Pop VJs Serve Serious Content | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Pop VJs Serve Serious Content

"I TELL KIDS Hank Williams was punk rock," says George Stroumboulopoulos. "Jesus was punk rock. And all they did was to be rebels. That's why Trudeau was punk rock.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 18, 2002

Pop VJs Serve Serious Content

"I TELL KIDS Hank Williams was punk rock," says George Stroumboulopoulos. "Jesus was punk rock. And all they did was to be rebels. That's why Trudeau was punk rock." When Stroumboulopoulos hosts Punkorama on the Toronto radio station The Edge, he embodies the very soul of punk, taking down the barricades in front of the building and letting the kids on the street into the studio. He even plays tracks off the CDs they make in their basements. Best known as a VJ for Toronto-based MuchMusic, the 30-year-old broadcaster is so attuned to the renegade spirit of rock that even the real rock stars have taken notice. As the story goes, after Stroumboulopoulos interviewed U2, Bono called MTV and said, "You have to hire this guy."

"His group of people were talking to MTV and saying they should be interested in what I do," explains Stroumboulopoulos. "I bumped into Bono at a party in L.A. after their tour and he sort of apologized to me for doing that. He said, 'I don't want you to leave Canada.' I know he likes what I do here. But I was touched, because that's a pretty good reference. By the way, where did you hear about that?" Actually, the info came from Dave Grohl, former drummer for Nirvana, Foo Fighters front man and a Stroumboulopoulos fan. "It's not often that you find someone with integrity and knowledge of music that holds a position like he does," says Grohl, who watches Stroumboulopoulos's metal show, MuchLoud, on satellite at home in Virginia. "Usually they just find a pretty face."

The station does have a couple of those, too - a year ago they hired then-19-year-old model Amanda Walsh - and more than its share of vapid programming. Lately, it seems to be running a constant loop of Top 40 videos and that awful MTV show, Becoming. But to its credit, Much attempts to balance the pop with a few on-air personalities like Stroumboulopoulos who are credible, albeit non-traditional, journalists. They're music reporters who also tackle hard news, like elections or the Quebec City protests. "I think Much understands its role in the community now," says Laurie Brown, a Much VJ in the '80s and former host of CBC Newsworld's On The Arts. "A lot of the videos they show can be upsetting to both parents and kids of a certain age. But I think they've become more socially engaging and do a pretty good job of putting back in."

Besides being good medicine for younger viewers, Stroumboulopoulos is the VJ of choice for an older audience that remembers when the station was launched on Labour Day weekend, 1984. Like the first crop of VJs, Stroumboulopoulos, who studied radio broadcasting at Toronto's Humber College, combines maturity, intelligence and professionalism with an entertaining personality. And like some of his more respected and successful predecessors, he's honing his craft on The NewMusic, a newsmagazine-style program that began on Citytv in 1979. Airing on both City and Much since 1984 (the two are owned by CHUM Ltd.), it attracts a discerning audience. "It is the Cadillac of all music shows," says Stroumboulopoulos, who's turned down some alluring offers in order to continue working on it.

Raised by a single mother in the Toronto suburb of Malton, close to the international airport, Stroumboulopoulos lost interest in school by the time he'd reached adolescence. "I was a 13-year-old kid into the Dead Kennedys. I believed you were supposed to rebel against everything." With the nose ring, dark circles under his eyes, black hooded sweatshirt and a Honda CB750 motorcycle, Stroumboulopoulos can still pull off tough, but there's definitely another side. Before jaywalking, he checks to see if you're OK with it. He gets a boost from natural energy drinks - but just two a day. And while he fancies himself a subversive rebel, like Jon Stewart and Michael Moore, he did see Jackass before Bowling for Columbine. "I guess I talk to a weird middle group of people who don't fit into a corporate structure and are not the black block [extremist] protestor types," says Stroumboulopoulos. "We're more like, 'Well, I believe in universal health care, so that's my starting ground. And I think that song is shit and that song is good.' We're generally all slightly pissed off. We're happy, but don't want to be too happy."

