R.A.P. Interview: Rob Johnston

Rob-Johnston-nov02

Rob Johnston, Creative Director, Corus Radio, Toronto, Ontario

by Jerry Vigil

In virtually all of the interviews we’ve done with producers in Canada, we find stations with several full-time writers on staff and plenty of producers to handle the job. Typically, the ratio of writers and producers to stations is larger than that of U.S. stations. This month’s interview is no exception. Rob Johnston is the Creative Director of the Corus group of stations in Toronto--The Edge, Q107, and Mojo. Three stations, four full-time writers, and four full-time producers. And as you might expect, the quality of the product coming from their production rooms is top notch. In this month’s interview, Rob gives us a look at this highly produced cluster of stations, with an extra close look at Mojo Radio, the newest of the three radio stations which is billed as “Talk Radio for Guys.” Be sure to check out the demo on this month’s RAP CD for some awesome production.

JV: Tell us how you got into radio.
Rob: Well, it might come as a bit of surprise, but this is the only place I’ve ever worked. Reading the articles in RAP over the years, I’m always amazed at the experience that a lot of people have and the different markets they’ve worked in and different stations. But for me, this is the only place I’ve ever really worked. I’m 31 years old and have been here since 1990 in various capacities over the years.

JV: Wow! You’re one of the lucky ones that get started at a top station in a major market. How did you get your foot in the door?
Rob: I started off as a volunteer at the Edge just answering the request lines back in the days when we used to be located up in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. I did that for a few months and then they sort of phased that out. So I jumped over to the promotions angle and did promotions for a couple of years, going out to events, handing out stuff, things like that. Then I moved into the operations end—board op and technical operations—and did that for about three years, everything from overnights to filling in for the morning show, request shows. You name it, I pretty much produced it over the years.

Actually, the reason I started at the Edge was because I wanted to get into a broadcasting college or university. The one place I wanted to go was Ryerson University of Toronto, but you needed experience to get in. There was such a limited enrollment, about 150 available spaces, and traditionally they get about twelve to fifteen hundred applicants. They really wanted to make sure that the people who got in really had the desire.

So I went to Ryerson and majored in audio. Television interested me but not to the degree that radio did. I graduated in the spring of ’93 and spent the next school year as a lab assistant in the audio end assisting first year students in all aspects of audio and radio together with the instructors. There were three of us, and we basically ran the audio studios for the 150 students. But as I was doing that, I was also working at the station. It was insane. I’d do overnights at the station, come home, get an hour of sleep and go work a six-hour shift at the school and then come back home and crash out.

I started in full-time production in early ’95 with Jim McCourtie, who was the Production Director at the Edge at the time. He and I worked together up until this past May when he moved on to FM96 in London, Ontario as the Program Director. Then I moved into doing the imaging for the Edge. Jim was the Creative Director when he left, and I eventually became the Creative Director for all three stations.

JV: Would you say he was more or less your mentor?
Rob: Yeah, I learned a lot from Jim. We certainly worked well together. Another guy I learned a lot from is Amin Bhatia, whom we’ve done some work with over the years. He does a lot of work for movie soundtracks and scoring for TV shows. He’s in Toronto as well, and he’s just phenomenal.

Being in Toronto helps because there’s some incredible talent here, like John Masecar. I’ve known John off and on for years. He was actually at CFNY when I first started, and then he moved up to the Mix. He’s phenomenal. Everyone in the city knows John and admires his stuff.

JV: Tell us about the Corus Group. Is that a large Canadian radio group?
Rob: Yes, but we’re only three years old. Our parent company is Corus Entertainment, which is affiliated with Shaw cable, one of the largest cable companies in Canada, based in Calgary. Corus holds the radio, television, and new media divisions of the parent company, and in total there are 50 stations from Vancouver to Montreal. Corus’ head office is just down the street here in Toronto, so it’s not too surprising to see some of the executives come through the halls every now and then. Add to that the head offices for the radio division, which is 9 floors above us, and as you can imagine it’s a rather busy place.

Anyway, the three stations really all came together when Shaw purchased the radio division of WIC a few years back when deregulation came about here in Canada. Shaw owned Edge while WIC owned Q and Talk 640, later to become Mojo. The result of the purchase was that all of a sudden Edge and Q107, which at one point were direct competitors of sorts, are now brother stations.

