Gary in the Slaight Music studio. Photo: Bill King
Gary in the Slaight Music studio. Photo: Bill King

Today, Jim Jj Johnston Salutes Gary Slaight

Welcome to JJ-365 Salutes. Over 2018 we pay tribute daily to one of “The Good Ones.” Today we are shining the light on Gary Slaight.

Oh boy, where to get started on this unique character? How about what 365’er Derrick Ross says when asked who he works for? “I work for Santa Claus!”

Gary, of course, is a broadcast titan and legend. He’s done it all from hanging around 1050 CHUM as a little lad when his brilliant dad Allan was Program Director there, to being a record rep for Warner, a radio sales guy, to Program Director, to General Manager, to CEO of the Slaight family’s Standard Broadcasting empire.

My first meeting with Gary was after getting a phone call from him while I was ‘yellin and tellin’ at 680 CFTR at the end of the '70s. He called me in for a meeting to discuss an opportunity. I got there not knowing what to expect, and when he came in, he pointed to an office, and we both sat down. He said, “I need you to do a tape with what you would sound like on FM, and then I will get back to you” and then promptly showed me the door. I was in there for about three minutes and left wondering ‘what just happened?’ At the same time, Steve Young was flying me out to Winnipeg for an interview with CITI-FM and I took that afternoon drive job on the spot, so, I never did get back to Gary.

By the time I got into the programming thing and into Vancouver running the FOX, we had run into each other at where other than music conferences and industry showcases, and a dialogue started. He called me shortly after and offered me a good gig in the organization, but I turned it down as I was hesitant to move a young family just yet. Then, after I walked across the street, Gary came calling again saying he was making changes at the MIX in Toronto which just had a very tough ratings book.

I again turned him down. Frankly, I was worried about not being able to have the control to do the job, but he assured me that would not be the case, and he kept his word. I finally agreed to come and off we went to handle the MIX in Toronto. The top-secret deal was we were going to flip from the Variety position to Classic Rock, and by the time I got to Toronto I had a lot of the plans worked out, all the music selected, positioning, launch ideas, etc.

Gary had said that before we pulled the trigger that he would like to see the results of the summer BBM ratings. The ratings came in and wouldn’t you know it, the station bounced back to a mid-5 share 12+ rating point. Gary sat me down and said he would like to give the Variety position another try, and I said, "you mean NOT change format?" and he said, "yes, that's what I mean."

I was very concerned and a little more so when he said, ‘let’s just give it more time.” I left his office scratching my head and wondering where this was all going to go. So, I put my head down and started to wrap around this ‘variety’ thing. I mean how could you play Suzanne Vega and DNA into the Stones' " Satisfaction"? I wasn’t sure that could work but charged ahead. Then the next ratings came out, we were below the recently 'tough' book, and I was sure that I would be looking for work. I was freaked out at home in my swimming pool when for the third time the phone rang, and it was Sales Director Bill William Herz. I love that guy. He said, “Don’t worry Junior, we will sell our way out of this” and he did. If Bill was a hockey player, he’d be an all-star goalie.

Gary brought me into his office, and I thought okay, pack up time, and then said something to the effect that he believed in me and was going to give me a lot of time and resources to turn this thing around. He wanted to stay in the format for a number of reasons one of them being because so much money had been spent internally and externally on the brand. He had a hunch that this could still work, and, as usual, he was right. I am not sure many would have kept a Program Director around after my first real and disappointing ratings results.

For the most part, I loved working with Gary, and at the end of the day, he is probably the best boss I worked for before I went out on my own. I have to say that he is the smartest and most intuitive guy I know, something that comes naturally from his legendary father, Allan. Nobody works harder and picks up off paper better than Gary. Every Monday morning there would be notes waiting for me (and all of us) from his Sunday morning work sessions.

When he got into charge, he built the Standard Radio group to huge heights and made a ton of money. In time we turned the MIX around to what I called the 'triple-double: double the share, twice the cume (circulation over a million listeners), and two times revenue'. Gary rewarded me with the VP Programming stripes and also appointed me to the MIX GM position.

