smith guy. I’m thinking, but this guy works at CHUM. He’s never going to play reggae. I saw you another time when you came back for Ernie Smith again. I thought, this guy really likes reggae, but he can't program it.

I had a great album collection at home, and after my first and only divorce, I lost all that stuff and I was really pissed.

 She took the album collection and sold at a lawn sale?

 I had some phenomenal albums and some of those records still hold up. But some of them don't. I don't know why I'm thinking this, but I remember going out and getting and loving the album when it came out. I think it was, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere by Neil Young and “Down by the River” was on that album. And this is before Harvest came out, which was his really big breakthrough. I bought it and listened to it. And now, some of those tracks don't quite hold up anymore but some of them really do. That was the difference between back then and today.

El Mocambo?

That's where you and I first met, and you owned the downstairs.

We were often the house band.

You owned it; that was your place.

At CHUM FM we had an excellent business relationship with the El Mocambo for putting on live events and recording live shows and things like that. The owner was a good friend of mine named Mike Baird. We were always bringing acts in, and I don’t remember who the promoters were but putting them live on the radio and recording them. I was down there so many nights, and that's obviously where you and I would touch base.

I'm downstairs wondering what's going on upstairs.

We are listening to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes or John Cougar in those days who put a hell of a show on before he became John Mellencamp. Some phenomenal acts. It was special.

I’m playing downstairs then sneak upstairs there is Buddy Guy. Wow!

I kind of remember one night the Tower of Power horn section were playing upstairs. I think the acts would go on around 11 pm or something like that. 

When they finish by 12:30 or 1 am, I'm sitting with Mike in his office, and I can't remember - I think his name was Emilio (Castillo) or one of the other guys in the band. We just sat there and talked for about two hours about life on the road. We leave the club at 3 o'clock in the morning and Emilio gets into his rented car to drive to some motel. This is so real and yet this guy just put on a phenomenal performance at this club. And those are the magic moments that we get to experience.

It was sad to see the Elmo fall-down over the last number of years of his life.

I never liked it after they made the changes. After it turned into this cavernous wasteland downstairs.

I didn't go there anymore.

Many musicians say it was a fact that when the Rolling Stones played there, the whole pay thing changed.

The first week I played, I’m guessing 1973 I was paid $2,400 for my band. This was when Goodbye Superdad was out. A year or so passes, and we are downstairs as regulars, and the pay is $1,400 a week and out of that, $600 went to the sound guy for sound system rental. Then after the Stones, it became ‘pay to play’. How much worse could it get?

What do you mean ‘pay to play’?

 If you were going to play upstairs, you had to have a sponsor who would pay rental on the room – sound system and all. If you're on a label, you would expect a CBS or a Capitol to cover expenses. That took the room away from a great concert venue with broad programming to an extension of record labels with deep pockets. The club became addicted to being paid.

Wouldn't you get any of the house money either from the bars?

No. The gig then became a promotional opportunity, nothing more. Bands like Roomful of Blues disappeared.

Some phenomenal acts were playing upstairs at the El Mocambo that I don't think people in Toronto got a chance to see in this great venue. They had to pay up for it. For their patrons, if you will, it was a pretty good thing. Not so good on your side.

You still had to make a living, and often that side is forgotten or taken for granted.

I remember the weekend David Johansen and the New York Dolls were upstairs. We couldn’t hear ourselves play. Then I went upstairs and had my hair blown off. Fuck, they were loud.

I remember seeing Mink DeVille, Willy Deville and I think he was pretty strung out in those days too. Again, it was about 11:00 o'clock at night, and he walked to the back of the room which was a smoke filled-beer smelling place. His band starts playing “Harlem Nocturne”, - that's the song with saxophone. The room’s dark as Willy comes down the stairs, thin as a rail, wearing sunglasses, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Comes on stage and I was blown away.

Doug McClement at Comfort Sound recorded that session for CHUM FM. Years later I said, “Doug, do you still have that”? Doug burned off a copy for me. It's was phenomenal. Those were the good things about the El Mocambo that we've lost.

Black Oak Arkansas.

Okay, so they're headlining, right? The frontman is wearing crotched stained white spandex tights and shoving his groin area at the crowd. After we leave, according to the late Reggie Bovaird, a massive brawl erupts between their road crew and house bouncers and the bouncers took them down. Now that’s theatre.

