Sharon Taylor Catches Up With Rogers' Radio Sr. VP Julie Adam
Julie Adam is a diehard Detroit Tigers fan (which doesn’t go down too well at work), and she has coached both her sons’ baseball teams.
By Sharon Taylor
Julie Adam is a diehard Detroit Tigers fan (which doesn’t go down too well at work), and she has coached both her sons’ baseball teams.During the first week of spring training, in Florida, I sat down with Julie, Senior Vice President of Radio at Rogers.
The first time we faced each other across a table was 25 years ago. Do you remember our first meeting?
Yes, it was at that restaurant on Ontario Street underneath CISS-FM. I met with you and Doug Pringle. I remember that you guys were asking me about country music which was a little confusing because I was interviewing with you for a job at a rock station in Regina. It was sometime in September 1992 because I moved to Regina on my 22nd birthday in October.
September 1992 – let's freeze there for a second and find out how you came to be there. Why did you get into radio?
It was all about music. My passion from apparently 2 years old was music. I was the kid that made all the mix tapes, spent all my allowance on records. It was really an obsession. But I had no musical talent. I thought I could play an instrument and be in a band, but I brutalized every instrument I tried to learn. I thought I could write songs, but I couldn’t. I was kind of lost as a kid, I didn’t do well in school. I was fun to be around but at the end of high school when I was supposed to figure out what to do, my only real aim was to get out. One day I was in the kitchen with my mom and one of my older sisters who suggested that I take the radio/tv course. It had never occurred to me. I knew I wanted to work in music, so I thought maybe working at a record label or producing music. Hadn’t thought about radio, but I investigated it, applied to Ryerson and after that of course I fell in love with it.
Back then I used to go every year to Mexico with a girlfriend on vacation. On this one year, I met Kenny Coughlin who worked in radio and a guy who was General Manager at a Michigan radio station. I spent the entire week talking radio with those guys and came back determined to get a job. I sent out 50 applications and a few PDs responded. I called them all, nagged them all. I got a couple of interviews, some station tours – one at CHFI and when Gary Aube showed me around Q107 I met Joey and he said “I need an intern” so I worked for him labelling cassettes and stuff and when they launched the national overnight show with Andy Frost that’s when I started doing the board op’ing. This was all during Ryerson.
Tom Newton (PD at Z99 in Regina) liked your resume and tape, and since you were in Toronto he asked if I would interview you. Doug Pringle just happened to be hanging out working with me, so I dragged him downstairs for the interview with “some girl”.
The reason you were getting country music questions was that we instinctively knew that we wanted you. When we rode the elevator back up afterward I remember saying to Doug “too bad for Tom, I think we should keep her”. But Tom won, and you did go out there for your first full-time job.
Yes, but I did end up working for you for about 3 weeks before I left. I was also working as an overnight board op at Q107. I started out during my 1st year of Ryerson as Joey Vendetta’s intern (who is currently around here somewhere, he works at Sportsnet), then I moved to producer and board op on Andy Frost's coast to coast all night show while I was in school.
Did you expect to be on the air when you finished Ryerson?
I knew I was going to work with music, so the notion of being in a control room picking songs which is what I envisioned was what the DJ did sounded good. I never wanted to be in the spotlight, I don’t crave attention and I’m frankly happy being out of the spotlight. I didn’t go in thinking that I wanted to be a star. I went in wondering what jobs there are working in music. I was really in a radio station so quickly that I got an understanding of what the jobs were. The music director position I was what I was really keen on. Then I discovered I would like to be on the air. I was working at Q107 and these people were all so talented and they were passionate about music and talking about music, so I decided I’d like to do that.
Where you any good on the air?
I was a flameout as a musician, and I was a flameout on the air. I was terrible!
Me too! I felt that I was at best, boring.
I wouldn’t score myself that high. I never got it. I didn’t understand it, I was unable to communicate. I changed my name which threw me off. I like to be alone and there is work I like to do alone, but for the most part, I like to be around people. If I were a producer on a show and I had to chime in occasionally, I could do that because it’s real interaction. But being in a room alone talking and pretending that I’m interesting just didn’t work. The people who do it well hear themselves communicating with someone. I never heard that. I just heard myself talking to myself.
