Mere hours after veteran host Aaron Rand announced during Friday's morning show that he will be leaving CFQR (92.5 the Q), news emerged that CJFM (Virgin Radio 96) morning host Cat Spencer has been tapped to replace him.
Staff at CFQR were informed of Rand's decision on Thursday after the morning show was over. On Friday at 10am, a meeting was reportedly convened at Astral Media to announce that Cat Spencer would be leaving CJFM and moving to CFQR in September.
Rand says he was completely unaware of his employer's decision to hire Spencer until he was called into his boss's office after Friday's show. During the show, Rand said he would stay on for a few more weeks (officially until the end of April) so his station could find a replacement, but now that it seems they've found that replacement, Rand says he's not sure how long he'll still be there.
Reached by telephone on Friday afternoon, Rand was clearly unhappy about how his bosses handled the situation, concealing from him their decision to hire Spencer and allowing him to give a statement in which he "looked like an idiot" by saying the station hadn't found someone to replace him when in fact it had.
Still, the decision to leave is Rand's, both technically and realistically. He says he met with his bosses last week as negotiations were set to begin for his contract renewal (his contract ends Sept. 1), and it seemed immediately apparent that management was not particularly excited about improving his contract, nor was he particularly excited about staying.
He said he was trying to be as honourable as he could, a stark contrast to his former co-hosts Suzanne Desautels and Paul "Tasso" Zakaib, who were fired without being given a chance to say goodbye on air (though Rand put Zakaib on air via telephone and a few months later hosted a party in their honour). It all went fine until he found out about Spencer. Not that he has a problem with Spencer, or the hiring, or even the timing of such. It's the fact that he wasn't told that's left him pissed.
Rand's enjoyment of the morning job went down significantly after long-time partner Zakaib was turfed in 2009 (they had been hosting the morning show at CFQR for almost 20 years, and had co-hosted together before that for other stations since 1984). He told The Gazette in 2009 that he felt "survivor's guilt" afterward.
The format change that came with the firings also didn't work so well for Rand. The station wanted "more music" in an effort to boost ratings, so Rand's time at the mike was significantly reduced as the station began to sound more like a juke box than live radio. "I'm not a DJ," Rand told me.
In all, Rand's career on the Montreal airwaves spans 26 years, notably with CKGM, CFCF and CFQR, but during his early years he had jobs with CJFM, CHOM and CJAD.
The announcement of Rand's departure comes less than a month after CFQR was officially acquired by Cogeco Diffusion as part of the huge purchase of Corus Quebec, though there's no indication of any direct link between this decision and the change in ownership. Rand himself says linking the two is "pure speculation."
My attempts to reach management at CJFM and CFQR for comment have so far proved unsuccessful. Spencer also hasn't gotten back to me yet. But Mark Dickie, the Q's general manager, took time out of not returning my calls to tell The Gazette's Bill Brownstein that "Aaron Rand has been the cornerstone of this station for years and has consistently delivered us great radio. We wish him only the best."
The following was said on air by Rand shortly before 7:30 Friday morning:
I have decided that I'm going to be leaving the radio station and my job here as host of the morning show. After almost 26 years of sitting down to start my day by telling a couple of stories and sharing some laughs with you, my time here is coming to an end. It's never an easy decision to make, but as the expression goes "when it's time, it's time." And now is that time.
It's been a great run. I've been blessed to work with some really talented people, not the least of whom was my partner for most of those years, Tasso, who I told about my decision yesterday. And I'm also proud of the fact that as a native Montrealer I was lucky enough to work at a job I love in a city I love for my entire career. That's truly special to me.
As far as what's next, I don't really know. I do know I'm not ready to retire yet, so I'm going to spend the next little while thinking about what I'm going to do next, and sleeping in. But I promise to keep you updated through my Facebook page and let you know when I know exactly what's next. In the meantime, I'll still be here for the next few weeks while the station goes about the business of finding someone new to fill my seat.
I want to sincerely thank everyone I've ever worked with on the show over the years. Talented people like Patrick Charles, Leo Da Estrela, Murray Sherriffs, Suzanne Desautels, Glenn Repas, Melody Pierson, Sandy Weigens and Pierre Arcand. And most of all, I want to thank you. You who listen every morning, especially those of you who have been loyal listeners for longer than I care to remember.
Thank you for allowing me the privilege of entertaining you for so many years. Please believe me when I say the pleasure has been all mine.
Rand said the text of the announcement was given to management beforehand, and had he known about Spencer's impending hiring he would have deleted the sentence about sticking around as the station finds someone new.
Shortly after the announcement aired, Rand got a call from his mother (in reality, it was Zakaib, performing one of the many popular characters he brought to the morning show). Rand said the bit was a way to take the tension away after such a serious announcement.
It was good thinking. He just surprised thousands of people by telling them he's breaking up with them after 20 years together.
Last of his era
If this seems like more than just a simple case of a long-time radio personality hanging up the mike (he's pushing 60, but he said he's "not ready to retire"), it's because Rand is one of the few remaining people in commercial music radio in Montreal's anglo market who isn't afraid not to sound like a marketer sometimes. Where the standard procedure might have been to pretend his departed co-hosts never existed, Rand granted interview requests, spoke highly of them, gave Zakaib a chance to say goodbye on air and even organized a party in their honour for long-time listeners to attend.
