An Interview with a Canadian Radio Legend

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

I first heard Roger Ashby on CHUM-FM in late 1986 when I visited Toronto as a tourist.  There was something about his natural style and on air manner that impressed me.  Roger and the CHUM FM morning show have rated at or near the top of morning drive for almost 25 years so clearly a lot of listeners also feel the same way.  Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Roger and talk radio.  I was impressed to find that Roger was the same off the air as he is on the air.  We enjoyed a wonderful lunch together and a follow-up phone call and I wanted to pass along some of the things we discussed in the hope you will be inspired as I was by the conservation.

How long have you been interested in radio?  When my mother died I found a letter she had written to her sister and in it she said, “Roger is playing radio again,” and when I looked at the date I figured I was only 3 ½ years old.  By age 10 my father built me a mock studio in the basement and I sat down there for hours. Other kids were going to football games and I was downstairs rehearsing radio, so by the time I got my first part-time job in radio I was 17, I considered myself to have already had 7 years radio experience.

How did you get into radio?  When I was in high school I met a fellow who worked part-time at a local Kitchener radio station.  I was invited to sit in the studio with him while he did the all night show.  I did this for several Saturday nights, and I found out that he also had a pretend radio station in the basement of his house so I would go to his house and we’d play radio together.  Through him I met other broadcasters and eventually I got a part time job at another Kitchener station when I was 17 as a board operator.  The FM station was just being launched at that time and they needed weekend announcers and they gave me a shot at it.  I did this while I was in Grade 13 and when I graduated I had every intention of going to university, but by that summer I was offered job in Hamilton at CKOC.  So I went to Hamilton just before my 19th birthday and worked there for a year with Nevin Grant and Dave Charles.  Then in the following year I was offered a job at CHUM AM in Toronto and I’ve been there ever since.

Who influenced you when you were young?  Well my first radio hero was John Spragge who did middays on CHUM in the 60’s.  I liked him because he was very smooth, he had no gimmicks and he sounded like a nice man on the radio.  I always admired his sound and his style and I always tried to emulate him. When I started in 1969 at CHUM he had left the year before, but I had the chance to meet him many times over the years and I always impressed upon him how much of an influence he was on me. John died recently and I went to his funeral and met his family. They told me how much John had enjoyed listening to me.

Has it always been plain sailing for you Roger?  Well no, I’ve had a few ups and downs.  I worked part time in the programming department in the 70’s, and actually came off the air for a period of time.  But I realized after a few years that this was not what I wanted to do, and so did the radio station, so I went back to being a swing announcer.  But I never felt threatened and that was because of the Waters family who owned CHUM and especially Mr Waters’ attitude from the top that filtered down.  So I did swing for a while and when Tom Rivers was fired in 1982 they put me into AM Drive on a temporary basis on 1050 CHUM.  I did that show for 3 years and then went back to swing. And then Ross Davies, who was the Program Director of CHUM FM, said if they don’t want you over there come on over here and do the morning show, and that was in 1985.

What advice would you give for those thinking about getting into radio today?  Well I tell them to take a good hard look at it because the community colleges are turning out students by the dozens and I don’t know where most of these kids end up because most of the entry level positions seem to have been eliminated.  I also tell students to be sure that you are passionate about the business because if you’re in a class of 20 students and only 4 of them are passionate, then chances are those 4 will succeed and the others will not.  I also tell students to listen to as much radio as you can, and develop your own style based on someone you admire, get to know as many broadcasters as you can because networking is important. Also when you get that first radio job, presumably in a small market, work hard to improve your skills, learn as much as you can and then look for your next opportunity in a bigger market.  Keep doing this until you end up in the market where you want to be.  Then when you are happy you can settle down and make a good life there.

