Home, sweet indie-rock home.
In an airy three-storey building in Liberty Village, a team of wireless enthusiasts have set up shop as the newest entry into the bulging Toronto radio landscape. Indie88 hits the airwaves Wednesday at noon, shaking up the fourth-largest market in North America. Its format is indie music, a genre under served by commercial stations in a market where interest in it is ravenous. As well, it plans to devote considerable programing to emerging homegrown artists.
The scene at the station is decidedly un-corporate. There are no gold records on the wall and no portraits of morning-zoo personalities either. The month-long "soft launch" precedes the official liftoff on Sept. 3. Receptionist? Eh, no. Programming director Adam Thompson sticks his head in the stairway and tells me to come on in. "We're up here."
The station's slogan is "Giving great music a home," and, indeed, the place's nerve centre is housed in what used to be the kitchen of the building's former tenant, a photographer. (The main broadcasting console and its microphones sit atop what used to be a kitchen island.) At this point, there's not much set up. Today's modern broadcasting is remarkably free of equipment – the spirit of radio lies in hearts, minds and laptops now.
In the song The Spirit of Radio, Rush's homage to the wireless, there's a line about "emotional feedback on timeless wavelength, bearing a gift beyond price, almost free." The feedback at Indie88 – 88.1 on your FM dial – takes the form of communication with its listeners, a core local audience of adults ages 18 to 34. "This is very much a Toronto radio station," says Thompson, a blue-eyed alpha-male with a wave of hair that WKRP's Andy Travis would appreciate. "We serve our constituents. They'll tell us what they want to hear."
Adds general manager Megan Bingley: "Our playlist will be carefully curated, based on what we've learned from talking to people here in Toronto."
In a nutshell, what listeners will hear is indie alt-rock and pop, stretching back to the 1980s. Local artists are a priority, and the station will adhere to a higher than required Canadian content ratio. When the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission looked to fill the old Ryerson campus-station frequency of CKLN, it chose an application from the owners of Rock 95 in Barrie, Ont., over 21 other applicants. Its proposal to devote a large chunk of its programming to emerging Canadian artists was literally music to the CRTC's ears, and a sad trombone to the failed frequency seekers.
Much has been made of the emphasis on "indie music," a vague term. Ostensibly it refers to music made by artists not signed to a major label (Sony, Universal or Warner), but the lines of indie and major are blurred. "We're not going to pretend we know what it is," says Thompson, when asked for a definition of indie. "Some of what we'll play is on the radio right now, and some of it isn't."
Judging by what few CDs are lying around the office, what they'll play is music by Joel Plaskett, Broken Social Scene and Whitehorse. We should also expect the elegant folk-rock of Fleet Foxes, who are able to sell out two nights at Massey Hall, but are unable to get any meaningful radio traction here.
"There's room for a station to go deep on an act that's doing well live, and play some of those artists," says Steve Jordan, an industry veteran and current head of the Polaris Music Prize (which will receive $275,000 worth of support from the new station). That sentiment is echoed by Eric Alper, director of media relations for eOne Music, a large Canadian music and video distributor. "Toronto is a huge, diverse market, but nobody comes close to fulfilling the appetite for new rock," Alper says. "Concert promoters are supporting it and music journalists are writing about it, but you can never hear it."
Alper sees Indie88 as the station for labels to break new acts, noting that Toronto's current big indie-rock station 102.1 The Edge (CFNY-FM), while playlisting such Canadian artists as Stars, New Pornographers, Metric and Plaskett, can't jump on every new artist. "I'll look to Indie88 to take a chance on a band first, and to break the story," Alper says.
That kind of pipeline would be a boon to local acts, says Jordan. "The community is Toronto, and there should be no shortage of talent here for Indie88 to champion in a meaningful way."
Much the same thing happened with the original CFNY, who broke bands such as Lowest of the Low in the early 1990s. As well, MuchMusic's early nurturing of Barenaked Ladies was a key part of its rise and million-dollar-wishing. "What you do as a new media entity, is you embrace these artists, and you own them," Jordan says. "Then the listener knows you're the only station that's going to play that. That's the best chance of Indie88 setting itself apart."
So far, Indie88 has set itself apart with its round-the-clock playing of Rick Astley's dance-pop ditty Never Gonna Give You Up. The fledgling station had been streaming a demo version of its content online for months. Last week, to test its terrestrial signal, it ironically began spinning the glitzy 1987 hit non-stop. "The biggest challenge is letting an entire city know you're here," Thompson says. "We've done that a bit with Astley."
On Wednesday, the Astley run comes to end with nothing close to its polished-pop likely ever to darken Indie88's airwaves again. As to what will be played, it is a wide open proposition, as it should be. One likes to believe in the freedom of music; Geddy Lee and Rush had it right.