A Conversation With ... Pat Holiday
From his home in Florida, one of the genuine legends of Canadian radio reflects on past and present trends, Gary Slaight's compassionate core, the Trump phenomenon, and his current listening habits in this fascinating interview.
By Bill King
The first time I met Pat Holiday at MIX 99.9, he says to me, “do you have a copy of “Love & Affection?", a single I ran through Scott Richards at Change Records in 1980. My first thought, I barely remember how it goes. Ask me something about Herbie Hancock or Stevie Wonder. Pat wanted to add it to the MIX playlist. That was cool. From that day on we became friends and music pals. The kind of friend you make who talks music and talks music and talks music. That’s a good thing.
I recently chased Pat down in ‘Mickeyland’ and here’s that conversation.
You rent a room at Wild Kingdom?
Almost across the street. We can literally walk to Disney World from where we are.
We're snowbirds. We bought a place down here after the crash of 2008 because everything here was insanely dirt cheap. We usually come down in November and then go back home and then come down here January, February, and March and that’s it. I was just checking the temperature for Toronto last night, and we have a friend who's flying down today who is going to stay with us for a little less than a week. Wow! It’s 27 Fahrenheit or something. Holy crap!
After I retired from regular radio, we lived in South America for a while. We did six months in Argentina and Uruguay, and we went into winter when the seasons are opposite and hot there. It’s summer down there. Now, when it starts getting cold, we get out of town to somewhere warm for a while.
At the Juno Awards coming up this weekend, your old boss Gary Slaight is getting the Humanitarian Award. You have a long history with Gary. Any thoughts?
You know when I first met him it was the MIX thing in the early 90s, I saw it there. He came in one day, and he was really upset. This was a good thing. He felt we weren't doing enough for the food bank. It was around Thanksgiving or Christmas or something like that. You could see that he was serious. Up until that point, I hadn't seen that depth of commitment from anyone I knew. He was passionate about feeding people who didn't have enough food. You know after that, it ended up being Children’s Hospital and a million different ways that we could work with charities and push.
You can see there is a super deep streak inside him wanting to help other people. I am not quite sure how he acquired that; you know, that sense that deep-but it was evident early on to me. And this was before Standard was rolling in cash. At that time there were only a few stations and money was tight. He couldn’t just write a big check. It was definitely extra thought and extra work to help out those less fortunate. The award is totally him, for as long as I’ve known him.
Do you tune into radio in your region?
You know at the moment in Orlando we listen to stations around here and I listen to Sirius a lot. In anticipation of your call, I started thinking about radio and stuff that I suppose crosses my mind when I'm writing or listening to stations or listening to Sirius. I still wear my radio PD hat. I’m thinking you could do this better and this and that. I actually think Sirius is one of the more inventive radio stations of any radio stations. They do some pretty cool shit that’s different.
Would you have liked to have had the freedom a Sirius offers in programming?
I think the sky is the limit. For whatever reason, they take risks more. I remember visiting a guy at CKLW named Johnny Williams I used to work for who was working at XM in Washington and he invited me over to see the studios. One of the PD guys there at the time was named Dave Lang and the other, founder of XM Lee Abrams. Lee came up with that philosophy of, “NEVER doing anything regular radio ever did.” They wanted every single rule broken at the time. The more you could do something nobody else did, the better you were, or the more they liked it. That was the germination of Sirius/XM. If it’s been done before, don’t do it and make something up. Even if it’s bad, do it. We’ll sort it out later. I thought that was fascinating and cool and that someone would have enough guts to do it. They do a lot of cool things.
It would be neat to have in Canada and I don’t really understand why you wouldn’t allow someone to start throwing up networks? As a simple example, hire a Randy Bachman, who has an interesting show on CBC, or any of the older artists whose playing career is pretty much over and put them on an oldies channel where all they are playing is oldies. Sirius does it here and there – Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits followed by someone else who does a like-minded show. It would be a fantastic station and I’m sure you would make money with it. It would be interesting because you would want them to talk as opposed to the way it is now which is mostly music. To me, it’s really dumb.
You can get music anywhere and Spotify rules.
A hundred percent. I would sit in meetings in my later days of radio and they’d say we need some social media and let’s have a section on our website. I’d think, what planet are you on? Are you going to try and compete with Facebook? Are you insane? Don’t spend the money.
Just playing music non-stop going up against Spotify and Google and now with Alexa won’t last. Amazon is now in that realm and they are growing super-fast. I have Alexa and Google Home. One was a gift and one we bought. It totally changes my listening habits considerably. I can just walk up to the thing and say, ‘Alexa, play me this or just name a call letter’ and it’s on – boom, instantly.
Any radio stations?
Any radio station that’s streamed. I’ll say, 'Alexa play Capitol Radio London’ and ‘bang’ in three seconds, it’s on clear as a bell. You have a transistor radio there that’s voice-activated and pick up any signal. Just like forty years ago when you were sitting up at night and receiving signals from all over. Chicago or New York, Boston, sitting right here in Toronto. All from this little device where you say, give me this. This is a massive game changer for pulling in radio stations. It’s amazing.
In the past year I’ve made a point of interviewing record producers, label managers, and managers who have been behind the scene for decades. Several express their frustration with getting their records played on commercial radio in the early years. You suggest that the recording studios here weren’t up to par with the land south of us and beyond.
It was the songwriting too. It’s a craft you must invest a lot of hours in to do really, really well. Some anomalies come out of the gate and hit instantly, of course.