Tell me about your name change.
Back in the day, everyone changed their name. I used to tell people – change your name! Pick something fun and catchy. My on-air name was Julie St James.
I don’t remember that!
You’re not alone.
Julie St James is on the air in Regina – tell us more about that job.
I spent about 2 years doing weekends, evenings and music at Z99 in Regina. I still love music, but I am no longer really in radio because of the music, I’m in it because I love working with radio people and that all started at Z99. I learned about being part of a team, ratings, working and fighting to the death and competing and what it’s like to do your part to achieve success. I absolutely loved it.
What came next for you?
I moved from Z99 Regina to Energy 1200 in Ottawa, another Rawlco station. I was fulltime on the air doing overnights and a little bit of music. I really wanted to get back to Toronto because I always wanted to work in Toronto radio and I’m from here, my family is here. I was only in Ottawa for maybe 6 to 8 months. I did do evenings at the end because somebody quit! I was so bad on the air that the PD Kim Somers, who was a great PD, used to aircheck me twice a day. I would stick around after my all-night shift until she came in and we’d do an aircheck, then I’d go home then I’d come back to work and we’d do another one. She was hell-bent on getting me to sound good, it was like a personal mission. I look back and think she worked so hard at it and she didn’t have to do it. But every day twice a day – she’d be getting me in her office. She couldn’t quite get me there, but I think she almost died trying.
After that was the CISS-FM experience here in Toronto
I came when you were launching NCN (New Country Network) the video channel, and you needed someone to do the music. So I did the music with the team there but worked out of the CISS floor, NCN was the floor above us on Ontario Street.
Were you ever on the air at CISS?
No! At one point you said to me “you were on the air, right? Let me hear a tape”, so I gave you one, and you never mentioned it again. (laughter) I thought that was kind.
When NCN was sold I was then the Asst Music Director to CISS-FM Music Director Janet Trecarten. Then I got into programming and was the Asst PD, but I also had what I call, the best job ever. I was the Director of Artist Relations which was a title you made up and I think the only job like that in Canada. It was because you and the rest of the team wanted artists to come into CISS and enjoy their experience. We were working on getting artists to connect country with Toronto because Toronto didn’t have an FM country station before.
If I recall you and I used to go to the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville and drive around in taxis with our mugs and hand them out on Music Row.
Yes! And we rented a suite in the hotel and booked artists in. I was just telling someone the other day that over the 3 days I would do 12 hours of interviews. We only used the artist's voice, but I got to do the interviewing. And the booking of the artists and all that too. It was amazing. Back here in Toronto, it was also my job to book all those Live at 5 performers too, where the artist would come into the radio station and play live. I managed to get Trisha Yearwood to come in on the weekend. I learned so much, it was completely special. We wanted country artists to come in, and they did. We needed to connect the artists with Toronto because Toronto didn’t have any heritage with country music or country artists.
Once they were booked I learned about the “so what else”….
“What else” was a Rawlco thing!!
Oh my god yes! Rawlco is so good at that. We have Trisha Yearwood coming in! Great, what else can we do? What do you mean what else can we do, we have Trisha Yearwood coming in!
Now I ask myself all the time now, what else? Not what’s next, but what else can we do with this? It was a great habit to get into that has stayed with me.
The Rawlinsons really know how to make radio compelling. This is the best way to describe it – after maybe 4 or 5 days of being on the air at CISS I got a note from Doug Rawlinson that started with “I feel the momentum slipping away…”. (laughter). I mean we were on every 2nd billboard, the station was really happening, mugs and kisses were on the street – but it was already time to dig back in.
So now the station has been sold to Rogers. The same day the format flips from country to CHR, and 75% or more of the staff are let go. Rogers kept you and you started a long and I believe mutually beneficial relationship with Chuck McCoy
Ya, Chuck is amazing, and it was a good run. To call him a mentor is probably understating it. I think he made my career. He threw me in the deep end so many times and I drowned a couple of times. Plus, we’re opposites. He very meticulous and for example, if there is an agenda you go from 1 to 10 and I’m not like that. I’m messy. He helped me with all the business stuff and I don’t know, maybe I lightened him up a bit.
