No matter how hard he tried, Cliff Dumas couldn't pass the Buck.
Since Labour Day, the veteran Toronto-born on-air personality - and the only Canadian to win Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music accolades as Radio Personality of the Year - has been the new morning man at KUZZ AM/FM, the Bakersfield, California radio station best known as the media venture bought by country superstar Buck Owens in 1966 and now controlled by his estate.
It's his first radio gig since departing mornings at KSON San Diego, where he spent the better part of a decade entertaining country music listeners before being bought out of his contract in 2011.
"During the last three years, the radio station was up for sale. They paid me pretty well, but as new management came in, contracts weren’t being renewed and I saw the writing on the wall," Dumas recalled recently over the line from Bakersfield. "I came back on February 14, 2011, after doing a week on a Disney cruise and after the show, they told me, 'We're going in another direction and we're going to buy out the rest of your contract.'
"The next day, I won the ACM Award for Major Market Radio Personality of the Year," he laughs.
Rather than jump into the next gig, he decided to explore various options, some of them outside the broadcast spectrum.
He did some coaching and consulting for the L.A.-based Randy Lane Company; moved to Vancouver to join former broadcaster Jesse Dylan's digital media advertising venture Good Life Networks Inc. (now TSVE-listed Aquarius AI) and help take the company public as Executive Vice President and Chief Communications Officer; hosted the syndicated "Weekly Country Radio Countdown" for Westwood One ABC radio stations; co-founded Claim2Fame, an online social music platform to advise and promote emerging artists; launched Everything Podcasts with ex-CBC executive Jennifer Smith and veteran radio programmer Don Shafer, which produces podcasts for numerous brands and is also the brand and content executive for the WOSH Mineral Bar, a soap derived from Kisameet glacial clay.
Through it all, he's maintained the Canadian connections that he established during his time at CHIC Brampton, CHAM Hamilton and CISS-FM Toronto, continuing to provide voice work for CHCH-TV, serving on the CCMA Board of Directors (which he recently relinquished, but will continue working with the CCMA Foundation).
“Life has been an adventure, that’s for sure,” says Dumas, a member of the Canadian Country Music Association Hall Of Fame. “It’s been fun. It’s been exciting. It’s been frustrating."
It's also been not bad for a guy who attended Sheridan College for Graphic Design and whose formal training amounted to weekend gigs as a DJ until he landed a spot at CHIC.
"Experience? Yeah. I went into the club and made the demo that got me hired," Dumas chuckles.
It turned out to be a fortunate move because the station was being consulted by Dave Charles.
"He got me started in my career – he got me into CHAM in Hamilton," Dumas says. " I don’t know what he saw. Then, Don Kay, Kevin McKenna put me in mornings. J.J. Johnson was one of the guys who taught me a lot when it came to the mechanics. Then Keith James came along (to CHAM as station GM) and we had some great success – we won the CMA together.
"Then Keith brought me to Toronto with him."
The sweet spot in his career up to this point was his time with CHAM, which during its heyday, was the city of Hamilton's country bedrock. Dumas, who said he "worked with very talented people" during his station tenure, would regularly draw hundreds of people at appearances or hosting events at the Dallas nightclub.
He fully credits consultant Charles with asking him an important question while he was contemplating leaping from CHIC's disco format to 820 CHAM's country music programming: a genre with which Dumas admits he was unfamiliar.
"Dave asked me, 'do you want to be a DJ or a communicator?'" Dumas recalls. "'Country is the format to be a communicator,' he told me. Once I made that decision, that set me up as the foundation for the rest of my career."
Dumas was with CHAM from 1984-1993 and 1998-2000 - with five years at CISS-FM in between his CHAM stints - before venturing down to KRST Alburquerque for his first stint on U.S. radio. His CHAM days included several CCMA Awards and, in 1990, the big one - Medium Market CMA Radio Personality of the Year, impressive for a Canadian competing in a sea of U.S. talent.
“The CMA for me was my ticket into the United States because at that time you certainly had to prove why you were going to be hired by an American company," says Dumas. "What attributes or accolades did you have that qualified you to be different than them giving the job to an American. Those things for me are the pride of my career that I can share with my kids. When you think about the thousands of radio stations that are eligible to win those things, and you think a) you’re nominated and b) you win them – that blows my mind. I don’t take that for granted."
The '80s and '90s also found him writing and voicing 18 CCMA Awards shows and writing for CBC's The Tommy Hunter Show, CMT Canada and expanding his creative horizons.
"I like the creative process," he says. "And I love the fact that there’s always an opportunity to always continue to evolve and learn, and the only way to do that is to try new stuff. I think all the additional projects have had some kind of thread through them that ties them together."
More recently, Dumas has been bullish on podcasting - he's written a book called Broadcast2Podcast - and social media platforms - and says the game has changed since the earlier days of broadcasting.
"Now, being a broadcaster is about being a content producer. You just don’t show up and do a radio show. You have to do a radio show; you have to post a blog; you have to shoot video; you have to be active on social media and know how to leverage it. You’re in all forms of media now."
With PodcastHosting.org listing 1.5 million podcasts and 34 million episodes available for public consumption, Dumas says radio stations hoping to monetize the digital landscape have their work cut out for them.
"Knowing the conversations I’ve had with everybody from Bell to Stingray, the pain point is seemingly the same: leveraging the digital landscape as well as continuing to be successful in broadcast," Dumas, who is IAB 360 certified in digital advertising, explains. "I think broadcast is always going to be about whether you are doing compelling content and whether you're continuing to mine, create and support talent to produce the kind of engaging and compelling content you need to hang onto your audience.
"The question they're asking themselves is: 'How can we be a full media marketing company that, at its foundation, is broadcast, but we have all these other digital assets that are all integrated?' I think integration of all media is the ultimate challenge. Making money across all platforms would be the goal.
"How do you rise above the noise? You’ve got to work it – social media and a bit of a media buy. Read the industry blogs that are coming up with new ideas all the time and at the end of the day, if you want traction on something, you’ve got to include some media spend just to get noticed out there. There’s too much competition, but great content wins."
Now paired with Tanya Brakebill at the station once owned by Buck Owens and now run by his cousin Mel Owen, the married father of two says life at KUZZ reminds him of CHAM's glory days.
“For me, it’s like a turning back the clock on time a little bit – you have a radio station that’s relevant in an industry that’s struggling to remain relevant. That’s been fun and I’ve been geeking out at the Crystal Palace ( the famous country and western music hall, nightclub, restaurant and bar once owned by the country superstar that includes The Buck Owens Museum).
"It’s been an interesting journey and I'm having a lot of fun."