A Conversation With ...Marty Forbes

I’m working through the final chapters of Talk, Vol. 2: Conversations in All Keys – The Business – the business being the Canadian music business with 90 interviews spanning pioneers, shakers and movers behind the microphone (Roger Ashby and Shirley McQueen), the label guys (Steve Kane and Duff Roman), radio giants (such as Gary Slaight and J.R. Wood), wide-eyed photographers (Barry Roden and Deborah Samuel), publicity artists ( Richard Flohil and Joanne Muroff-Smale), journalists ( Nicholas Jennings and Kerry Doole), songwriters (Dan Hill and Kim Mitchell), in session players (Bill Dillon and George Koller), festival heads (Andre Menard and Pat Taylor), producers (Jeff Dalziel and Rob Wells), and radio managers (Pat Holiday and Ken Stowar).

A list both broad and loaded with insights and history. My final call was to Edmonton’s Marty Forbes. Marty and I spent music time together at CKFM – me working on my satellite jazz show and Marty deep into programming. Those passing conversations were steeped in Canadian music culture. Always riveting and insightful. Number 90, as I think of him at the moment, comes from a family with deep roots in Canadian radio and now in retirement, he's committed to a wealth of social activity all grounded in family charity and giving back.

Marty Forbes: I’m halfway through your book, Talk#1 The Artists and the part I like the best is that you can go chapter to chapter and enjoy the many familiar faces you know and then go back and read the other chapters.

Man, you pull out so many wonderful memories with some great people that I've had maybe casual meeting with or when you chat with people I've interviewed over the years in the station. I learned so much more about them with your interviews.

The one that stands out is Pentti “Whitey” Glan. Nobody on the street would know this guy. He played for many great bands, even including here in Edmonton with the Privilege. He ended up playing with my friend, the late Barry Allen. I don’t know who else was in the band, but they moved to Seattle in the late '70s and had a big hit with West Coast Woman with a band called Painter, and of course Pentti ended up with Alice Cooper. You also talk about The Lincolns, a band that never really broke through on radio, but I loved them. One of those, super mega-talented bands. I’m enjoying this.

Bill King: Marty you are the final interview for Talk #2, the Music Business. There are 90 interviews and they come from all sides of the industry. Not everyone is here but a serious cross-section just the same. It’s been a harsh winter out west but momentarily you are out of the deep freeze.

Marty: Bill I'm so honoured. I sold Arizona two years ago with everything going on down there but mostly because I have a grandchild now so when I came back here, I told myself I’m not going to be one of those guys who complains about the cold. Just deal with it. We built a place in a gated lakeside community about an hour outside of Edmonton. I bought a snowmobile. The first time in my life doing that and last week I bought a Sea-Doo. I’m 70 years old and don’t act my age. We love being back and living in such a great city.

Bill: Where is the Honda Gold Wing now?

Marty: I have that here as well. It’s an amazing bike. I’m the Vice president of the Alberta Motorcycle Safety Society too and we work with the government, the police and the RCMP to try and get a better understanding of motorcycle safety and regulations.

Bill: You were always posting on Facebook the get-away photos. You were like Easy Rider.

Marty: When the Slaights sold Standard to Astral the first call I got was from Jacque Parisienne. He flies me into Montreal to meet him, one on one, and the very first thing he says to me is “you know you are a legend! Can we talk about this motorcycle you ride through Arizona?”

A 1.8-billion-dollar company purchase, and he wants to talk about motorcycles.

Fun start.

I’ve ridden for over 50 years now with the highlight a romp through Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria.

Bill: I have a friend who was behind the resurrection of the Indian Motorcycle and had a showroom down on King Street. I used to drop by and marvel at the beauty of those bikes. Just stunning and on my wish list.

Marty: There are so many different Indian models now and they are a smart company. Harley got caught in that 'I want to get a tattoo and be an accountant' mode to feel like a motorcycle rider. After the first year, most of the guys I know, get out of them and get into the Indian, or Wing, and say, why didn’t I do this earlier?

Bill: Radio wise? Is that still an ongoing concern?

Marty: I reshaped my consulting business as media changed. I decided, when I retired, that I would focus on paying things forward and work only in public service. If I get a call now, I say, I’m coming in my blue jeans and sweatshirt and if you don’t hire me, I don’t care. I’ve been with John Cameron Entertainment for the past 12 years. This is a local guy who owns a huge construction company. David Foster flies him in to play the Muhammad Ali Fight Night mega-event in Arizona. I’ve done all of the media and marketing for them; mostly focused on digital now. It’s a show with a 150-piece choir, 60-piece orchestra and 20 front-line singers and dancers most of which came off of cruise ships. They are in their thirties and very accomplished artists and every penny goes to charity. We’ve done $1.5 million in the last ten years. My introduction phone call from him was, “Marty, I’ve heard about you, we are doing this show and it’s a Christmas show; your Family IS Santa anonymous and we are giving the cheque to you.”

