A Q&A with Legendary Canadian Broadcaster David Marsden
The legendary broadcaster takes us back to the early days through to his online Spirit of Radio project.
Born and raised in Toronto, David Charles Marsden is a Canadian radio broadcaster who launched himself on the air under the name Dave Mickie. He quickly blazed a trail in Chatham-St. Thomas, Hamilton, then Montreal and Toronto radio in the early '60s. His unique delivery style even attracted the critical attention of one very influential media theorist.
"At the time, I was somewhat involved with WABC New York," Marsden tells me. "One afternoon, I walked into Rick Sklar's office. He jumped out of his chair, pointed at me and exclaimed -- "You're in the book!" I had no idea what he was talking about. Soon, a few others joined in. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out 'the book,' which happened to be Marshall McLuhan's then recently published Understanding Media."
What follows is a walk down memory lane with this extraordinary spirit in radio who has moved with the times, from the early days of AM to today on the internet at NYthespirit.com, a new revival of Toronto station CFNY's beloved "Spirit of Radio" era.
My first encounter with Dave Mickie was 1962 as a high school social convenor and DJ for Fridays record hops. I dared to invite Dave Mickie [you] to be the guest DJ at Hill Park High School in Hamilton. He accepted. He decided that rather than come through the front door of the school where I was ready to meet him, he would land a helicopter in the middle of our high school football field, causing neighbours to call the police. He never made it to our after-school dance. He took off in the helicopter, leaving me with a "please explain" to my principal, Mr. Moles. Gulp! Later that night, on his radio show at 1280 CHAM, he gave Hill Park and me the longest shoutout. That sealed my guilt, and after that, I was banned from doing any more after-school activities.
As odd as it may seem, I have a sketchy memory of that helicopter ride. I wonder why Iwould have made such a choice. Recently, on Facebook, there were a few postings about it. However, I'm not the only one with confused memories. Several posters had memories of me doing that at more than one school.
Everything from that era — a long time ago — is foggy at best.
As you breezed through your Top 40 days in the late '60s, you morphed into your new persona: David Marsden, a very cool (not from this world) FM DJ. Tell us about how that occurred.
Somewhere along the way, I ended up in Montreal. Somehow, I met with a man named Don Wall, the team leader at CKGM - AM. Again, I am trying to remember how that happened. But I do recall he hired me to do some sales and cover for when other DJs took holidays.
He asked me to change my name. Mr. Wall said something like, "Your Mickie name says Rock. We are not a Rock station." I grew up in a foster home where the family's name was Michie, and yes, it is pronounced Mickie. I knew that my birth mother's last name was Marston, but I didn't know how to spell it. So I said Marsden. He wrote it down, and it continues to this day. One day at CHUM-FM, DJ Jim Bauer strolled into the control room and said "Hiya Marsbar!" That also stuck. I would see Jim almost every night as he took over the shows at 10 PM
CFNY was known to all who listened to the station as the "Spirit of Radio." Describe those early days at CFNY working for those crazy Allen brothers (then owners of CFNY FM).
We were still in the Little Yellow House. A movie about those times is coming sometime next year. Anyway, I first met Leslie Allen in a high-styled Yorkville office — only the finest antiques and a grandfather clock I wanted to take home.
Soon, a second gentleman joined us. Leslie barked at that guy, "Harry, get these boys a cup of coffee!!" Soon, Harry brought us freshly made coffee, and then he sat down to join us. Eventually, Leslie introduced the coffee boy as his brother Harry. We had a good meeting. Don Shafer was with me for the meeting. He didn't join us; instead, he accepted a major programming gig in Vancouver, where he made his mark, just as he had at Q107 and before that as an announcer at CHUM-FM middays.
One day, while driving after lunch, I was thinking about a descriptive sell line that spelled out what CFNY was all about. It hit me like a bolt of lightning — The Spirit of Radio. How that arrived, I don't remember. Like a voice from beyond.
But I do have a wee memory of heading back to the station and the Little Yellow House, where I posted a note in the control room referring to CFNY as The Spirit of Radio. I could be wrong on this, but I think it was around when the station stood before the CRTC. The Allens had lost control, and there were a lot of future and hopeful owners poking around.
The Little Yellow House was filthy; all the chairs had three legs, and the control room ceiling was about five foot eight. When I first arrived at the house, I almost turned around and left because of its condition. Sure glad I didn't.
Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue, KSAN FM, San Fransisco, was the first "underground" DJ in America. In the late '60s and early '70s, there was so much good and great music to play. Could a format like that be appealing and attractive today with so many music streams and sources competing for listener attention?
CKGM-AM in Montreal was a powerhouse at that time. Douglas Pringle was the leader. After many meetings with the station's then-owner, Geoff Stirling, I eventually convinced him to try something similar at CKGM-FM. Finally, it happened. At one point, Norm Winer came up from WBCN, Boston. He and I chatted a few times, even though I was on the AM side. And while I am foggy on the details, I did one shift on CKGM-FM at Norm's request. It was that first FM shift when I tried the idea of the full-on Music Mix. That moment became a lifetime career that eventually saw me getting my show six nights a week on CKGM-FM. Eventually, it became CHOM-FM.
