Will new black-music station go with the Flow?
By Ashante Infantry
Listeners to Toronto’s newest radio station, which formally debuts Monday, are already thrilling to its flow. But their experience with that other Flow that has left them wary, too.
With its soft launch Oct. 3, G98.7 FM became Toronto’s second-ever black-owned and -operated commercial station, and the only one left, since Flow 93.5 FM’s sale to CTV earlier this year. That frequency had already alienated supporters of the decade-long, politically charged campaign which brought it to the air in 2001, because of its hits-oriented devolution and dearth of talk programming.
Now, after its own nine-year quest, including three licence applications, 98.7 FM — billed as “urban adult contemporary” — represents a second chance at a forum for the black community’s ails and aspirations, as well as for aficionados of black-oriented music.
Online comments have already been celebrating the playlist of classic R&B, reggae and soca showcased alongside Madonna, Beyoncé and Lil Wayne during two months of all-music tweaking.
“Listening to Jill Scott on the RADIO! That never happens in Toronto,” enthused Jenna Burke on Twitter. “Finally, an on-air station that embraces neo-soul and indie artists as well!!!!” gushed Dwan Branton on Facebook, where Tamara DeLeon added: “It is so good to hear a mix that truly reflects the diversity of our community.”
If Flow comparisons weren’t already inevitable, several former high-profile employees of that outlet have joined G, including, djs Spex, Dr.Jay and Jester, program director Wayne Williams and the reunited morning team of Jemini & Mark Strong (who were, awkwardly enough, shouted out by rapper Drake during his recent Flow appearance).
“It’s actually a sharp move on their part,” posited black Toronto pop culture critic Dalton Higgins.
“Mark Strong, Jemini, those were some of the things that had resonance in our community and once they were let go, those kinds of moves turned off the community; they fired the heart and soul of the station.
“Now, if they were to add some of the other (unfavourable) elements — Top 20 format, cookie-cutter playlist — that’s where the community might be up in arms. But looking at their early lineup, I’m excited.”
So, reservedly, is Ikeila Wright who has the channel playing in her One Love Vegetarian eatery.
“It sounds really hopeful, but I’m not going to sign on 100 per cent until I see what’s going on,” said the Bathurst Street proprietress.
“A lot of us signed petitions in the past for radio stations that will remain unnamed that were supposed to be black-focused, and we felt punked; we felt bamboozled; our emcees, our DJs were fired; so I’m a bit timid.”
The difference is that since the cultural imperative is part of the licence G98.7 founder Fitzroy Gordon got from Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, this station — unlike Flow — can’t easily veer from its out-the-gate musical fusion, chat shows, news and sports coverage.
Jamaican native Gordon, a former medical technologist who covered sports for FAN 590 and the Toronto Sun, and helmed the nightly Dr. Love show on CHIN-FM 100.7 FM for seven years has a simple message for the skeptics: “Support the station by advertising your businesses and services on the station; listen to the station; support the advertisers; that is key to the survival of the station.
“Don’t give us any opportunity to talk about ‘We may have to do something else, because we’re not getting the community support.’ ”
Flow operators have said they were forced to abandon current affairs programming and embrace a more Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) format, which accrued modest profits, after an inability to attract blue chip advertisers wrought losses of a million dollars their first year.
It’s admirable to be predominately black in ownership, management and staff, in a city where most mainstream media outlets have few, if any, blacks in those roles, but can a commercial radio station targeting a 25-54 demographic with a focus on black and Caribbean emanating music and issues grab a big enough market share to satisfy advertisers?
“If it is not accessible to a sufficiently broad audience, Fitzroy is going to have a very difficult time being financially viable,” said local radio analyst David Bray noting the challenges of jazz and classical music programmers.
“It’s lovely from an artistic standpoint … If he keeps his costs way down, then perhaps he can make it all viable, but it is a tremendous struggle.”
Bray’s suggestion — that G relegate the bulk of its specialty programming to off-peak and weekends hours — would be an anathema to listeners already monitoring the playlist, like Pickering’s Klive Walker.
“While I’m thoroughly enjoying the R&B and the funk that they’re playing, music that I grew up with, I’m also thinking it’s a small percent of reggae and calypso, and I haven’t heard any African or Latin, so that positive feedback has to be tempered in some way,” said the reggae historian who’ll be dismayed if smooth jazz, “bad reggae covers of pop tunes” and superficial, non-inclusive news coverage become de rigueur.
“If they’re going to join the kind of bland, tepid music that some stations play, then I don’t really see the point,” he said. “And I would like to see them bring in people from different minority communities to talk about their issues in a very serious and compelling way . . . There’s a lot of responsibility that they’re carrying and they’re going to get way less wiggle room than Flow did.”
G’s president, CEO and station manager Fitzroy Gordon seems to thrive on challenge. At last month’s ribbon-cutting, he joked about the “sleepless nights” wrought by the station’s birth, as well as the son his wife delivered just weeks later, but exuded the faith and doggedness that steered his Intercity Broadcasting Network Inc.’s struggle to air.
“G stands for good, godly, glory — and Gordon,” teased the new radio boss as stood before a freshly painted wall, etched with an Aristotle quote, addressing the gathering at the station’s expansive 7,000-sq.-ft. studio and offices near Don Mills Rd. and Lawrence Ave. E.
(CBC, which tried to block G’s application declaring concerns about the signal interfering with their Peterborough frequency, is now wreaking havoc on the station’s signal in Scarborough, Pickering, and Oshawa. Gordon plans to ask the public broadcaster to limit the Peterborough channel — a duplicate of 99.1 FM — in the GTA.)
Gordon helms a staff of 40, including a seven-person advertising sales team which has already made inroads with local restaurants, promoters and retailers. “Even before we went on air, we were getting calls for advertising,” said Gordon.
“We’ve sold out our (nightclub) live-to-airs for the entire year. If this is any indication, we’re going to have a very good time.”
He’s also co-hosting a Sunday chat segment on G which boasts Canada’s first African music program on commercial radio, and a gospel show with Carvin Winans of the legendary American singing family.
The station promises to fill a void, said restaurant owner Wright.
“Black music of all genres means the world to me,” she explained.
“I had a group of youths in here from the Africentric school and a Louis Armstrong CD was on and I said ‘Okay, music trivia, guys: who is this playing?’ No clue. And it hurt me.”
Published with permission from the Toronto Star