I love the fact that we could go into his office with an issue, problem or idea and decisions could get made on the spot. Sometimes we would dismiss an idea, but then he comes back a few days later wanting to talk about it again. There would be fun and let's say 'spirited' conversations (most of them very quick) and, as a boss, he would make you go 'toe-to-toe' which is not the most comfortable for a personality style like mine, but it sure got stuff out on the table. After one particularly animated session, I bolted from his office and then he called me right back in, looked at me and said: “you’re pretty F***ing feisty for a little guy” which broke the ice.

The management group that Gary amassed was one of the most talented group of leaders I think we will have seen. Pound for pound his team, in every area, was the hardest working, most innovative, creative, proud, fun and passionate bunch of pros’. If you have been following these 365’s all year you will know that I have saluted a great deal of them in this series. You will also know that Gary’s name has popped up so many times, way more than any other person. All roads seem to lead to Gary Slaight.

He has continued to touch so many things out there, most that people don’t know about. He has always helped so many whether it be starting up a new endeavor, or those in times of sickness or bad luck, he does this quietly.

Since selling Standard to Astral and taking home billions, Gary and the family have given away tens upon millions of dollars to worthy causes in the community, like the massive donations to the hospitals in the Toronto area a few years back.
Says pal and 365’er Steve Coady, “Everybody knows how generous Gary and his family are.

As much as he tends to avoid the spotlight, they have supported and made incredibly generous donations to countless charities and associations. But I don’t think it is as well known how much they do behind the scenes.

Quietly.

Gary and Donna don’t just write cheques; they are very hands-on and present in ways that are truly inspiring. And then there are things they have done to help friends, families and strangers in very personal, private and touching ways.”

Here’s another story from Coady: “I was with Gary and some other friends on a road trip when at dinner that night, one of the guys took ill. Knowing that he had a serious food allergy, Gary whisked him away to the clinic just in time to prevent him from going into anaphylactic shock. Later that night, we proposed a toast to Gary on having a great day. He asked why. Why? Because he had saved his friend’s life.”

I know first-hand how Gary quietly reached out and looked after Pat Cardinal and Gary Russell when they became terminally ill. The things he did to help improve quality of life for those two is incredibly touching.

Slaight Music colleague 365’er Jim 'Soupy' James Campbell has known Gary longer than most and recollects: “Everyone knows that Gary has a huge heart underneath that sometimes tough exterior...But back when we were promo partners at WEA in the mid-'70s, I used to play squash with him, and I was ok...even good some days, but he took great delight in crushing me, and I never won a game from him during the couple of years we played regularly.

We used to draw straws or flip a coin when it came to split up the ‘artist relations’ assignments. I was a big Bonnie Raitt fan, but Gary drew the assignment for her Massey Hall gig. While I was at the office or out on a radio call, Gary spent the day doing the interview circuit with Bonnie. The day had gone pretty well, and Bonnie was feeling good and when they arrived at Massey Hall for soundcheck Gary called me at the office suggesting I come down early to meet and hang with Bonnie before the show...he did me a solid!”

Gary loves to have fun and has played some master tricks along the way. One of his favourite things with me when on the road and into a restaurant or public place, was that he would start the word that ‘Don Henley’ from the Eagles was on the premises (some say we have a close resemblance) and then I would have people coming up looking for autographs. I would tell them that I was NOT Don Henley, but they wouldn’t leave until I signed something.

We’d get him back too though. Here’s a good one from Blair Bartrem who Gary brought up from a behind the scenes guy to become one of the best programming minds in our country for which he is very grateful: “Back in the mid-nineties when I was working as Promotion Director at MIX 999, I received a press package from Butterball. It was Thanksgiving, and the turkey company was promoting their new 'Butterball Hotline' where people could call their 1-800 number with questions on how to cook a turkey properly. In this press kit was a chip the sounded like a phone ringing every time you opened the folder. So, I took the phone sounder and removed the piece of plastic that kept if from ringing nonstop. Now what to do with a small speaker that wouldn't stop ringing. I know I'll drop in the radiator in Gary's office. When Gary returned from lunch, he answered the phone, but it kept on ringing. 'Renate, call engineering and get them to fix my phone' yelled Gary. After thirty minutes our chief engineer, Dave Simon located the issue, unscrewed the radiator and gave Gary the tiny ringing phone speaker.

