On the Borderlines in the Great White North
I find most DJs are pretty smart about music and willing to share their knowledge with others. I guess that’s why I thought this column would be interesting. Rick August qualifies as both smart and active in more than just music.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you got your start in radio or the music industry?
Rick August: In music, my first real professional — though almost unpaid — role was as producer of our local folk festival in Regina, Saskatchewan, in the early 1990s. After that I worked as booking agent for a couple of years with Southern roots artist Steve Young, and worked at promoting small local concerts of non-mainstream roots artists. It was frustrating since at the time there was no alternative radio in Regina; I was, in effect, asking people to buy tickets to artists they’d never heard. So I switched my efforts to building cultural infrastructure, to creating an independent community radio station, which we had up and running on November 1, 2001. My first show on the brand new CJTR was on Sunday November 4, 2001. The first song I played was Tom Russell’s “The Sky Above, the Mud Below.”
I’ve been on the air every Sunday afternoon since, nearly 15 years now. I had no previous experience in radio.
All local programming on CJTR is by volunteers — about 100 hours a week — and it’s a volunteer gig for me too. My show is called Borderlines, and it runs from 3:00-5:00 p.m. CST (no DST in Saskatchewan) on Sundays. We currently broadcast locally at 91.3 FM, webcast at www.cjtr.ca, supply a feed to two provincial television services, and have our own dedicated iOS and Android phone apps. It’s two hours a week air-time, although I’ve always been heavily involved in station management and development, including several terms as president.
How do you describe your show?
I’m shooting for tasteful, literate, intelligent, twangy, real country music, although I give myself a license to drift into related genres like folk or even jazz where I think it fits. I also appreciate the gentle self-mocking of a lot of real country music. I play nothing that could be called country-pop unless it has a specific context for a show, and I avoid “hat acts” like the plague, although very occasionally I will showcase songwriters’ versions of radio tunes.
We are a relatively small city — just under 250,000 — in a sparsely-populated part of the world, and I’ve thought it best to be somewhat eclectic within my general brief. It seems to have worked so far.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I don’t do theme shows very often, just a few “specials” now and then. I’m still mostly a CD guy, I program almost exclusively from my own collection rather than the station library, and I mostly work my stacks until ideas hit me.
As a Canadian DJ, I’m obliged by regulation to play 35 percent “CanCon” spins, which affects planning somewhat, although, frankly, we have lots of great Canadian roots artists. I usually build up a core of key cuts in my head over the course of a few days and then round it out.
I usually do three-song sets and don’t talk that much on air except to back-sell the set, so I usually get 28-30 songs in per two-hour show.
How many new releases and older stuff do you play? Do you play many independent artists?
I don’t focus that much on new releases. We are thinly serviced by US labels and postage has gotten so crazy, in both directions, that few US indie artists can afford sending CDs. I work on keeping my CanCon fresh, and I am in and out of the US regularly. I pick up new music as I can and work it in, but usually with a few months’ lag.
I play lots of older roots music, sort of from the Gram Parsons era forward. I play mostly independent artists, and I work hard to scout out people who would not otherwise reach my audience. I particularly focus on Austin — and Texas in general — and the East Nashville scene.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
It was not so much an album or an artist as it was a general attraction to real country music that I developed as a young man, as I tired of the usual mainstream pop of my generation.
I would stay home in university to watch Canadian country TV shows like the Tommy Hunter Show — his guests were often great — or the Ian Tyson Show. When artists like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris emerged, I was definitely on that. The disco era certainly reinforced my retreat from pop, in part into jazz, but moreso into country.
By the 1990s, I was a committed roots guy. I used to travel a lot around North America to festivals, mainly to get out front on emerging artists, and I’ve been hanging around Austin pretty regularly for the last 25 years.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
My favorites tend to shift with time, of course. I’ve always been very big on Ian Tyson, who, post-Sylvia, emerged in Canada as a genuine chronicler of ranch culture. [He’s in his] mid-80s now, and still going strong.