Now you have become the GM/PD of CHFI. Biggest job out there with the biggest radio station. Let’s talk about the biggest story – the firing of Erin Davis. Erin was hugely popular, and you fired her and brought in Mad Dog and Billie. The blowback was enormous and if I’m not mistaken you also fired Erin over the phone. We now know that there was a wonderful outcome for all, so pls go on the record with the real story.
Like I said, I’m messy. I was programming over at CISS when the job at CHFI become open. The general feeling at the time was that they wanted a fresh perspective and fresh take on it. It was very successful in the ratings, but there were a couple of things that were a challenge. There was a direct competitor in EZRock, which was looking good in the research and CHFI wasn’t looking as strong, and Daynard had left. Erin and Bob, the show, weren’t clicking, there wasn’t really much chemistry there. The show was not the right show, and it seemed like we were between a rock and a hard place. What do you do? The decision was more about needing to put a fresh show in there. Of course, it was a total mistake, but in the end, it was the best thing we could have done. It allowed Erin to go and do her own thing, kick our ass, find Mike Cooper and then come back and kick everyone's ass.
If we hadn’t done that I don’t know what the next chess piece would have been and whether it would have worked out as well in the end. Maybe. Certainly, what the right thing to do would be not to do what I did. That was a mistake. Another thing that was happening is that CISS was flipping to JACK and Mad Dog and Billie, a show that was doing quite well, looked good in the research and had a strong following were available. Moving them into CHFI was the second piece of it.
And on the point of firing Erin over the phone. Erin was at her cottage, which she loved. We had had some kind of conversation before she left, not about her being fired, but certainly an “I don’t know how this is going” conversation. My thought was that I didn’t want to make her drive back from her cottage to sit her down and tell her. So I called her. It wasn’t that I was trying to chicken out on doing this and just phone her, it wasn’t a ruthless decision, it was trying to be thoughtful but ended up being very very bad.
I remember Erin in her anger at the time saying, “and I got it in a phone call”!
And she was right! There was no mystery about it, it was a dumb decision, and it was executed poorly. Really, I should have been fired for it.
Why weren’t you?
The classic Tony Viner line was said: “you f'd it, you fix it”. It was terrible. The ratings fell, the revenue fell, we lost a ton of money over it. The only upside was that there was no social media, and business was really strong, radio was booming, and I think Jack had also just come in so it was offsetting some of the pain.
Because it all worked out, Erin and I have an amazing relationship. We ended up in a great place, and she had an amazing run here with Cooper and we had a ton of fun together. It was a huge success and we more than made back the money we had lost. I feel like I earned it back. Because of that, it’s easy for me to say I’m glad I went through it.
Mad Dog and Billie didn’t work out, but in fairness that show wouldn’t have worked on CISS because that station went away. They’ve gone on to do other things. I don’t like that part of it very much, but the CHFI part and the Erin Davis part worked.
When it was bad, it must have been a very difficult time for you.
It was hard. I could never teach anyone or learn myself any more than I did from that experience. I empathize with our programmers when they are in a dire situation it's easy for me to say I’ve been there. I can say I know what you're going through and it’s awful. You got to keep swinging. I had a lot of VPs and presidents and consultants and people that were involved and the “how are we doing now”? “well we’re not any better than we were doing 10 minutes ago it’s been 2 songs since you last asked but I think they were really good songs, I’m grooming the music myself….” Was excruciating. You feel that pressure and you’re either going to crumble or you’re going to keep throwing your best ideas at it until something works.
How many years have you been in the business?
What do you think your strong suit is?
I think I hire well. My passion is working with people. I do a ton of communication. I travel tons. I firmly believe that a business is only as good as it’s people. The technology and the computers and all the stuff that makes it functional is just that, an operating system. The best teams are the ones that are going to win.
In your career, you have worked your way up to the highest position you can hold in radio at Rogers from being an op and all-night announcer. Along with that you married and had children. Have it all much?