You don’t say no.

I continue to advise radio stations and try my best to keep up with what is happening in the business and I love mentoring young talent.

Dad started Santa’s Anonymous here in 1955 and donates 25,000 toys to children every year in Edmonton.

I work with companies trying to understand what I call declining versus inclining media. Guys our age often don't quite understand where digital is going. They are buying old-time advertising packages and wasting their money. I sit down and show them how to reshape their advertising to draw everybody to your Facebook or Twitter business site or data-based marketing. Now with programmatic buying trends too, it’s all changing. I always make sure there is some component of public service or donations to Jerry Forbes Centre for my dad or Santa’s Anonymous. If they pay me, often I just buy tickets to our shows and give them to the kids or people who can't afford to attend.

Bill: How has the music business changed?

Marty: The hot news this past month is the Bell layoffs, but each big Telco is fully culpable. Rogers has laid off people and Corus has laid off people as well and it’s changed the whole industry – voice tracking now rules - plug and play the radio. We've lost some really good properties in small to medium markets so it's tough for new talent to get any hands-on experience and time behind the mic.

The last ten years or so they’ve taken most of the passionate people out of the business and that’s what has crippled the whole thing. I call it “de-careering” – nobody lost jobs, they lost careers.

In the old days, the Bell/TSN layoffs would have just sent up smoke signals for a full format change. I kept expecting them to launch a national news network. You’ve got all of the assets sitting in the buildings. If you are going to take someone out of CFRB then put somebody from CTV in the news field and build something, then that makes sense.

But that hasn’t happened. What has happened is we have lost the Gary Slaights, the Ross Davies, Paul Skis, Roy Hennesseys, and Chuck McCoys, etc. just to name a few - industry leaders who built phenomenally successful operations. Not much new or innovative is happening...just 'chain stores.'

I can’t imagine that first post layoff Bell corporate meeting with the new guy – “all right let’s go out there and try not to lose any money.” That’s the part that I don’t understand. A broadcast signal – AM – FM is still immensely powerful. Taking sports off in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver and put Larry “the fucking” Cable guy on...c'mon!

The other thing, it’s likely a violation of the broadcast act.

Here’s the biggest part that is fascinating to me. When we all signed off on those licences, we were held accountable. If Peter Fleming (CRTC) phoned you and said you’ve got a RAP coming in October, you would go through every element of your broadcast licence and make sure everything you promised on that legal document was delivered and couldn’t be taken apart.

If you ever got caught in non-compliance with the commission, well that could cost you licenses down the road.

How can all these people be thrown out without bringing back the news and community service obligations?

Can you imagine what could happen in Toronto and Montreal with a huge emergency? Look at the Texas winter storm situation and what it would be like if it hit Toronto, for example, and CFRB wasn’t on the air today. That’s the part I don’t understand.

The biggest difference is, all of these companies now, radio and television, have become about the fifth or sixth tier of their revenue stream. We have hockey teams ahead of us, we have basketball teams ahead of us, cellphones ahead of us, specialty, cable, satellite, Internet and most are operations that don’t generally carry a bunch of people debt' with them.

Dave Coriat (Standard) was so good about explaining consolidation to me when I retired, which I did because Dad died at 58, and it was my plan from the day Dad passed away to hang it up at the same age. Dave told me about what was happening with the long-term debt.

If you look at Marty Forbes, at my tenure and salary level, if I retire at age 65, they have to budget twenty years at my pension level.

When my wife dies, she gets half or three-quarters of it till she dies too. I figured that from the day I left to age 85, they would have to set aside around $3,000,000 for me/us in that period.

I’m always getting calls when the vets get laid off and I tell them this is why you got to let go. It has nothing to do with your talent or what you brought to the operation. It was the fact you got hired in 1970 and you are at your peak earnings and pension right now so they can blow you out of there and not care about the product anymore simply to save cost and that long obligation to their debt load.

They will put some kid on now for half their rate and move on. That’s the part that is crippling the industry. The loss of talent and passion inside those buildings.

If you and I bought a radio chain now we’d sit down and get the eight smartest people from the industry and decide what we would do. Build something needed in the market. They're wasting really good signals, AM or FM.

