In the 1970s through the 1980s, Al Pascal programmed one of Canada’s most influential radio stations: CFRA-AM, Ottawa. CFRA’s market dominance is legend, comparable, I think only to WABC-AM, New York. The latest BBMs show CFRA’s (7+) circulation to be near 540,000, which is about 2.84 times the audience of its nearest competitor – if this is a competitive situation. CFRA loses just a handful of (7+) quarter-hours, several of which to sister station CFMO-FM.
Pascal is an erudite, glib individual with a disarmingly articulate intelligence. Apparently of quiet demeanour, he comes alive when he’s talking radio, which we did for several hours a few weeks ago.
Pascal came to CFRA in 1966, after apprenticing at stations in Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Montreal – his home town. His affect on the Ottawa market was immediate. Says one long-time competitor, “… he (Pascal) did more for Ottawa radio than just about anyone has. He contemporized it. Nobody was into production before he came. Nobody really took the 7-17 audience seriously before he came … now there’s a station that survives on them.”
Beginning as an announcer – he doesn’t like the word ‘jock’; he finds it pejorative – Pascal became PD of CFRA, in March of 1976, replacing Paul Ski who exited for Halifax.
How does he account for CFRA’s success? “Well, it’s a lot of things. I don’t really think any one aspect of our operation stands out as the reason for CFRA being number one. CFRA, like any successful organization, is the result of a lot of different people and things working together well. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”"
What about CFRA’s music policy? “We’ve just worked hard to keep it up-to-date. Really, there seems to be only three things we can do with a record: add it, drop it or forget it. I get together with our music people every week and we go over what we’re playing, what we might add and what we can drop. Everybody is expected to have done their homework, including me. The final decision is a collective one, based, in part, on intuition, our perception of the record’s demographic appeal, trade paper research and so forth
“We like to alter our playlist slowly, easing records in and out of rotation. Picks get aired maybe once a day. As their performance improves we rotate them more often … or drop them, if need be. Supers (hits) may get played several times a day … basically the same process goes on in reverse as we ease records out of our current playlist and into gold rotation.”
The objective of this policy, “… is, of course, consistency, predictability. Our audience has to have a good idea of what they’ll hear when they turn us on. Otherwise, they may turn somebody else on. And consistency doesn’t stop with the music … it extends beyond that. Our announcers stress personality … they’re conversationalists … they’re talking with, not at listeners – to use an old phrase.”
What is CFRA looking for in an announcer? “… a mature communicator. A guy or girl who is a hard worker; someone who has their rudiments down pat; someone who can contribute to CFRA, both on and off the air; someone who doesn’t have any hang-ups and isn’t on some kind of a (ego) trip; someone who can get along with everybody on staff.”
Pascal believes in motivating people. Does that mean everybody at CFRA makes big money? “No really, money isn’t everything. We pay our people well, I guess. But I’ve found you can get more out of someone by working with them, by helping them, by letting them know you’re always there … ready, willing and able to help.
“You have to always remember that everyone functions differently, so motivation isn’t a one shot thing.”
How does Pascal describe CFRA’s overall approach to programming? “(CFRA) has, over the years, built its programming, it staff, its audience in a slow, methodical manner. You might say CFRA has evolved over time. There haven’t been any great bursts of genius, which doesn’t mean we haven’t had some good, even great people working for us. It’s just that our moves have been deliberate, well thought out and introduced slowly. You have to give people a chance to adapt. I guess CFRA really hasn’t changed format in years … just kept it up-to-date.”
Is this the secret of all programming success? “… for us, yes. Who can say about another station. Each of us is in a different milieu. What works in Montreal may not work here and vice versa. Changing formats too quickly and too frequently is deadly. Listeners get used to your announcers, your music, your overall sound. Change it too often, and they’ll head for something more stable, like CFRA.”
But there’s a natural attrition rate in radio, people come and go regularly. “For sure, but you don’t always have to replace an announcer, for instance, with a strange, out-of-market voice. Maybe you can rearrange shifts, drop the swing announcer into the vacant spot. The idea is to be consistent, don’t give the listener a reason to turn the dial.”
What about the future? “We’re going to keep on working harder, you don’t want to be number two.”
And the future for Al Pascal? “I try not to think about the future too much … I’ll let it take care of itself … there are enough problems keeping today straight.”
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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