Sharon Taylor Invu: Rosalie Award Winner Karen Steele
Karen Steele is the 2022 Rosalie Award Winner – named in honour of Rosalie Trombley the legendary music director of CKLW. The Rosalie Award recognizes Canadian women who have blazed new trails in radio.
Q: You started out in the Niagara Region - took broadcasting at Niagara College. Is that where you are from? What can you tell us about your childhood, family and teen years?
KS: I was born in Niagara and my mom worked at Niagara College when I was a kid so I spent many years there long before I ended up going to Niagara College. We moved around a lot when I was a kid because of my mother’s work - living in Oakville, Orangeville, Guelph, Elora, Welland and St. Catharines. Definite tomboy raised by a fiercely independent single mom (Kay MacLeod) along with my older sibling Shauna. I also have two rock star siblings, Megan and Chris Steele.
Q: Did you listen to the radio a lot when you were a teen? What stations and personalities do you remember liking?
KS: Living in Niagara I used to listen to a lot of cross-border radio stations in Buffalo – namely KISS 98.5 but got most of my music fix watching MuchMusic, and CityLimits.
Q: What was the first LP or cassette that you bought and what/where was your first concert?
KS: The first 45 I bought was Blondie – Heart of Glass. The first CD – Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and I wore out Lenny Kravitz’s Let Love Rule on cassette.
The first concert, I think was Kim Mitchell and his Patio Lanterns tour in Fergus but I’m sure my mom took me to more shows at the Ontario Place Forum as a kid.
Q: Did you originally hope to be on the air? If so, what changed your mind?
KS: I think my voice is what got me my first job with 97.7 HTZ-FM but my goal when I was in school was to be a TV or Film producer, director or on camera. So, yes – I wanted to be on-air but it wasn’t originally in radio. I was on-air on 610 CKTB Saturday afternoons in the early ’90s..but it wasn’t for me. I needed to try out everything in radio to find my fit. I voiced the 97.7 HTZ-FM Rock Calendar feature (local club and concert listings). I remember it being such a big deal to say. “97.7 HTZ-FM presents” before Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica…. just a blast.
Q: You started your career at rocker HTZFM in St Catharines as a "cruiser girl". What was your first job experience like?
KS: It’s exactly what you think it would be. A 20-year-old female representing a rock station at concerts, festivals and events that usually involve beer with a 90s mentality. It was a volunteer gig to get my foot in the door. I was also working in several bars at the time so I would say the experience was pretty much the same. I was truly proud to be a part of 97.7 HTZ-FM and the crew that worked there at the time. I loved walking through the doors of the White House of Rock.
Q: You spent several years in St Catharines and became PD, then left for an APD/Promotions Director job for CORUS in Burlington that lasted for a year. After that, you came to Toronto. Tell us about those moves.
KS: I don’t know if I would have ever left 97.7 HTZ-FM if it hadn’t been sold. The crew at 97.7 and the station itself was/is legendary. Eric Samuels gave me my first break in radio and I feel like it was an hour-long interview just to work voluntarily. Eric has always been a terrific supporter and friend over the years (and an exceptional programmer).
Greg Slaight – who was the GM at the time trusted everyone on his team to do their job and let them do it. Everyone on the team could tap into their creativity and push boundaries and no one was counting the hours we worked…we all wanted to be there. We wanted to win (and have fun).
I worked in Promo, became an APD and then Greg Slaight trusted me with the PD role at 97.7 HTZ-FM. He never looked at me as a female for the role – he looked at me as qualified. I believe I was the first female PD in Standard Broadcasting’s history.
The only reason I left was that the station had been sold. I called Stew Meyers and asked him if he could keep an ear out for anything. Within a week – I got called for an opportunity at Energy Radio. Shaw was going to become Corus and the vision was for Energy to be part of the network and eventually be in Toronto.
My goal at that time was to be a Toronto Program Director and this move made sense as the next step in my career.
