The young faces of Montreal’s drive-time radio

 

Gazette Culture section, Jan. 5

On the list of jobs everyone wants but nobody can get, radio DJ ranks pretty high. Right there with TV anchor and newspaper staff columnist. Those privileged enough to get these coveted positions seem like the luckiest people in the world, especially because the job sounds like it’s so simple.

In Montreal, the three big music stations all have announcers or hosts (what they call the DJs now) in the afternoon drive periods under the age of 35. Why is that? Shouldn’t such a prestigious position (second only to the morning drive slot) go to people who worked in the medium for decades, toiling at some obscure community station in a tiny town working as the overnight traffic announcer? What do these people have that’s so special?

For profiles that appear in Saturday’s Gazette, I met with these three announcers, all of whom got their current jobs in 2012, and asked them about their career paths. As you’ll learn, it’s a combination of good timing, talent, a lot of determination, and a bit of luck.

(These stories took a surprisingly long time to do. Astral was a bit nervous in light of the whole Bell thing, and even after I managed to do all the interviews, the story stayed in the bank for a month so it could work as a feature story in the first week of January when the local arts scene is pretty uneventful. To give you an idea, the photos of Bilal Butt and Andrea Collins, which I took during their interviews, were taken while CHOM and Virgin were still at their old studios on Fort St.)

The Beat’s Vinny Barrucco

“Cousin” Vinny Barrucco, 28, started at The Beat in May, after being poached from the same job at Virgin Radio. The Beat’s management apparently found him good enough to fire their existing drive guy and convince Vinny to stay off the radio for three months to comply with a non-compete clause in his Virgin contract.

A guy this young getting poached like this (Cat Spencer and Nat Lauzon were also lured to The Beat from Virgin, though they have much more experience) has got to get to a guy’s ego.

Vinny might seem like a goofball, and to a certain extent he is, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t work hard. He started by doing those right-of-passage jobs, interning for Mitch Melnick on Team 990 and then working at Kahnawake’s K103. He had his eyes set on Virgin, and as he tells it pestered management there for months to get noticed. Finally he was offered an overnight shift in 2009, but quickly moved up to afternoon drive, replacing Mark Bergman who became the station’s brand director.

Vinny’s story includes other tidbits, like his rejections from Concordia’s communications studies program, or the untimely death of his father that set his career back a year but also helped to get it started.

It’s the story of a man who is living his dream because he followed his passion and never gave it up. Yeah, it sounds like a cliché, but there were a few Oprah-like moments when I interviewed him at The Beat, so it seems a propos.

CHOM’s Bilal Butt

Bilal Butt, 33, is a more familiar name among Montreal radio listeners. He’s been at CHOM since 2005, and worked at CHOM and Mix 96 before that. He was mainly doing evenings until the unceremonious departure of Pete Marier led him to be upgraded to the afternoon drive slot.

When I talked to him last summer and again in the fall, he apologized for leading such a boring life. He’s just a guy with a job on the radio and a musician in his spare time.

To Butt’s boss, André Lallier, that’s what makes him so relatable to listeners: he’s just a regular guy.

Not that his life has been entirely vanilla. His home didn’t have music in it when he was growing up, and his parents didn’t approve of his career goals at first. But he loved radio too much. After interning for Cat and Nat at Mix 96, he began working for CHOM, then took a job in Fort McMurray, Alta., before coming back to CHOM in 2005. And though maybe someday when he’s older he might make the jump to mornings, he’s more than happy where he is right now, with a schedule that lets him both sleep in and go out at night, and a job that lets him play rock music and sit behind a microphone.

Virgin’s Andrea Collins

Andrea Collins, 28, is the newbie to Montreal radio. She started here in 2011, taking over Virgin’s daytime shift after Nat Lauzon left to focus more on her other projects and do weekends at what would become The Beat. In April, after Barrucco also left for The Beat, Collins was bumped up to afternoon drive.

So I guess Collins owes a lot of her career here to The Beat, even though she’s never worked there.

Collins came to Montreal after a career that led to her working at stations in Winnipeg and Victoria at stations called Kool, Curve, Bob and Q. It involved a lot of moving, but that helped her get so far in such a short time.

As I spoke to her, it had become clear that she’s embracing this city. She’s fallen in love with the Plateau (yeah, she’s become one of those people), and is working on improving her French.

One thing noteworthy about Collins is that she’s the first female solo drive-time announcer at a major commercial English station in Montreal, at least as far as anyone knows (correct me if I’m wrong here). Not that there haven’t been other women in strong positions in Montreal radio, with Sue Smith, Nancy Wood, Nat Lauzon and Donna Saker among them. But the afternoon drive post has been a pretty male-oriented slot, or with a male-female team (conversely, the workday has been mainly female-oriented for music stations like this).

