Today, Jim Jj Johnston Salutes Don Shafer
Welcome to JJ-365 Salutes. Over 2018, we pay tribute daily to one of “The Good Ones”. Today we are shining the light on Don Shafer.
One of the coolest people I know, he is a consummate veteran and successful broadcaster. Let’s let Don set this up: “I’ve been a broadcaster most of my working life and have sat in most chairs at radio and television stations in the United States and Canada, as well as apprenticed at a few century-old newspapers, The Los Angeles Times and The Toronto Star. I’ve witnessed the Cold War, the not so cold war in Viet Nam, the Gulf War, the Watts Riots, Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) protests, ‘love-ins’ with John and Yoko, Standing Rock, and Kinder Morgan. Radio and its soundtrack brought us together as we shared these experiences and grew up around these events. Like all of us, I’ve had my share of bumps along the way with failed relationships, drug addiction, some successes and a boatload of mistakes which have become my greatest teachers.”
Shafe has been a longtime friend, and I know he is a pretty humble guy. One who has been very successful over the years. We have banged heads as competitors in our shared time. We have never worked together directly although we both tried a few times. When I went to program the FOX, he had left a few years earlier crossing the street and quickly put ROCK 101 into contention which was not good news for the FOX. The people in the FOX building revered him, and I got that, but we had to see beyond that. I needed to drive home the reality that we needed to compete harder. In a goofy move, I gathered all the plaques and pictures with Don's name on them, and there were many and had them shipped over to him. He is quite the competitor but got a kick out of that, and we became pals moving forward. He calls that the ‘deShafing' of the FOX.
Don’s name has popped up positively so many times in these 325 of the 365 salutes I have done so far (yes that means 40 left to go). Don is a legend, an Allan Waters Broadcast Lifetime Achievement recipient, and a broadcaster that I have the utmost respect for.
Don grew up in Pittsburgh in the ’50s and '60s listening to radio stations around the world. He was struck by the magic that came out of that little box whether Motown, Philly, The CBS Mystery Theatre, or his grandmother's favourite soap opera. He was moved by the music, the on-air talent and the stories they shared and knew that he had to be a part of it.
It took years of apprenticing high school dances, running for burgers and copy for staff at local stations (WEEP and KQV) and bits of part-time work but nothing substantial showed up until weekends at KLEN AM when he was stationed at Ft Hood, Texas. He read the news and operated the board for what they called the “God Squad”, local preachers who purchased blocks of programming helping the world to keep on keeping on in the name of the Lord!
The first station that he could put on his CV was KNAC FM in Long Beach California. It was his first job when discharged from the Army in 1969. He had to sell advertising for the LA Times and manage an apartment building to make ends meet as this “underground” radio station that Bill and Debbie Varecha started had few advertisers. It was a crazy time for progressive radio and many of the California bands of the day lived at the station as they found their way through the haze of a new kind of radio. Janis, Jim Morrison, the Grateful Dead, the Airplane and others provided an introduction to a new era of radio and records. Don says Jim Ladd and Ken Borgers are a few survivors from those days. Jim is now with Sirus. Ken is with NPR.
Bill and Debbie moved to Montreal, and a few of them tagged along as Jim Sward welcomed them to the reinvention of CKGM FM and they followed the barefoot guy in the black robe (Geoff Sterling) down the hallway to start CHOM FM with Baba Ram Das and Swami Sham in the wings. Meditating before going on-air, being bilingual before it was legislated, hosting the bands of the day and allowing whoever was on the air to pick the very best next song from thousands of albums and the stories that went with them were all part of what they did. Live concerts from Andre Perry's studios, house parties for their audience, Earl Jive giving up the station at gunpoint to the FLQ as the Downchild Blues Band played on are many of the indelible memories as they hung on to every word and note in anxious expectation of what might come next!
The late and great Bob Laine hired a few of them to join CHUM FM in 1972. The roster of talent at CHUM AM & FM was staggering. To be among them was an honour and an amazing experience says Don. The stories are endless about how the station brought the city together, made local and international music matter, and it was difficult to turn the station off. Who might show up unexpectedly? What might be said? When the helium tank in promotion office would be used in a ‘bit’ or when Tom Rivers or David Marsden might be doing something outrageous. It was magical. Then there was his Grace Slick interview where she asked Don for more ‘blow’ live on-air. He says “that should have ended my career, but 365’er Duff Roman saved me.”
