By David DeRocco:
It didn’t take a reduction in aerosol cans or lower carbon emissions to help repair the giant hole in the airwaves over Niagara. All it took was a really solid application to the CRTC, two years of legal and administrative finagling, a few months of round-the-clock work shifts and a new, all-country music library. The end result can be found at 89.1 on your FM radio dial – a brand new radio station filling the airwaves over Niagara with the sweet sounds of Country 89.
Country 89 fills the void for Niagara country music fans left when Spirit 91.7 gave up the ghost in 2005, abandoning its country music format only to return as classic rocker GIANT-FM. The eventual demise of the two Hamilton-based country stations – 820 CHAM and Country 95.3 – left the local radio market with a big hole in terms of format variety. That all changed on February 20th at 8 a.m., when the Florida Georgia Line song “Sun Daze” announced the birth of Country 89. After two years of pushing hard to deliver their new baby, there was a lot of celebrating at the station’s Welland location.
“We invited a whole whack of people into the studio,” recalls Peter Morena, Country 89 Brand Manager and VP of Operations for station owner RB Communications. “We had (St. Catharines-based) country artist Brad Battle in as a guest. He played some songs and we had a lot of fun that morning.”
Bringing a new radio station to the air – especially one on a brand new government-issued broadcasting license and newly opened frequency – isn’t as simple a flicking a switch. According to Morena, the process began over two years ago and involved securing approvals on both sides of the border.
“You first start off trying to find a frequency, then you involve the engineers to determine if the parametres of that signal interfere with (existing) signals in Canada and the U.S.” he explained. “Because we’re close to the border, we needed approval from the FCC (U.S. Federal Communications Commission). We also needed approval from Industry Canada and the CRTC. There were lots of lawyers involved, lots of time spent – the CRTC moves slowly and quite rightfully so to ensure applications are good.”
When official CRTC approval was finally granted in July, 2014, Morena says the real work began. That included everything from renovating antiquated studios and buying new equipment to developing a country music library that would attract fans to the new station. For Morena, who oversees the programming on Country 89, that meant some intense research into today’s country music scene.
“I had to re-educate myself,” he admits. “My last involvement (in programming country music) was over 10 years ago. The country format has changed a lot over the last 10 years. I was good with country music from the late ‘90s back, but to be honest about the new stuff, I wasn’t in tune with it. I spent a lot of time researching on the internet.”
The new music championed by Country 89 is being made by a variety of huge cross-over stars who continue to elevate the profile and popularity of country music with fans of all ages – names like Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley. That requires the station to deliver some very targeted programming.
“Today’s country music attracts an audience from 18 to 65,” suggests Morena, “with 25 to 45 being the sweet spot. It’s a wide range and it’s trending younger all the time. We have to make sure the presentation of our announcers reflects that.”
To connect with Niagara’s country audience, Country 89 has assembled a team of on-air personalities who bring both veteran savvy and youthful appeal to the airwaves. For example, the morning crew includes former Country 95.3 host Rob Leclerc and his co-host, Janel Steeper. Niagara listeners may recognize mid-day host Stephanie Mizzi as the former morning voice of GIANT-FM, while afternoons feature former Y108 rock jock Mark Lefebvre and drive-time traffic reports with Katie Pansolin.
Leclerc, who arrives in Niagara by way of Kingston station FM 96.3, says listeners tuning into their show can expect a fast moving, family-friendly morning of entertainment. “We’re just having fun, connecting with listeners. (The show) is real listener-based, with real interaction, light-hearted and sometimes silly, not too heavy, all done in a positive way.”
To help inspire and support the development of Niagara’s under-served country music scene, Leclerc says the morning show will also be airing a unique weekly feature.
“What we’re trying to do on the show is create a connection with the local country music scene through Country Live Fridays,” he explained. “Every Friday we’re going to try and have a live artist, playing some songs, promoting their music. We’re hoping to showcase a lot of local country music artists.”
Making those connections with Niagara’s country music community, including both artists and listeners, will be critical to Country 89’s long-term success, especially given the historical lack of commitment terrestrial radio station owners have shown to the country music format. For his part, however, Morena believes there are really just two things to focus on to ensure the station’s long-term success: community and content.
“The country music format is cyclical, and right now it’s very hot. There are times when it’s not as hot. It depends on the music coming from Nashville. At the end of the day, we want to be a great community station for all of Niagara. My philosophy is, give them good music, get involved in the community, and everything will take care of itself. If you put the effort into it, it will work out. My goal is to just keep doing good rad