After the purchase was approved by the CRTC and all, the decision was made to bring all the stations together. Edge was in the heart of downtown Toronto, while Q was north about 20 minutes from the core. They had more state of the art studios, but the downtown location with its proximity to everything was more desirable, and the decision was made to move everyone into the same location. We decided to bring everything to where the Edge has been since 1996 when we moved from Brampton. We took the remaining 5000 square feet over from the previous tenant and added to the existing 4500 square feet from before. We are now 3 stations operating with 5 production rooms in just under 10000 square feet. Needless to say we’re very efficient. But Edge and Q only operate out of here part of the day. We have satellite studios as well for broadcast purposes.

JV: Where are these studios?
Rob: Here on Yonge Street. Q107 has a studio in the Hard Rock Café across the street, which was just renovated. They broadcast from there from 9:00 a.m. until midnight, and they’re there on the weekends too. It’s a small studio set up down there. And the Edge operates 24 hours a day from a storefront studio just a bit farther down the street, which is a place where we also invite bands to do live performances. It’s a much bigger operation, and pretty much anyone who comes to town drops by. This summer, we had the Red Hot Chili Peppers in. We open up the doors and just blast it right out onto Yonge Street. There are windows so people can look and see the jocks or the bands when they’re playing. It’s a whole fishbowl-type atmosphere. Of course though, anyone can come in at anytime and say “Hi,” talk to the jocks, pick up prizes, that kind of thing. The Chili Peppers rolled in and played three or four tunes acoustically on the radio, live, which they’ve never done before. We had STP come in and play. Initially, they were going to play three songs last summer, and they ended up playing nine. We’ll just cram the kids in, open the doors, stop traffic on the street…it’s great.

JV: And Mojo’s studio must be there where you are?
Rob: Yes, Mojo’s up on the 16th floor.

JV: What are the formats on The Edge and Q107?
Rob: The Edge is the modern rock station, your K-Rock, if you will. Q107 is Classic Rock. Both stations are 25 years old this year.

JV: And Mojo is a new station altogether?
Rob: Yes. Mojo came on line in April of 2001 as a whole new concept in radio.

JV: You mentioned five production rooms. What’s in them?
Rob: Pro Tools. Now you may be wondering, “How the hell do they have five full blown Pro Tools TDM systems?” Well, initially Edge was running two Spectral systems while Q/640 had three Pro Tools systems. When the decision was made to come together, the choice was get five new platforms or two new Pro Tools systems. Spectral was not supported anymore, so it was out of the question. The most logical answer was to go with Pro Tools, and let me say I was more then happy about that! I’ve always wanted to work on Pro Tools, and it simply blows me away. I use virtually no outboard gear now aside from a Valley People compressor when voice tracking. All the effects I use are internally through Waves 3.2.

We recently upgraded the three older systems to 5.1.1, so we’re all on the same platform running off G4s. Gary Whidden, Q’s Production Manager, and John Vercillo, Mojo’s Production Manager, use Eventide HB3000s for some outboard effects, and Gary has a huge pair of JBLs that he mixes through. John, Derek and I use Tannoys. The older studios use 24-channel Tascam boards while the three new ones are Mackies.

JV: That sounds like a great studio set up, five production studios for three radio stations.
Rob: Yes, and we run them all day long. One studio handles a lot of foreground production. A lot of the morning shows will get in there and cut their promos and edit interviews that come in. And then we have the other four studios. One is the Q and Mojo imaging studio. That’s where Gary is.  The second studio, which John works out of, handles more Mojo imaging as well and spot production for Mojo and Q. Then we have an Edge spot production studio, where Derek works out of. And finally the studio I work out of, in which I do some Edge production, Edge imaging maintenance, and special features programming as well.

JV: Are those your responsibilities as Creative Director, mainly production for the Edge?
Rob: My job as Creative Director is to oversee the production and writing department for all three stations. It can be overwhelming at times as we have about 27 salespeople between all three stations, and we’re very production intensive. Also, since our head offices are so nearby, from time to time we get asked to assist on projects, which of course we do. We have a team of four writers and four producers including me. You might think that’s a luxury but we are constantly busy with retail spots, promos, imaging and long form programming. A lot of my time is spent as a liaison between everyone, helping to service the stations and the clients and problem solve. I still do produce though.