In 1976 Roy Hennessy hired 365’er John M Donabie and Shafe to join CKLG FM which became The FOX. The station became legendary primarily due to Roy’s vision, and he made it easy for everyone who followed. When Roy left to become a Moffat general manager in Calgary, the FOX became Shafe’s first opportunity to program. He says he was humbled and grateful to everyone in Moffat, especially the team who helped him learn how to manage and make great radio. The FOX was known for showcasing local music and did great work in Vancouver with the Kid's Fund and local, not for profits. The music community was alive, and the audience supported them with live concerts, club remotes and crazy promotions that Pete Taylor dreamed up. The record reps of the day could walk in the studio with a new album by Ray Materick, Bryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen or whoever and they’d put them on air. No research, no charts, nothing. They had fun, and he’s certain (as we all are) they made a difference. He’d like to mention the team but fearful he’d miss someone, but they were exceptional, and many have supported him over the years.
When given the opportunity, an empty canvas and 75 dollars more a month, he crossed the street in 1986 to join CFMI and see what could be done with a failing middle of the road FM station. Ron Bremner and Ted Smith gave them all the tools they needed, and Rock 101 went on the air and they never looked back. Again, a stellar team made it happen he says with kudos to Dale Buote and Rick Shannon as Vancouver's Best Rock made its mark.
In 1987 he was at a Western International Communications (WIC) client event and Ted asked him to go back to Toronto when WIC bought Q107 and CFGM. He became the rookie GM and National PD for the Group. He thanks Chris Grossman, Bob Mackowitz Sr., 365’ers Chris Parfitt and Gary Aubé who assembled an amazing team of talent to join them as they did not want to screw up the iconic radio station that Gary Slaight built. “Unfortunately, I can’t say I did the same with CFGM” he days “as it became the ‘HOG’ however we had a ball with it. There are so many great stories and memories that it is hard to pick the best ones. Hopefully, my friends will add to this as it's their story.”
In the early 90’s Pierre Morrisette bought the Weather Network and a small northern Ontario radio group. Figuring out what to do with eighteen unprofitable stations during a recession became one of the toughest jobs of his career. The management team taught him everything they could about small market radio while he helped them understand centralization, automation, networking and downsizing. Says Don “It wasn’t a fair trade; however, Pierre was a great mentor and I learned many important lessons. 365’ers Mark Burley and Tom Tompkins were instrumental in developing our networking and interactive technologies which were way ahead of what anyone else was doing.”
In 1997 Eric Rothschild introduced Don to the head honcho of the Toronto Star John Honderich and they began a novel experiment called 'Toronto Star Television'. It was fun and profitable thanks to 365’er Nancy Brown Dacko as they made infomercials, promoted the newspaper, and developed a business model for state-of-the-art webcasting. He loved his time with this team and the Star. He learned a lot from the Star about the newspaper business as it migrated online, the craft of journalism and narrative storytelling. A failed Torstar television application to the CRTC for a group of community stations and a call from Gary Slaight encouraged him to return to BC and radio and help Standard rebuild what was called the BC Interior Group of stations following the Telemedia sale.
Don drove into the worst fires the Okanagan had ever seen in 2003 and BC was a war zone. They had great people throughout the 22 radio and television stations and many wonderful stories in every community as the team rallied and they rebuilt the group. Gary Slaight and the Standard managers were incredibly supportive and allowed them to breathe life back into each station and do what local radio does best in dozens of small markets. Don is very proud of the work they did throughout BC. He remained with this group until 2013 and survived the sales to Astral and then BELL Media when he was eventually ‘retired’. He took up a short-term contract with Pattison Broadcasting to help them transition the stations they had purchased from Bell Media in Winnipeg. He got to work with 365’er Sharon Taylor and her team for a short time which he describes as an honour, all the while working on an application in Vancouver for Roundhouse Radio.
Roundhouse was an idea that came out of the Torstar television application for a sophisticated commercial community station. They went on the air in October 2015 with the help of Shelly Zavits, Yvonne Evans, Tracey Friesen, Monique McQueen, Regan Gorman, Barb Snelgrove, Leslie Glaser, Dave Dhilon, Reeny Chew, Eric Rothschild and 365’er John Parikhal. Sarah Mclachlan played live from their studios as they went ‘live’ and the day was filled with local music.
They assembled an impressive lineup that included Kirk LaPointe, Kirsten Sharp, Minelle Mahtani, Jim Byrnes, Terry David TD Mulligan, Kerry Holley (Marshall), Janice Ungaro & Cory Ashworth, Cory Price, Jennifer Smith, 365’ers Jody Vance, Martin Strong, and Stirling Faux and an impressive support team he describes as brilliant and generous. “They had Heat!” Don says. “They saw and heard the city a little differently, and were starting to make a difference. Unfortunately, we just needed more time and money to see it through and ran out of both, as Bruce Allen had predicted a year previously. Failing and letting so many people down stings as everyone connected with this station gave everything they could to bring it alive. It just wasn’t enough. It really sucks.”
