A Conversation With .. Roger Ashby
After 50 years at CHUM, 35 of those spent as anchor at one of Canada's top-rated morning shows, Roger signs-off Dec. 5. Bill King captures the essence of the man in the following interview.
By Bill King
I still remember Wally Crouter’s retirement party back in 1996. Phantom of the Opera’s Michael Burgess and I were enlisted to play a favourite selection from the musical for Wally. If you were in that banquet-size hall that day, you would have witnessed the pioneers of Canadian radio. It’s now Roger’s turn.
Roger and I sat for a chat three years ago - editor David Farrell ran the piece over three editions of FYIMusicNews. We covered much ground – everything from the autograph photos of the Beach Boys to the thousands of 45s’ in Roger’s collection. I’m thinking, yes there does come a time to hang it up and ‘go fishing’.
I’m thinking ‘go fishing’ much like my dad. After thirty years at Colgate Palmolive Company, dad began a second career as a sports fisherman that lasted 25 years. Father and son were on opposing pages. Dad loved alligators, mosquitos and bass fishing in the Everglades. I much preferred hoops and softball far away from “flesh-eating” entities. I’m sure Roger will do much the same. Not the fishing or softball stuff but those ‘bucket list’ adventures. I caught up with Roger at CHUM the other day and here’s a bit of that conversation.
Bill King: December 5th up ahead. Feeling any different?
Roger Ashby: I guess because I know I’m leaving I can be a little more-brave on the air – say a few more things I might not say. I’m not doing it intentionally. It’s just that I find myself more loose. It’s like working on a holiday Monday and how it feels different than working during the week. I’m not going to say anything that would jeopardize my career.
You feel you can express yourself differently?
I think so. It will happen naturally. I’m not planning on doing anything I wouldn’t do. We are giving away trips now to Colombia and are supposed to hype how great Colombia is – Cartagena. I said, 'it’s a great trip but don’t get caught doing anything down there or you’ll never come back'. If that was years ago, I would have got a note from the program director - we are trying to hype this thing up – don’t be saying anything negative about it. I might speak out a bit politically, but I’m not doing it purposely.
Are you anticipating no more early mornings?
I am anticipating. I’ll tell you, as early as 4 o’clock is, I never minded getting up that early because I was going where I enjoyed being. It was not like I was going to a job I didn’t like. Getting up early was never a big deal for me. I think getting up at anytime is tough. There are days you don’t want to get out of bed regardless of what time it is. Having said that; knowing there are only four weeks to go, it is kind of refreshing. I’m thinking: I don’t have to do this anymore. I can get up whenever I want.
Doesn’t Wally Crouter own the record at 50 years…
My understanding is Wally did fifty years of mornings. I’ve done fifty years in total. I’ve done thirty-six years of mornings – more than half way there.
I doubt we’ll see this happen again.
Not just in radio: I doubt it will occur again in any business. I don’t think there is that employee-employer loyalty that will guarantee anybody a job for fifty years anymore. It’s transient. Look at young people moving job to job - a lot are hired on a contract basis. They want to find a job where they can make a pension and benefits and not a lot of jumping around. I think even more so when our generation entered the workplace.
Have you ever felt uncertain about employment?
No, I’ve always had a contract; mostly in the last couple decades, and I have never felt pressured to leave. The last contract I signed was two years ago - a three-year contract and it was discussed then that I would probably leave at the end of two years.
When you began in radio it must have been more about the music. Now, there’s greater emphasis on conversation.
That’s true. When I was on 1050 CHUM in the '70s' it was rapid-fire, high energy talk for no more than ten seconds at a time. I remember the guys who were on FM at the time were able to get really intimate with the mic and could talk for four or five minutes. One day we met in the bathroom and they were teasing us about how we only got to talk seven seconds. I thought to myself, well yes, but we often say more in seven seconds than you say in three minutes. I always worked by myself in the booth. When I started to work with Rick and Marilyn, I was a little self-conscious at first. I’d never done that before – sat with other people. People were barred from the studio then. Now, I don’t think I could ever work solo again.
I’m thinking you had to work on listening skills and pick your spots.
That’s right. You can’t be greedy and hog the microphone. I’ve been told I’ve always been good at letting the other person talk. I’d like to think that’s the case. I don’t have to have the last word either. If someone says something of humour and it's an obvious out for the bit, I won’t come back and elongate the thing.
Have you ever felt a moment of discontent and urge to say something?
Yes, but I never say anything. I may think it sometimes, but the problem is, I don’t want to be the bad guy in the room or the guy who gives directions to others. I don’t think that’s my job. I think that’s the job of the program director. So, if he or she is listening and hear what you described they should be the one to say to that individual, take it down a notch. We have discussions in the room amongst ourselves and none of us wants to be the bad guy. All that does is destroy the chemistry built-up amongst us. I think I’ve only made Marilyn cry three times in three decades. That’s pretty good.
Has she ever made you cry?
No! She’s never made my cry. She’s pissed me off a few times.
Did you hear the ad on Zoomer radio?
Yes, and I thought it was quite funny, but they didn’t think it was funny here.
What year did you join CHUM?
In what capacity?
An all-night show, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. I worked six days a week and, in my case ,for the seventh night I would record each of the previous six nights and if I screwed up, because it was reel to reel, I had to go back and start all over again. It would take an hour and a half to do this hour, and when the end of the week came, I would have six hours recorded. I was on the air seven nights a week – live six nights and I loved it. I was twenty years old. I didn’t care.