Bill: As I look across the media landscape exposure for young creators is dwindling. Those small TV and radio hits at festivals and clubs are all but gone especially doing this pandemic. There doesn’t seem to be an entry situation to replace this.

Marty: The review of radio is coming up by the end of March. One of the lines I’ve always used is doctors have doctors on their boards, lawyers have lawyers, accountants have accountants on their boards, but radio has doctors, lawyers and accountants on their boards. There are no broadcasters in the broadcast industry board.

We don’t have what I call a “senate” involved...those retired folks who spent their lives in the business involved in between the regulators and those running the business now. The CAB used to do that but it’s not the same anymore.

There has been no formal review since 1991; that’s before the Internet.

Think of this as a musician. I’ll use Brett Kissel, he’s an amazing kid, for example.

Let’s say Brett comes out with a brand-new album, and let's take CFCW... which is a monster Alberta country AM station – they're huge fans of his and helped him big time. He takes the lead single into the station and does an on-air visit to the morning show and they play that one time.

At 9:01 he goes across the hallway and takes the entire new album and sits down with the morning guy, gets interviewed and plays the full disc online – maybe does it on Twitch where it’s interactive or Facebook Live – adding creative applications to the whole thing. Do you know what counts for radio CanCon?

One airplay of the hit single. Thanks for coming in. No credit for any digital assistance to expose the product worldwide.

Everybody is in “fear factor” right now.

Who’s going to step up and say the CanCon rules don’t make any sense anymore? Some anthology acts have received 50 years of continuous airplay.

Brett Kissel came into our Singing Tree event one day and I asked him about Spotify and what it meant to him.

He said, “Marty I got flown down to Nashville by Garth Brooks; I opened for him on his US tour. I go home that night and check to see that I sold 1,000 recordings off Spotify after each show."

The borders for entertainment and airplay are gone. People want to be stars around the world now, not just in Canada. Do you watch Twitch at all?

Bill: Help me here.

Marty: Twitch.tv. It started as a gaming platform and now offers self-broadcasting around the world; owned by Amazon so it's huge. If you go up into the menu, you will see a music category – tap on it and there are people all over the world in studios in basements in their homes playing and producing their music.

Oropilot has 38,000 followers on Twitter, a Spotify account – and 255,000 fans subscribe to his Twitch account. He shows up twice a week to play here. He pre-promotes his appearance to everyone on what he’s going to do. He has a studio as big as all mankind and plays every instrument on the show. Now with Patreon, Go Fund me and all of these kinds of digital things artists he can get 'fan support'; cash so if you want to subscribe to his Twitch account, it’s $5 a month. Do the math. Who cares how you fund it anymore?

Bill: You have a mad passion for music. Where did that come from?

Marty: Dad came home one day from CHED with a rocket radio when I was 8 years old. You pulled the cone out and you could listen to AM radio. That was 1958. The first record I ever remember was A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation – Marty Robbins.

At that point, I started paying attention to the dad and what was going on at CHED and I have some great pictures from back then... one of him shining Nat “King” Cole’s shoes as a parody. You think of that in 1958. I have another of Dad, who was six feet five and wore cowboy boots which gave him another inch or two, with a contest winner and the Everly Brothers wrapped in his arms. I met the Everly Brothers at Expo ’86 and took that picture to them and got it autographed all of those years later.

I started to see all of the fun stuff that was going on and thought, this is for me.

Mom and dad divorced in 1961 and we came to Toronto and would go out summers to spend the time with him. In 1967 I just didn’t go back home. After school, I would go down to the radio station and God bless those guys, because, to a one, they taught me the radio. This is before broadcast schools.

At one point I come home, and Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks are in our backyard playing with my two brothers and my sister. I'm still trying to figure out who was in the Hawks then and not sure if Robbie Robertson was there or not. Even to this day when I run into Ronnie, he calls my dad the silver-haired gentleman. This is stuff you never forget.

I finished school on June 3, 1970. CHED was a massive station; the city’s population was a half million and their cume was 600,000. They billed more in 1981 than I did at the BEAR in 1998. After my final exam at school, I hopped a train to Kamloops and started writing and doing weekends at CHNL. After two years I got into Calgary at Moffat, CKXL – that chain was spectacular, and it all started from there.

Bill: When did you have a sense you could program music?

Marty: That’s a great question. When CKXL had gone through five program directors in 1977 all the guys kept telling me, the announcers, Rob Christie and guys like that said, Marty, you show apply, you should apply. I’m thinking, I’m in the building and they’ll ask me. I go in to see Keith James Sr who had hired the last guy and I asked him, why didn’t you hire me? I’ll never forget this, this is the moment my life changed, he said, you never applied. He was right!

