Monday, April 05, 1993
Things look pretty bleak for David Marsden, general manager and program director of Vancouver radio station COAST 1040. His ratings stink. The radio station, if it remains on the AM band, is expected to lose $800,000 a year - forever. To make matters worse, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has turned down his application for an FM frequency. And the owners, after absorbing losses approaching $12-million over the past five years, have put the station up for sale.
But if Marsden is on the ropes, he's not going down without a fight. That much was apparent to anyone who saw Marsden's performance at a recent benefit concert in support of the station.
"Sign those letters and petitions," Marsden told the 1,000 or so listeners who gathered at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom to protest the CRTC's decision. "You've got to keep up the fight. Because the CRTC has a little problem with their heads up their asses. . . ."
Not exactly the most diplomatic approach, but after 30 years in radio, Marsden has a reputation for running off at the mouth. He first made his mark in Toronto in the early 1960s as motor-mouthed DJ David Mickie, even earning a reference in Marshall McLuhan's book Understanding Media. McLuhan, to illustrate the difference between the spoken and written word, transcribed Marsden's radio patter - " 'That's Patty Baby and that's the girl with the dancing feet and that Freddy Cannon there on the David Mickie Show in the night time ooohbah scubadoo how are you booboo' " - and observed that he "alternately soars, groans, swings, sings, solos, intones and scampers, always reacting to his own actions."
Marsden also did time at Canada's first progressive rock FM station (Montreal's CHOM) and at CHUM-FM in Toronto.
Over the past 15 years, however, he has become best known as Canada's most persistent proponent of modern rock radio. The format, which emphasizes new music and hip attitude, grew out of the punk boom of the late 1970s, which was all but ignored by mainstream Top-40 and album- oriented-rock stations. Today, there are about 100 modern rock stations across North America, only three of them in Canada.
The oldest of the Canadian stations is CFNY, which went modern rock in 1977 under program director David Pritchard. Marsden took over as program director in 1979 and built the station into a significant player in the Toronto radio market.
CFNY never got huge ratings - at its best, it pulled about 500,000 listeners a week and about 5 per cent share of the total hours tuned. But its willingness to take chances on new acts - it helped break bands such as U2, Talking Heads and Depeche Mode - gave it greater influence than many stations with similar ratings. The station even gained a profile outside Toronto in the 1980s when the CBC broadcast the CASBY awards, CFNY's annual music awards show, across the country.
After leaving CFNY in 1987, Marsden moved to Vancouver to produce Pilot 1, a late-night CBC variety show aimed at young viewers. The show was cancelled after less than one season and, by 1990, Marsden was back in radio.
He persuaded Western World Communications, the owners of a small, money-losing AM station in the Vancouver suburb of Langley, to try out the modern rock format. The station went on air in 1991 as COAST 800. While Marsden brought along CFNY's slogan, The Spirit of Radio, and even some of that station's gimmicks (such as paying listeners if they caught the station playing the same song twice in a day), COAST hasn't enjoyed the same success as CFNY. Even after WWC spent $3.5-million to move the station to 1040, an AM frequency that gave them a clearer signal in the downtown Vancouver area, COAST was stuck with the lowest ratings of any commercial station in the city, with only 60,000 listeners and a 1.2 per cent share of total listening hours.
Marsden blames the low ratings on a number of factors.
Part of the problem, he says, is that the station is still on the AM band, which has steadily declined in popularity over the past 15 years. While COAST last year applied for one of the two remaining Vancouver FM frequencies, the CRTC turned down the application, pointing out that the station had told the commission it could make money at 1040 AM and that, since it had only just moved, it was premature to say it couldn't succeed there.
As well, says Marsden, it takes time to educate an audience and advertisers in the different approach of a modern rock station.
"Advertisers assume that everyone who listens to the type of music we play must dress in black and have purple hair," says Marsden. "And that's just not true. If you look at the successful modern rock stations, they've been around a long time. It's taken a while for people to learn how to listen to us and for advertisers to understand what we're doing."
Yet some observers say it tends to take even longer with Marsden's stations than with other modern rock outlets. While U.S. stations such as KROQ in Los Angeles and WDRE in New York have successfully adapted the Top-40 format to new music - in effect making their own hits by repeating records until they catch on - Marsden favours something closer to the progressive rock FM of the early 1970s. In talking about his approach at COAST, he says, "This is not a format in the truest sense of the word. We're always evolving, responding to our listeners."
While that sounds good in theory, it leads to a number of problems in practice, according to those who have studied the format.
