The Ongoing History of Alan Cross: In Conversation With The Legendary Host

I grew up listening to the sound of legendary broadcaster, music historian, and writer Alan Cross on what was once CFNY in the mid 1980s, and this certainly had a part in sculpting who I am today as a lover of music. I was always eager to tune in daily to hear the intriguing underground stories of the indie music scene as new wave and punk rock emerged as dominant forms of popular music. The cadence in his voice lured me in to listen and learn about the rebellious and wild lives of so many musicians, and I almost felt as though he was personally introducing me to these people each day.

Today, almost thirty years later, I was honoured to be introduced to Alan so that I could pose a few questions of my own and get a glimpse of who he is, as well as gain insight into his spectacular career.

You have been in the radio business for a very long time now. How did you land your first job in 1980? Has music always been your calling?

My grandmother gave me a transistor radio for my sixth birthday. I never asked for it, nor did my parents say that I wanted one. I didn’t. I wanted more Hot Wheels cars. But once I turned it on and began hearing voices and music from stations other than what my parents allowed from the radio on the kitchen counter or in the car, I was hooked.

Some years later, my uncle, who moonlighted servicing jukeboxes, gave me a box of old worn-out records. That was the real beginning of my music collection.

After a while, my goal became to be a news person: an anchor, reporter, correspondent, a serious journalist. That ambition landed me my first job at a brand new radio station in Selkirk, Manitoba. Yes, I had to play records, but I also got to read news and sports. I thought I was in heaven. (By the way, I got that job after harassing the owner. I was working at a grocery store at the time and I’d hit him up every Friday at 5:15 when he came to buy milk. I was working the dairy section at the time.)

After joining CFNY in 1986, your announcing style was freestyle DJesque and was very well received by its listeners. Was this a style that just seemed to work for you or was it a collective format decision made by the station’s management at the time? Whatever the case, the format really worked and spoke volumes to the generation listening.

I never saw myself as being a fast-talkin’ AM radio DJ. I was always drawn to announcers who were more conversational, those who could hold my attention by telling me a story. I believe radio is all about storytelling, the art of making the lives of your listeners richer in some way. Tell them something they can use, something that will make them think. Make them laugh, make them mad —whatever. Just don’t be boring. If you are, you’ve failed.

How did you morph from the station’s afternoon drive-time host to the host of The Ongoing History of New Music? Was this a role that you dove into, perhaps one that better suited your thirst for music?

A management and ownership change had brought new people into the station. After doing some secret research, they decided that they’d keep the alternative format (there was a real possibility that the station would flip to country!) but that CFNY needed to do a better job of educating the audience about what we stood for and the music [we] played. They looked at the staff, found one guy with a history degree—me—and assigned me the job.

I didn’t want it. I was very happy playing records in the afternoon. But they gave me an ultimatum: take this gig or find a new job. Having just been married and purchased my first house, I really didn’t have much of a choice. It was…depressing.

In retrospect, though, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to re-invent myself and to explore areas that I’d never considered. And it worked. The Ongoing History of New Music (a terrible name, by the way, but not my choice) was the right show for the times—the dawn of the Alternative Nation era in the early 90s—and even though the host talks too much and plays a lot of unfamiliar music, the program continues to work. Again, it all comes back to The Story.

If you’d had a hand in naming the program, what would you have called it?

Good question. When I was briefly away from Corus, I did a similar show called “The Secret History of Rock,” which I thought was kinda cool…

Your depth of knowledge on the alternative music industry is immense. How do you know what you do? Some of the facts and details are often intimate even private. How do you get the inside scoop?

Keep in mind that this is my job. I do this 24/7. Anyone could do this if they devoted that kind of time to a singular pursuit for 24 years. Over that time, I’ve cultivated some amazing sources, witnessed things first hand, conducted some astounding interviews and read volumes and volumes and volumes of material.

The goal has always been the same: If I can find something that makes me go “Oh, COOL!”—me, someone who has a ‘been there/done that’ experience in the music industry—then what kind of impact is it going to have on people who have a life? The search for The Story is everything.

In this day and age we can typically download anything from the Internet. How did you get your hands on those demos and bootlegs back when such things were so rare to obtain?

I used to scour indie record stores all over the world for bootlegs. One day, a box arrived at the station filled with 45 Nine Inch Nails boots on C-DR.

You have had a long-standing history with 102.1. You have gone on to consult and start new ventures only to return again. How have those departures made you better upon your return to what most would consider your home? 

You can never afford to coast in this industry. Radio, the music industry, and technology are changing and iterating far too quickly to be complacent. I’m more interested in what’s new and what’s next for me. Every opportunity—successful or not—is a chance to learn. Even if you fail, you’ve just learned what doesn’t work. Then you start again.

How we listen to music has changed so much since the early days of radio play. How do you prefer to listen to music?

In the car, actually. It’s where I have the fewest distractions. But I’m also in the process of moving my home office into a fully renovated basement. One of the plans is to have a dedicated two-channel stereo system with a CD player and turntable. I’m hoping to create a listening cave.

Songza had so many great compilations for any occasion. We were sad to see it go. How was your experience being named head of curation for Songza’s operations in Canada in 2014?

That was a really, really cool experience because it introduced me to the world of streaming. It also introduced me to everything associated with professionally curating music. It’s a LOT harder than I realized. When Google bought the company and dismantled the Songza team, it was sad, but I took away plenty of knowledge that has since served me well.

It seems the consensus is that many are annoyed by what seemed to be a corporate merger between Songza and Google Play, although they seem to operate very differently. Would you like to comment on this?

Google eats up smaller companies all the time. The founders of Songza sold with full knowledge of what they were doing and were well compensated. So goes the tech world…

You curated a museum exhibition on the Science of Rock Music for the Ontario Science Centre. How did you get involved in this project and was it designed to reach the younger generation?

A call came out of the blue from the creator of the project. How could I turn down such an opportunity? It was a new way for me to tell stories. The exhibit ran in a number of cities (Kansas City, Detroit, and a few others) and is about to open at a new science centre in Halifax. As a spin-off, I’m writing a young adult book about the science of rock.

Being so immersed in the music business, do you have any influence on introducing new bands to the air waves? If so, can you share with us some that you might consider personal successes?

People tell me I do, but there are plenty of bands I’ve championed that have failed to break through. I’m not on the air enough anymore to be able to hammer away at bands I love.

What lies on the horizon for the notorious Alan Cross? Any new cool books? Any new ventures?   

Always! [Being] self-employed, I’m always chasing new business and new opportunities. For example, I’m working with a new music TV channel out of the UK called Vintage-TV (www.vintagetv.ca) that’s running on Shaw out west. We want to get it on Rogers, Bell and Cogeco as soon as possible. There’s more coming up, but I don’t want to jinx it, you know?