Remember when Q107 was the Lion King of Toronto’s radio pride?
After 15 years of having its enviable rep as the station of choice in Canada’s largest market discounted to also-ran status, behind Rogers' owned CHFI, Bell Media’s CHUM-FM and, more recently, Stingray’s boom 97.3, the Rock of Toronto is back with swagger, muscling a winning 11-plus share of Adults 25-54–the demo cluster advertisers and their agencies drool after.
Back in the day, as the new kid on the block, Q was all about bravado and street cred, with a line-up that launched a blitzkrieg against the pleasant parlance of its entitled incumbents with what amounted to a Panzer attack of free-wheeling opinions, a burning zeal for one-upmanship, crazy stunts and a playlist of edgy but familiar songs that quickly became the newfound colours of the city’s truly engaged rock hipsters.
It was the go-to station to find out what was really going on in Canada’s most populous city, packing the best of the best in music that mattered with a unique overlay of memorably intimate interviews from the scene’s hottest-trending tastemakers and talk-shows that were the talk of the town.
Q107 wasn’t only the hot new kid in town, it was also quite possibly the last of the great market-leading FMs in an era when Rock ‘n Roll still truly mattered.
Back then, the ‘Mighty Q’ was the Barnum and Bailey of rock radio, created by the Slaights (Allan and Gary), initially curated by Dave Charles and John Parikhal, and taken to its peak when Gary Slaight was PD with a dazzling marquee of unleashed talents that included John Donabie, Bob Mackowycz, Joey Vendetta, Jesse Dylan and Gene Valaitis, Scruff Connors, Brother Jake Edwards, Jane Hawtin, Earl McCrae, John Derringer, Maureen Holloway, Andy Frost, Bob "Iceman" Segarini, Lee "Beef" Eckley, Steve Anthony, Samantha Taylor, and news director's Mark Dailey's cutting-edge panache.
It was an era when advertisers were banging on the door to be noticed and the zoo's team staged festive parties that splashed cash about as if there were no tomorrows.
Those hazy, crazy days of unending bankable zaniness are the stuff of urban legend.
It was an era like none before or since in Canada’s radioland, excepting the bizarre stories that encircled Geoff Stirling during his legendary era with CKGM and CHOM-FM in Montreal.
It was in this era that a boastful and spirited Q107 insider called a funeral home for a hearse to deliver key pages from its first radio ratings triumph to 1331 Yonge Street, home to CHUM-FM.
It was an era when FM radio personalities ruled and everyone else played second fiddle.
‘Q’ rose to godliness at the pivotal point when print lost its currency and became lang syne.
Go back in time and, for a flicker, FM was transcendent.
Most of the radio band’s listeners today are too young to have been listening, were too zoned out to recall–or are simply dead.
As the quarter-fold Rolling Stone magazine spoke to a generation, its aftermath was an incoherence of personalities that assembled on the FM dial to create a new medium that was instant, audible, and larger than print.
It became the first live broadcast medium that was credible to a rock ‘n’ roll generation that had the power, the income and the political influence to affect change.
It was the last of the mass-media mediums. A powerful umbilical cord connecting a generation twinned with increasing affluence and political persuasion.
After 15 years of uncertainty, Corus Entertainment (the unwanted child of Shaw Communications) has scored a winning touch-down in a game of thrones by winning the prize in Canada’s toughest, most profitable, unyielding radio market.
And how did the FM celebrate crunching the competition, winning the war, beating the unbeatable?
In a covid world, the team celebrated... with a Zoom call.
Ain’t that the best?
Sadly, advertisers aren’t banging on the door as they once did.
The pandemic is proving itself to be a bitch.
Radio advertising in the GTA has shrunk by as much as 50-percent since radio’s heyday in the ‘70s, down to $220M before covid kicked the hell out of everything except home delivery.
In the first few covid-marked months, GTA radio advertising was off by another 50-percent, rounding out to about $110M. Insiders say it is slowly clawing its way back, but it’s still a long way short from where it was in early March. Local and national ad revenues took a shit-kicking, leaving the Ontario government as the No. 1 advertiser on radio, pushing messages that were as cheery as a mortuary shopping for new business leads.
A cluster of car-lease and mortgage-relief companies filled out the inventory.
With things so out of kilter, Q was forced to play to its audience and not the fiddler.
“Though Q107 has been a quintessential station for rock fans in the GTA for decades, once again reaching number one demonstrates that our music, on-air personalities and community involvement resonates with not only life-long listeners but new ones too,” says Toronto/Hamilton regional program director Tammy Cole in celebrating her win.
“We’ve worked hard to be a mainstream inclusive rock station,“ she continues, adding that “we target men but everyone is welcome. There are many female rock fans in the GTA (too).”
