Denise Donlon - Can’t Stop the Girl!
Submitted by Michael Williams
In the summer of 1980, I worked in Vancouver at Ted Thomas Quintessence Records on West 4th, home base for everything punk/ indie in Vancouver, from Doug and the Slugs first release "Too Bad" to the incredible, best band ever the Pointed Sticks.
There is freedom to the west coast that's truly Canadian, the legend of Joe Forte, the unofficial black lifeguard of English Bay ,the statue of Olympian Harry Jerome, to the Hendrix family who settled in Vancouver making Jimi's family and Al Hendrix is Canadian. (his father was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1919).
I love Canada and the west coast; so does Denise, it is where she began to shape who and what she wanted to be, could be, when she grew up.
We never met back then even though we had common friends (Doug Grover, Bryan Adams, Tom Lavin, Bob Rock.) We first met at MuchMusic on 99 Queen Street. On her first day she was given pieces of paper on an easel and told to make the rock news into a great show by John Martin. Not the last time he would challenge her; she was full of energy that jumped through the screen, as she found her way through the spontaneous combustion sometimes minefield called MuchMusic. Our job challenge by John and Moses was always to make something great out of nothing.
Denise made herself great!
MW: Why did you write the book now...is your work in the cultural industries over or taking a new turn?
DD: I suppose I’m just a girl who can’t say ‘no’! I wrote the book because I was asked. My publisher was looking for strong female authors and I thought, yes, perhaps my son would one day want to find out what happened on that 1984 Whitesnake Slide It In tour of Europe. I began to recount a pack of celebrity stories but I found in the writing, that it wasn’t enough just to drop names and tell funny stories. Turns out the book was willful. It wanted to be ABOUT something; about leadership in turbulent, male dominated industries; about feminism and humanitarianism and the Canadian Cultural Industries. And now I think it is. It’s also ‘wickedly funny’ I’m told. Thank heavens!
MW: I saw JD Roberts asking questions in the White House briefings, his success makes us all smile. With the new American reality, which appears to be focused on business, not the arts...will it impact us here or are we in for the new Canadian Nationalism to protect us?
DD: It was easy to see that JD would go on to big things in broadcast. He saw the opportunity to hone his craft at MuchMusic and learned everything from lighting to editing because he knew it would make him a better journalist. But then Much launched so many careers for both artists and employees. As for the new American reality, I like so many, am both nervous and despairing for things from human rights to climate change. It can’t help but affect us living in the attic of the American house. That said, our government has already shown strong support for the arts, which is both good social policy and economic policy. In Canada the arts and culture sector is valued at over $48 billion GDP - twice as big as agriculture and forestry combined. We are an Arts Nation. It will take both vision and good policy to address the current value gap for creators, but I’m comforted that at least in Canada the will is there to build things up rather than tear things down. Other than a wall I mean.
MW: Are you pleased with the current governments commitments to the Arts, CBC, The music Industry and culture? Sometime it seems they are giving out cash like water.
DD: Yes. I strongly believe in investments in the arts. More so, I think in this age of ‘alternative facts’ and fake news, it’s important to fund a national broadcaster whose purpose is to operate in the public interest – for the sake of culture AND democracy. We need strong investigative journalism more than ever. That said, there are a number of things that the government can do to encourage the arts that don’t take huge investments. Income averaging for example. Using tourism dollars to promote Canadian cities as thriving live artistic centers. A reprioritization of arts and music education in the schools. Canadian musicians have punched above our weight for decades, no reason we shouldn’t keep doing it.
MW: Feminism seems to be a core value and theme throughout the book, how did you feel about the American Election, the march on Washington and the backlash women got from the new administration so far? What are your concerns?
DD: I’m deeply concerned. It seems that human rights and reproductive freedoms can be overturned with a stroke of a pen. We must go forward not back. In my documentary work for WarChild in countries like Sierra Leone and Northern Uganda, I’ve met women who have no rights at all, who are treated as property, used as weapons of war or risk rape simply walking to get water with no recourse to bring perpetrators to justice. As I said in the book –‘ If we in North America don’t protect the vulnerable with the laws and procedures we’ve so painstakingly developed, how can we ever be credible in reaching out to help women who have no voice, no protections at all’. I was buoyed by the Women’s March, inspired by the numbers, but the grandmothers I saw bearing signs saying ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit’ were the ones that made my soul ache.
MW: Is this the dawn of the new civil rights movement, have we returned to the 60's ? I think so. All the elements are certainly there, and never before have ordinary people had so many tools at their fingertips to share information, build community and galvanize (hopefully peaceful) action. A narrative thread through my book was to ‘use your powers for good’. And everyone has power. I remember wise advice I got from a fridge magnet once that said ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito’.
DD: After Live -Aid, music for good was diluted to the point that nobody cares now! What is the new model for music activism. That’s a great question, I’m not sure I know the exact model. There are certainly activist songs being created and shared today but the distribution methods are not as dominant as they once were. When I started at The NewMusic in the early 80’s it was a time of great artist activism. Sting was in the rainforest, Little Steven was campaigning against Sun City, Geldof was organizing Live Aid (the first time). Those videos were broadcast on MuchMusic and MTV, and events like Mandela’s Freedom at 70 concert were carried by scores of broadcasters worldwide. I expect we’ll see a lot of protest songs in the days to come and like Chuck D said about Rap being “the CNN for black people”, they will find a way to get heard. When I think about anti-war songs like Buffy’s Universal Soldier, Ecology songs like Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me, civil rights songs like Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up and hundreds more, all hoping as Sam Cooke did, that ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ I’m reminded that movements have always been fuelled by music.