Within a month or two Maclean Hunter got the CJAY license and Tommy Thompkins came after me and I resigned. I went up and did mornings and operations manager and learned the FM rules and regulations before Selkirk took me down to Lethbridge and gave me my first Program Director gig.

In high school, Dad would get me all the records he had from CHED and I’d be the disc jockey at all of the parties. You get a feel for matching music. You get a feel for what fits and doesn’t fit. Sitting down with dad when I was fifteen or sixteen some of the advice, he gave me was, go to every single meeting they have at the stations – like the engineers, the sales department, the promotion department. I’d been preparing myself for the break and it was seamless when I got it. And I just love doing it.

Bill: CKKS – seven years. That must have been a settling period.

Marty: MacLean Hunter had the license here (Edmonton) and that’s the year dad died, September 1981. I came here to bury my dad and that was hard, and I launched CJAX FM and it was a terrible license. They asked me to write a new one and present it to Ron Osbourne from MacLean Hunter Toronto and he flew in to discuss it with GM Ralph Connor and me.

As we are walking into the meeting Ralph grabbed the envelope in my hand and pushed it behind me and said, “don’t bring this up.”   We have a meeting on everything else and Ron leaves the place and I say, “what’s with that Ralph, we are not changing format?”

No!

I said, “well you just got my resignation, this is a dog license and if anything was going to take me down it was going to be me, not MacLean Hunter.” I resigned and got the call from Vancouver from Selkirk who asked me to come out and talk about CJAZ.

I fly out and meet with Tom Peacock; I adored this man, and we went out on his boat for the entire weekend and talked radio. He said here’s what we have decided, and this is a tough one because it was a license that was loved in the music community, but the listeners just didn’t take to it.

He asked if I'd take a shot at making the station viable over the next year or so and if not then we'd change the format.

I said, guess what I have in my hand? It was the A/C license MacLean Hunter didn’t want. They were losing a substantial amount of money at that point and eventually on one of the toughest days of my life in 1986 had to let seventeen people go to flip the station to A/C as Kiss-FM (CKKS). It took us two swings at getting the licence and thank God for Peter Fleming.

I was cheating a bit on the license with some of the logistics. During the first hearing, Tom would hold his hand on my knee and if I said something wrong, he’d squeeze it.

When I got into a discussion with one of the commissioners about their analysis systems, they said Quincy Jones isn’t a jazz musician. I asked have you listened to his album with Count Basie Live in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra? You’re going to tell me that wouldn’t quality? But he does Michael Jackson too they said. So! James Osbourne, are you going to tell me all of that styling doesn’t fit in a Soft Jazz AC format?

The WAVE was just coming out of Los Angeles with a smooth jazz kind of sound and we described the station as being aligned with them. They didn't buy it.

No, it’s got to be Dixieland, it’s got to be Big band. Holy fuck, I knew I was dead.

Peter Fleming phoned me after the first hearing and said, “Marty, flip it back to the original license and in two weeks we are going to do a RAP and you are going to get a pass” so I knew the license was done. That was seven great years. To this day the subject will show up still in various publications or media sites. What was the magazine, oh yeah, the Georgia Straight, they called me the man who killed jazz?

When I got there a bunch of the radio guys said, “what do you know about jazz?” Nothing. “You coming here to run a jazz station?” Yep! We flipped the license and when the first book comes in and we are having a rating party the same guy that said that to me, (I think we launched with a seven-share) looked over said, “you bastard.” I said, “I told you I didn’t know anything about jazz, what do you think I was doing here?”

Bill: 16 years with Standard.

Marty: Do you know the history of my dad and Allan Slaight?

Bill: No, tell me.

Marty: Allan and dad launched CHED here in 1955. Gary and I were born about eight weeks apart, two or three blocks away from each other. In 1989 I had accepted a job in Toronto to go to CHUM-AM which I took for the wrong reason. I took it mostly because I had two young daughters, my mom was there and I wanted her to be a part of their lives. It was the wrong culture for me and the wrong time.

Jimmy Waters and I laughed. He didn’t know if I quit or he fired me or a little of both, but I was home a mere few days after leaving them when my first Gary phone call came and he said let’s go for coffee.

The decision to take the CKFM job at that point was made and I loved it there but couldn’t handle the city of Toronto raising two kids and spending three hours a day on the road. I was going days and days without seeing my kids.

I went back to Vancouver and sure as heck Gary was buying properties here and the phone call, I’ll never forget was very simple,” Marty, do you want to go home?”

