John Shields has worked for only two broadcast companies during his 42-year radio career.
By all accounts, he’s doing something right, which is why the senior program manager for Victoria radio stations The Q and The Zone is being given a career-spanning award this weekend that honours his contributions to radio in the Victoria area.
The Heritage Award, which will be presented to Shields on Saturday at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Hotel during the Western Canadian Music Awards brunch, is a tip of the hat to the Alberta native, who arrived in Victoria in 1989 to serve as program director of The Q.
In the years since, he has been a programming mainstay of both The Q and The Zone. The latter station came to life in 2001, when former station The New X 91 Three flipped its format from country — a genre in which Shields earned raves nationally as a programmer — to modern rock. He acquits himself well at both stations, the two biggest rock-based properties in the market.
Shields is being honoured for his ability to navigate an often-tricky format in a medium that is known for its turbulence. His track record shows a fondness for innovation. Music selection, promotion and marketing of the stations he oversees are unique. The Q was a dominant on-air force for the better part of the 1990s, largely because it refused to conform.
It wasn’t notable simply for its individuality, either. The Q also moved the artistic needle, so to speak. Bands such as the Tragically Hip and solo artists such as David Gray received some of their first regular airplay in Canada on The Q, an accomplishment that pleases Shields to this day.
That said, he’s sheepish about the attention being paid to him this weekend. For one thing, the word “legacy” as it pertains to his career makes Shields chuckle.
“Honestly, I’ve never really thought in those terms.”
Shields, 60, prefers to praise his co-workers as key contributors to his success in radio.
“You’re only as good as the people working for your operation,” he said.
“The OK Radio Group and the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, the two companies that have owned The Q and The Zone, have allowed us to keep our people, which enables us to continue what we’ve been doing for a long time. Consistency over the long haul helps us out a lot.”
The journey that took him from northern Alberta — he was born in Grande Prairie and raised in Fort McMurray — wasn’t particularly eventful, from a radio perspective. After developing an interest in the medium when he was 15, he was hired, years later, in 1973, to be an on-air jock at middle-of-the-road Fort McMurray station CJOK. When the owners, the OK Radio Group, needed someone to take over their Victoria property as program manager, Shields got the call. “I was in Fort McMurray, and they wanted me to come to Victoria. Wasn’t a tough decision, let me tell you.”
A quarter-century after his arrival, he’s at the helm of two popular Quadra Street stations, and loving every minute of it.
“We’ve always tried to have fun and differentiate ourselves and challenge the status quo a little bit,” he said.
Ed Bain, the longtime morning show host at The Q, said the station would not be the same without Shields’ input.
“He loves taking chances and hates structured programming. He likes to loosen it up. He thinks if you trip and fall, that’s probably a good thing.”
Shields — whose employees at The Zone often call him Bossman Johnny — asks only that his staff have fun. The results will come, he said.
“It’s a wacky, intense job sometimes, but God it’s fun. And I’m still passionate about new music. I don’t care if it’s country, jazz or rock. As long as it’s good.”
Bain concurs. Music — always at considerable volume — is always emanating from Shields’ office.
“They come no more passionate about music than him,” Bain said. “His office is constantly rocking with something. He’s got the big speaker setup, so we all hear everything he samples — and he samples lots.”
He also like to have a good laugh. Those paying close attention can hear Shields’ voice on various radio commercials, often with a touch of goofiness.
He’s able to laugh at himself, too. A recurring character modelled on Shields was once a popular staple of the Bain and Cliff LeQuesne morning show, which prompted much on-air mockery.
“We even had a John Shields impression contest at the Christmas party one time, so he has taken lots of hits,” Bain said with a laugh.
The stations are still in good stead. When Shields eventually decides to step back, he will do so gladly, as it will allow him to spend more time with his five children. When that time comes, he is certain The Q and The Zone will continue forging paths of their own making.
“The Q, in its history, has been an extremely unique radio station, one that you just don’t hear anywhere. That culture has transformed itself to The Zone, which is a modern rock station. I defy you to find one anywhere that is like us. ”