I told you I hire well. First, I think I came from a family where they drew no distinctions between what men and women could do. I was very close to my Dad, we were best friends going to movies and baseball games and talking on the phone. It never dawned on me and he never presented it that there was a gender difference. Five girls and one boy - never did my parents suggest that my brother had greater opportunities than the girls. I could do anything. My husband has always very much thought the same way. We both started in radio, but the business didn’t pull at him the way it did for me. He knew how much passion I had, and he was up for the adventure. He was happy to come back to Toronto and do his own thing. It was always a given that I was going to work.
You have two kids. Did you take your full mat leave with each?
No. I like to put all my stressors together. The whole CHFI thing happened when I was about 8 months pregnant with my first. Looking back, a lot of why it went so wrong was because I made decisions way too quickly. You know how your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength? If you need someone to make a fast decision and get stuff done I’m really good at that. If it’s something that should take more time and really be thorough I’m not as good at that. Every boss has said to me - slow down. It’s been my ongoing development plan to take more time and be more thoughtful and I’ve been working very hard at that. So I really didn’t take a mat leave at all with Jack, and later when Cal was born I was off for about 6 months.
Since you work in radio, do your boys think you’re cool?
God, no. They're just used to it.
So, you have successfully folded family into work?
Well, before my first was born I used to come into work at 7 or 8 in the morning and go home around 8 at night. After Jack came I realized that that just didn’t work! I wouldn’t see the baby at all! I was talking to Chuck and asked him if it would be ok if I came in every morning by 8:30 but left at 4:30? I could go home spend all that late afternoon, supper and going to bedtime with him and then turn my attention back to work if needed. My husband would be home, so I could go out to record showcases or write promos or whatever. It was fine by Chuck because to him 8 hours is 8 hours, but it became a great teachable moment. He told me that I had to tell everyone. He said that people wouldn’t understand what was going on because I was always there. So, I did. It was amazing. I explained that I would be leaving at 4:30, being with my son until 8 and then be back online and reachable. Next thing you know I’m in a meeting sitting beside Gary Miles who looks at his watch and says to me “it’s 4:28 get going”. Even Paul Ski who came in after Gary retired would do it. They were all so respectful of me. So, I did that for as long as I needed to when the kids were little.
What has been the most significant changes in the last 25 years?
Technology has been a huge positive and the biggest improvement, everything from having someone can go out on the street, file a report and have it air on one of our stations without anyone touching it. On the flip side, the automation of overnights and weekends hasn’t been good for our business. It's something that keeps me up at night. I can listen to radio stations, ours, and go for 48 hours not hear a human being doing anything that’s new. The automation has not been particularly positive. I like technology, I’m an early adopter but I like people too, so I think that technology should be the thing that we use to connect people, technology should not be the thing that we use to replace people.
If you have a phone or a tablet or a computer, you have a radio because of streaming. Distribution is not our problem. But we must make sure that we maintain that human connection.
Would you recommend radio as a career to kids?
Yes! It’s obviously a tough business. It is competitive, and it’s hard. You move, work wonky hours and all of that. But I think that audio, like podcasting, is now taking shape and it’s been around for a long time. That voice, that human connection is only going to grow. I think audio is still a place to be.
Why does radio persevere?
I think it’s the mobility. You can take it with you and we live in a mobile world now. We used to live in a world where you only did and watched what you wanted to in a physical place. So, if you wanted to watch tv you went to your living room and, if you wanted to watch a movie you went to a movie theatre and you watched it. If you wanted to read a newspaper you went to a store and bought one and read it. With radio, you always brought it around with you. Whether it was your car or boombox or Sony Walkman, radio was portable. Now the pain of having to stop everything and go somewhere to watch or do something is over. So, the whole usage has totally changed, radio hasn’t done that. Music streaming services are making it a lot easier for this generation to make a music tape. Ultimately, we go with you and we’re local.
What’s your favourite format?
That’s not fair. I really love country music. I love sports and I know the least about programming sports. I love talk and news. AC is in my wheelhouse and I loved programming CHR. It’s fun and constantly changing.
What do you do now – who you meet with – I guess I’m asking what you do in a particular week?