While Stroumboulopoulos worked his way up from overnight talk radio to television, several of his colleagues went to Much after years of journalism and broadcasting experience. They see the station as a viable, almost traditional media outlet. Here they'll gain serious experience, all the while covering stories that interest them, speaking in a vernacular they're comfortable with, to an audience they identify with. Recently, the more staid networks have been hiring pop-culture-oriented, youthful broadcasters. Much VJ Jennifer Hollett, 27, a Concordia University journalism school graduate, used to work for three CTV shows, TalkTV, NewsNet and Canada AM. She remembers being encouraged by CTV her to keep her yellow-, orange- and red-dyed hair when she joined the network. "It's true that you're seeing more and more pop-culture reporters, the Lisa Lings of the world. That way a show or network can say, 'We have that voice or are covering that beat.' At Much, it's not a beat for us, it's our network."

Hannah Sung, a 25-year-old University of Toronto graduate, had been interning at Toronto magazines when she answered Much's newspaper ad for a pop-culture reporter. Despite her lack of TV experience she was hired, and ended up interviewing the Barenaked Ladies on her first day. Now she's most excited about covering alternative-culture like ArtAttack, a street-level, political art movement. "There is this normalizing effect that TV has," says Sung, "and I want people to not see activists as freaks. I want them to see these people as regular people who are mentally engaged with what's happening around them and who look like your parents and teachers and you."

But aren't these budding journalists frustrated with the station's daily cheesy programming? How do they feel about The NewMusic being cut back from an hour to a half-hour and the fact that the cutting-edge music they listen to and report on is rarely in heavy rotation? "More people want Britney Spears than Tori Amos," says Stroumboulopoulos, "and they prove that everyday when they go to the record store. But what was that great line about the Velvet Underground? Only 1,000 people bought their records but they all formed bands."

In the past, VJs have let the Top 40 behemoth lower their spirits. Although Brown, a VJ from 1986 to 1990, appreciated the risk-taking nature of the place - she was pregnant during her last year on-air, and even had a baby shower live on her metal show, The Power Hour - the growing middle-of-the-road content really started getting her down. "I felt if I had to introduce one more Janet Jackson video," says Brown, now developing films and documentaries, "I was going to say something awful." A decade later another host would feel the same. "I was really depressed about music," says Sook-Yin Lee, a VJ from 1995 to 2001 who's now the host of CBC Radio's counterculture program Definitely Not the Opera. "But that's because I was submerged within the MuchMusic environment. Now I'm so excited about the music and films that I see and hear. And I think it's good that it's not on Much 'cause the underground does need to percolate and gestate."

After cutting their teeth on The NewMusic, both Brown and Lee - along with Daniel Richler and Avi Lewis - stayed within the Canadian arts and current events scene, ignoring the precedent set by one of the show's first hosts, J. D. Roberts. The one-time long-haired VJ is now the White House correspondent for CBS News and a likely replacement for the nightly news anchor, Dan Rather. Long ago, J.D. became John. "Much was live TV, with an enormous amount of distraction," he recalls. "There was a whirlwind of activity, people yelling at each other, having personal disagreements, bands were setting up, fans were banging on the windows because Duran Duran was there. I learned how to focus in the eye of the hurricane, which served me well in coverage of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco or the Oklahoma City bombing." Roberts says he rarely watches the station now, although he does pick it up on satellite: "It seems every time I turn it on, it's Bob the Sock." He means Ed the Sock, the station's most aggressive journalist, asking the kind of inappropriate and politically incorrect questions only a hand puppet can get away with.

The core '80s team of Roberts, Erica Ehm, Christopher Ward, Michael Williams and Denise Donlon reached iconic status within the country - a group of twenty- and thirysomethings who were cool, laid-back and informed. "We just felt that we were talking to people who really loved music - that's who was coming to the party," says Ward. Which is not to say they didn't cover anything meaningful. While they never sat down with a prime minister as Stroumboulopoulos did during the last election, Ward and Roberts note that anytime music and social issues crossed, they were there.