Fred Eaglesmith, when he was still interested in roots music, showed a real genius for songwriting. Butch Hancock still kicks my butt, and I really like what Arty Hill is doing. If you haven’t heard Dayna Kurtz from New Orleans, you oughtta.
How do you define Americana music? What artist defines Americana music for you?
I appreciate that the Americana label is useful as a marketing tool, but I don’t really buy the concept as a framework for the music I love. Almost everywhere in the New World — if you will excuse the term — where English-speaking immigrants landed, developed endemic country music traditions. That’s particularly true in Canada and Australia as well as the US — I actually play a lot of Australian country. Bill Malone’s book, although focused on US music, does a pretty good job of describing the historical dynamic.
As far as definitions go, having endured decades of dreary debates over “what is folk,” I’m reluctant to try to put it to words. Does it sound too snobbish to say that I know it when I hear it? Listen to Tom Russell’s last few albums, or Arty Hill’s, or Wayne Hancock’s — that should do it.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Nothing like the US Americana format really exists in Canada as a distinct radio package. As in the US, commercial radio in Canada has declined further towards the lowest common denominator, with increasing corporate concentration. Roots music thrives mostly in pockets, I would say, in specialty shows like my own on independent stations across the country. The publicly-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation plays a role, but their genre-specific streams for TV services and satellite, in my opinion, miss the mark.
As for the Nashville corporate version of Americana, the labels seem to operate more and more like the other majors, diluting the genre and manufacturing stars rather than revealing talent. I’m more in tune with artists operating outside the label format as independents, or in very small labels like Red Beet.
The media business in general is changing fast, and the big companies, at least in Canada, all seem to be in crisis. Commercial radio has held out better than some other media, but the advertising market is still rocky. Unlike the US nonprofit stations I’ve run across, we survive on both fundraising and advertising, although the latter is mostly of the “Ma & Pa” variety. More and more of our audience is reached by webcast, phone apps, and, indirectly, by social media. I am confident our cultural niche is sustainable — worldly, but intensely local, and broadly inclusive of a diverse community.
I have been encouraging my colleagues at CJTR to begin to think of us less as a radio station and more as a multi-channel specialized cultural medium. To put it plainly, we need to learn how to monetize the new media channels. That is the key to survival for independent non-mainstream entities like ours.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Arty Hill’s new live album just hit my mailbox, I am keen to give it a listen. Dallas Wayne’s “Jukebox” album on Heart of Texas is great from start to finish. I am impressed with Emily Clepper, a young Quebec/Texas performer currently working the Austin scene. There’s also a Canadian singer-songwriter, Lori Yates, who was badly used in the past by the majors but is now writing and singing what she wants. Her last two albums have been absolutely top-shelf.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
I wanted to do this at first because I had a kind of evangelistic desire to share the pleasure I get from real country music. I still mostly feel that way. It remains a struggle to convince the average person that country music is not that mindless drivel that populates almost all of commercial country radio. But I have built up a following of regulars over the years who swear they listen every week, which is gratifying, and a channel-surfer emailed last week to say he found the music “life-reaffirming.” I can’t disagree.
With what has happened to the web and social media over the last 15 years, no one is as culturally and geographically isolated as they were, but people still need to have planted that kernel of awareness of what to look for. I try to fulfill that role, reaching out as much as I can to mostly indie artists in my genre, to bring them to my audience.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
Filling a park with festival-goers and sending them home happy was an early highlight. Helping create the radio medium I broadcast on was also a major achievement. It is no small feat to build an independent community station from scratch and keep it alive for 15 years.
Agenting and promoting were not financially rewarding, but it was great to help put people like Steve Young, Katy Moffatt, and others in front of live audiences.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests, or anything else you wish to share?
I have a strong professional interest in strategic reform of social policy. I have been involved, in the past, in redesign of several provincial and federal social programs, and I continue to write and publish on social policy topics – see www.rjaugust.ca.
I am a history buff, with a focus on personal memoirs from World War II. My wife Shelley and I are keen travelers, especially to countries in Southeast Asia such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
I have been a home brewer for many years. I am a National-level beer judge, a beer judge trainer, and a general all-around craft beer geek.