Don Shafer on the road to reinvention

Don Shafer's new radio project The Conversation Lab is set to debut on Vancouver community station Co-op Radio 100.5 FM (CFRO-FM) May 12.

Roundhouse Radio was Don Shafer’s dream, so coming up on the first anniversary of the independent Vancouver station’s closure last May, the Canadian Broadcast Industry Hall of Famer admits he’s still a little grumpy.

“Roundhouse was my dream, so to not fulfill that or to see it blow up, really left me kind of lost,” Shafer told Broadcast Dialogue during an interview at Vancouver community station Co-op Radio (CFRO-FM). Shafer, 71, has been spending a lot of time at the station this spring as a volunteer, developing new show The Conversation Lab, set to launch May 12.

“The idea being the more conversations we have, the kinder and gentler we all become as we understand each other. So working with community groups, not-for-profits, as [Co-op Radio executive director Brian McKinnon] calls them ‘changemakers.’ As we suss them out…hopefully we bring our community and our world a little bit closer. I’m having a ball putting it together and I love hanging out here.”

After years of developing some of Canada’s most legendary rock radio brands including CHOM Montreal, CFOX and Rock 101 Vancouver, and CHUM-FM and Q107 Toronto, Shafer had a dream that “radio could be something different.” Roundhouse Radio, billed as an “Urban Talk” station, went to air from its studios in Vancouver’s Railtown on the Downtown Eastside in Oct. 2015. Station personalities included veteran MuchMusic hosts Terry David Mulligan and Jana Lynne White, and former CBC Ombudsman and one-time Vancouver mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe, among other names.

Just shy of the two-and-a-half-year mark, the station’s board of directors announced in April 2018, the station would shut down due to financial considerations. CIRH-FM has been sold to South Fraser Broadcasting, pending CRTC approval.

“I was pretty embarrassed, pretty heartbroken, and pretty depressed, and spent the summer building houses and doing construction and doing work where I didn’t have to talk to too many people,” said Shafer. “I graduated from my MA program at SFU (Simon Fraser University). In September I was accepted to take a residency program in new journalism in Spain – the Faber Residency program – and it was really enjoyable for me. I got to work with 20 journalists from around the world, working on crazy stuff, and I mean crazy good… really engaging, fascinating, social justice work of all different types, whether it was in South America, Germany, France, so it was a fascinating project and then I took the month off and backpacked and saw Spain. And started coming up with so what’s next? How do you reinvent yourself? What do you do? I mean, I’m not ready to retire. I’ve been contemplating doing a PhD program, I’m volunteering here, working with Kimit [Sekhon], my producer, who isn’t afraid to push back which I love.”

Shafer does know what he doesn’t want.

“People keep asking me ‘so what’s up?’ or ‘what’s next?’ I do not want to go back and manage a radio station again, I’ve done that most of my life and I don’t want to do that. I want to create, I want to learn, I want to contribute.”

Since our interview, Shafer has learned he’s been accepted into the Social Justice Institute PhD program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His interest in social justice dates back to a stint running special ops during the Vietnam War.

“I grew up in America, almost got drafted, so I enlisted. I became disillusioned with American politics and the U.S. Army and when I was discharged in Los Angeles, I worked for a couple of underground newspapers and radio stations and eventually got a job in Montreal. Never went back,” said Shafer. “When you can start to see the end of the runway you start to ask yourself what are you going to do in that time and who are you going to do it with and what do you need to do? For me, my family is really is important, making sure the minutes count because there may not be another one is not lost on me, doing what I can to make a difference is important.”

Do you see a future for radio?

“I do. I love this discussion about well ‘podcasting is the future.’ Well, podcasting is just old radio. Some of the best radio in the world happened in the ’20s and ’30s and it was two or three people in a studio with a good script and lots of talent and in some cases a bottle of scotch…so, if you allow people to be creative, if you allow people to be crazy, to do what inspires them, you just never know what’s going to come out of it.”

“Expecting a city to engage day after day after day with 600 or 700 songs in the music universe and liner cards that restrict talent’s creativity where there’s no personality or very little, I don’t think is the way to go. I understand why we do it, but I don’t think it’s the way to go. But here’s the question that I ask a lot is – when’s the last time you couldn’t get out of your car because you couldn’t turn the radio off? Most people will tell you, it’s been a long time and I think that speaks to the problem of what’s wrong with radio. There have been moments for me and it’s usually been with NPR or CBC where I couldn’t get out of my car because I was going to miss something…so, the answer is take some of the constraints off, trust your people on the air, give them some reign, let them find a way out, let them find some great programming.”

Are you a Spotify guy? Are you accessing content online or are you still sort of a terrestrial consumer?

“I’m wired. I’ve got my favourite podcast.”

What’s your favourite podcast?

“Probably The Moth. I love This American Life. I love The Moth. There’s a new podcast being done in Vancouver called Crackdown and it’s pretty cool. I think all of those avenues, or all of those paths are really important, but it still comes down to creative engagement and knowing who your audience is.”

You obviously have loved radio your whole life.

“I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and my parents would send me to bed thinking I was asleep and of course, I’d have a transistor radio underneath my pillow and I would get to listen to all of those radio stations you get in the east from Philadelphia to Detroit to NYC to Atlanta. I got Toronto and I always thought it would be very cool to work for a station called CHUM, so I was fascinated by all of those voices, all of that stuff going on inside that little box and I always wanted to be part of it. I’m a huge fan of creative radio.”

“I think for me, with the demise of Roundhouse, I mean a lot of good people took a shot with me, took a shot with us, including the investors, who put a lot of money into that radio station to try and breathe life into it. We just didn’t have enough time. So that was pretty devastating, but I still love radio, I still believe in the power of creative people behind a microphone and what can happen.”

The Conversation Lab will make its debut on Co-op Radio Sunday, May 12 at 10 a.m. PT. Listen live at 100.5 FM in Vancouver or online at coopradio.org.

Don Shafer and Co-op Radio’s Bryan McKinnon were guests on Broadcast Dialogue – The Podcast. Listen here.


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