Arts & Entertainment
12 min

Radio what’s new?

Proud FM a year later

Credit: (Scott Dagostino)

Proud FM celebrated its first anniversary in April. It was a rocky year of abrupt staffing changes, ongoing suspicion of the owners’ motives and murky audience numbers. Xtra writer Scott Dagostino asks: Where does Canada’s first gay and lesbian radio station go from here?

“It was very exciting… at first,”says musician James Collins. As the initial music director of 103.9 Proud FM he was part of Canada’s first commercial gay and lesbian radio station. Its April 2007 launch made international headlines. Mere weeks later, however, Collins and two of the station’s creators were no longer working there and by the end of 2007 a series of abrupt firings and rotating management shifts made it seem that the station’s low-watt signal would be drowned out by gossip about its future.

Frustrated by the total silence about certain decisions, Proud FM listener Michelle Hamilton-Page asked management in an open letter: “Are you community-based or private, corporate, kowtow-to-advertiser driven?” It’s a question that the fledgling station tried to avoid during its first tumultuous year on the air but now, with a new manager and a new energy, Proud FM is working to answer it.

In its planning stages “community” was the buzzword for Proud FM. Originally conceived as Rainbow Radio, with a pop music and community-affairs talk format, the project had been shepherded since the late 1990s by a group spearheaded by Evanov Radio Group executive Carmela Laurignano.

The group lost its bid for the 93.5FM slot to urban/hip-hop station Flow in 1999. But by mid-2004 Laurignano had an agreement with private investor George Marchi (whose Sovereign Capital Group invests mostly in funeral homes) and then with Pink Triangle Press (PTP; publishers of Xtra and Fab, and owners of a minority stake in OUTtv), to move forward with another attempt to secure a broadcast licence.

PTP aided by assembling a small coalition of gay community spokespeople and groups to help convince the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to grant Evanov use of its own frequency adjacent to Z103. In 2006 the now-rechristened Proud FM was given the green light.

But almost as soon as this pioneering gay radio station was established PTP president Ken Popert found the new Rainbow Media Group curiously unwilling to sign any commitment to keep the station gay or to give its 10 percent partner, PTP, any real say in the decision-making. PTP pulled out of the project, with Popert saying, “On the basis of our experience here, I have doubts about their interest in our community.” The fear was that Evanov had merely used the community angle to convince the CRTC to allow it a new station.

On the day of Proud FM’s launch pseudonymous Queer West Toronto blogger Don Quixote declared, “A couple of media friends of mine think that not too long from now — less than two years — Proud FM will declare failure and use the signal to move another of their stations into the downtown core for a more lucrative market.”

“It won’t happen,” sighs Proud FM program director Bob Willette, who calls talk of flipping the station format a conspiracy theory, one he’s heard for more than a year since its launch. “Why would you fight for 10 years for a 50-watt station that you’re going to flip? It makes no business sense. Why would they pay the extra thousands of dollars in rent to put the station right here in the village?”

Willette continues an argument made by Proud FM’s original general manager Carmela Laurignano right from the start. She told The Globe and Mail, “We are very, very committed to it,” yet, only two months after the station’s launch, Laurignano was gone. She went back to work at Evanov head office but, apparently putting her money where her mouth is, still maintains a five percent stake in the station. Laurignano didn’t respond to Xtra’s interview requests.

George Marchi, who owned half of the station before splitting his share with the Commisso Family Trust last summer says, “I wouldn’t press the panic button because we’ve had some changeovers in staff.”

Fair enough, except that one of those changeovers was Maggie Cassella, whose popularity played a big role in the launch of Proud FM and whose sudden firing in August rattled fans and staff alike. “It happened really fast, there was no warning,” says her former producer Mark Wigmore. The station management said little, chalking it up as a mere “programming decision,” but Collins still doubts that Cassella was let go because of a shift toward less talk and more music.

“They got her to do that after the first week, actually.” Why fire her, he asks? “You just say, ‘Look, we need less talk.'” For her part, Cassella — now working on a show for OUTtv called On Line with Maggie Cassella — won’t comment on the station’s “programming decision” line but says, “I have no outstanding issues with Proud FM…. I learned I was capable of producing daily, writing daily, but most importantly, I learned what an incredibly supportive community I’m a part of.”

Deb Pearce, comedian and on-air host of the 10am to 3pm slot, explains the disconnect between the community gossip and the station’s silence. “Of course the community rallied behind Maggie,” she says. “We’re really good about advocating for justice — ‘You can’t do that to our people! You can’t fire a lesbian!’ — but people don’t understand that radio’s a different animal.”

Same-day firings are commonplace: Pearce herself was abruptly fired from a job at JACK FM years before and Willette tells not only of his own blunt dismissal from CFNY but of how CISS FM invited the entire staff out for lunch, then changed the locks and put everyone’s belongings out on the street.

“These are business decisions,” says Xtra columnist Shaun Proulx, who suddenly stepped in as Proud FM’s new host of the drive-home show with Wigmore. “This isn’t a college radio station where we gather the community in and it’s all feel-good. It’s a cutthroat business.”