I said yes, and he told me about the Edmonton opportunity, and I came in and monitored for about nine months until the commission approved everything and the beautiful part was, my whole goal in life was to catch my dad and become a general manager and to be one in the city of Edmonton where dad’s legacy was everything to me motivated me big time.

It was sixteen spectacular years of building the BEAR and the other two properties.

The launch of the AM sports station was also rewarding working with Ross Davies and Paul Williams. Unfortunately, Astral blew up EZ (CJEZ) Rock, which we had as an eight share, and is now a two share VIRGIN which is fascinating.

Allan and Gary believed it was smart that almost everybody in the chain who was a general manager was a former program director and believed if the guys were looking after the product as a priority that the sales would become easier. It was true. The work the whole chain did to establish what it is or became was thrilling and an enjoyable time.

It was a great chain for sharing knowledge and expertise, yet Gary always gave you the leeway to manage to the best of your ability as we were supposed to know your city. We did some amazing things.

I worked with the best in the biz...right from the top down...legends like Pat Holiday, Rob Braide, the late Gary Russell, Eric Samuels, JJ, and so many more. I was proud to be one of those guys.

We were all treated first-class start to finish. Great meetings in exotic locations like Vegas, Miami, New York (NBA's private suite) Nassau, Jamaica and fun and recreation with the crew were just as important as strong business sessions.

There were fun annual 'prizes' given out at our meetings too including the most bizarre-looking pillow that you had to carry back onto a plane and a ball and handcuffs, and chain given to the Manager who had the worst bad luck event during the past year.

Bill: Give me a couple of career highlights – those unforgettable moments.

Marty: The whole focus on sharing and charity and community. Revenue is one thing, ratings too, but the stuff that we did for Edmonton and our listeners will stay with me forever. The BEAR’s Kids Fund, for example, raised $2.6 million in cash in sixteen years. The cash was directed to equipment in children’s hospitals.

We used to visit kids' hospitals at Christmas to give every kid a stuffed Bear. I still hear from people twenty years later about that.

We built a suite in the Royal Alexandra Hospital that looked like every other hospital room until you opened it up, right beside the neonatal where we have eight heart monitors for newborn kids. It had TV and games for the kids, pull-out couch, food, micro-wave and stuff like that. So, mothers that had to go through the trauma with their kids, got to use this room. Our United Way was phenomenal and community service linked me to my next step in life. Half the doors that open up in your community come from the work you’ve done on the radio.

After the Astral sale, they hired me to work with their Radiothon team and we did three years with 82 stations coast to coast are raised $21 million for kids’ charities. They also wanted me to teach a course for the next Gen of GMs in the chain but just before starting the economy tanked and I was done so opened Radiowise Inc.

After seeing the millions upon millions the Slaights have given to charities across the country, well, that respect continues to this day.

Bill: Away from the radio what does the family talk about?

Marty: At Christmas, brother Gord would come in from Vancouver. He spent 38 years with Moffat and WIC., and then the Canucks. Bro Ger, from Calgary, is in the CMW Hall of Fame. Collectively with Dad, we have over 150 years of radio.

He had a great Family room where we all gathered and bonded. We would say we never had Christmas, we had conventions.

Each of the guys followed dad into the business in a different way. I could never be as good on the air as Gerry was and nor could Gord. Gord was an amazing producer and long-time sales manager.

But neither could manage or program what I did. Our home was filled with fun.

One year Dad kicked us out of the house so he could (his words) dress the Turkey. When we got back it indeed was dressed with a hat, bow tie, red lips, and a top hat. Our gift one year was batteries with a tag that said, ‘toys not included!’

It was sitting down and pontificating about life and the things that we’ve done and the places we’ve been. It was so neat and very worldly. I miss him greatly.

It was a challenge my whole career with a few people who would say, “the only reason you are in the business is because of your dad.” I worked twice as hard to make sure I earned my way as did the other two boys. Dad may have opened the door for us but we had to kick a few doors down to get into the league of respect that he got.

Bill: How would your dad deal out advice?

Marty: He had an amazing knack for never making our decisions for us. I’ll give you an example. When I had a job offer one day, I call him up and we’re talking, he says “well, I’m not going to tell you what to do son, this is one hundred percent your decision. Here are a few things you may want to consider though.”

He would give you enough info to go make the decision yourself. If I was right on my final decisions, he would acknowledge that, and if I was wrong, he would say, “well, you gave it a whirl.”

As a final note, there are four city streets named after Dad here and a building called the Jerry Forbes Centre for Community Service where 22 public service groups are housed along with 630 CHED Santa’s Anonymous that Dad started in 1955.

He’s been gone almost 40 years and is still making a difference.

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