When I made that move, all the DJs on the AM side told me I had made the biggest mistake of my career. "That's not going to work!" "No one even has an FM radio." "FM will never be available in cars!" At that time, FM radios were only in homes of the older demo. The device holding those FM radios was the size of a Volkswagen and usually found only at Grandma's place.
Why was free-form so successful? It was a product of the time: the cultural revolution was taking place, there was a desire to change the world, and the audience was hungry for a new way to experience music. Suddenly, rock music was released in stereo just as FM was reinventing itself, unconstrained by the established norms. It formed a capable platform to deliver that new experience.
Today's audience is accustomed to a limited and repeating selection of tracks accompanied by an occasional tap of one's foot. But that's different from how one listens to free-form. Free-form engages the listener; it requires attention and involves hearing and experiencing the music — to feel the emotion and connect with it.
Could it work today?
Perhaps not on a mass scale, but it indeed can since it worked before, it works today, and it will work in the future with a willing audience and a capable creator. That's what we are doing with NYthespirit.com. It's a boutique, an ice cream shop; it doesn't matter what we call it as long as it's not radio because today's radio exists in a small box with too many constraints and limitations.
It's about putting the music together in such a way as to make it flow, to let it take the listener on a journey for as long as they are able. CFNY's hours tuned, as I recall, were enormous. And stop playing the same songs fiour times in every 24.
While I hate to say it, one other problem mysteriously has become a negative. If you're wearing cement shoes, please don't stop reading cause this may hurt. That word is: Radio!
That word differs with age demographics and, even more importantly, psychographics. Most under 35-40 years of age don't have a radio. Nor do they care or want one.
It's not radio but rather the word itself.
And that mood is creeping upward into those aged 45 and beyond. But can it be corrected? Yes! Many things can be done to improve the brand of radio stations across North America.
At CFNY, you turned Toronto and area listeners on to some exceptional music. Please share some of those music highlights with us.
We never looked at charts. We always listened to the entire album. On Tuesday mornings, we held a Music Department meeting. We had two Music Directors: Ivar Hamilton had Imports, and Eddy Valiquette was responsible for Domestic.
They listened. That was their job. At the weekly meetings, they presented their choices from those albums. Then, the three of us would vote. Two votes, and that album goes in. One vote and bring it back next week. These were allowed three total presentations for three weeks, and then it was dead until further notice.
Who were the artists and bands that drove the new music movement?
More artists and music than we have time for here. Lots of Canadians: Rough Trade, Martha and the Muffins, Blue Peter, Max Webster, FM, Nash the Slash, and many more. Then, there is a very long list of British music.
Here is the Top 30 as voted by the CFNY listeners in 1980:
- Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel 3
- David Bowie - Scary Monsters
- Talking Heads - Remain In Light
- Clash - London Calling
- Pete Townshend - Empty Glass
- Ultravox - Vienna
- XTC - Black Sea
- Bruce Cockburn - Humans
- Kate Bush - Never for Ever
- Magazine - The Correct Use Of Soap
- Squeeze - Argybargy
- Teenage Head - Frantic City
- Rough Trade - Avoid Freud
- Police - Zenyatta Mondatta
- Pretenders - Pretenders
- English Beat - I Just Can't Stop It
- Roxy Music - Flesh + Blood
- Stranglers - Raven/Iv
- Elvis Costello - Get Happy!!
- Marianne Faithfull - Broken English
- Split Enz - True Colours
- Siouxsie And The Banshees - Kaleidoscope
- John Foxx - Metamatic
- John Lennon - Double Fantasy
- Joy Division - Closer
- Psychedelic Furs - Psychedelic Furs
- Kinks - One For The Road
- Drastic Measures - Drastic Measures
- Specials - Specials
- New Musik - From A To B
You mastered live gigs and created havoc wherever you went. Was this a part of the persona you wished to create for yourself?
Candidly, I've never really thought about it. And you may have confused me with The Rolling Stones.
Your introduction at the Canadian Rock of Fame at Massey Hall honoured Carole Pope and Rough Trade. "High School Confidential" broke down so many barriers for the gay and queer communities. Tell us about your experience with that song and the music from this movement.
It was an honour to be part of a great evening. Carole & Kevan (Staples) plus Rough Trade deserved every part of being positioned on The Rock of Fame. To me, the song was a signal by the mainstream that there was a possibility of acceptance. To indicate just how bad it was when I was a kid, when I turned 16, I was called to the Principal's office at the Stratford Collegiate Institute. He said, "We would like you to clean out your locker and leave the school. Oh, and don't come back. You must leave now." I asked, "Why?" He said, "because we have heard that you are different!" End of discussion.
