Stop me if you've heard this one before: Big local radio personality decides he's had enough of how faceless corporations have micromanaged what happens on air, taking all the fun out of it. So instead, he's moving to a low-power station few of his fans have ever heard of, becoming a big fish in a smaller pond, sacrificing a big paycheque for more creative freedom. The small station, not licensed in a way that would normally make it a competitor to the big commercial stations, decides it's going to go after a bigger mainstream crowd to attract more advertising revenue.
It's easy to see the parallels with Ted Bird here. Give me another example of this happening and I can write a trend story about it.
I went by Mike FM (CKDG) last week to sit in on a broadcast of the Tasso and Patrick show, which debuted on Oct. 24. It stars Paul Zakaib, who has been better known as Tasso since the 80s and has been mostly off the air since he was sacked from the CFQR morning show he shared with long-time partner Aaron Rand in 2009. With him is Patrick Henry Charles, who worked on the Aaron and Tasso show from 2001 until he got a better offer from competitor Astral to be part of CJFM's morning team, but about a year later was moved into a position that gave him less airtime and far less exposure.
I talk about Mike FM and Tasso and Patrick in an article that appeared in The Gazette on Tuesday. It reveals, among other things, that there were talks about bringing an Aaron and Tasso show to the station, but they fell through the cracks when Rand was hired to do an afternoon show at CJAD.
So Zakaib called up his old pal Charles, who had recently left Astral because he felt his talents were being wasted there. They met with CKDG GM Marie Griffiths, and before long the Tasso and Patrick show was born.
Griffiths is taking advantage of the big names coming on board to promote the station, which includes things like a branded SUV, a Page A3 ad in The Gazette, and hiring a PR company to send out a press release and organize a VIP meet-and-greet (celebrating the announcement as well as the first anniversary of sister station CKIN-FM).
That PR part complicated matters for me somewhat. I had arranged with Charles directly to sit in on their program during its first week, but was turned away when I showed up, asked to arrange it with the PR agency instead. I understand the logic, not wanting to see that PR money go to waste, but it still resulted in me losing an afternoon. Shortly thereafter, I sold The Gazette on the story, and after a few emails back and forth I was scheduled to visit the station again.
Though it was implied that there were other journalists wanting to get a piece of Tasso and Patrick, it probably won't surprise you to learn that I'm the only one to publish anything about them since their debut, aside from the usual press release republishers.
Inside the studio
Perhaps the thing that struck me most about sitting in on this show was the sight of Zakaib with a binder and a stopwatch. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was timing how long they were talking. They're still tinkering with the show, and he wants a log that he can reference while planning.
For someone who comes across on the air as an improvisational slacker, Zakaib is taking this job surprisingly seriously, at least from the perspective of someone who doesn't work in the industry.
They can't put an exact time on it, because much work is done at home at odd hours, and because they don't really consider it work when they do things like read articles they might want to discuss on air, but Zakaib and Charles say they spend a few hours preparing each show. That means coming up with a script, but in most cases that's something as vague as a subject or news story they've agreed to discuss.
Charles, of course, does music parodies, which are posted to the show's Facebook wall. The day of the visit from me and Gazette photographer Allen McInnis, Mike FM had taken an ad out in that morning's paper. (The timing was a coincidence - I wasn't aware of the ad until I saw it in the paper.) Charles celebrated by writing a song about it, to the tune of Elton John's Bennie and the Jets.
A week later, when the article came out, Charles took the same song and rewrote it slightly (the chorus, "we're in today's Gazette", works for both).
The show itself is about what you'd expect for an FM music station. Lots of hits (the focus is on hits from the 70s to 90s, so you can hear everything from Britney Spears to AC/DC), and funny banter and bits between (many of which involve Tasso going to his car and phoning in using a funny voice).
What you won't hear much is the extras that drive-time shows are filled with. There's no newscast, just the two hosts chatting about interesting stories in the news. Weather is done occasionally by reading off Charles's iPad. And traffic is rare, and half of that is fake, funny traffic from special correspondent Elaine Closure (get it?). I wrote in the piece that Charles finds traffic reports annoying, but he clarified on air that it's more the frequency of them that he can't stand.
To give you an idea of what they sound like, I've compiled clips from their first show on Oct. 24 (MP3). There's also some nuggets of information in there.
Tasso and Patrick are joined, mostly behind the scenes, by Felix (Shotgun) Sullivan, who handles the board and music. On the left, you'll see a small whiteboard he writes the names of songs on (in the photo, it's Van Halen's Panama), to remind the announcers when they forget (which is often). He might look like a pot smoker off the street, but Sullivan actually studied at the London School of Economics and was hired for his financial skills, until his passion for music resulted in him being moved into an in-studio job.
Zakaib admitted that this is all a big gamble, for both sides. He and Charles are gambling that they can make a decent (though not necessarily lavish) living at a small-budget station. Griffiths and Mike FM are gambling that the money they're spending on this talent will repay itself in the form of increased audience and ad revenue.
Because it's not willing to pay the $40,000 a year it costs to be part of the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement ratings system, CKDG doesn't get the kind of numbers that the big stations do. Instead, they're grouped in with every other small station from CKUT to CKRK in that 6% block of "other" when the ratings come out.
Griffiths doesn't object just to the cost, but the fact that BBM separates the audience into French and English, which she says introduces a bias against multicultural stations (CKDG broadcasts in other languages, particularly Greek, outside of the morning and afternoon drive shows and her own mid-morning call-in show MG Live).
So instead, Griffiths relies on contests to keep a measure of audience, and uses testimonials to attract new advertisers.
Power boost, maybe
Owner Canadian Hellenic Cable Radio Ltd. (the name comes from the fact that CKDG used to be a cable-only station) has an application in front of the CRTC for a year and a half now asking for a change in frequency from 105.1 to 106.7 MHz, with a boost in power from 141 to 407 watts. Even with that boost, which will increase its coverage area and make it easier to pick them up from inside buildings, it still compares very poorly to the 40,000-watt commercial music stations.
(The application also points out the marketing advantage of having CKDG and sister station CKIN-FM 106.3 closer together on the dial, and being able to sell them as "the 106es" - I'm not a radio marketing expert, but I don't know how significant that is.)
The application paints a dire picture if CKDG isn't awarded the frequency, but Griffiths downplayed the application, saying "there's no urgency" for the change, though she would have liked to have had it done before the big marketing push this fall.
The delay is curious, with the most logical explanation being that the CRTC had to deal with a pirate radio station in Kahnawake operating on 106.7. That station, Kahnawake Keeps It Country, got CRTC approval for low-power broadcast and launched as CKKI-FM on 89.9 MHz on Nov. 1.
Listening to the Tasso and Patrick show, it's clear that Charles and Zakaib have chemistry, which is natural from them having worked together for so many years. Even Astral VP Martin Spalding, who admitted that the company couldn't find somewhere to use Charles's talents properly, said he liked what his former employee was putting on the air.
As for the suggestion that this show puts Aaron against Tasso, both parties reject that. Yes, they're both on weekday afternoons, but Rand is doing news-talk (Spalding said Rand had impressively reinvented himself to fit in with his new role at CJAD), while Zakaib is doing music and comedy.
I don't know how many fans there are out there who want to listen to both, but I guess they're just going to have to live with it and pick one.
UPDATE (Jan. 14): Richard Burnett talks to Zakaib (along with returning radio star Terry DiMonte) for his Gazette blog. Zakaib had some not-so-nice things to say about Montreal's radio ownership oligopoly.