What’s perhaps most remarkable is that this isn’t a big deal, either for Collins or Virgin. It may be a historical footnote, but gender wasn’t really a consideration in choosing Collins for this job, and there hasn’t been some huge feminist revolution that has opened the door to this. It just happened.

There are still some aspects of radio that are sexist in nature. Morning shows, like TV newscasts, are paired male-female, even when some of the most popular teams have been of the same gender (see: Aaron and Tasso, Terry and Ted). But it’s nice to see that another glass ceiling has disappeared, even if Collins didn’t feel it smash as she passed through.

Five things you didn’t know about professional music radio announcers

1. They listen to themselves. You might think these people just show up to work, talk about random stuff they have in their head and then go home. But they actually review a lot of what they say, and so do their bosses. It’s the best way to improve how they sound, and constant improvement is necessary in a world where success is measured by ratings. So these announcers will listen back to recordings of their breaks (in music radio, a “break” is the part where the announcer talks live into the microphone, which sounds like the exact opposite of what a break should be).

2. They’re not rich or famous. Collins and Butt drive old beat-up cars. Barrucco takes the commuter train. Though they can’t claim to be poor, radio announcers in their kinds of jobs have pretty middle-class salaries. Add to that the complete lack of job security and it’s less glamorous than you might think. As for fame, these characters walk the streets undisturbed pretty often. Butt recounts the one time someone recognized him at a Subway. Being recognized in public is the exception rather than the rule.

3. They spend a lot of time at fundraisers. It’s even written into contracts now that radio personalities have to participate in certain events to help promote the station. Add to that events that they’re asked to participate in outside of work. Part of it is because they’re perceived to be locally well-known, and part of it is that radio announcers like these tend to make good emcees.

4. Many of them work alone. Morning shows still have a concept of team, with multiple hosts, a news announcer, a traffic announcer and a technician. But most other shifts at these music stations consist of a single person, who hosts and operates the boards, cueing songs and taking calls. There’s enough time to do it with all the music that plays, but it’s quite a bit of multitasking, and it takes a while to get it all down without screwing things up. Adding social media communication to the mix only adds to that workload.

5. They plan what they say. A good deal of research goes into these shifts. Music announcers have to keep up on the latest news and get everything from celebrity gossip to concert announcements to relay that information to listeners. Even finding little bits of trivial information to send out between two songs requires going out and finding it. It’s not exactly like putting together a Master’s thesis every day, but it’s still a lot of work.

28 thoughts on “The young faces of Montreal’s drive-time radio

  1. Shawn

    Great stories and interviews Steve.
    It is amazing how many announcers have come and gone through the doors at these thee stations in the last few years. The stations need to build consistency to maintain listenership.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      It is amazing how many announcers have come and gone through the doors at these thee stations in the last few years. The stations need to build consistency to maintain listenership.

      Montreal radio stations are actually more consistent than most. The recent shuffling has been higher than normal mainly because of The Beat stealing talent from Virgin, which I’m guessing they’ve finished now.

      If you look at CHOM’s lineup, people like Tootall, Bilal, Rob Kemp, Randy Renaud, Sharon Hyland and Jason Rockman, it’s been pretty consistent for the past few years.

      Reply
      1. Shawn

        True. I would say the names at CHOM are familiar but within they have shuffled them around. I am also thinking of the exits of other announcers, Rand, Tasso, Marier etc.

        Reply
  2. Steve W

    Is the new Virgin 96 Studio in Astral Building on Papineau at street level(that’s what it seems from checking the Virgin’s Tony Stark picture caption)?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Is the new Virgin 96 Studio in Astral Building on Papineau at street level(that’s what it seems from checking the Virgin’s Tony Stark picture caption)?

      It’s on the second floor of that building. See more in this blog post.

      Reply
  3. Michael D

    Nice bit Steve, I’d be interested in a look at weekend radio AM-FM here in town. Although,it shouldn’t take much time for the ‘AD stuff, since they’re mostly Best Ofs, I suspect either to save money, which will probably change when AM 600 gets going again, or their talent is that thin. Maybe it’s time is they have a Dave Fisher-type for anchoring weekend afternoons..

    The FM stations should prove to be a good read if you decide to do something..

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Nice bit Steve, I’d be interested in a look at weekend radio AM-FM here in town. Although,it shouldn’t take much time for the ‘AD stuff, since they’re mostly Best Ofs,

      I count a few best-ofs on weekends, but a lot of weekly one-hour (or two-hour, or half-hour) shows, with people like Lisa Christensen, Chris Robinson, Todd van der Heyden, Lesley Chesterman, Christopher Dimakos, Dan Delmar/Supriya Dwivedi, Joe Schwarcz, Sharman Yarnell and Sydney Miller, plus a few syndicated programs. That’s a lot of people.