Cole further explains that the win has been more a “marathon than a sprint.” A marathon that meant getting beyond the blandishments, the self-hype and digging down to the core to find out the competition's weaknesses, what Q’s audience wanted from the station and, as important, didn’t want. It turned out the competition was vulnerable, and Q’s programming core didn’t have to change much.
Broadcast consultant Andrew Forsyth points to Roger Ashby’s retirement from CHUM-FM, changes in CHFI’s dream team, and Matt Galloway’s shift from Metro Morning to hosting The Current on Radio One, replacing Anna Marie Tremonti who now narrates two podcasts for the pubcaster, as disruptors, that played in Q’s favour. These changes created a restlessness with listeners and in particular with female listeners.
The chessboard pieces were moving and audience loyalties were in play.
And then the unthinkable happened.
The pandemic created societal havoc, disrupting the regular pattern of in-car listeners’ work routines. Almost overnight, the drive shows took a hit in listenership everywhere, and these were the gold bullion cash-cows for big-city radio. It wasn’t just disruptive. It was akin to Lehman Brothers' collapse.
It was also a godsend for Cole and her cohorts.
Routines were upset, and now listeners were tuning in from home offices.
In-dash pre-sets went out the door and hours tuned increased.
Q started to see its audience numbers grow post-apocalypse, suggesting that a lot of the behind the scenes spadework that Cole and the team had put in place were now paying off.
Not in the traditional sense.
It was qualitative without the benefit of an immediate quantitative payoff.
The latest Numeris rankings have given Q the nod that its research and diligence have worked for them. The road to redemption, finally, was in hand.
Another radio insider offers pointers on how Q was successful in its rebound.
As Cole says, it took teamwork.
In the background, a number of pivotal players can take credit in bringing the former derby winner back into the home stretch to take first prize, again.
Off the top is John Derringer’s morning show. He’s unquestionably one of the strongest a.m. drive show personalities in the country and he’s created a bond with listeners that can’t be beaten. There’s a level of engagement at play that has come from growing comfortable in his seat, and from growing up and becoming a family man. He’s not just about music, he has the pulse of the city and his demeanour and banter contextualize his own experiences. Audiences gravitate to this, and to his voice that is simultaneously authoritative and casual. He delivers his points without sounding forced. He’s at peace with himself and shows respect for his audience. It’s a win-win situation and that’s what makes him the potent force that he is, and earns him one of the largest salaries in the land.
Next up is the music. Q’s Achilles’ heel in this department has been Wayne Webster, Boom-FM’s music director who earned his spurs at CHUM-FM, worked for a number of years in the same position during some of Q's most successful years with Gary Slaight and went on to become a one-man music box dancer working with the crew at Stingray’s flagship station. With a playlist that is said to include 1,200 hand-picked songs, he’s conjured playlists that have captivated audiences and pulled in listeners, particularly female listeners, from all the big guns in town.
Q has culled through its own library with the aid of the station’s MD, Rick Lee, and Ronnie Stanton who is part of Corus’s west-coast team, with an assist from Corus luminary and self-described musicologist Alan Cross. The result is a seedless collection of tried, tested and true tracks that include a heaping of surprises and a rock-steady assemblage of Canadian album tracks and past hits that avoid the obvious and ring familiar. In a nutshell, Q has upped its game, dissed the hangovers and enriched the pot. Audiences are cheering.
Alan Cross has also had a large hand in re-branding Q. He brings heft to the FM. His authoritative voice when it comes to music, clarity in providing a clear message that carries across advertising media and on-air–and his all-round sensibility as a fan of music and broadcasting have added an indefinable element to the station’s unique voice over the air.
And then there’s “Fearless” Fred (Kennedy) who steers the afternoon-drive shift. Brought over, like Cross, from Corus-owned 102.1 The Edge. The guy lives his show, has been to more places than most and brings an attitude to the station that ably captures the mood and vibe that Q is cultivating.
Joanne Wilder, Dan Chen and Kella round out the regular on-air team. They are familiar to the longstanding listeners and their history at the station adds certainty to their voices on-air. It’s a win-win situation for the station and the audience.
Ditching the “classic rock” positioning statement has greatly helped in regaining ground for the FM too. The message today is “Rock Matters,” a phrase that was launched before the Black Lives Matter slogan became common parlance. It’s a bold statement that connects the older hipsters with today’s generation.
In all, Q’s success has been brought about by doing what the station does best, which is offering an alternative to the annoyingly familiar music found at the competition. That, and focusing on getting the machine running operationally without distractions or missteps. A simple enough course of action, but it’s taken years to get it running perfectly. That and the fact that audiences have become weary of the sameness of today’s by-committee packaged pop music and lured back to rock’s free-wheeling attitude and its colourful stars that know how to play their instruments.
Of course none of the above could have happened without Brad Phillips who runs radio strategy for Corus. It takes the FM full circle, to Murray McLauchlan's Hard Rock Town. It was the first song that popped when Q was born.