Wolfman Jack would come to Toronto to do a weekend show. He’d arrive once a month and record. I was the guy who had to look after him; pick him up at the airport, get him settled in the hotel, find the entertainment and make sure he was comfortable. That was odd for me, but I was in my late twenties. He was a charming man and dominated the room when he walked in. I remember sitting back of a limousine coming from the airport and smoking a joint with him for nearly an hour, and just laughed. I took him down to the Delta Chelsea and checked him in, then called the Judy Welch Modeling Agency to get girls to be with him in the studio. He always had to have women and all kinds of people around him when he was on the air. It became a party. He was larger than life.
The key word to success on the air is – connect. You must connect. You sometimes hear people on the air and think that person doesn’t have a very good voice, but they connect. Human to human. You should always imagine you are always speaking to one person, not a group of people. I never use the word “everybody” or “folks” because you are talking to individuals. People are listening with their own two ears. I’m always conscious what the people listening to me are perceiving. Have I been clear? Have I given them the details? Did I put the right emphasis in the right place?
I remember one time we got an email from somebody who said, 'I feel like I’m at a party eavesdropping'. That devastated me. That’s not what I wanted. I think what they were referring to is we did something that was too inside amongst ourselves and the listener had no idea what was going on. It’s easy to fall into that trap.
That’s why there are podcasts. Who have you met you most admire?
There are two: Mick Jagger and Tony Bennett. I don’t think I expected them to be as nice as they were because they are so high up. I’ve always been a Rolling Stones fan since I was a kid and I got to meet Mick Jagger in Barbados when we used to go down with the station. Jagger was staying with musician Eddie Grant. Eddie had bought an old plantation and, in the building, where the slaves had worked, he had left the rings in the wall where they were incarcerated. That building became the recording studio.
When Mick was there, we managed to get in past the gates. Eddie welcomed us in, introduced us to Mick who was recording. We sat down and did an interview and talked mostly about cricket and music for about five minutes and then he walked back into the studio. Ross Davies, the program director and I were standing there thinking we didn’t get a picture with Mick, and this was before the days of selfies. Ross had his camera, so we phoned back in and asked if Mick would come out to do some picture taking with us.
He came back out. Now, there’s the three of us standing and nobody to take the picture, so Mick said he’d find someone. He walked around the property and found a housekeeper who took the picture for is. He was really, really a nice man. And Tony Bennett – it was like I had known him for life. I think he treats everybody that way. He’s calling me, “Rog” and saying how great it is to be here. I asked, “why are you still doing this at your age?” He’d turned eighty and said, “why are you doing what you do regardless at your age? If this is what you do, then it’s what you do.” You know, he still gets up every morning and paints.
I remember asking him during an interview back in 1992 as he’s preparing for a concert, “when do you know you had a great show”? He said he’d asked the same question of Fred Astaire who also was also constant source of new songs, and Astaire replied:” When you are certain you have put together the perfect show, take fifteen minutes out – then it’s perfect. Leave them wanting.”
Don’t overstay your welcome. He was really easy to talk to. Those two stand out. I don’t have anything bad to say about 99.9% of the people of met. They are all people and they are all professionals.
I do remember interviewing Johnny Rivers. Remember him? And John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful in the '70s. This was more my fault than anyone else. We were doing a history of rock documentary and we wanted little sound clips and bites to be included and not full-length interviews. I was asking questions that fit the length of those bites and I think the two of them got a little annoyed.
Johnny Rivers actually got up went into his room, returned then said, “here’s my bio, you may want to read this.” I thought to myself, I know more about you than you do. These guys often say, “when I recorded in 1965 this particular song – I’m thinking, no you didn’t - you recorded that in '66. As the person buying or listening, you remember all of that stuff. At least I do. If you’re an artist recording it and have to remember what month and what kind of song; it’s a blur, I’m sure.
What’s it like being the top paid voice in Canadian radio?
Really, I didn’t know I was.
You’ve been married a long time.
I’m still on my starter wife forty-three years later. My wife’s name is Moira and she’s played a very important role keeping me healthy: taught me a lot I didn’t know growing up. I was an only child and my family was a very conservative, quiet family. I was also very introverted, which I think is one of the reasons I got into the business. I think a lot of introverted people are in media. You can hide behind a microphone, right? She’s helped me grow up, although she’ll tell you, I’m still a work in progress. Behind every successful man is a woman rolling her eyes.
Your home is beautiful, and your hideaway must bring you great joy.
It is, and I’m starting to listen to quite a bit of vinyl these days. I pull them out at random.
How does it sound?
It sounds fantastic. Does it sound better than a CD? I don’t know. My ears aren’t attuned that way.
What gets played?
I’ve pulled out some Canadian stuff, even an old Mandala album the other day and played. A Dan Fogelberg album. I purposely pulled out an old Rolling Stones album; one of the first ones.
What goes through your mind listening to these sides and the music played on CHUM these days?
Let’s face it, I like the older music. I think everybody likes what they grew up with. I think the state of today's’ music is in a slump right now. I don’t think there’s much creativity going on, no innovation and a lot of the songs sound the same.
Most are written by the same people.
Yep, it’s a cluster of writers, but if that’s the way it goes, it’s the way it goes. If somebody out there 14 years old loves a particular song, then good for them.
There’s always been teams of writers whose job was to rewrite the hits to make a hit.
In that respect, it really hasn’t changed. It’s generational. I have friends who say, “how can you stand that music you play. Where’s Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton? . It’s not 1972! Get over yourself!