Who were some of your radio inspirations?
Dick Biondi, Bob Lewis, Jerry Lewis , later folks such as Carl Banas, who was my inspiration for my long-running Christmas Eve specials.
You created your own Spirit of Radio internet radio station. How's that going? Please give our readers some of the details so they can tune in.
Everyone is welcome to come and kick the tires for 30 days free, but there's a reason why we give 30 days because listening once for 15 minutes is not enough to understand what I do.
Spotify et al. are well suited for those looking to impress their friends for 15 minutes playing the DJ before moving on to something else. The listeners we appeal to spend at least an hour listening and likely a lot more. They relinquish control over the music by trusting us. There's no skip to the next song button.
Some people like to listen in a group, but experiencing music makes you feel connected, so for some, it can be a remedy against loneliness. This weekend, listen to my live shows on Friday and Saturday nights, pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, close your eyes and listen. Let the music take you on a ride. Do it Friday and Saturday and see how you feel.
Some people will get it; others will not. The same feeling of connection is also true of our other DJs: Earl Jive, Ivar Hamilton, All Nite Andre, Rob Stuart, and Scott Eagleson.
The base of the music is the '80s, and we also play a lot of the new music, primarily being ignored by radio. A recent playlist of mine is as follows:
- Rob Stuart - A Beautiful Thing (Theme)
- Cars - Drive (extended)
- 69 Eyes - Gothic Girl (live)
- Church Of Trees - High Above (KeX/1 Remix)
- 54-40 - Keep On Walking
- Cure - Lullaby (extended)
- Call - What's Happened To You
- Daft Punk - The Game Of Love
- Concrete Blonde Crystal - Blue Persuasion
- Depeche Mode - Never Let Me Down Again (Split Mix)
- Jam - The Eton Rifles
- Econoline Crush - All That You Are
- Passion Puppets - Like Dust
- Electric Prunes - I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)
- Ronnie Hawkins - Who Do You Love (Live In The UK, 1982)
- Extras - Circular Impression
- Snow Patrol - The Lightning Strike (What If This Storm Ends?)
- Images In Vogue - Rescue Me
- Big Audio Dynamite - E=MC2
- Japan - Adolescent Sex
- After The Fire - Der Kommissar
- John Foxx - Europe After The Rain
- Tom Robinson - One Fine Day
- Jona Lewie - You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties
- Cake - The Distance
- Kid Creole & The Coconuts - My Male Curiosity
- Captain Sensible feat. Dolly Mixture - Happy Talk
- KLF feat. Tammy Wynette - Justified And Ancient (Stand By The Jams 12")
- Chris Isaak - Wicked Game
- Nazareth - Love Hurts
- Clarence Carter - Slip Away
- Band feat. The Staple Singers - The Weight (The Last Waltz)
- Clash - Train In Vain (Stand By Me)
- Baxter Dury feat. JGrrey - Aylesbury Boy
- Crack The Sky - Nuclear Apathy
- Moody Blues - Isn't Life Strange
- David Bowie - Life On Mars?
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - God Is In The House
- Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb
- Peter Gabriel - Here Comes The Flood
- Ray Charles & Willie Nelson - Seven Spanish Angels
- Al Stewart - Roads To Moscow (Live 1981)
- Waterboys - Boy In Black Leather
- Elton John feat. Pavarotti - Your Song
- Thunderclap Newman - Accidents
- Fleet Foxes - Hopelessness Blues
- Dee Long - Good Night Universe (Theme)
Each of our Spirit of Radio DJs has total freedom to play the music they wish. It's a 24/7 experience, and listeners will not hear the song repeated in the next 48 hours.
Tell us about your highlights at CHUM-FM. What were some of those magic moments of your time on air there?
DM: My time at CHUM-FM was wonderful. Mainly because Bob Laine was in charge. He was supportive, but he also provided direction and ideas. Bob also had a cool, sneaky way to get things done and create amazing radio.
While at CHUM-FM, I gave all my prizes away in brown paper bags. The secret was about what was in those bags. Sometimes, tickets to see shows by acts such as Pink Floyd. But sometimes, it might just be a head of lettuce. To my knowledge, no one ever got mad when picking up their brown paper bags.
During my last week there, I was able to stay on and talk about my departure. I would get to the station around 4:30 PM every day during the final week. And each of those five days, the CHUM building reception area would be full of these bags brought in by fans. They had been brought in as gifts. All the bags contained a wide variety of stuff. Everybody won: the station, the listeners and myself.
It's disappointing to see that old-fashioned radio had lost contact that way with the audience. An audience immersed in the culture of a radio station keeps the advertisers coming back.
Can it be done again?
Yes, but in ways radio companies don't understand.
What would you say to the new generation of radio heads looking to express themselves on air through podcasts?
Dreams can become a reality. Communication through a microphone and or a camera is about connection. One must connect to whoever is listening/watching. We are here to help.