Then Gary's assistant, Renate, paged me. ‘Blair, come to Gary's office’. Oh, oh. Gary was holding the speaker. ‘This is your handy work isn't it?’ I responded ‘Umm, ahhhh’. 'You did it didn't you?' And then 'Never mind, whose office can we put this in? I know, Bill Herz’. So, we placed it in the acoustic ceiling panels. To get there, Gary had to stand on Bill's desk to reach the ceiling. Then Bill's desk toppled over, and everything hit the floor. The lamp, Bill's files and when the phone landed the numbers exploded and were launched all over the room. Gary looked at me in panic and said, ‘let's get outta here!’ to which I responded, ‘don't you own everything?’ Gary took off, and I played Winston Wolfe and cleaned up Bill's office.

Gary has given me tremendous opportunities over the years and helped instill the ’good enough is not good enough’ work ethic in me.”

Gary has been a champion of so many things. This from longtime pal 365’er Rob Braide: “While some of the stories about our friend can’t be told there are many that can and should be.

"Gary has always been focused on equality for women. When he hired me in the late ’80s to manage his Montreal radio stations CJAD and FM 96 (MIX 96/Virgin) I took a look at the books. One of our lead female talk-show hosts was making half of what her male Co-host was. Gary told me to double her salary immediately. When she informed us the same day that she was pregnant, he suggested we put a broadcast line in her house so that she could do her show about the trials and pleasures of motherhood. This was the '80s!"

Gary searched for and found strong women to work for him. People like Madelyn Hamilton, and 365’ers Lesley Soldat and Sharon Taylor and others who broke ground in our business. He championed female artists like Kim Stockwood and Carly-Rae Jepsen and so many more.

His Motivation? Probably that he wanted all women to be treated the way he wanted his daughters, Ali and Chrissy, treated, and he had the power to make that happen. Merry Christmas Gary.”

Gary is a devout family man. He and wife Donna brought up two beautiful and talented daughters. Want to get Gary to mist up? Just start talking about his family.

Let’s try this one. I have seen those two young women since they were small. Ali, of course, became a very talented singer, songwriter, and producer with a number of hits under her belt. Every year we would do a huge MIX MusicFest in the Beaches, which was attended by hundreds of thousands. We had our own little station band called ‘The Hurtin’ Units’ that featured Paul Morgan Husiak, Andy Bianchi, myself and 365’ers John Masecar and Darryl Kornicky, and little Ali Slaight. Here she was, not even a teenager yet, getting out there overcoming the nerves to belt her songs out and nail them. I will always not only remember that but looking over at Gary and seeing the tears streaming down his face.

365’er Jim Campbell tells a story that involves Ali: “I was into my last year managing the Canadian Idol winners and working Theo Tams debut CD with Sony. Gary was gently guiding Ali’s artistic career. During this time, we would often have early morning email exchanges of ideas and Gary would sometimes request input on song choices for Ali. One morning, we discovered that Ali and Theo had recorded the same outside song and we were both intent on releasing it as the next single for our respective artists.

Well, as you can imagine some pointed discussion ensued and full disclosure, I don’t remember who, if either artist released the song as a single, only that it wasn’t a hit for anyone!! However, that whole episode led to a brilliant idea (Gary’s) that Ali and Theo record a duet. And that duet ("Do You Hear What I Hear") was the first of now 12 gorgeous duets that Ali and Theo have recorded every Holiday season since! “

While we have some of his closest friends weighing in, let’s hear from 365’er Jean-Marie Heimrath: “My first encounter with Gary was in the early ’80s at Q107. He was and still is a legend known to be tough and sometimes difficult to work for but what I found was one of the most intriguing individuals I’ve ever come across. We saw each other from time to time over the years and watched each other like two dogs trying to figure out each other or get into a fight. I can say that we not only figured each other out we became the best of friends. It was an unwavering bond of trust and loyalty that allowed us to grow into who we are today. Gary has touched so many lives and taught me one vital lesson about one’s purpose in life, and that was to help people along the way and to give back. A lesson I live to this very day.

