There was something appropriate about the tee-shirt Wayne Webster was wearing at his Beach home, where he has lived for the past few decades with his wife Tracy and kids Dakota and Zach when we sat down for a recent chat. It was a Jimi Hendrix “Ultimate Collection” tee from 1992 that we had manufactured when I worked at MCA Records when we released the boxed set. Ever the music person, Wayne was wearing it in honour of the late guitarist who just hit the 50-year milestone of his untimely passing. That’s a music guy for you.
With a taste for radio first nurtured at Humber College, Webster was there for the launch of Q-107, Mix 99, Virgin, Sirius and Boom 97.3 where he currently resides as the Music Director.
To say it has been a long and successful career would be an understatement, but Webster has never been one to seek the spotlight. Rush manager Ray Danniels once told him “you just seem to keep your head low enough” and by doing that he has managed to transition from one format to another, a corporate takeover (or two, or three..) and always had a job doing what he does best - program great music and get good ratings.
While most long-standing people in radio have a resume that crisscrosses the country Webster’s entire career has been within 3 Toronto subways stops, starting at Yonge and Bloor and currently at Yonge and St. Clair. There were no minor leagues for this baseball fan as he started right in the majors.
The first stop was Q-107 just before they went on the air on May 22, 1977.
“It was April 1977 and I had two weeks left in my first year of the radio program at Humber College. They were getting ready to launch and needed an intern to help with the library. My job was to put tape around the albums and put a number on it so the announcers could find it. After the two weeks, when school was over, there was still lots to do and they asked if I wanted to stick around and I said sure, I’ve got nothing else to do. I was living on my own and had no money so I asked Program Director Dave Charles if I could get paid and by June I was making something like $115.00 a week. I was an intern when we launched and it is still one of the most exciting days of my life, with champagne corks flying all around the halls. I had no idea there were jobs like these that actually paid and I knew I had to get in”.
Next up would be a move up the street to 1331 Yonge Street in 1979.
“Dave Charles and John Parikhal had left Q and Gary Slaight was the new PD. There were a lot of changes at the station. It was either Larry LeBlanc or Mark Dailey who talked to Bob Wood and said there's a kid at Q that you should check out and I got a call from Warren Cosford to come in for an interview. I remember writing an assignment at Humber where I had to say what I wanted to do in radio within five years and I wrote Music Director at CHUM-FM because that was the station I grew up listening to. Within 4 ½ years, I had my dream job.
When I went there in 1979 Bob Wood was still the PD and we did the album format where every 15 minutes you featured a record and played three or four tracks. So three, stop set, three, stop set, it was really quite unique. It was great because you really had to listen to an entire album to see if you could find three or four good tracks. I knew Talking Heads from Take Me To The River and Psycho Killer but when I listened to their album Fear Of Music it just blew me away. It was an amazing record that was R&B and funky and it really opened my mind and I became a huge fan and started playing them from then on. Around 1980/81 the whole New Wave sound started and there were a lot of one-hit wonders. If you wanted to play Turning Japanese, you would have to find two or three other songs from the album that we didn’t really want to play. It was around then that we went back to a different formula. Working with Barry Stewart we built twenty-minute sets around each current. It was really quite free-form but it totally burnt us out as we were working six days a week on it. We finally settled on a more traditional approach with computers and all of that kind of stuff.
"We were a rock station back then but Q was doing well so Bob said let’s make the station heavier so we started playing Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever on the morning show and he quickly told us we had gone a little too far. CFNY was doing well so we went a little more alternative and we were trying to find our spot. At one music meeting, he asked to hear the new single by Madonna. The next thing you know Accept and The Scorpions are day parted into evenings and the whole thing becomes more pop.”
Being a rock guy must have been difficult for you.
“It was really tough when the stuff you love gets day parted but it’s a lesson that you learn. Personal taste goes over here and I had to start programming what I thought would be best for the station. All of a sudden we were number one. I was there for eight years and it was amazing. I really, really enjoyed it and the people who worked there were really good. You had to be really good to make it at Chum-FM.”
Now the journey moves north on Yonge yet again.
“Gary Slaight had always stayed in touch and we would get together every year for lunch and he would ask me how it was going and whether I had a Chum tattoo on my ass. You know Gary. They had just bought Standard Broadcasting and he says we have CKFM and want to make it a bit more contemporary, sort of what you did at Chum. I was thinking, ok this is pretty easy, I did it over there, and he gave me a few scenarios that I couldn’t say no to.
The station was Adult Contemporary but Gary had already started to make some changes. He had this idea in his head and I had to figure it out and get it on the air. After a couple of years with the CKFM branding, we knew that people would always consider it an AC station and that is when Pat Holiday came in and we changed it to Mix 99.9.”
