Published on August 17th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson3
Tough Act to Follow
It’s your dream gig, the one you’ve worked your whole career for. You know your voice, you have your bits that work, and nobody in the audience has heard your jokes before. It all seems perfect, until they tell you you’re going on right after the guy who just committed suicide.
This is the challenge Fred Kennedy faces as he turns on his mic at Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge, and tries to figure out how to be funny for an audience still pointing fingers after the loss of a radio icon.
“Fearless” Fred Kennedy has had the standard climb up the radio ladder. A brief stint in broadcasting school. Fired from gigs in such glamourous locales as Port Hawkesbury, NS. Being told by his boss in Dryden, ON on his first day that he would never succeed as an announcer. Pushing buttons on the overnight shift at Winnipeg’s Power 97 while earning moments of morning show airtime for executing stunts like slapping the Premier in the face with a flyswatter, drinking over 20 Slurpees in four hours, and urinating in his sweatpants while auditioning for Canadian Idol.
“I did a lot of really high brow stuff,” he says.
He bounced from there to his hometown of Lloydminster, AB and back to Power 97 again, which is where I met him in 2004 (he’d show up to do prep for his evening shift downstairs, while I was trying to finish up client proposals before the end of the day upstairs). My first impression was that he must be some sort of burnout, but he quickly proved to be the kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back (or in our case, give you the car off his driveway and let you cover it in expandable foam for a dumb promotion). He had the gig at such a young age for good reason. He was natural, silly, outspoken and knew how to latch onto a concept and run with it.
“I just talk to people about what’s going on in my mediocre life,” he explains. “For instance one time my wife and I got into an argument about who had a better mustache, Burton Cummings or Hal Johnson from the Participaction commercials of the early nineties. That afternoon I just opened up the phones and talked about who had the greatest mustache in history.”
He developed a strong enough fanbase in Winnipeg to warrant a move to Edmonton. Then, the really big guys came knocking: The Edge 102.1 in Toronto, one of the most coveted gigs in the country.
“I won the Steve Young Broadcaster of the Year award this year. While I was in Toronto the program director took me out for lunch and just talked to me very casually about the idea of coming to Toronto. I’d always wanted to work here, ever since I rolled into town for the Rage Against the Machine concert and heard The Edge playing Ocean Size by Jane’s Addiction,” he explains.
Well aware that talk is cheap in this business, he didn’t take anything for granted until the deal was done. Kennedy learned he was in, two days before 20-year Edge veteran Martin Streek learned he was out. Such is the nature of radio.
But not long after his career at the Edge came to an end, Streek chose to also end his life. Fred found out through a phone call from his new boss.
“He told me that they were still looking forward to my arrival in Toronto and not to blame myself,” he says. “Later that night Bookie called me, and reassured me that I shouldn’t be panicking. It was the best possible phone call I could have gotten at that point. I was having a Lady MacBeth freak out. He really calmed me down and explained the behind the scenes stuff. I will never forget that phone call and will always be grateful for it. Bookie is one of the most decent human beings ever.”
His bosses may have his back, but the same can’t be said for devoted Edge listeners who considered Streek a major part of their lives.
“I knew he had been around forever and had a very devout fan following, and for good reason. He was one of those music guys that hardcore fans always gush for. I think the sad part is that he was such a pillar in the station,” he says.
Fred Kennedy is not Martin Streek – nor will he try to be – a fact that’s a sore point among Toronto radio devotees who view him as the poster boy for the literal and figurative death of quality radio.
“There’s some radio site called Toronto Mike or Mike in Toronto or something. It’s a prototypical website that’s full of people who’ve either been fired or are just starting out and are already jaded. Basically no matter what happens in the radio business they’re the people who will always say it’s for the worst. Joe Blow gets fired and it’s the worst thing that has ever happened in radio EVER! Even though when he was on air the week before they trashed him without remorse. All that typical nonsense.”
Still, these are his new listeners, and he will have to deal with them. This isn’t the scariest situation he’s been in (he once was threatened with a shotgun for stating his support of gay marriage in Alberta, and points out that “if I can deal with that, I don’t think I need to be concerned with the radio savants of the interweb”). But it’s a unique challenge on top of the already-unique challenge of starting a new high-profile gig.
So what will happen in that first day, week, month? Is “Fearless” Fred at all afraid of more venom?
“I know there’s gonna be backlash, but it’s nothing new. Dean Blundell told me how bad he got it when he took over for Humble and Fred, but look at him now. He’s doing great and even though he still has his detractors his ratings speak volumes about how few they are,” he says.
“I’ll just open the phone lines and let things happen and talk to people” he says. “If someone wants to call in and be a dick I can always just hang up on them. But even in those cases I like to give people a chance to vent, sometimes they realize you’re really not the Antichrist they take you for and you turn a hater into a listener.”
There is is still the possibility that regardless of how he introduces himself to Streek’s audience, it won’t be good enough for some people.
“It’s frustrating because no matter what I say about Martin I will always be associated with his death. Even though he never met me, and I never met him.”
But at the end of the day?
“Let these people run their mouths. I work at the fucking Edge,” he says, “the best rock station in the country.”