Most of my commercial production is now handled by Derek Welsman, our new producer who is fantastic. I now focus on our more established Edge clients and do imaging maintenance from the material that we get from Brain Camp in Calgary. I’d say I spend about 60 percent of my time producing now, which is quite a change from before, but I’m really enjoying the new challenge. I’ve only been doing this gig for 3 months now.

One other thing I do is long form feature programming for Edge and Deep Sky, Corus’ syndication company. I’ve been producing world album premieres for about 5 years now, and “The Ongoing History of New Music” since I started my production gig in 1995. I see my hours producing the History as my sanctuary time when I can keep the door closed and really get into the show. Many of you have most likely never heard it, although it is national now, but it is huge on the Edge. It’s a weekly hour-long show hosted by Alan Cross that focuses on the history of new rock, everything from Punk to Electronica to death and artist profiles. We’ve just recorded our 400th original show, and I don’t think we’ll ever run out of topics actually.

JV: Five production studios for three stations is pretty nice, but four producers and four writers on staff sounds rather luxurious compared to many stations in the States.
Rob: Compared to the States, yeah, you might think so. But if you listen to our stations, we’re very production heavy. It’s amazing the amount of stuff that’s going on in these stations.

JV: But this is true about a lot of Canadian stations, lots of writers and lots of producers. Canadian stations just seem to be more production intensive than stations in the U.S., generally speaking. Why do you think it’s like this?
Rob: You know, I’ve often thought of that but I’ve never really been able to nail down a reason. But I have noticed it though. I go down to Chicago quite often. My sister lives there. I’ll listen to Q101 or some of the other stations down there. They’re pretty busy, but I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s different. If someone can help me solve this riddle I’d be more then happy! We just put a lot of stuff into our things up here. We just brought in a new general Sales Manager for the Edge who came from Hamilton, and he’s just blown away by the sound of these stations, the amount of stuff we have going on. I wouldn’t say our listeners expect it, but I think they certainly notice it and it really keeps things moving along. It’s like there’s always this constant forward momentum going on, just moving, moving, moving, from one element to the next. Just a constant flow where it doesn’t feel like it’s slowing down or anything like that. And, yeah, you would think with four producers and four writers, we’re in a pretty luxurious situation, but they’re always hopping. They’re always doing stuff—writing promos for three different stations, writing imaging stuff, as well as local retail.

JV: And it all gets piped into what on-air delivery system?
Rob: We’re actually on two systems right now. We’re all amalgamating onto Maestro. Q and Mojo are on Maestro. Edge is still on DCS. We’ve been on DCS since ’96. We’ve had some contentious issues with our Maestro system that we’re trying to sort out, but we will all eventually be on Maestro.

JV: Are the production rooms networked together?
Rob: Not presently. We keep the Macs off the network. They’re all isolated individually. We hope to get them all talking at some point in time shortly. If we have to move projects back and forth, which doesn’t really happen that often, we’ll burn them onto CD and move them that way.

mojo-radioJV: Tell us about Mojo Radio, “Talk Radio for Guys.”
Rob: Mojo’s great because we’ve locked up broadcast rights in Toronto for the Toronto Argonauts football team, the Buffalo Bills, and our flagship team is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mojo’s home of the Maple Leafs in Toronto. It’s fantastic and we’re entering our second year with the Leafs on Mojo.

Mojo is a talk radio station for guys. From six until nine a.m. we have Humble and Fred, who used to be the Edge morning show for a number of years. When we came up with this new concept for Mojo, they jumped at the opportunity to host it. They’ve always been real great talkers. Then from nine until ten we have Definitely Derringer, who is the morning man at Q. He does his Q shift, then moves to Mojo for an hour. Then from ten until one, we have Ripkin, who gets in there and does open forum, you know, opinion guests, just a good fun time. One until four is Scruff Connors. He’s another former morning guy in Toronto that people know. Interestingly, we launched Mojo in Vancouver back in August, so Scruff’s actually going nationwide now, simulcasting in Toronto and Vancouver. So, Scruff does one to four, the “master of mayhem,” as they say.

And then from four to seven we have Mike Stafford, a well-respected open discussion guy, long-time Toronto host. He offers whatever’s on guys’ minds today, stuff that you don’t want to admit to. He’s phenomenal. And then evenings we have Andrew Krystal, and Art Bell does overnights with his Coast-To-Coast, which is our only syndicated show that we bring in. We’ve got a pro wrestling show we do on the weekends, Live Audio Wresting hosted by Jeff Marek. Wrestlers from today and the past are on the line and he talks to them. Wrestling’s huge up here.

