The spirit of radio
Dez Daniels was ready to give up broadcasting after 25 years, but the business keeps pulling her back in
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/08/2017 (2035 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Around this time last year, veteran radio personality Dez Daniels met with the Free Press to discuss her broadcasting career, which was approaching a significant milestone.
For a little over two hours, we sat at her kitchen table discussing her almost 25 years in the biz (she shot us an aw-shucks look when we remarked she must have gotten her start when she was, oh, 8), chatting about everything from her rural Saskatchewan roots to what drew her to the medium in the first place to how she doesn’t need to hear Open Arms by Journey, “ever, ever” again.
A week after the interview, Daniels sent us an email stating she was sorry, but it didn’t look like there was going to be a 25th anniversary to commemorate in newspaper-form, after all, given she had just tendered her resignation, following a meeting with her then-bosses at 99.9 BOB-FM.
“I hadn’t planned on leaving BOB — or screwing up your story in the process — but my decision was tied to a U1 teacher assistant’s job at (the University of Manitoba) I’d been offered and absolutely had to take, except my teaching hours didn’t exactly jibe with my station manager at the time,” Daniels told us a couple of weeks ago, when we reconvened at a sun-drenched restaurant patio in Westwood. In September, she will begin her fourth year of studies at the U of M, where she was recently accepted into the concentrated bachelor of social work program.
Daniels adored her teaching position, she went on, and was convinced her radio days were behind her; that is, until members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association voted 85 per cent in favour of strike action in October 2016.
“Because of last fall’s professors’ strike, ultimately they had to kill some classes and because we weren’t union members, three of us didn’t get our jobs back (after the strike),” she continued. “So last December, because of eating, rent, that sort of thing…I contacted an ex-colleague of mine who’s now at (94.3 The Drive FM), and mentioned if he had any open shifts over Christmas, it would really be helpful.
“He called back and said ‘You know, I think we can work something out here on a more permanent basis.’”
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Daniels grew up on a farm about 60 kilometres east of Yorkton, Sask. Her family didn’t own a television “for the longest time… until I was in Grade 6, at least,” so her primary form of entertainment was the radio, particularly at bedtime when she’d pick up stations from across North America.
“I would lie there for hours and wonder who is that person and where is this voice coming from?”
Following high school, Daniels, the eldest of three siblings, enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan’s fine arts program. It was a short stay. After accompanying one of her friends to an open house at the West Academy Broadcasting College (WABC) in Saskatoon, she abruptly dropped out of university and signed up for a four-month radio course, instead.
Daniels was 19 in 1992 when she began handling the graveyard shift at CHAB, a 10,000-watt AM country station based in Moose Jaw. Born Desiree Wengrowich — a poppy tattoo adorning her left arm is a nod to her Ukrainian heritage — she changed her surname shortly thereafter, recalling her teachers at WABC preached alliteration, when it came to on-air personas.
“I kept Desiree, which I understand was the name of a character in an Elvis Presley movie my mother particularly enjoyed. But since CHAB was a country station, I picked Daniels, for the singer Charlie Daniels and because, you know, Jack Daniels. My boss was like, perfect, sounds good, and it just kind of stuck.”
In 1996, Daniels was offered a slot at Star 103 FM, a precursor of Virgin Radio Winnipeg. As soon as she learned the starting salary was $30,000 — a $10,000 bump over what she was pulling in at the time — she packed her bags and relocated to a city and province she visited once when she was a kid.
“Winnipeg was never a place I planned on living but I figured I was still young and why not see what the move brings,” she said. “I certainly didn’t plan on staying here for 20-plus years but for sure, it all kind of worked out well.”
Following her stint at Star 103, Daniels caught on at 92 CITI FM. She grimaces when she takes out an old promotional photo from that era, which shows a frizzy-haired, 28-year-old Daniels sexily posed astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“Certain stations back then were all about tits and ass,” she said, pursing her lips a second time when she recalled a contest that invited female listeners to call in to win free breast implants. “At the time I didn’t recognize it as being a negative thing… it was something I had to do as part of my job. In retrospect, though, now that I’m older and more mature… ugh.”
She was still working afternoons at CITI in 2000, when a spot opened up on a popular morning show hosted by Beau Fritzche and Tom Milroy on what was then Q-94 FM.
“Dez got the job with us in June 2000, I think, not long before she was due to get married,” Milroy said, when contacted at home. “It was close to ratings time and the three of us flew to Nashville to film a bunch of commercials to promote the show — that’s back when the money was flowing freely — before Dez was even on the air with us, yet.
“I remember getting back home, her heading off on her honeymoon and our boss calling Beau and me aside and saying something like, ‘Jeez, now that we’ve got all these (commercials) in the can, I sure as heck hope she doesn’t change her mind, while she’s away.’ “
“I think the dynamic with Beau, Tom and myself just kind of worked, right from the start,” Daniels said, mentioning one of the highlights from that time period was standing metres away from ex-Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, during a contest winners’ meet-and-greet in London. “We complemented each other nicely and I believe that’s a big reason why we were the top-rated morning show for the longest time. Lots of times we’d get on the air without really knowing what we were going to talk about that day, but because we honestly enjoyed each other’s company, I think our audience picked up on that and became engaged, as well.” (Referring to Daniels as “a natural talent” and “our show’s moral compass,” Milroy, now with 680 CJOB, said the seven years the trio worked together amounts to “a lifetime,” in the ultra-competitive radio industry.)
Daniels chuckled when asked if she’s ever chatting with a cashier at the grocery store or talking to a bank teller and somebody standing nearby casts her a quizzical look, trying to figure out where they’ve heard “that” voice before.
“That does happen on occasion, for sure, but these days, I get a lot more of ‘Hey, you’re the cooking lady, aren’t you?’”
For the past couple of years, Daniels has served as the host of Great Tastes of Manitoba, a provincially flavoured cooking show that will kick off its 27th season on CTV Winnipeg this fall.
“Are you kidding?” she said, when a scribe wondered whether her vast experience behind a microphone made the transition from radio to television a relatively simple one. “We finished shooting new episodes a few weeks ago and for sure, it’s the most stressful week of my calendar year.” (Another side gig Daniels sweated over was being the official “pronouncer” of the Canwest CanSpell Spelling Bee for a number of years. “Knowing the way you pronounce a word can mean success or failure for some of those kids always caused a bit of a sleepless night the day before. But once a nerd, always a nerd. I loved it.”)
Daniels remains unsure what her future holds, radio-wise. She’d like to use her communication skills to “engage in something I’m a little bit more emotionally invested in,” so she won’t rule out a shift to teaching or social work somewhere down the line, after she nets her university degree.
In the meantime, she couldn’t be happier hosting her Monday to Friday evening show, from 94.3 The Drive’s Lombard Avenue studio.
“The job I have now is wonderful… it’s really about the pure art of radio,” she said, noting these days, she’s more likely to let listeners in on what’s going on in her kids’ lives than her own, as swimming lessons, flu bugs and sleepovers are topics her audience can easily relate to.
“And even though I’m moving in a different direction in my life, which in the back of my mind I knew would probably happen eventually, I don’t want to sound ungrateful because radio has been very good to me and has given me so, so much.
“I’ve learned a ton, made hundreds of wonderful connections and, not to sound hokey, made friends with Winnipeg, too. I’ve also received my fair share of feedback through 25 years and when you get somebody telling you or writing you to say something you said (on the radio) made them laugh or cry, or picked them up on a crummy day, what could be better?”
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Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.