Celebrating 30 Years of Alternative to What? on CJSW

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Kerry Clarke has been mashing up independent, non-commercial sounds that cross disciplines and decades since 1987 with Alternative to What?, airing Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM.

This week, CJSW will celebrate 30 years of the program. We sat down with Kerry to reflect on 30 years of alternative radio in Calgary and what the next 30 years might look like. Interview by Melanie Woods.

So how did you get started as the host of Alternative to What?

I’m originally from Calgary but I went to university in Victoria at the University of Victoria. I was hired as the Program Director and when I arrived the other Program Director had already left and he had left his show, so I basically just stepped into it. So it was that quick and that easy, and that’s the slot that I’m still in.

Was the show called Alternative to What? at that time? 

No, I chose that. It was a little bit sarcastic to be honest. When I arrived some of the programming seemed to be fairly mainstream and they were calling it “alternative.” I thought, “what is alternative?” and so I decided to call it Alternative to What?.

When you first started, what kind of music did you play? 

It’s hard to say. I guess whatever I was into at the time. I think that’s kind of how it all goes – as our tastes evolve that’s what we do. I wonder what those early playlists are. It’s not completely different than what it is now. I mean, what was called alternative at the time — I was always into the Minute Men, Gang of Four and those kinds of artists at the time, so I played a fair amount of that. But I also liked a lot of jazz and world music so I tended to mix it up.

And then sometimes it depended on the show — I remember I did one of all covers and I did one that was interesting and very different takes on songs that people knew. I always hoped that the show had a bit of an edge.

Has the program evolved over time?

I think so. I mean, there was a time where I thought I really disliked anything called “techno” and now I play some stuff that is instrumental and definitely involves some technology. It’s usually got real instruments at the core, but I think I’ve played more that I might not have thought I’d like 30 years ago that might be more into the techno zone. As I was at the station I learned. When I came from CFUV [in Victoria] I was getting into avant jazz but at CJSW I think I learned a lot more about downtown Eastside experimental music, sort of the avant stuff. So I think that I fairly quickly started playing a lot more of that kind of music.

Independent distributors brought a lot of interesting stuff into the station, and then I’d seek out some of the more unusual stuff. In the last several years I’ve really gotten into the Constellation record label and that defines some of what I like on my show — you know, the Colin Stetsons of the world and Jerusalem in My Heart and those kinds of artists. And then I just try and keep track over the years of what I like. So I have a really long list of artists that I like that I’ve heard at the station and around, and that helps me plan my show. So when I go to find stuff I’m reminded of some of the really good stuff that’s come in. Sometimes at the station you’re playing something new from the chartlist and you discover it and just don’t want to forget. So that’s guided how I plan my shows over the years.

How have you seen CJSW evolve over the past 30 years?

It was always a strong station. It always had a really firm grasp on the community and very different aspects of the community. Maybe it was more of the punk and indie scene at the beginning, but in general musically and program-wise it’s really branched out to cover different aspects of our community — different cultures, different approaches, many different styles of music.

When I first started, so many of the different styles of music that are defined now didn’t exist. It seemed like it was more pure — there was rock, there was jazz, there was blues. There wasn’t even — they call it the “new definitions of music” — you know, emo and downtempo. And even drum and bass was just starting out. I think that the station has really encompassed a wide range of music and in some ways evolved with the evolution of music. Because you know CJSW’s always kind of on the leading edge. In the early days, for us to even play Talking Heads would be pretty cutting edge because commercial radio wasn’t even playing it. But now they’re playing that kind of music. And it’s not that we wouldn’t play the Clash or Talking Heads or Sinead O’Connor now, but there’s lots and lots of new artists and styles of music and approaches that the station has embraced.

Even just in terms of spoken word and the world, when I was first there we had a comedy show and we had indigenous shows and we had shows for people with disabilities. We had all those kinds of things, but I think its even broader now in terms of what’s seen as part of our culture.