The people in the industry then just didn’t have enough hours in it and then they got there. It’s kind of like that book by Gladwell – you need 10,000 hours to get good at something and they certainly passed that 10,000-hour mark somewhere in the 80s’. There are hundreds of thousands of hours invested now and what an industry. You are hard pressed to look at a Billboard Top Thirty without one or more Canadian artists in there.
My great passion besides music has always been basketball. I equate sports outside of hockey to where we were with music in the late '60s and early '70s in Canada. A good game was hard to find. But now, look around the NBA, look at March Madness – Canadians are everywhere - even the top high school prospect in America is from Toronto. There used to be this big cultural wall, bigger than the one Trump wants to build between Mexico and the U.S.
I came in 1970, not that long after you, and in appearance, there was a lot identical and a lot not so much. Other than the political thinking, I find almost no difference whatsoever. Particularly, the cultural stuff from one side to the other. Most movies are made in Canada now. Whether portrayed being made in the U.S. or not, they are made in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. As far as music, that culture line is totally blurred. The political line is getting wider and wider.
Do you think that difference, especially in large urban Canadian centres, is that we are trying to keep pace with an ever-changing and evolving world?
I fit somewhere in the middle. I look at Trump and see some of his policies; not him. I find a lot of people down here in Florida like him as an ‘over-all.’ What I mean by that is, they like him overall but not particularly him as a person. They like his policies. They separate the two.
I’m sort of a redneck in some ways. Like the subject of steel. Do you put tariffs on everything? Of course not. Even when he first thought of running, I thought he would win. There’s just too many pissed off people down here that would vote anybody in. It just happened to be him that showed up. Anyone roughly running on his platform is going to win. There’s some of that happening in Europe too. I think he lowballed on the tariffs as a negotiating deal.
Think of this: If the U.S, got in trouble, I don’t know how many companies would come to its aid. Say Russia and China team up and the electricity grid in Canada and U.S, goes down, I don’t know if people would help. If you got into a war and didn’t have your own steel factories, I think you’d be in huge trouble. I see this as a national interest thing. I don’t know how you can be a military country without your own steel factories. That would be pretty scary. It’s the same with energy. You'd better have your own gas and oil, or you may be dependent on someone who hates your guts.
I’m concerned about the workplace. Where this goes as we allow robotics to reshape and replace factory jobs. There’s going to be fewer people in the workplace. Shouldn’t we be thinking how to encourage and educate people to use brainpower and their own creativity to map out the future? Promising folks’ labour dependent industries will return from a bygone era seems more of a slogan than practical thought.
I would agree with you, 100 percent. If you are going to invest money into things, then both countries, Canada and the U.S., you’d better put it into education, You don’t want to be, let’s say, in the sciences, the 50th ranking country. You want to be in the top five otherwise down the road you’re going to be in deep shit. There’s never any emphasis on that. Everyone talks about the children, yet they are cutting funding.
The two of us go back to when the Beatles landed in North America. That transition on radio from the Paul Ankas, Annette Funicellos, Perry Comos, Pat Boones, and Elvis Presleys to the day all these British sounding jocks show up.
I remember tuning in radio around Louisville, Kentucky, in my home area, and every commercial station signed up a guy with a British accent, a set of Carnaby Street style clothes and sported a top five with the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders and Freddie and the Dreamers. That change was radical and profound. Has there been a shift as dramatic in radio since then?
I think there was a bit of that with disco. There was tons of disco all over top forty radio. And it reflected a pretty active lifestyle in a lot of places. Studio 54 in New York, the movies – Staying Alive. After disco, hip-hop was it. And even that I wonder about.
I think right now we are in a cycle. I look at the numbers when they come out. I wrote an article for Billboard probably between 1981-1983, somewhere in there, that there were two of them and now perhaps five or even six of these cycles. Top forty radio seems to do the same thing. Let me start with a hypothesis of a science experience.
If you were to take the most prominent format that exists – that would be the format that would have the greatest number of listeners of any age living and breathing, top forty, CHR would be it. It always has been and always will be. By definition, you are doing the best of the best of the best of all formats. You look at country and say, those three top songs I grab from country and move on to top forty will work. Take the best rock, the best country, the best alternative ones. You are playing the best of the best of the best. Therefore, you have the broadest appeal, and someone is going to like you.
What ends up happening and I think they are in that now, it ends up looming one way or another instead of straight up the middle. You can be so far to the right you can’t pick up a rocking song or country song because it’s going to clash. You can’t pick up, “Have You Ever Been Mellow?” by an Olivia Newton-John or a Carpenters song, anything that might be really pretty, even if it’s a great song because it’s too far out of the realm of the others. This is why one has to stay in the middle or a station will start going down the tubes and find itself sort off in the pack. Three or four years later somebody pulls it back to the middle again and the cycle starts all over again. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
Where were you born?
I was born in upstate New York. Right by where Jimmy Fallon grew up in Saugerties. I was born in Kingston, right by Woodstock. I spent a lot of time right in the town of Woodstock. Every weekend in high school we’d go up and watch Dylan. He’d come down and play in a couple of clubs, then just leave. There were a ton of guys who lived there at the time. It was really cool.
It was also a cool time for me with Grossinger’s Hotel and the Concord in the Catskills. I was in a band and actually played keyboards. I could only play the lead. Say, if we were playing ‘Good Lovin.’ I could only play the lead on a Farfisa organ. Beyond that, I was self-taught. I did that while going to college. We did it to meet the girls basically!