Talk radio still has some true personalities, people like Mitch Melnick and Tommy Schnurmacher. Maybe it's inevitable that the music side can no longer afford the same kind of broadcasters, and hosts across the schedule at CHOM, CFQR and CJFM (Virgin Radio 96) will all become interchangeable parts without real personalities or even last names. If people are constantly pushing for "more music", maybe they don't care what voice tells them what song was just played and what time it is.
If that's true, you can hardly blame the stations for moving in this direction.
Stopped being fun
Though Rand's departure was clearly more amicable than was Ted Bird's from CHOM last year (Bird has since taken a job at K103 Kahnawake), there are similarities in the motivations, as hinted by Rand himself shortly after Bird's departure:
When I read about Ted Bird (who I know only in passing) and his reasons for leaving, I was struck by one central theme. Not the fact that big corporations now control the business (it's been that way for awhile), not that they seek to, as he said, take the craft out of the hands of the craftsmen (which naively maybe I choose not to believe) but by the fact that it stopped being fun for him. And in a business where translating that fun you feel into fun an audience can share, once you've lost that feeling, it's time to move on, I respect Ted for that.
I still get up every morning (at 4 not 3) and look forward to going to work. Yes, I miss seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the friends I shared that studio with for what seems like forever, but I'm a realist. You can't help but see and feel the business changing, and the choice is to either embrace that change, or be left behind by it.
Is it the right thing to do, am I still being true to myself as a performer by staying? Honestly, I don't know, but I'm willing to at least give it a shot and then make that decision with a bit of perspective to reflect on. The truth is, I still have fun doing what I do on the radio every morning. The only difference is now I'm working with other talented people who offer new perspectives, a different outlook, and maybe, a glimpse into what the future of this business will become.
It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different, But it's still fun. The day it no longer is, I'll walk away too.
On Friday, Rand agreed that a lack of fun was a big reason for leaving. "It became more and more obvious that there was less and less for me to do," he said. "You feel at some point that you're just spinning your wheels. It's time for a new challenge."
So what's next? Rand says he would like to stay in Montreal, and would like to stay in radio, but even though having creative freedom is more important to him than money right now, obviously his options are limited. K103 already has a big-name morning man (besides, Rand jokes, he doesn't smoke, and doesn't want to cross the Mercier every day). Like Bird, he highly doubts the CBC would be interested in his talents. So that leaves the Astral-owned stations: CHOM, CJFM and CJAD.
Rand said he has had some discussions with Astral, but nothing has been set yet. CJAD might be a good fit for a radio host with a talent for humour, but CHOM would also work if it would be willing to give him enough freedom. The question is whether either of them is in a hiring mood.
One thing is for sure, Rand doesn't want to retire. "I'm not for a second thinking I'm done," he said. "I can't imagine sitting around all day doing nothing."
The Gazette posted a brief based on information above, and Bill Brownstein wrote a story for Saturday's city section.
CTV Montreal takes the story a step further and reports about a source saying Cat Spencer is quitting Virgin Radio and coming to the Q. Christine Long mentions the news during the noon newscast almost as an aside to a CHOM FM bikini parade.
It didn't take long for Rand's colleagues in the Montreal radio industry to comment.
Friend of the blog Terry DiMonte comments via Facebook and Twitter that Rand, a competitor for many years, is "a class act". DiMonte, you'll remember, also left Montreal's music radio market after finding it wasn't fun anymore.
From CHOM's Rob Kemp: "The Montreal radio landscape will never be the same. ... Good luck Aaron...you are an original pro."
From co-host Murray Sherriffs: "I sitting not 2 feet from you and my resistance to get off my chair and go over an hug is waning, you big lug."
From former Q92 program director Ted Silver: "Aaron, You are the man. The best revenge will be the big numbers you put up at your next station. All the best my friend!. ... Aaron, You had a long run as the TOP morning show. This was not by accident. The station declined and you became a scapegoat. I don't know how things would have been if I was still there, but I do know that I would not have dismantled an iconic morning show. Keep in touch!"
From radio listener Sheldon Harvey: "I personally believe that when the history book is written on Montreal English
radio, Aaron Rand will probably deserve a chapter of his own. I feel that his ground-breaking afternoon drive show on the old CFCF/CIQC 600 is still one of Montreal radio's shining moments in broadcasting."
From the public, the reaction so far is supportive, but sad. Though there are some who are still ticked off that Tasso was given the boot.
Those wanting to express themselves to the Q about Rand's departure can do so on their Facebook page (though the station has shut that down in the past to clamp down on negative commentary becoming public) or by calling or emailing management. There's also Rand's own Facebook page, which he plans to keep using.
Meanwhile, in other radio staffing news
The Rand and Spencer show obscured another shifting of personalities in the anglo radio sphere on Friday. Sonali Karnick, a longtime member of the CBC Daybreak team - most recently as its sports reporter - is leaving for Toronto to be a national sports reporter for CBC. Friday was her last day on Daybreak.
And similarly, it didn't take long for a replacement to be announced. Mitch Melnick announced on his Team 990 show on Friday afternoon that his colleague Andie Bennett is heading to Daybreak to fill that void.
UPDATE: Mike Cohen reports that Freeway Frank, who used to be the morning guy at CHUM's Kool 101.5 in Calgary, will be Spencer's replacement at CJFM and will cohost the Virgin Radio morning show with Lisa Player.