"I was interviewing Bob Geldof on a balcony outside the offices of Polygram in London, just days before Live Aid," says Ward. "He was working a whole gamut of telephones, talking to everyone from Arabian crown princes to Huey Lewis - and exhorting everyone to do more than they expected they'd have to. He did the same with me - he basically said to the camera, 'Well, how are you guys going to raise money?' He called John Martin, the head of music programming. John was at the bar down the street, so Geldof calls him there and says, 'John, it's Bob Geldof, what are you doing?' And within days we had an entire set-up for collecting funds, which were then given to the appropriate channels for famine relief. It really gave me a sense of what, as a broadcaster, you can do to make a difference."

Ward left Much in 1989 when the Alannah Myles record that he co-wrote caught fire. He moved to L.A. for 11 years where he wrote songs for the likes of Diana Ross and Amanda Marshall. For the past year, he's been living with his wife and daughter in Paris, just for the hell of it. Williams is developing new talent in Toronto. Donlon was a senior executive at MuchMusic from 1992 till 2000, when she was named president of Sony Music Canada. Ehm, often thought of as the mandatory babe, went on to a series of lower-profile gigs. Now a mother of a two-year-old, she will be one of the judges on the next installment of Popstars.

While they may want to emulate their predecessors, the new VJs have trouble seeing themselves as icons. "I can't believe that people could look at me the way they looked at Erica Ehm," says Hollett. "For me and my friends, she was wow. And when kids come up to me and say, 'You're my favourite VJ,' I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever.' " For Namugenyi Kiwanuka, 27, the idea of filling other VJs shoes is pretty stressful. Like Michael Williams, who hosted Soul in the City, and Master T, who presided over Da Mix, Kiwanuka is now the station's urban music expert as host of The DownLo and Vibe. "When T left, all eyes were on me," she says. "I was terrified. But I want to follow in his footsteps. I want to be able to show the community in a positive light. It's not just about the videos and P. Diddy's new car." Kiwanuka, who came to Canada as a refugee from Uganda at 13, also knows what a station with diverse ethnic personalities means to its audience: "In public school, a teacher suggested we use Americanized Christian names, so I used Mary. But now an African girl from Nigeria who also has a long name and doesn't know where she fits in will see me and say, 'She's claiming her name.' "

For someone like Bradford How, Much is also a place where someone can claim a comic persona - the same way Mike Myers used to stop by the late-night Citylimits show on Citytv in the '80s and play Christopher Ward's cousin Wayne Campbell, long before the character showed up on Saturday Night Live. How, who won the 2000 VJ search contest, is often found in outrageous costumes and body paint, dragging people off the street for comedy sketches. How, 25, treats the job as the fluke that it is - it could lead to bigger TV opportunities or home to Winnipeg, where he can see himself becoming a teacher.

Whether these VJs will be icons, successful journalists or just footnotes in Much history, they're helping to shape the minds of young Canadians by regularly tossing "serious" content into the usual diet of pop pablum. And they recognize that even bubble-gum music can lead to interesting places. Reflecting on her own love of '80s boy band New Kids On The Block, Hollett says: "Because [New Kid] Donnie Wahlberg loved Public Enemy, I checked them out and that led me to a political awakening." And while 13-year-old boys may be sitting around zoning out to T & A rap videos now, Sung has confidence they'll grow up informed. "Just look," she says, "at how the Beastie Boys turned out." Long ago, the white rap group did give up its right-to-party rallying cry and devoted itself to freeing Tibet.

Sitting in Washington, John Roberts knows he no longer speaks to youth. "They don't read newspapers or watch TV news," he says. He might be interested in Stroumboulopoulos's response to Sept. 11. "I went on the air at noon and said, 'I don't know what to tell you except things are bad. Change the channel, go to the news. Go watch what's happening and then come back later - and we'll talk about it.' " By saying it's cool to care and be informed, Stroumboulopoulos remains punk rock.

Maclean's November 18, 2002