Don says: “I’ve been blessed with a few good friends who have no problem calling me on my shit and for hanging in whether good or bad times. And of course, there is a very long list of the many terrific colleagues I have been blessed to work with as each of them has left an indelible mark in my life. There are many community organizations, causes, academics, musicians, poets, record reps, jugglers and fire-eaters that helped add the magic to every day and I am ever grateful. In many ways, all of the electronic and print outlets, not for profit organizations and recent cohort that I was allowed to join became my family and an important part of my life. Everyone no matter what their age or position, taught me something but a few should be mentioned.”
The most important people in his life? “My kids of course - Paisley, Heath, Shalon (RIP), and twins Allyn and Evan. The women in my life, my sister, close friends and colleagues. My kids for obvious reasons and the women I have been with as they have loved me, moved with me, taught me, and helped me over some very difficult years. My sister who has put up with the best and worst of me and helped with feedback for my essays and thesis, and Anne Newlands. A wonderfully talented Jungian Psychologist and Life Coach.”
Don shouts out to those whom he says gave him a chance:
Bill and Debbie Varrecha, Jim Sward, Geoff Stirling, Bob Laine, Roy Hennessy, Jim McLaughlin, Ted Smith, Ron Bremner, Pierre Morrisette, John Honderich, Gary Slaight, Jacques Parisien, Ian Lurie, Rod Schween, Rick Arnish, Dave Daudrich, Craig Cameron & Rick Pushor, Sasha Colby, Stephen Duguid and 365’ers Duff Roman and Red Robinson.
Then there are those who check in to occasionally pull him back from the edge: Paisley Dodds, Heath Shafer, Ally & Evan Shafer, Khris Shafer, Renee McClusky, Roy Hennessy, Cheryl Dodds, Dani Eisler, Betty Morton, Wendy Laski, Eric Rothschild, Bill Varrecha, Dave David Marsden, Jim JJ Johnston, Gail Goldman, TDM, Frank Gigliotti, Chris Grossman, Ron Bremner, Reeny Chew, Jennifer Smith, Roy Mckenzie, Minelle Mahtani, Anne Newlands, Sam Feldman, Bruce Allen, Ray Danniels, 365’ers Mark Burley, John Parikhal and Nancy Brown Dacko, and his social media family and friends.
Don sums up: "I completed my master's degree in September in the Graduate Liberal Arts Program at Simon Fraser and I’ve just returned from the Faber Residency in Spain working with journalists from around the world. My thesis was about Climate Change and the Many Faces of Denial and captured over 100 interviews with some of the worlds leading experts. I learned that if we have any hope of dealing with the big issues of the day, we have to learn how to talk to each other differently. That the best conversations are those where the ability to listen and to ask generous questions brings out the best in those asking, as well as those answering. Being able to move beyond a public discourse of certainty or absolutism and understanding why achieving common ground does not have to be the goal. A beautiful question then is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we feel, perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about positive personal and social change as we share the stories of our time.
It's funny that I took a liberal arts program to distance myself from communications and journalism and that it brought me full circle and back to the problems of the day and how we communicate with each other. Learning how to explore new departure points within conversations and build bridges to more engaged storytelling and narrative based inquiry. How to illuminate the heart of an issue or point of view, and that place between science, fact, and embedded beliefs.
My best advice? My best teachers were and are everywhere. Everyone has something to share. All I had to do was be quiet and listen. So be quiet, listen. Follow your passion and those things and people that bring you alive! Don’t ask the first question that is readily available, reach for the one below the surface. Allow your conversations to reach a different place. Build bridges, influence hearts and minds. Everything you do and say has an impact; we just don’t know how or when it will be used."
Don says its time to give something back? He thinks he would like to do a little on-air and online work, some consulting, write, research, teach, and maybe consider a PhD. Or just volunteer somewhere to help wherever he can.
Right now he's just catching his breath. Helping a friend build her house, hanging with my kids, visiting some of the people we’ve talked about and couch surfing. He's reading and writing more thanks to SFU. Learning about activism, travelling, getting healthy and contemplating what's next. He says "I'm currently in between Hope in the Dark & America, The Farewell Tour mixed with poems from David Whyte. Crazy shit?"
And finally, he says, always to remember the words Gary Slaight used that always resonated with him; ‘This business is supposed to be fun. If it's not, find something else to do'.
Don has made a hell of a difference in broadcasting and beyond. He's built so many successful businesses, brought along so many talented ones, and has also been a champion of the communities he has lived in. The guy is incredible, and one of my regrets is never having worked directly with him, so far... Keep it going Shafe. Atta be!
Thank you, Don Shafer for being one of “The Good Ones”. Feel free to like and share Don’s positive story. Who is the subject of tomorrow’s JJ-365 Salutes? As they say, stay tuned.
– Jim JJ Johnston is the CEO, President and Chief Talent/Content Coach for JJIMS INC. and works with talent in many different industries.