Having worked beside him for over 20 years, we had our moments. For instance, while heading up Sound Source, I had made a business decision that was not exactly a popular move and was summoned to Gary’s office. It was a pretty tense situation and became very heated to the point of the wallpaper peeling off the walls. He made his position clear, and I made mine. We were both wrong and right but we there was a respect for each other that was stronger than the both of us, and that lead to where we are today. "Everything you can imagine will happen to you, but nothing will ever happen the way you imagined. You’re a good man.”

I was very proud to work with Gary in the many years I was with him and his organization. We had mostly great times but also some pretty heated exchanges too.

He has his nicknames for everyone, and good naturally starts on you. For me being slightly vertically challenged Gary to this day still greets me, with his palm-down hand around his rib cage with "Junior, I’ve had it up to here with you.”

Derrick Ross talks about his toughness. “One-time Gary had his fingers jammed in a door, and the tips were basically hanging by a thread. It happened in our building, and he loves to show people the injury. He was holding the fingers tips in the other hand and came up two elevators to get me and say he needed to go to the hospital. What was really funny about the trip was that when we checked into the hospital, the receptionist asked how we would be paying for the ambulance. That went over well :)”

Derrick goes on to say, “Gary could have easily gone in many directions after selling Standard Radio, but he has a true love for Canadian Artists and their music and starting Slaight Music was his way of showing that love for the artist and more importantly the other associations that support the music community.”

So, what is Slaight Music?

From http://www.slaightmusic.com/: “Since 2011 Slaight Music has worked with over 40 Canadian artists and groups to help launch or further their career development. Their team has a broad range of music industry experience and an extensive network of professional industry resources upon which to call, to make artist development a meaningful reality. We have nurtured relationships throughout the music-making chain and partnered with songwriters, producers, managers, and labels.

Think of Slaight Music as an artist incubator, committed to fostering the ideal conditions for maximum creativity... Developing and then aligning talent with key players, decision makers and influencers via multiple initiatives designed to bring forward the best of today’s young, yet-to-be-discovered artists.

Our investment strategy sees us taking a stake in the future business potential of songwriters and artists we feel can succeed, helping to nurture their artistry and raise their public profiles before sharing in any revenues. Check out the full list of artists we’re currently working with below. If you’d like to submit your work for consideration, please drop us a line.”

I would list all of the awards and recognition that Gary has gotten over the years for all of his work, but honestly, I would instead say what he hasn’t been awarded? You name it, and I am pretty sure his name is on it. While this has happened so rightly for him, I need to tell you that he is genuinely uncomfortable each time one of these comes his way.

Gary Slaight, at the end of the day, is at the top of the list for me in terms of guys I have worked for. He gave me the room, the resources and the rewards for all of the hard work. You want to work hard for him and do a great job. I would have stayed with him through the sale if the CORUS GM/VP opportunity had not have come my way. Even though that generally worked out great, I still think maybe I should have stayed put. I wonder where all would be now if I had of done that.

Without Gary, I don’t think I would have done many of the things I have done. And I am just one of the thousands. He helped me become a better leader, businessman, and person. He also had a lot of respect for my family, as he did for everyone’s family.

By the way, it should also be noted that Gary and the Slaight family gave everyone in the entire organization some kind of cash bonus as a 'thank you' for their service and loyalty on the sale of Standard to Astral.

In closing yes, Santa Gary got off to a great start in life but, he’s worked very hard and earned where he and his family are today, which is amazing. Well done Lou, and Merry Christmas!

Thank you, Gary Slaight, for being one of “The Good Ones”. Feel free to like and share Gary’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 Programmer/Talent/Content Coach for JJIMS INC. and works with talent in many different industries worldwide.

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