We’ve got Guy’s Garage on the weekend, a show about cars and working under the hood. Another show is called Power and Money, how to invest your cash. So, it’s not all just about sports and women and things like that. It’s all across the board. Now we do have a feature called Ask a Mojo Model. We have a Mojo Model of the Month posted on our web site each month, and this show invites people to call in. We have an open forum where we get the Mojo models in and they’ll answer peoples’ questions about relationships and things like that.

JV: Had you heard of a format like this prior to Mojo going on the air last year?
Rob: I hadn’t, no, and I don’t think anybody else really had. I don’t think it was on anywhere else in the world. We billed it as the world’s first and only talk radio station for guys.

JV: For a guy, that sounds like a fun format to work in. It’s certainly different that the usual formats across the dial.
Rob: For me it’s different because I never had any previous experience working with a station that’s talk radio. I’ve always been in music radio. But with Mojo, you just never know what you’re going to hear coming out of the speakers. You’re walking by and it’s like, what are these guys talking about now? There are lots of guests coming in all the time—guests who will appeal to the crowd, to the marketing of the station. It’s been an interesting experiment because there are a lot of men listeners but there are a lot of women listeners too. It’s not just for guys; it’s for women as well, and we’ve got some great numbers on the women listening.

It’s not your traditional talk format that’s like the topic of the day sort of thing. There is a lot of talk about the topic of the day, of course, but we’re not locked into any specific news event or anything like that. We get into news, but we also get into sports. We get into guy stuff. We get into what’s happening all over the world, everything that basically works for a guy—health, fitness, sex, sports, gadgets, investment ideas, you know, because guys are concerned about that too. It's not just women and beer, but we address that too of course

JV: It sounds like you keep it relatively cerebral as opposed to…
Rob: Oh yeah. It’s not all about fart jokes or anything like that for sure. It’s pretty smart stuff.

JV: How are the stations doing in the ratings?
Rob: The Edge is number one in Toronto 18-34 and is growing in other areas. Q continues to grow in the 25-54 with almost a 14 share, which is 5 points higher then the next station. With Mojo, they are growing constantly with each book and are now at 1.4 in 12+. Men 25-54 is a 2.9. All three stations are doing very well in the market.  And I think having the Toronto Maple Leafs has been an amazing bonus for Mojo.

JV: I take it all three stations have websites?
Rob: Yes. In fact, we are some of the most popular stations on line in the world. In many demos, Mojo and Edge lead the way and are in the top 10 worldwide. Our audiences are extremely web-savvy and take advantage of the ways to get involved from our pages all the time. And of course we stream all three with the live signal. In fact, I think each station mentions the website through IDs, live hits, etc. about 50 times a day. Check ‘em out. They’re at www.edge.ca, www.q107.com, and www.mojoradio.com.

JV: What’s one of the more amusing promotions that you’ve done on Mojo?
Rob: They have these things called the Guys Getaway where they’ll send people away to go golfing in the North Pole, for example. They had one for running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. I think they’re up to Guys Getaway #20 or 21 right now. Swimming with sharks, you know, things like that, all built around the “isn’t it great being a guy” sort of theme. Father and son golfing trips is another example. They have an incredible marketing team working on Mojo coming up with these great ideas and executing them really well. All the on-air people execute it really, really well.

JV: Who is the voice for Mojo?
Rob: Jamie Watson. He’s a bit of a mentor of mine as well. He used to be the Creative Director here at the Edge when I first started, up until about ’98. Phenomenal guy. Incredible voice talent. Off the wall sense of writing humor. When they came into the concept of Mojo, what they wanted to do is create this character, but not an in your face wacko kind of guy, and that is sort of what Jamie’s come up with in the way he writes. And the trick with what he does is that if you listen to a lot of the promos, they’re very simple. There are not a lot of bells and whistles in there, which for radio imaging is very different. It kind of blends in. Not to say that it’s a bad thing that it doesn’t stand out because they do. But when you hear some promos on other stations, they’re almost too over the top The stuff that he writes is just so brilliant, it stops you and makes you laugh. One of his promos was on the October RAP CD. It was called “I Am a Man/Funeral” and it’s about how it’s great being a guy, and this guy’s at a funeral and he’s standing there and talking to a woman. He says, “So did you know Bob?” And he continues on with these questions. Then the girl says, “Are you hitting on me?” And he says, “Uh, no, no,” pauses for a second then admits, “Well yea I am.” He follows it up with the kicker “Do you know if his apartment is still available?” Love it!

