The night 102.1 The Edge fired DJ Martin Streek, he showed up for a birthday party at Andy Poolhall on College Street. Amid a swarm of guests, he bumped into David Marsden, the Toronto radio veteran who'd hired him almost exactly 25 years earlier when he ran the station known as CFNY. According to his former boss, Mr. Streek came over and hugged him, whispering in his ear, "I've just been fired."
Outside the world of sports, personnel decisions rarely make the news. And it's very likely that program director Ross Winters's decision on May 12 and 13 to fire two disgruntled DJs, Mr. Streek and Barry Taylor, wouldn't have either.
Though several Facebook groups sprang up in support of the jockeys - one of them reaching a membership as high as 950 - news of the firings did not go mainstream until July 6. That's when the stunning news of Mr. Streek's death broke in the form of a comment from a friend of Mr. Streek's on torontomike.com. Its proprietor, long-time Edge fan Mike Boon, also added that that Mr. Streek had killed himself.
Soon, the news and comments started popping up on other sites, often in the form of direct attacks on the station whose call letters Mr. Streek had tattooed on his right glute. "The Edge killed Martin," said one torontomike.com commenter.
The Edge is hardly the only radio station in flux, but Mr. Streek's unrelenting enthusiasm for new music made him a symbol of the old, raucous days of radio, a channel of nostalgia unto himself.
"There's something about the 'Spirit of Radio' and what it once was," says Mr. Boon, referring to the old CFNY tagline that inspired a Rush song, "and there's a collective sadness about how radio's devolving in recent years. Martin was a guy who was always there, always solid, extremely likable. When he was let go a couple of months ago, it seemed like a final nail in the coffin."
Yet as Alan Cross sees it, habits have changed as well as taste. A renowned alternative-music historian who preceded Mr. Winters as program director at The Edge, he says, "It was just easier to leave the dial on your favourite station. Now you've got 24 pre-sets."
Mr. Cross, who still works for Edge's owners, Corus Entertainment, was a long-time friend of Mr. Streek's, but rather than casting him as a martyr, he sees the dismissal in practical terms. "A radio station is a business like any other," he says. "People get hired, and sometimes people are let go."
Adapt or die: That's the bitter, and, in Mr. Streek's case, chillingly literal truth. "Our vision is to serve the young adult audience of the GTA," Mr. Winters said in a recent interview, his first since Mr. Streek's death. "We target 18-to-40-year-olds, though mostly the 18-to-34s, and we lean that towards the men."
Though he refuses to comment on the dismissals, he does say that Mr. Cross "had put together a great radio station, but it had its challenges. And when I say challenges, I mean ratings problems."
According to broadcast research company BBM, The Edge is seventh in the Toronto market by number of listeners, with 507,500 people who tune in for at least 15 minutes a week. That's roughly half CHUM-FM's numbers, and 180,000 fewer than its classic-rock brother station, Q107.
Though The Edge might lack listeners, it still enjoys a mythological aura. Originally run out of a little yellow brick house on Main Street in Brampton, the rebellious clarion of alternative music had such a weak signal that fans in Toronto often had to improvise coat-hanger antennas to be able to pick it up. It's the sort of image only a serious lack of money can buy.
But by 1992, star DJs Chris Sheppard, Lee Carter, and Dani Elwell all resigned - Ms. Elwell read out her résumé on air in lieu of notice - because the new program director, Stewart Meyers, was reducing the play lists. But it was still different enough from the rest to attract the current generation of Edge purists, including both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Boon, who only started listening to it after the shift.
Mr. Streek had started out in his last year at high school lugging equipment for the CFNY Road Show - essentially an off-air roving party DJ gig. The '92 shakeup was his big break: he got Mr. Sheppard's old job. From there, he went through a variety of shows, outlasting Mr. Marsden, Steve Anthony, Dan Duran, Live Earl Jive, Kim Hughes, Humble and Fred and Mr. Cross to become the only staff link the station had to its CFNY days.
But as soon as Mr. Winters took over from Mr. Cross last September, Mr. Taylor says both he and Mr. Streek started feeling marginalized.
"Originally, when Alan was program director, Martin and I were participants in the music meetings," he says. "When Ross came in, he just sort of switched the time of the music meetings and made it closed door and didn't let Martin or I know."
The tenor of those meetings had changed, too. According to Mr. Winters, "Our music is not picked by the disc jockeys, it's not picked by me." It's picked by listeners. The station now does three types of audience research every two weeks, and bases its play lists on the results. "If the 18-to-40-year-olds want to hear Foo Fighters and Guns n' Roses, then that's what we'll play."
Mr. Taylor says that he and Mr. Streek made it clear around the office and on the air that they were not happy with the decreasing diversity of the music they were being asked to play. It was a long way from the mid-eighties, when, under Mr. Marsden, listeners were promised $1,002 if they noticed the same song being played more than once in 24 hours. The official limit now is 7 times in 24 hours.
"Martin and I, we both had opinions and would share them on the radio," said Mr. Taylor. "I was told never to talk about anything to do with politics, and that I talked too much about the music." Ditto, he says, for Mr. Streek.
In the last couple of months before they were fired, according to Mr. Taylor, rumours started that the two were on the chopping block. Mr. Streek's own burden got heavier when his long-time romantic relationship dissolved. (Sources would divulge neither her name nor the circumstances of the breakup.)
Then, on May 12, Mr. Taylor got called into a meeting just before his shift. "Ross had an envelope, and he said, 'Ratings at The Edge aren't doing well,' " Mr. Taylor recalls, " 'so we're going to have to make some changes,' and he gave me the envelope, and that was it." The envelope contained his letter of dismissal. According to Mr. Taylor, Mr. Streek was called in for a similar meeting the next day, when he got his own envelope. The last link to the Spirit of Radio days had been severed.
It was that night Mr. Streek showed up to the party on College Street and ran into Mr. Marsden. After a couple of pleasantries, Mr. Streek, who had turned 45 three weeks earlier, leaned in to Mr. Marsden. "You're the only person who ever interviewed me for a job," he said. "I don't know how to interview for a job."
This was not unfamiliar territory for Mr. Marsden, who'd been through several firings, a name change, and now works a 10-hours-a-week jockey gig at Oshawa's 94.9 The Rock. "What we are on the radio is what we is," Mr. Marsden says, remembering the last time he saw his old protégé. "When your job disappears, you ask, 'Who am I,' and too often the answer comes back, 'Nobody.' "