Thursday, June 5, 2014

You're Listening to CFRU, 93.3 FM in Guelph...

PREFACE: Scrolling through Facebook recently, a friend posted a link to a two-decade old video promoting CFRU, the University of Guelph's campus radio station. Based on the date, it was shot around the time of my first spell in a space I knew very well by the time I left the Royal City. Memories good and bad flooded back.

A great topic to write about, right?

Except that I already had. A Google search showed I wrote a lengthy piece about my days at CFRU five years ago, marking the 10th anniversary of the final edition of my weekly music show. Which is now almost 15 years ago. Which is alternately amazing (wow, those 15 years flew by fast!) or frightening (15 years ago? HOLY SH*T!)

So, here's a compromise. Most of what follows is the post from five years ago, with additional images and stories.

You might say I would wind up on the radio one way or another. As a kid I taped mock radio programs on my Fisher-Price cassette recorder, complete with fake ads and song intros. I imagined having a studio at my disposal, with an endless tower of records to play in a WKRP in Cincinnati setting. Reality dictate I had the tape recorder, a Fisher-Price turntable, and my imagination. The radio station was always the same (CHJZ - no idea what the letters stood for), as was the advertiser ("Harrison, we're the quality people"), who sold ACME-like products with a gravelly-voiced pitchman named Doc.


I first volunteered at CFRU early in my first year at U of G. I figured that organizing the messy stacks of vinyl in the station's record library would provide a good idea of what the station had to offer. Within a few months I looked into training for going on air, but was told by management that I couldn't do a freeform show and had to work within a niche—several were suggested (punk, rap, world), but none were in genres that I knew in depth. Still, a challenge was a challenge, so I thought about what could work...until it was also made clear by one of the station's programmers that my lack of minority status of any sort would probably prevent me from getting a show.

There was little use sticking around when the welcome mat wasn't being rolled out.

I didn't step foot in CFRU for over a year-and-a-half. By the summer semester between my second and third years, station management had changed and projected a more welcoming attitude. Needing something to occupy my time, I gave my original plan a second try. Returning to the record library, I spent several months reorganizing the collection. As Christmas of '96 drew nearer, I was allowed to fiddle with the mixing board and reel-to-reel deck in the off-air studio. By January, I was off for a semester in England, where I worried for a time that being away for several months would return me at square one whenever I returned.

These fears, like all the others I had overseas about various things I left behind, were groundless. Within a few weeks of returning to Guelph, some brave soul decided I was ready to go on air. After a few weeks of filling airtime in odd slots, I received a weekly two-hour slot. Freeform was A-OK by this point—my pitch involved playing records from the library that hadn't appeared to have had a good workout in years. As long as I didn't play any contemporary top 40 hits and filled the CanCon requirements, everyone was happy.

All I needed was a name. The winner derived from a recurring SCTV skit where Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas played organ salespeople. For the next two years, listeners were treated to "everything including the kitchen sink" on JB's Musical Warehouse and Curio Emporium. CBC's Night Lines was the show's main inspiration, with themed sets and a taste for cheesy guilty pleasures. There were occasional album spotlights and passages read from books to provide context for the tunes on the playlist. The creative energy I had felt building inside while I was in London now had an outlet and I was going to ride on it as long as possible.


During my first show, the lone request was from a pre-teen who wanted to hear the Spice Girls. Since the station's mandate was to be non-commercial, I had to break her the bad news that we didn't have any. This came as a relief, since I had just endured four months of constant exposure to the Spices in the UK.

There was one running joke when it came to requests. My friend Brad occasionally phoned in to hear the Alan Parsons Project, partly because he liked them, partly because he knew how I loathed most 1970s prog rock. We'd laugh before moving on to another choice, though once I surprised him by digging out a dusty disc.

Callers kept me amused whenever I hosted a late night fill-in slot. The timeslot attracted drunks and stoners, and it wasn't unusual for listeners to request the same tune two, three, even five times in a row (usually whenever I played tracks from The History of Vancouver Rock Volume 3). One store owner requested a disc of shows from the show. I even had a brief fling with a listener who liked my voice, which luckily didn't end as a remake of Play Misty For Me.


Digging through the station's archives was like being a kid in a candy store. It wasn't unusual for me to spend hours in there even on days I wasn't on-air. No matter how many times I sorted shelves, something new turned up. Sampling reel-to-reel tapes stored in containers that predated me. Finding a mini-reel of pun-heavy federal customs ads from the 1980s warning about the dangers of carrying drugs abroad. Concept albums about maple syrup with university folk ensembles. Obscure off-Broadway musicals where the lead instrument was autoharp. Eight-track carts pondering if nuclear plants and salmon could co-exist. Rare 1960s Canadian rock albums. And so on...