      On the FM side, CHOM (Sharon Hyland/Rob Kemp/Randy Renaud) and The Beat (Pete Marier/Nat Lauzon/Anne-Marie Withenshaw) have decent weekend crews. Virgin’s is less impressive, with Kelly Alexander in mornings and Isabelle Racicot doing a weekly show, plus MC Mario, but the rest is filled with syndicated shows and pretaped stuff from the weekday hosts.

      One of these days, I’ll get around to profiling everyone who works in radio, but I’ve got enough stories on my plate right now that I have to finish before I start working on new ones.

      Reply
      1. Marc

        with people like Lisa Christensen, Chris Robinson, Todd van der Heyden, Lesley Chesterman, Christopher Dimakos, Dan Delmar/Supriya Dwivedi, Joe Schwarcz, Sharman Yarnell and Sydney Miller, plus a few syndicated programs.

        In bold are the only ones worth listenining to. Dan Delmar has to be the single most insufferable guy on English radio.

        On the FM side, CHOM (Sharon Hyland/Rob Kemp/Randy Renaud) and The Beat (Pete Marier/Nat Lauzon/Anne-Marie Withenshaw) have decent weekend crews.

        The one and only person at CHOM on weekends worth your time is Picard. For that matter, it’s also easy during the week: TooTall. That’s it.

        Virgin’s is less impressive[…]plus MC Mario

        MC Mario…how old is he now… 70?

        Reply
      2. Gazoo

        Speaking of weekend shows, out of curioisty, what happened to Kim Fraser on CJAD? Was she not doing the afternoons on the weekend or did she get replaced by Todd Van (I left Montreal but still want to be heard back home!)?

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Speaking of weekend shows, out of curioisty, what happened to Kim Fraser on CJAD?

          She left the station in March. She now does PR for the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation.

          Reply
  4. Marc

    In Andrea’s bit you mention she’s the first woman to do the drive home. Didn’t Maureen Hattaway do that for a while on Q92 or Mix?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      In Andrea’s bit you mention she’s the first woman to do the drive home.

      I actually don’t know that for sure. But it’s unusual.

      Didn’t Maureen Hattaway do that for a while on Q92 or Mix?

      Maureen Holloway did do afternoons at Q92, but I’m not sure if it was from here or Toronto. I’ll see if I can find out.

      Reply
      1. Steve W

        Maureen Holloway did Q-92 afternoons from her home in Toronto(although she’s originally from Montreal). In your article, you already mentioned Sue Smith. She’s solo host of ‘Homerun’ on CBC Radio in afternoon drive slot & she preceded Andrea Collins doing afternoon drive.

        Reply
  5. Mario

    Great read Steve. However there is no mention to the young talent that spews out of TSN690. You have folks at TSN690 in their 20’s producing shows and gabbing for 3hours + at times. And thank goodness the lockout is over because now they can focus on their bread and butter; Hockey!

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Great read Steve. However there is no mention to the young talent that spews out of TSN690.

      There are dozens of radio personalities I haven’t interviewed yet. But this story had a narrow focus, and with all due respect to Mitch Melnick, he’s not under 35.

      Reply
          1. Johnny B

            Melnick won’t be around forever, Steve. It’s time for you to expose some of the up-coming talent on TSN 690. Gallo breaks his ass everyday to make Melnick’s show sound reputable. Not to mention Francis and of course, Sean Campbell who is looooooooooong overdue for his own show. Pepper in some variety.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              Melnick won’t be around forever, Steve. It’s time for you to expose some of the up-coming talent on TSN 690.

              I’ll try my best. Have to get a few other stories off my plate first before I look for new ones.

              Reply
  6. Derek Cassoff

    Great read, Steve, as usual. But what’s with the art beneath the three head shots on the Gazette break page? Looks very desert-like to me (California stock photo perhaps?) They couldn’t at least use a Montreal highway scene here?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      But what’s with the art beneath the three head shots on the Gazette break page? Looks very desert-like to me (California stock photo perhaps?) They couldn’t at least use a Montreal highway scene here?

      It’s a stock photo. Not much selection of cheap Highway 20 stock shots. Besides, I think people would prefer to forget about our snowy highways about now.

      Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Great photos with this blog post, by the way. The one of Andrea is stunning.

          That’s not even the best photo I’ve taken of her. I’m more partial to this one. But yeah, I’ll take all the credit as a master photographer, as opposed to her just being exceptionally pretty or something.

          Reply

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