I think that whenever somebody new and younger comes into the station they bring some different ideas with them about what radio might be and what kind of music should be played and what should be talked about. But we had some crazy shows back in the early days. We’ve had some real characters over the years and I think we still do.

This program guide — published in Vox Magazine in December 1988 — highlights Alternative to What as “an attempt to integrate a series of incongruous musical genres into a coherent package.” 

Do you have a favourite memory from the last 30 years?

Helping train Reverend Ron to be a programmer was really amazing. He came from our listenership and my friend Suki [Davis] and I were doing a radio show once and he phoned in and he was requesting some Hawaiian music and we found out this guy knew tons of music and he found records in the garbage can. And John Rutherford had just left the blues show and we found out that Ron Predika knew tons of blues — so getting the transition between John Rutherford and Reverend Ron and filling in the show for a while and training Ron and having Ron interview people.

I remember he interviewed this one guy and said “you got a jukebox? You like jamablaya?” and I remember the record label saying to me “can you get him to ask about something like the new record.” Watching Ron over the years — I don’t know how long he did the blues show, probably 15 or 20 years — be such an amazing programmer and character that brought so much to the station. So I think that was one of the great memories involving Ron. I remember sitting in my office and Ron would come out after his show and I’d ask “how’s it going Ron?” and he’d say “this show is the only thing keeping me sane.”

So just having people like that in our midst. Probably some of [former Station Manager] Chad Saunders’ programming, some of his hilarious badly accented Scottish movie reviewer. There were lot’s of moments and lots of times like the people coming in and wanting to do a show in Spanish about a god. My Program Director days, I guess, there’s a lot of great memories — tons of interesting, awesome people that’ve gone on to do really really good things in the community and in the world that have all had their base here. People who are attracted to CJSW are usually really interesting people and typically overachievers. So I think it’s just the people and the community.

I love driving around town and seeing CJSW stickers on a lot of the cars and it warms my heart. And there’s the Funding Drive, where so many people call in and so many people support us. sometimes you can feel like you’re just broadcasting out in the void and it’s really good to know you’re not. And I think the other evolution that I think is really cool is the fact that we’re streaming all over the world. I remember sitting down with [current Program Director] Marta [Ligocki] last fall and hearing that we have listeners in Russia and Columbia and Europe. That is super exciting and it means we’re having an impact. Just knowing people are out there and listening. I love when people phone in and they’e been listening for a long time and maybe haven’t called for years, but they’re still listening and they make a comment and ask about something you played 10 years ago. It’s those kind of interactions that are super meaningful.

What is the future of Alternative to What? What is the future of CJSW? 

As for the future of Alternative to What?, I’m going to keep going along the path that I’m going unless whoever the current Program Director is decides my show has reached its best before date. I want to keep making sure that I’m on top of new and interesting music and bringing in some guests. I had an idea a few years back and I never pursued it and I think I might one of these days — have a feature once a month or once every couple months called “Big Ears” and just have different people from the music community come in and play the music they like and talk about it. But yeah, just keeping on the path of playing what I play and trying to stay relevant and also not forgetting some of the music that’s come before. Sometimes you can either go too far back and only play stuff that you liked years ago, or you can go only forward and not look at the history of music and where it came from. I want to make sure I’m doing that.

The future of CJSW is super bright. Radio where real people are talking to people and aren’t automated is really important and the fact that, like I said, we’re around the world now. I think that we’re just going to continue growing and people will listen to us. There was talk way back in my day that satellite radio was the new thing and radio like us wouldn’t be relevant and people wouldn’t listen to it. And I think we’ve proven that that’s not the case. I think as long as we stayed rooted in the Calgary community and keep our eye on the world we’re still going to matter to people and people will still listen. We’ll keep attracting really strong programmers and keep making sure that we provide a voice for lots of people.

I have to say, 30 years went fast.

Come celebrate 30 years of Alternative to What? at the CJSW station on Thursday August 24 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. And be sure to tune in to Alternative to What?, Thursdays from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM and streaming around the world anytime at cjsw.com.

Alternative To What?