"One of the problems is that you tend to be held hostage by your core audience," says Sean Ross of M Street Journal, an industry newsletter. A former modern rock programmer (at WDRE) and radio editor for Billboard magazine, Ross speaks from experience. "Even if you play records half as often as Top 40, that's too heavy for your core audience. And you can't survive on that core audience. Your secondary and tertiary listeners - those people who make you one of the buttons on their radio - make the difference between making a living and not."
As for the move to FM, Ross says that it might help, but notes that not all of the station's problems are related to being on AM.
"Would it do better on FM?" says Ross. "Sure. But there are a whole range of other things it would need to change to succeed on FM."
In reality, it's a moot point. For the short term at least, an FM frequency is out of the question. While COAST listeners have flooded the CRTC with letters and petitions - as of last week, the Vancouver office had received 1,340 letters on the subject - the commission seldom reverses a decision. Meanwhile, WWC is looking to unload the station, which had lost $9-million before Marsden signed on and has lost another $3-million since. "We're looking at a range of possibilities, including selling the station and bringing in a partner," says WWC president Clint Forster.
Marsden, however, has not given up hope. He's cut staff, trimmed expenses and has even ended the policy of paying listeners $1,040 when the station is caught playing the same song twice in a day, all in hopes of making the operation financially viable.
Asked if he'll try to pitch The Spirit of Radio elsewhere if Forster or the new owners pull the plug, Marsden sighs. "I try not to think about it, because it would be admitting defeat. We are going to keep on going as long as we can. We're going day by day. If you check my history, I never give up when I believe in something. And I believe this will work in Vancouver."
If YOU WERE a rock radio fan in southern Ontario in the '60s or '70s, then the name David Marsden probably strikes a chord.
In 1965, the heyday of such TV rock shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo, he was fast-talking boss jock Dave Mickey. He had his own TV show, Mickey A-Go-Go.
In the late '60s and early '70s, when progressive FM was the name of the game and Toronto's CHUM-FM was the trippiest station in the country, David Marsden was the trippiest radio jock extant.
You had to get up pretty early in the morning and out of a strange bed indeed to out-weird Marsden.
"Go to your front door and turn on your porch light," he'd intone in the slowest, mellowest tone imaginable. "Turn 'em on, man. Turn on your lights for love. Let the love light shine. And to kind of help you along, why don't I just, um, ease your ears here with Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger and the Trinity and Season of the Witch. Oh my yes, brothers and sisters, this must be the season of the witch."
A rock legend, the Zaphod Beeblebrox of Canadian radio broadcasting.
STRANGER things may have been heard on Canadian airwaves, but not by reliable sources.
And here he is today, sitting in the second-floor Langley offices of Coast 800 - "The Spirit of Radio, 800 on the AM dial, Cable FM 88.5" - launching himself once more into progressive rock radio.
Marsden is director of operations and programming at Coast 800 and the station's new format, now in its 11th week, is pure Marsden.
"Most stations, the maximum number of songs, the absolute maximum in rotation, is 500 songs. Most are much, much less. Our rotation is 10,000. You aren't going to hear the same thing every couple of hours here. We've got songs in 30- and 60-day rotation; hey, we've got songs on a lunar cycle."
The station is playing rock, but not "classic" rock or top-40 rock. "We're playing what we want to hear and what our listeners tell us they want to hear." This means you get Paul Simon's The Obvious Child sandwiched between Dead Milkmen's Punk Rock Girl and John Cale and Brian Eno's latest.
(Not everyone's cup of ice tea, but refreshing. I've noticed that so-called "classic" or oldies stations that play the songs of my youth tend to wear thin quickly. Constant repetition robs the songs of their time and place and the memory associations that made them meaningful in the first place.)
AS MARSDEN notes, there is a sameness about commercial radio in the Lower Mainland. "I've nothing against classic rock, or top-40, or any format, but when everybody's playing the same thing, whew. Let's have an option. Let's have current music, some old music, some surprises. Let's have some respect for local music, the independents, and if they've got the good song, then give them air play."
Marsden has brought in such Vancouver radio legends as J. B. Shane and John Tanner to give the station the proper "authority." "We're not going to be the biggest station around, but we're going to have a loyal following."
Marsden figures rock radio has come full circle. "Rock was born on AM. Then, as AM stations tightened their playlists, the music moved to FM stations. Now that FM playlists are so tight, it's going to be AM stations that loosen it all up and move it forward again. It should be fun."