What advice would you give for those who would like to do a morning show?  Well you’re going to have to have something a little more special than the people on the air in the other day-parts have.  You need the ability to communicate, to speak to people in such a way that they feel you are a companion.  I believe that I serve three purposes on the air: to inform, to entertain and to act as a companion.  When listeners tell me they have grown up listening to me and they feel like they know me, that is the highest compliment that anyone can pay me, because it means I have really made a connection with that person.  I am not just another voice on the air.  It’s also important to think about how you are being heard. Think about how the listener perceives you.  Ask yourself, am I stating this clearly, have I given all the information, have I delivered it in a logical fashion and have I said it like I would if I was sitting beside my best friend having a conservation with him or her.  Lastly, always imagine you are delivering this to one person, because everyone listens to the radio with their own two ears, and although you may be speaking to tens of thousands of people at any one time, I always imagine I am speaking to just one person, and I always think about how that person may be perceiving what I am saying.

Any suggestions on how to succeed working in a multi person morning show?  You always have to be mindful not to step on other voices in the show.  You also need to be careful not to always get the last word in, and don’t try to be the king of the castle.  You have to respect the other people you work with and you have to get along, because if you don’t then audiences will detect that.  I have been blessed to work with people I get along with and socialise with.  The other important thing in a multiple person morning show is to make sure the Program Director has clearly defined each person’s role.

How do you decide who is going to take the lead in a bit?  For the most part it’s me, because I am seen as the anchor and I have been there the longest.  I am the DJ if you like, the person who comes out of the music.  Marilyn and Darren are the colour who add the entertainment value.  But sometimes it makes sense for either Marilyn or Darren to take the lead.  We also don’t talk about the content off the air because that can often sound contrived.  The only exception is if it requires them to research some facts then I’ll say we’re going to talk about the World Cup Soccer this gives them time to gather some facts.

How do you avoid talking over each other on the air?  A three person morning show is trickier than a two person show because with two people you can have a conversation back and forth.  But we have been doing this for a long time and we truly respect each other.  Also because we know each other so well and we talk a lot off the air, so we don’t end up talking over each other often.  If it does happen, my first instinct is to pull back immediately.

Any advice for Program Directors on how to get the best out of talent?  Well in listening to the radio these days I can tell there are a lot of people on the air who have not had a lot of coaching.  I also suspect in a lot of cases the Program Director has not had a lot of training on how to coach.  I think a Program Director has an obligation to the talent and to the radio station to meet with the talent on a regular basis and review some breaks, so the talent knows what is expected of them.  If the break was too long, or the content was not relevant to the audience or the bit did not have an out, the talent needs regular direction.  Every bit should have a beginning, middle and an end.  If you go into a bit with just a beginning then the bit can wander and go on too long and become irritating to the listener.  Sitting around talking about the show, discussing the direction of the show, and talking about how we as the talent can make that work, are all important things for a Program Director to do.  Program Directors also need to teach talent how to use the phones properly; how to get into a call, how to get out of a call and how to respect the listener and make them the star of the show. 

Where do you find the best content?  I often observe things when I am about and about, and I bring that to the attention of the audience the following day.  We discuss it and sometimes open the phone lines. I read as much as I can and look for content that I think will be of interest to our listeners.

How do you manage to create the impression that you are everywhere?  Well I know the city really well having lived here for 40 years.  I made a point when I first came to Toronto of driving around to really get to know the city.  Initially, I did not have many friends so I had lots of time on my hands so I used that time to drive around and find out as much about each of the areas as I could.  I learned the names of the streets, where the community centre was and where all the important buildings and landmarks were.  Now I have lots of friends and acquaintances and I attend functions all over the city.  I have always been very observant of different communities and different events and what goes on.  So while I may not have always been to the event, I will have read about it or somebody has told me about so I can talk about an event as if I was there.  I don’t say I was there and I don’t say I was not there, but I try to talk in such a way that people may get the impression that I was there.  That’s part of the magic of radio.

Roger how to you manage to get out of bed so early every morning?  Well I can tell you it is not getting any easier. I get up at 4am and I go to bed at about 10:30pm.  But I always have a sleep in the afternoon and that is the key for me.  That is not to say that I am not tired a lot, but this is what I do for a living and I make it work.

Any last thoughts or comments? I believe there will always be a need to attract good communicators who have a passion for the radio business no matter how the signal will be delivered in the future.

Conclusion: Roger is a real gentleman and was so easy to talk to. He clearly has a passion for the business and my hope in publishing our conservation is that it be an inspiration to others who are already in the business and hopefully encourage those who have a genuine talent and desire to get into broadcasting.