Fab contributor Matt Cassano was a Proud FM intern who worked as Cassella’s assistant. “I was constantly told, ‘This is the radio business. You’re in one day and out the next.'” Over a two-day period in November he and others, including on-air talent Richard Ryder and producer Lisa Marshall, were fired. “You can’t trust anybody,” an ousted and angry Ryder told Fab.

Gossip swirled that the station was getting rid of its gay staffers and the hiring of Lello Orso, a new station manager brought over from Milan, had one anonymous staffer loudly complaining that the station was now run by “this straight Italian guy who barely speaks English.” Willette, a veteran of straight radio, can see why some were alarmed. “We had four or five general managers in the first year. I get how that fuels the fire of conspiracy theories.”

“There were some good people who were let go,” says Evanov Radio Group’s vice-president of finance Michael Kilbride, but Proud FM was spending more than it was bringing in. “There’s a point at which you can’t dig yourself out of a hole.” The November firings, he says, had to happen, despite their effect on the station and the wider community. “It was difficult with the changing of the staff,” Pearce says. “You were always wondering, ‘Am I going to be next?'” while, on the outside, Collins heard all the talk and says, “I’m glad I got out when I did.”

Kilbride admits that the Rainbow Media partnership between his Evanov Radio Group and Marchi has been “somewhat dysfunctional.” Kilbride says Evanov was too hands-off while “the other guys I consider problematic because they have no broadcast experience and didn’t make entirely good decisions.” Marchi, who took over briefly as general manager himself, won’t discuss staffing decisions. “I run a number of businesses so I don’t have time for he-said-she-saids.”

Popert blames the perceived dysfunction on the Rainbow Media Group’s “absurd shareholder agreement.” Kilbride explains that the major Evanov and Marchi halves of the company pass a controlling ballot back and forth from year to year, so the balance of power keeps shifting. “This indicates the two partners don’t trust each other, I would guess,” says Popert. Willette jokes, “It’s like mom and dad are fighting and we’re the kids down here wondering what’s going to happen.”

In January of this year Kilbride stepped in as acting general manager. After the drama in November it was clearly time to “get things organized and calm the place down.” The key for Proud FM, Kilbride says, is to surround the excellent on-air hosts with qualified radio managers — gay ones. “I can’t imagine, for a station like this, a bunch of straight guys running it. I made a speech at Proud a while back and I told them, ‘This is your radio station.'” Marchi agrees that, despite behind-the-scenes scuffles, the owners have always had a “sacred trust… that, as shareholders, we do not impact the content and quality of the station.”

“Since I’ve been here the management team has pulled together,” says Bruce Campbell, a 40-year veteran of talk and sports radio — and out at work since the 1970s — who ended his retirement to join Proud FM as its new general manager. “I’ve already told them to leave me alone and let me do the job. I said, ‘If you want this thing to work, you’ve got to give us the tools to do it.'” Campbell says he’s been told, “The success of this radio station will depend on you guys. We’ll stay out of your way and if this thing falls flat on its face, it’s your responsibility.”

Since taking charge in April, Campbell has been working with Willette and sales director John Kenyon to boost Proud’s profile. Kenyon says there have been discussions about the possibility of moving Proud FM’s tiny transmitter to the CN Tower — cutting out the static and expanding its reach — but right now the station’s audience is still small enough to make spending the tens of thousands of dollars to register with the BBM ratings service a moot point.

“Why would you?” asks Proulx, “Why go up against the big guys until you’ve fine-tuned your product?” In Toronto, BBM ranks CHFI as the most popular station, with about one million listeners, and the French CBC station the lowest, with about 10,000. Campbell claims Proud FM, though not officially ranked yet, is somewhere in the lower middle, with about 80,000 listeners through the airwaves but mostly online.

“We know people are listening,” says Kenyon. “We get emails all day long. Advertisers say they’re getting results.” Proud FM, he says, is now being approached by sponsors like Ikea and McDonald’s. These big companies, he says, have always been nervous about advertising in gay media but radio’s lack of saucy sexual images makes the station appealing to them. “Not to say we’re not edgy,” Kenyon grins, “but we’re very mainstream compared to other gay media.”

It’s the word “mainstream,” however, that unnerves some of the station’s critics. Rival stations like CHUM FM initially complained to the CRTC that Rainbow Radio’s music mix wouldn’t be sufficiently different from its own and suspicious minds point to the station that won that FM slot in 1999: Flow 93.5FM began as an urban station for Toronto’s African and Caribbean communities but these days, the “new Flow” plays the same top-40 Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake. Willette points to MIX 99.9 and says, “We want listeners just like they do,” which alarms James Collins, who says he left the station because of its shift toward more “stereotypical” dance-pop: “I know a well-known music director who said, ‘Did it have to be such a cliché?'” Collins misses the early experimental weeks of the station. “It was exciting to play stuff that no one else in Canada was playing.”