Robert Wood?

I came here in 1979 and I got to work under J. Robert Wood, who was a genius radio programmer. Second to none. I was brought in along with Jimmy Waters who was Alan Waters son and Alan Waters owned CHUM. We we're kind of brought in to learn and mentor under Bob Wood. Jimmy was looking after the AM station and I was looking after the FM station. That was in 1979 and I think the plan was always for me to become a program director. 

I learned under Bob Wood for the first couple years and the program director at the time was Warren Cosford, and Warren had made the decision he wanted to move into other areas. I was weaned into the programming so that would be back in 1980. I may have been program director 1980 or 81, sometime back in the early 80s’. That’s when it started.

At that time, it was all about taking this progressive rock station CHUM FM which was a rock station and slowly evolve. Funny I would have this conversation with Gary Slaight, and when we talk about Q - 107 and CHUM FM and the rock wars, he would say, “we beat you guys, we beat you guys.” I like to say, “no Gary, we decided to leave rock and move to the mainstream and evolve CHUM FM from this rock station slowly into a mainstream radio station to appeal frankly, to baby boomers.”

We knew we were doing okay in rock, yet there's a whole bunch of opportunity and money over here with the baby boom generation.

We started very slowly transitioning, and we did this very carefully - out of rock and we called it, ‘addition by subtraction’. You stopped hearing the hardcore; you know the Scorpions and AC/DC. We slowly stopped playing those and eventually got around, after maybe a year or two to play, Madonna. When got to a point where we could play “Lucky Star” by Madonna, I remember turning to Wayne Webster, our music director and saying, “I think we've arrived”. Look out, this thing is about to blow open, and we took CHUM FM from not only the number one local FM station but to the number one radio station in all of Canada.

This is why CHUM FM was so great. We never stopped trying to improve ourselves. We always asked ourselves - how can we be better? We didn't want to be the number one station in Toronto. We wanted to be the number one station in Canada and then the number one station in all of North America. This is where the Waters family, I think, were so terrific and Bob Wood. They invested in people and we had great talent and people who wanted to win and have fun at the same time.

I saw Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair, who went on to create the online news site, the Daily Beast on The Agenda a couple of weeks ago and she brought up a valid point. Radio and more so print are facing diminishing returns through advertising dollars. The big issue is voracious online entities, Google and Facebook.

The radio side though Bill is still a good business. From a business point of view and even from ratings, radio is losing some money to the digital side, but they're still doing pretty well.

I can tell you this because I work in the measurement company now, Numeris. Ninety-per cent of people listen to radio every single week. Ninety percent! That’s almost 27 million Canadians still listening to the radio. And by the way, that includes millennials who everyone says aren’t listening to radio.

They don't own a radio at home. But if they're in their car, they're listening to the radio. So even millennials listen to the radio. It's not quite the same. Yes, some of that revenue is down, but it’s still good.  

You know profit margins in the radio biz today on average across the country are about 18.5 percent. When you break it down into some of the individual stations and if you look at CHFI here in Toronto, I bet their profit margins are significantly higher than that. It's still a good business, but it's being impacted, not as much as the print industry.

What radio must do today in my opinion, is diversify. You have to look at radio now as audio. If I'm a radio station and producing great content, I must ask, what else can I do? That’s where I think digital play comes into the conversation. Whether it's podcasting or putting alternate streams of content through their digital product, and I think that's what they have to do. I think they're beginning to do that now.

People listen to the radio. I call it the path to purchase. A lot of tuning in radio is done in the car - like 40 or 50 percent. There's a connection between me driving in a car and going to the store to make a purchase and things like that. Radio does have a role to play in that and it's still very, very viable that way. I also think that's what we need to focus on. It's just changing a lot. That's all it is, it's just changing. We don't have the lock on it that we used to have before. I don't think we have old-style kitchen radios anymore and you don't have your transistor by the bedside anymore. It’s Smartphones and Smart Speakers and things like that in the home.

In theory, if you have an Alexa, you can go into your kitchen and sit in your kitchen and say, “Alexa, please play CHUM FM.” That gets the radio back in the home.

Leave a comment