Where have all the DJs gone?

Cities missing the beat of music and talk radio

Allan BonnerTORONTO, ON, Jan 27, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Space is an important aspect of city life. We need lots of space to play and rest – parks and squares and fountains. Montreal would be a different city without the mountain, as would Regina without Wascana Park, Vancouver without Stanley Park or Toronto without the islands. Fredericton has been much improved with riverfront walkways and turning the railroad bridge over to pedestrians.

But what about that other space – real space – out there in the air? It was on the public airwaves that I first started hearing the beat of the city. At the drums were the world’s fastest talking DJs – Jackson Armstrong, up from the U.S. to guest host on CHUM, Toronto. Dave Mickey held his own as did the Montreal gang – Dave Boxer, Charles P. Rodney Chandler, Roger (Great!) Scott and commentaries on CFOX from Gord Sinclair Jr.

It was said that Jimmy Mac on CHNS in Halifax had Martha and the Vandellas do a version of their great song of the same name for his theme. Folklore has it that he was so popular that years later the station dared not play the tune because the switchboard would light up wondering if Jimmy was really coming back.

I was in the right place at the right time riding the great wave to Vancouver in the late 1960s. Fred Latremouille was following the Beatles to India, Rick Honey was on CKLG and Roy Hennessey did the TV weather so we could actually see one of our heroes. Stevie Wonder’s real name was Grossman who thought we didn’t know the Motown Stevie, I guess. When not playing records he was promoting music festivals.

Back east for university, Fredericton offered CFNB – “50,000 rhythmic watts of power” which could be heard from New Jersey to Wales. “Wee Willie” spun the records. My gang preferred to listen to WNEW in New York and pretend we might have lunch at “21” or the Rainbow Room.

I think Marshall McLuhan and Tony Schwartz would have called this kind of thing “audio-acoustic space.” Big radios and “boom boxes” stuck to the ear of young urbanites created a bubble of sound and, in a strange way, privacy in the congested urban setting. Now it’s ear buds, and who knows what’s playing. It sure isn’t a popular disc jockey. Can you name one?

Some years ago, Yonge Street in Toronto was closed to vehicle traffic. The pedestrian mall featured music, dance, food and other attractions every few blocks. Just south of the corner of St. Clair there was a stage set up with a desk, microphone and speakers. A few people were milling around. This was right outside the historic CHUM radio station offices. The few people on the stage drew only a few more to watch. I remarked that had this been anytime between Alan Freed coining the term “rock and roll” in Cleveland and Tom Rivers leaving morning radio in Toronto, the DJ would have drawn a huge crowd.

Now, just as we all suspected when we were kids, there’s a little, nameless person in an IPod spinning discs into the ear buds. This is one place that we’re all alone but together in our cities.

We’ve lost something without the shared experience of music and talk, and talking about what we heard, and listening to it together. We’ve lost something by listening to recorded, syndicated programs produced out of LA or someplace.

So if it’s not newspapers, radio or TV that help create a city space for us to share, what will be it – blogs and tweets? I think not. How about putting a nice smile on our faces as we walk down the streets of our cities? Not a maniacal smile, but one that you might have while listening to a favourite tune – it will make your city better and is about the best we can do in the social media world that keeps us from socializing.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our times on five continents for 25 years. He loves cities and his latest book will be titled Safe Cities.

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