Lots of PD’s came through the door but it was J.J. Johnston who was the one who started getting eights and nines in the ratings and Mix really started to click.”
While working at Mix, which was soon to become Virgin, Wayne started helping out at EZ-Rock.
“Rob Farina was the head of radio and we had a meeting on the 11th floor and he said, can you do something with EZ-Rock? We knew no matter what we did CHFI was going to be number one and second would be the best we could do. We were looking at formats and there was one that rocked and that was just mixing them all up. I started writing down artist names and said to Rob this could sound really good. He said I was the guy to do it as I had played a lot of those artists on Chum, which was Adult Alternative but not totally Triple-A and we all wanted to do that one. There was another one based on audience response. It was like you can play pop and then alternative and Mix and that is where Boom came from. So I started doing Boom and Virgin. It was Virgin PD Martin Tremblay who came up with the name.”
On the side, Wayne also started programming Iceberg Radio for Sirius satellite.
“I think I worked for seven different stations in this building. It was a fun station to put together. We had to play 85% Canadian but we decided to go full 100% playing everything from the Guess Who to Metric. It really made you listen to Canadian music which was great. When Astral bought Standard they really didn’t want me to spend my time on it so George Christie took over the reins.”
For the last 11 years, the focus has been strictly on Boom 97.3
“When Rob Farina was there he would ask if we were playing someone like The Violent Femmes and I would say no and he would say, just play them. I really got into sound coding, this is Alternative, this is rock, this is Disco, we could go from one to the other and that is how Boom became what it is. I could go from The Eagles to Duran Duran to Def Leppard and then to Talking Heads, and because that was funky go into Stayin Alive by the Bee Gees. For me being a music guy this is fun. I pick all the music for Boom by hand, the old fashioned way. I think it makes it sound better than letting the computer do it.
We launched as “Toronto’s Greatest Hits” so that left it wide open to play music from different decades. After about a year we did some research about our slogan and people thought we were Chum so that’s when we changed it to ‘70s 80s 90s’. I remember I was at my son’s baseball game and a Dad came over and said ‘you work at Boom 70s 80s 90s right’ and I thought yeah, that slogan works.
I will program the occasional song from the sixties like Hey Jude or Satisfaction or throw in a Coldplay song. We have a Totally 80’s weekend and I’ll throw a bunch of stuff in there I don’t normally play just to spice things up. We also do a listener lunch and mixtape show where they get to pick their songs. If a classic artist like U2 releases a new song I will feature it. Kim Mitchell did a live version of Rocklandwonderland over at Metalworks and we gave it a few spins. New stuff won’t go into rotation as we don’t have a current rotation and I think it starts to change the station when you start to go into newer stuff.
A heavy gets about 10 spins a week. Chris Ebbott, who used to work for us and now works for K-Earth in Los Angeles, spins his heavies about 27 times a week. He says people love Don’t Stop Believing and Hotel California so just play them over and over again. They went from number five to number one in the market so I guess it works for them.”
What has changed in recent months with everything going on with Covid?
“Well, I am at work right now. I have a room in my basement with all of my music and it’s very comfortable and I enjoy working down there. I think I actually get more work done.
The on-air staff are working from the studio for the most part. We are all a little bit older and we have been doing it for a long time and I think there is something about being in an actual studio rather than your living room. With technology now I think we are finding out we can still all make this work and sound good.”
With physical distancing very much a top priority, the station can’t engage their very loyal audience the way they once could. Standing in front of the Danforth Music Hall handing out Boom swag is currently not an option.
“We have bus stop posters right now with about 300 of our listeners on them and they are always checking to see if their picture is there. If not there is a little spot in the middle we can add their face and send them the picture.
Usually three times a summer we would go to a listener’s home for a ‘bring your own vinyl and have a big party in their backyard' but we can’t do that right now.”
Growing up in Toronto and listening to Chum, CFTR, Chum-Fm, Q-107 and CFNY exposed him to a lot of music that would help his career.
“There’s so many different styles of music that people grew up with so the idea is to expose it to them in a commercial way. You try to please as many people as possible but at the same time try to make it interesting.”
I worked a boring photocopying job in high school and all I wanted to do was get home in time to hear what was in David Marsden’s “little brown bag”. I’ll never forget when he got Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd and said he was going to play the whole thing. That was amazing”.
Who knew when Dave Charles came in to lecture our Humber class back in 1976 and told us he was going to be launching a new rock station that I would be there for the launch”.
If you are looking for Wayne you might see him on a Toronto Blue Jays home telecast from Buffalo’s Sahlen Field as the long-time season ticket holder is one of the cutouts that adorn the stands.
Always unassuming and leaving well before the party gets out of hand he has lived by a simple rule; “treat people as you want to be treated. You treat them with respect and hopefully they will treat you with respect”.
Much respect Wayne.