During the summer of 1998, government funding opened up a couple of temporary jobs at the station. I spent two months as a fundraising coordinator, researching new methods of raising funds during the station's annual pledge drive. The job demanded little, so I spent most of my day working on other projects around the station. The experience was most useful as a prelude to working at The Ontarion, as I had a sneak preview of the politics and personalities that rarely produced a dull moment on the second floor of the University Centre.

Case in point: I volunteered to produce the summer edition of the station's program guide. Staff were generally happy with it, until one member blew up over one of my image choices - clip art resembling the pyramid eye symbol on the back of the US dollar bill. Seems this symbol was also used by hate groups. This problem was discovered after the guide was printed. Angry staffer forced me to glue a replacement image over the offending one on all copies. Other staff viewed the incident with amusement, or rolled their eyes. I think the replacement image was a dollar symbol ("$"), but don't quote me on that. As you can see, I kept a copy of the original.

The low point came during a staff meeting where another summer hire kept shutting down or flipped the bird at other staffers they disagreed with. My usual high level patience while sitting through nonsensical arguments wore thin. I reached my breaking point and had a rare volcanic eruption, yelling "STOP IT!" at the top of my lungs before fleeing in tears (at this time, I feared if I said the wrong thing to the wrong person, I'd be put through the ringer and have an "oppressor" label attached to me that would blacklist me from other campus organizations). I ran into my office, where one of the other coordinators helped me regain my composure with calming words. Just as I was almost back to my usual state of mellowness, the annoying employee walked in and made a snarky comment. Bad timing, as the anger came roaring back and I yelled something along the lines of "I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR BULLS**T!" The recipient warned me never to come near them again, which was fine by me.


I taped many of the shows, but usually hit the fast forward button when my voice came on. I've never been comfortable hearing playback of my yakking, but I figured the tapes would be something to treasure in the future. It may have also been a case of not wanting to obsess over flaws in my on-air delivery that Dad pointed out, such as a tendency to say "um" or "uh" a lot.

Don't let some of the events I've described give you the impression being on the air wasn't fun—I enjoyed every moment of it. New worlds of music opened up, especially 60s rock from Brazil and Quebec. Anytime I received a positive call or a staffer walked into the studio with a wide grin, it boosted my confidence and made me feel good that somebody's day was lightened up for a second.


Like many good things, my DJing career came to an end. A new job in Toronto meant no more weekday show. I was offered a late night slot, but figured the commute would leave me sounding like a dead man on the air. So, after two years on the air, JB's Musical Warehouse and Curio Emporium closed up shop on August 26, 1999. Since I had already started working in my new habitat, the final, less-eclectic-than-usual show was pre-taped onto two 60-minute cassettes. The playlist below comes from the tape index—an archaeological dig is required to find the tapes, so I can't say at the moment what my final words of wisdom were.

I continued to do occasional fill-ins over the next few years, then hosted a late night shift on alternating Fridays over the summer of 2004. The enjoyment level was still there, but my earlier fears about energy proved true as I nearly dozed off while driving back to Toronto at two in the morning.


Hour One
Nardwuar Versus Gilligan - NARDWUAR/BOB DENVER
Julianna - PAUPERS
Rainbow Of Fire - COLLECTORS
The Jungle Line - JONI MITCHELL

Boot To The Head - FRANTICS*
Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart - THE MOVE
Blackberry Way - THE MOVE

Flowers In The Rain - THE MOVE
Night Of Fear - THE MOVE
Cherry Blossom Clinic - THE MOVE
Desculpe, Baby - OS MUTANTES
El Justicero - OS MUTANTES

Hour Two
Across 110th Street - BOBBY WOMACK & PEACE
Fantasy Is Reality - PARLIAMENT
Funky Woman - PARLIAMENT
I Walk The Line - JOHNNY CASH

Heartaches By The Number - RAY PRICE
Good Hearted Woman - WAYLON JENNINGS
Old Corrals & Sagebrush - IAN TYSON

I Learn A Merengue, Mama - ROBERT MITCHUM
007 (Shanty Town) - DESMOND DEKKER
Summer Side Of Life - GORDON LIGHTFOOT

 * The "Boot to the Head" song was played on the air, not any of the various skits that employed the phrase

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