JV: Yes, excellent promo!
Rob: Jamie walks around with this notebook and scribbles down all these ideas. He’ll come walking in here every day or two and try and track down one of the producers, be it myself or John or Gary, who are the Mojo and the Q producers. He’ll come in and say to us, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea. Who’s got some time to work on it?” And you’ll kind of look at Jamie like, “Uh, okay, how long is this going to take?” And he’ll say, “Oh, it’ll take about 20 minutes,” which really means about an hour. And he’ll go in and just start reading stuff off the fly, coming up with these ideas, grabbing people in the hall: Hey, I need you to say this! Can you do this? Can you do that? And you start whipping it together and you think, “Oh, God, this is not going to work.” Then you listen to the finished product and it just blows your mind. It jumps right out of the speakers. You’ll grab somebody else in the hall and play it for them, and they’ll kill themselves laughing.

So Jamie is the voice for Mojo, but he does so much more. It’s not all up to Gary to produce him though. He and John both do a lot of Mojo imaging with Gary doing the majority. Jamie wants to work with everybody, which is great. And it really tests your ability as a producer, too, to see if it’s going to work or not. I remember Jamie saying to me once, “Push the envelope as hard as you can with what you’ve got in the computer, and let’s just see what happens. There are no hard and fast rules that say it has to sound like this. Just have fun.” That’s something I really learned from him when he was the Creative Director here because he’d do a lot of that. He’d just come running in with a script idea for something, and we’d just go off. We’d follow the script, but it wouldn’t end up being the exact thing as we started out with.

JV: Jamie sounds like a rather big influence on the Mojo imaging.
Rob: Yeah. The concepts of a lot of the imaging on Mojo are his ideas. We’ll throw in a few nuggets along the way.

JV: That’s a very unique relationship for a station to have with a voice guy, especially because of the fact that he stops in every couple of days and says hello.
Rob: Oh, yeah. He’s a pretty big voice talent in the city, too. He does a lot of freelance voice work. In fact, part of the reason why he left here in ’98 was because he had so much voice work that he never had a chance to write. He’ll be at an audition and afterwards if he has time, he’ll phone me up and say, “Hey, you got some time to work on something?” “Yeah, okay,” and he’ll swing by.

JV: Sounds like he’s just having fun.
Rob: Oh, yeah. Exactly. That’s the whole environment here; it’s about having a good time. And again, there’s been a special relationship with Jamie over the years. Stewart Meyers, Mojo’s Program Director, and Jamie have known each other for a number of years and actually he was the Program Director here at the Edge until he moved over to work with the Q and what became Mojo. So when they came up with the idea of Mojo, Jamie was one of the first people they thought of for creating that type of a sound.

JV: What voices are you using on the other stations?
Rob: On Q, we have David Kaye. David has been doing Q for years. We’ll send him the scripts. He’ll voice track them,  we’ll get the MP3s back, and Gary takes care of all the Q imaging. And for the Edge, we’re using Brain Camp out in Calgary for a lot of the IDs and imaging. But we also use a lot of people here. We put a lot of our announcers on things and use various other people here. There’s a lot of talent in this building.

JV: Sounds like a great place to work.
Rob: Yeah. You know, often times you just get used to what you do—your job, where you work, and what goes on. But when I sit back and think about who’s come through these halls and the people we work with and the things that you might take for granted because it’s just so common, it’s rather eye opening. People on the outside look and say, “God, it’s so cool.” You step back, you look and you think about it and you’re like, you know what, it is. It is a pretty cool environment.

There’s some awesome stuff that goes on here. Some of the people, some of the bands that have come through these studios…. For example, out of the blue last Friday morning Tom Green’s in here talking with Humble and Fred. They’ve had a rapport with him for a number of years before he even became big in the States. I’ve met a lot of my musical heroes, which has been incredible. 10 years ago, if someone said to me that they were sending me out to assist in a live taping of an interview with U2 in Winnipeg, I would have been like, “Whatever.” But it happened! It’s an amazing place.

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