MW: Now that Much as we knew it has changed, Vintage TV is now trying to get the old content back on air, with the old stars, is this kind of content of value? If so is there a life for the MuchMusic Archives on line or on TV too?
DD: Yes, I think there’s a life for that content. The digital world is powered by the now and the new of course, but humans love nostalgia and fans love to dig deep. It would be wonderful to know that those pioneering days weren’t lost and that those tapes were being digitized and preserved. The fact that there is no broadcast museum in Canada is a crying shame.
MW: Are the changes you have sought through your work and activism only possible through Politic change at a higher level...will you run for office or an appointment in a certain portfolio that speaks to your heart for changing the system from within?
DD: Ha! I’m too thin skinned to run for office - that’s for sure but I will endeavor to find a role where I can hopefully be a positive influence. Not sure what the future has in store, but as my husband Murray McLauchlan sings ‘The second half of life is where the fun begins’. Though Heaven knows I’ve had a fair bit of fun in the first half!
MW: You have had a chance to sit with so many artist over the years, has the time passed for that type of content? How would it manifest itself today?
DD: It seems that way. Other than shows like Charlie Rose, there are few mainstream broadcasters producing serious, in-depth interviews with artists. It’s a bite-sized clickable world, and style seems to have won over substance here on Planet Kardashian. Even when celebrities have something to say they’re seldom asked. George Clooney is a guy who cares a lot about what’s happening in the world – he’s travelled to conflict zones in Africa, got arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy. He walks the red carpet with his heavy hitter human rights lawyer partner Amal. Yet a conversation on the carpet with George is likely to go like this:
George Clooney! How are you?
Pretty good, I’m just back from Darfur
Really? Darfur? Is that on Rodeo Drive? Are you wearing Darfur?
Ok I made that up. But I don’t hold with the view that just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean his or her opinions should be discounted.
MW: The current war in the against correct information, facts, fake news just became " Alternative Facts", how does the media now effectively get correct information through now?
DD: As informed consumers, we need to be both media literate and willing to pay for quality content. We did a lot of media literacy programming on Much as you’ll remember. Shows like TooMuchForMuch actively invited the audience to consider sources, debate community standards and unpack the reasons why some music videos used the provocative imagery and language they did. Given the ubiquitous screen access we’re dealing with today, media literacy should be part of every curriculum. As well, newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are now wrestling with the kind of disruptive turbulence we went through in the music industry. I don’t think people are less curious, but we will have to get used to paying for the content we value, particularly as it relates to fact checking and investigative journalism. The kind of work that powered the multi year investigation into predator priests by The Boston Globe for instance, or in Canada, Radio-Canada’s investigation into the corruptions of the construction industry in Quebec for example, must continue.
MW: Is truth the first casualty of this war with social media setting the new lower standard?
DD: There are both good and bad aspects to Social Media. Yes, truth can be a casualty, but current affairs content can also be more immediate and unfiltered. People with cameras in their phones can bear witness to human rights abuses. We’ve come a long way from that scratchy video footage of Rodney King that resulted in the LA riots, I just hope we don’t become inured.
MW: Will it spill over into Canada or has it already?
DD: Not so far to the same extent, but you know the old phrase, the US coughs and we get a cold. There are ideas being posited that would fund what is being called ‘civic-function’ journalism, we’ll see where that goes!
MW: Were you surprised where your love for music has taken you?
DD: Absolutely. Who knew that that love of music combined with my total ineptitude as a folk singer could somehow lead to being the president of Sony Music Canada or head of CBC English Radio. Life is large.
MW: You have done it all in Canada, culture, music,TV and you have tried to use that super power for good, moving the agenda for woman forward as much as you could. What calls your soul action in 2017?
DD: So many things, so little time. It’s going to require some focus.
Highly regarded as a catalyst, creative leader and communicator, Denise Donlon is the former executive director of CBC Radio. In 2007, she produced the main stage programming for the inaugral Green living show in Toronto featuring appearances by Vice President Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and David Suzuki. She also was the event producer of the President Clinton Foundation, an event which raised over $21 million for the Clinton Global Initiative in one evening. In addition, she co-produced Live 8, the Canadian international concert event. From 200-2004, Denise Donlon headed Sony Music Canada (SMC) as president, directing the company and operations of 300 employees an average annual $200 million revenue and overseeing the country's marketing, sales and promotion of some of the the world's biggest artists including Celine Dion, Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. Donlon made a name for herself over her 15 years at CityTV and MuchMusic as an iconic key influencer, leader and the 'brains behind MuchMusic'. She delivered the 'Drive for Relevance' - a wealth of new signature, award winning programming such as Intimate and Interactive, Too Much For Much and Take Me To Your Leader. Her overall programming strategy consistly earned MuchMusic audience loyalty and top revenues.
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