Within a year, my old company (JJ Johnston) called me to come work in Toronto for MIX 99.9. I truly loved my time at Energy and the people I got to work with. After spending 9 years at Rock, CHR was such a blast so I didn’t want to leave however – Toronto was calling with an APD/Promo Director opportunity at head office. I was also looking forward to the opportunity of working with and learning from JJ. I was eventually promoted to Director of Promo for Standard Radio Toronto (MIX/EZ Rock and CFRB). I got to work with a lot of exceptional people at the MIX. I was promoted to PD by Pat Holiday and Gary Slaight. A couple of years later – the company was being sold.
I was approached to take on another position within the company (not programming) so I decided to leave.
Q: Then a weird detour into Publicity and Promotions for Warner Bros (the film company). Why?
KS: I would say wild, not weird. A massive learning curve for sure. When I took a time out from radio - I decided to try film, as that’s what I originally went to school for and didn’t want to time out in life with a “what if?”. The role had been created for me on a National level and I looked at it as an opportunity to use my promo skillset in a different medium. I learned so much in such a short run (6 months) and worked with some truly talented people however it wasn’t for me. I heard KiSS 92.5 had come back (formerly KiSS 92) and I always loved my time at CHR so I called Julie Adam and…. I think I had the job within 48 hours. Julie works very fast!
Q: OK now you are back programming, this time for Bell in Kitchener before again returning to Toronto with Bell as PD of 99.9 Virgin Radio. You are 5 years into that gig. How's it going?
KS: t’s been a challenge for all of us in Covid. I also think we’ve found ways to do what we do better. We’ve had to get even more creative. We’ve had to program and create content in a way none of us had experienced before.
Sarah Cummings along with David Corey created an opportunity for me in KW with Virgin Radio and 99.5 KFUN with Bell Media which got me back to my roots in radio and then eventually back to Toronto with 99.9 Virgin Radio.
Q: You and your husband Blair (Blair Bartrem is a programmer who has helmed stations like Q107 and MIX99.9 and is currently with Rogers Toronto) must be the poster couple for radio relationships. It is tough to plan a future together when you're not sure where you might be going next, or who might have work and who might not. Tell me how the 2 of you manage and any tips you can offer for a successful marriage in this industry.
KS: We’ve worked together off and on over the years and both of us come from a promotions background, so we love to collaborate and build on ideas. When we’re not working together but instead with competitors – we don’t bring it home. We’re both quite competitive so while we want each other to succeed – we are dedicated to the jobs we’re performing at the time.
Q: What are your challenges in the Toronto market these days?
KS: I’d say how much the world has changed in 2+ years is our biggest challenge. People’s habits and behaviours have changed as have their priorities. We must work at building and maintaining that relationship with our listeners/consumers and cut through all the similar formats with strong, entertaining talent and earn their ears and time.
Q: Now let's talk about management's role in controlling behaviour that is negative. How close are you to your talent? How much of a problem has this been for you in your programming career?
KS: I’ve been able to work with some phenomenal talent over the years. Every personality is different and it’s important to know how they want to be treated/coached. As we’ve all come from different areas in our careers before we’ve become Programmers – coaching is a tool we need to continue to invest in. It’s such an integral part of the role so it’s an area I continue to develop and grow in and learn from my team to help them do the same.
Q: You have won awards; your stations have won awards - how do you measure success for Karen?
KS: We were conditioned when younger that winning an award/medal was an indication of your success/winning. What I love even more – is when it’s a team win – how everyone on the team feels about the work they’ve done and the recognition for their efforts. Success for me is continued growth and loving what I do.
Q: Radio programming is tough and stressful, especially in a major market where every share is worth so much money. You’ve done the demanding work and have a terrific career. What was your favourite part of your job 25 years ago, and what's your favourite part today?
KS: Great question! My favourite part 25 years ago? I would say working in any environment where you are given the freedom to be creative and move quickly. I was fortunate enough to work at a time – when you didn’t have to put a filter on every idea or word. We never had our creativity diminished. We were encouraged to push the envelope and have fun.
My favourite part today is – I’m still learning, and I give myself time to learn and grow. I’m more focused and intentional with my energy and what I do. In February I decided to start my days at 5 am and dedicate an hour to myself to learn anything that interests me in courses and a few Masterclasses. I still have a lot to learn and as always, a work in progress.
Karen Steele will be presented with her award during CMW this week.
Sharon Taylor can be reached at email@example.com