Interview: Indie88 Finds its Identity on the FM Dial


On July 25, 2013 when Toronto-based radio station Indie88 went live upon the FM frequency and began playing Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” on loop, listeners could tell that the station meant business. Correct that – I’d venture to guess that listeners really didn’t know what the station meant.

Soon enough, the picture would gain some clarity when on July 31 the Astley chain was broken, and Indie88 officially

Adam Thompson, Program Director, Indie88

Adam Thompson, Program Director, Indie88

began its ‘soft launch’ with Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” A symbolic choice, naturally, but not just because of the song title – let’s think of the band behind it.

Arcade Fire is one of those polarizing bands that have deep indie roots, but at the same time win big-time awards; sell a bunch of albums; and fill arenas. Some indie circles hold them in high regard for where they came from and what they do, while others would argue – based on whatever evidence makes sense to them – that the band is not indie. This is the same uphill battle being fought by Indie88.

On a weekly, daily, hourly, minutely, secondly basis, those at Indie88 are doing their best to cater to a market that, in the opinion of station Guidance Counsellor and renowned Canadian radio stalwart Alan Cross, has been “underserved in certain segments,” especially music with the indie spirit.

When spoke with Cross, as well as Indie88 Program Director Adam Thompson, both agreed that classifying indie in a way that appeases everyone isn’t an easy feat.

“Indie is impossible to define,” agrees Thompson. “I don’t even pretend to do it as the Program Director. It’s a subjective term, and we deal in a subjective medium – music is entirely subjective and that’s what makes programming a radio station really challenging. Everyone’s definition of indie is uniquely personal. To indie purists, we will never be indie enough, and to some people we’re way too fringy.”

“People tend to shy away from completely unfamiliar music,” adds Cross, whose primary roles with Indie are that of consultant and voiceover performer. “They only have so much time in their day and so much processing power in their brain to deal with a continuous stream of unfamiliar music. What you need to do is balance it. You have to have some stuff that fits with the format, the attitude, and the spirit of the radio station…that makes it easier for the medicine to go down. The only way that we look at it, is that indie is a state of mind. It is a spirit of adventure and doing things differently.”

Thompson notes that Mumford & Sons is one of those bands that generates a lot of conversation from listeners. He’s heard from some that believe the band is the antithesis of what indie should be considered, while others think they’re the biggest indie band on the planet. In that debate, he feels that both parties are “entitled to their opinion, but, there’s nobody that’s righter.”

If you were to spend time with Indie88, you too would find yourself having internal debates regarding how certain songs fit in. Within any given hour, you could hear Broken Bells, The National, Tokyo Police Club, July Talk, and have those artists’ works followed by Johnny Cash and Depeche Mode.

Thompson informs us that the Indie88 playlist is genuinely dictated by listeners. Online, fans can opt in to a regular music survey that allows them to express what they like, love, don’t like, and “never want to hear again.” What’s more, the station continually informs listeners that the lines of communication are always open.

“The direction of the station, from the beginning, meant to go in a direction that the audience most enjoyed,” says

Alan Cross, Guidance Counsellor, Indie88.

Alan Cross, Guidance Counsellor, Indie88

Thompson. “I don’t think radio’s job is to be curators…that power’s gone. It’s more in the hands of people who see shows. Our job is to really pay attention to what’s happening on the street in terms of who people are going to see; who people are downloading; who people are buying merch for; and who blogs are talking about.

“Audiences break bands these days – it happens all of the time,” he continues. “With the culture of sharing, that’s how everything gets exposed. There’s no one person anymore that goes ‘hey, look at this brand new thing you haven’t heard before.’”

A real interesting angle to Indie88 is its staff. Cross, for a number of years, held various prominent roles at area competitor 102.1 The Edge. Music Director and afternoon host Raina Douris; evening host Dave “Bookie” Bookman; and on-air personality LoriAnn; also have history with that station. From an outsider’s point of view, it’s easy to fear Indie88 becoming a clone of sorts.

“I want our own thing…I want our own identity,” assures Thompson when quizzed on the subject. “Our real focus is introducing a bunch of new bands to Toronto who haven’t been played on the radio before, and really connecting with the local music scene. We also want to highlight the acts that are really cutting through and deserve some exposure.”

“Yes and no,” responds Cross when asked if Indie88 ever considered marketing themselves as the ‘anti-Edge.’ “We’d never say that aloud, but what we want to do – as any other business would do – and that’s to try to differentiate ourselves from everybody else in the market. Our differentiating point is what we are, not what we aren’t. What we are, is a station that’s music intensive…we try to be smart about how we approach music and broadcasting. Things like ‘dick jokes’ are completely forbidden. We don’t want to be crass and crude. It’s all about the music.

“You never want to define yourself for what you are not, he concludes. “You want to define yourself by what you can be to each individual person.”

-Adam Grant

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