That, says musician John Caffery, of Toronto-based band Kids on TV, is what Proud FM lacks. “There’s incredible queer music that they’re afraid to play,” he says, citing bands like Final Fantasy, The Magnetic Fields and Soft Pink Truth. At the station, Willette shrugs and says, “I’ve been the program director since January and I haven’t seen a Final Fantasy disc cross my desk, so whose fault is that?” Campbell adds, “Why should we play someone, gay or lesbian, who, frankly, is not talented?”

Ultimately, Kenyon says, commercial wins out. “We need to sell advertising to survive.” Musician Gavin Bradley agrees. “In order to thrive and extend its signal strength,” he says, “The station’s listenership needs to include a huge mainstream straight audience that has a particular perception of what gay people would be listening to.”

A frustrated Willette asks the big question: “What is gay music? Is it music that gay people have embraced, for whatever reason, or is it music solely by gay people?” It is a fair point: Ask a roomful of gay men whether they want to hear Madonna or The Hidden Cameras and the answer is, for many queer artists, a hard candy to swallow. But when Kenyon jokes, “Do we have to out everyone first? Where does Mika fit?” he’s being a bit too cute. In a 24-hour day surely there’s room for such artists but Willette insists, “We play what’s the best. What’s going to make our radio station sound the best?”

The Proud FM team hope to prove that by addressing their critics’ concerns in a number of new ways: Kenyon points to the station’s website where the new “P-List” page features streaming audio of local bands who submit their music. “We are exploring the idea of specialized shows on the weekends — a Broadway show, a 50-plus show,” Willette says, though he bemoans the lack of money and manpower for them. Most importantly the station will soon use its “Proud VIP” email list to begin setting up external volunteer committees — a listening group for more feedback on the music and an advisory group to discuss Proud FM’s wider role in the community. Marchi says, “We want an advisory board that has its ear to the ground and has some real teeth to report to management in terms of vision and mandate. We hope to implement that in short order.”

“That’s something they should have done when they launched it, not two years later,” says Popert. “This was my original point: as far as I can see Proud FM has a viable producer/consumer relationship with the community but I’m not aware of them succeeding as an institution of the com-munity or engaging with other community institutions.”

Willette argues, however, that it’s money that talks, as he points to the approximately $200,000 worth of station airtime that Proud FM has given various community groups to plug their events and fundraisers. Back in their initial application to the CRTC, the Rainbow Media group promised ongoing donations to Pride Toronto and the journalism programs at Humber and Carleton. Despite the station’s money woes William Hanna, dean of Humber’s School of Media Studies, says Proud FM is fulfilling its initial obligations. Krista Prochazka, acting director of development at Carleton, says, “They’ve pledged donations for seven years.” Pride Toronto director Fatima Amarshi says, “We look forward to working with them again this year.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” says Campbell. “If we have to rely solely on the gay community for our total source of revenue, we’re not going to be here for long.” He recognizes the concerns around Proud FM’s desire for a mainstream audience but insists, “My view is that this station is about what’s going on in the gay and lesbian and transgendered communities. We’re not going to soften that to appeal to the mainstream. If straight people like the music and the personalities, great, join the party! This is another small step toward opening hearts and minds, if you will, in the larger population.”

Proulx wholeheartedly agrees. Every afternoon he and producer Wigmore form a comedy partnership based on Wigmore playing straight man to what’s been called “the Shaun Proulx Dictatorship — it’s a gay man whipping the straight boys around and that’s fun and it’s never been heard before.” What matters, says Proulx, is that, despite all the behind-the-scenes management turmoil, “They have never, never, never, never, never come to me and said, ‘You’ve gone too far, rein it in.’ Everything we do is really authentic — the conversations, the issues — and no one has ever told me I can’t talk about bathhouses at three in the afternoon. Coming from a mostly straight management team, they’ve stayed true to producing queer radio — real queer radio, not some watered-down version.” Even Popert concedes, “They seem to have stuck with the intention of broadcasting to the gay and lesbian communities.”

“It’s taken us a year to smooth out the bumps but we’re heading in a good direction,” says Kilbride. “I think Proud is going to be really successful if we can stick to the program, keep good people around and not go too far into the hole…. It’s a challenge but not impossible. We just have to be patient.”

For how long, though? While Kilbride seems relaxed about the future, the spectre of a controlling ballot changing around again lingers and Marchi’s optimism has a timeframe: “I think in the next quarter, the next three months, you’re going to see growth and momentum.” Whatever happens, he says, “I’m learning in this industry of radio and broadcasting that there are more rumours than fact. I would ask that people make their judgments based on the facts.”

“Proud FM today has never been more cohesive,” says Pearce and it’ll be an interesting second year for the station as it continues to grow. If the uneasy partnership between the station’s owners allows the station time and resources, it may achieve a balance of making a profit and making a difference. “The word profit is not a dirty word if you have a sense of responsibility to your core audience and the community,” Marchi says and the station’s management seems ready to accept that responsibility of engaging with the community and challenging its critics. Radio is a tough racket but, in its broadcasting practices and music choices, Proud FM may become as courageous and outspoken as its name insists.