What gets laid into my calendar first in the year is anything strategy and it flows from there. Any strategy or business meetings are scheduled first along with the traveling that goes with that. I travel two or three times a month. Those are my most regular obligations. I work with the local markets and the teams there to make sure that we are in the right formats, we have the right plan, we have the right people and helping them with marketing money or programming plans or sales. All of that and managing the budgets of all the stations. My real obligation is that the business is running, we’re hitting our targets, we’re managing the revenue, we’re managing the expenses and that every market has a plan and is executing it.
Do you enjoy operations?
I love the business, I had no idea. I also love the part of my job that is the future. Acquisitions. Future proofing. What are we going to invest in? What are we need to be thinking about a couple of years from now? What are the shiny objects that we should be paying attention to and what are the shiny objects we should ignore?
That’s rarified air you’re breathing. Who do you work with on this stuff?
Our teams are really great all the way through, you can learn a lot from the people that are actually working. We have a lot of bright young talent on the air and off that have great vision on where the business should go. I’m also fortunate that I work for a massive company that has their hands in everything. The biggest part of Rogers is not media, it’s technology and wireless. I spend a lot of time with really smart people at Rogers who are able to connect me with a lot of thought leaders. That’s a big advantage that I have at this company. I’m able to use my contacts here to find someone, like Amazon smart speakers are coming out and how do we get Radioplayer in them. I’m still a voracious reader.
Do you spend much time in programming?
I try not to. Radio strategy is simple - programming and sales. The operations piece isn’t strategy, it’s like a computer, you’re just managing things. I would say that I spend time on the programming in terms of the strategy and stay out of the rest. I listen to a lot of radio, so I’ll offer input. I’ve made a conscious effort to get out outta the way. I spend a lot of time on marketing and stay very connected on that.
Our radio structure is born out of our overall media structure. In radio, the sales team is responsible for driving the revenue and the revenue sits with me as part of the P&L and ultimately, it’s my job to deliver that. But because we’re such a big media company we have a sales division and a head of sales - Al Dark. When you put radio with publishing with television, on a national level with agencies it’s an advantage. Al heads up media overall and he’s got people leading the radio sales piece reporting to him and I’ve got all the money reporting to me so it’s a very close relationship.
What I’ve found in this role was a huge level of frustration in local markets because the PDs would want to decide on something and they would go to the GM to be part of it and sometimes the GM is sales focused. Then there might be a regional general manager and then there is a VP of Programming, there were just too many people involved. We couldn’t move quickly plus that’s a lot of people to get to an agreement. Also, at the same time, the marketing was being done on a national level, it was centralized so all the marketing was being done through a marketing team.
I devised a system that was restructured under formats. For example, here in Toronto Sportsnet 590 and CHFI have nothing in common, but Sportsnet 590 and Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver have everything in common. I found that having someone focused on the same formats across the country, because we have people focused on sales across the country, made more sense to me than having a General Manager. We have National Format Directors and the PD’s report in to them. We have sales managers that are regional because sales are so local, and here in Toronto we have a head of media sales and head of radio.
The format directors report into me, and I have a VP of Talent and Content in Paul Kaye who is also one of my reports. We have PD’s and SM’s in every market.
What are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement?
It’s nothing short of incredible. Every woman I know has a #metoo story; myself included (not in the workplace) and I believe we are witnessing history in the making. The people that are brave enough to speak out and speak up, combined with those that are shutting down the behaviour, are absolutely changing the world. And that is just amazing.
I also think it is impacting the work environment beyond its original intent of standing up against sexual assault and harassment. I think it is forcing leaders (& I believe everyone can be a leader) to shut down all inappropriate behaviour. Even as simple as …how do I say this nicely… not allowing people to scream and yell and behave like total jerks at work.
Work should be fun, and our people deserve a great work environment.
As they say… culture is defined by the worst behaviour you’re willing to tolerate. We have a zero tolerance at Rogers Media.
Some 20 years ago or so Julie and I were sitting on a panel at a CRTC hearing in Toronto. I introduced her to the commission as the future of radio. I think she still is.
Sharon Taylor has spent the best years of her life in radio stations big and small. She is currently in Toronto writing, advising, drinking enormous amount of coffee, bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan. Reach her anytime by text 437 992 9202.
Sharon Taylor can also be reached through her LinkedIn account.