Radio reboot: Vancouver's alternative music station THE PEAK is back, but will it last?

Jun 21 2024, 9:29 pm

Depending on who you ask, Vancouver’s alternative music scene is either thriving or dying. Sean Ross, a broadcast industry researcher and author of the Ross on Radio newsletter, is among those who say Vancouver is currently a hub for music lovers.

“If you like mainstream Alternative radio, Vancouver is definitely the place to be now. I can’t think of any other North American market, certainly of that size, that has three major stations, plus CBC Music, plus SiriusXM’s The Verge, if you’re a subscriber,” Ross explained.

That third station just re-entered the chat when 102.7 The PEAK returned to the FM radio dial earlier this month, alongside its competitors CFOX 99.3FM and SONiC 104.9 FM in Vancouver.

the peak vancouver

F8 studio/Shutterstock | The Peak

Resurgence took music fans by surprise

It was more than a shock for music fans. The PEAK’s owners, Pattison Media, had announced just two years ago that it was changing formats on the FM dial. The owners made the alternative music station only available to listen to in your car if you had an HD-enabled car radio or on streaming platforms.

Instead, 102.7 on the FM dial became a 102.7 FM NOW!radio, a pop format, adding to Vancouver’s already sugary-sweet radio waves.

Russell James, program director of Vancouver’s 102.7 The PEAK, tells Daily Hive that there was a lot going on behind the scenes.

“I don’t think it’s a big secret that the PEAK never made money. It was always a passion project, and our owners were very gracious in giving us a long time to try and get it to the point where it just broke even,” James said.

Combined with ongoing pressures on the industry, he says they tried to make a change that might allow the station to get some financial footing.

“I just don’t think, for commercial radio stations, [alt music] is the quickest way to get ratings and make money. That’s why you see four stations and Now! radio [was] one of them… playing Dua Lipa and Ed Sheeran… but you know, we don’t need four stations,” he explained.

No photo description available.

The former advertising for Now! on its social media site. (Facebook)

“It was a tough lesson on this, but we realized we were really lucky to still have this audience on the streaming side, and we could easily move it back over to FM,” James said.

He said the timing aligned with a growing appetite from music fans for the format. He credited TikTok and the new ways fans are exposed to music as reasons for why now is a “great time to be in alt.”

Tiktok’s power shone during the pandemic when little-known Isaiah Faber (aka Powfu) wrote one of the most earworm songs of 2020, amassing some 4 billion plays in a single month.

“Powfu/’Deathbed (Coffee for Your Head)’ is an interesting example. A Canadian song that found its audience online and then went to radio. Radio didn’t even know it was Canadian content until it was already on its way to being an international hit,” Ross explained.

“That song is the equivalent of [Terry Jacks’] ‘Seasons in the Sun’ in early 1974 (similar theme, Vancouver artist). ‘Seasons’ broke through Canadian radio, and then through CKLW Windsor, the powerhouse Top 40 that had an impact throughout North America. Now radio is thought of as ‘the closer.'”

But we are doing better than our neighbours.

“Alternative radio is definitely in better shape in Canada. Ratings aren’t made public anymore, but my sense is that stations like CFOX, CHDI (Sonic 102.9) Edmonton, and CFEX (X92.9) Calgary are doing much bigger numbers than most comparable American stations,” Ross explained.

The success of SONiC 102.9 – Alternative Edmonton led to a major Prairie infusion in BC’s South Coast when Rogers Media rebranded Kiss Radio 104.9 as SONiC in 2022.

For two years, SONic, CFOX, and Rock 101 were basically the choices if you weren’t into pop music, country, or talk in Metro Vancouver.

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“They took the opportunity when the PEAK went off FM to try and pull some of that audience away, and they never really were able to, probably, because we kept the streaming station going, we did keep some audience there, there’s an appetite,” James said.

With nearly all the hosts hailing from the Prairies, it was a pretty big switch for Vancouver radio fans, who have had some real on-air mainstays on some other stations for decades.

Take 94.5’s Holly & Nira, for example. The hosts are both native to BC, and Nira Arora has been on-air for the station since nearly the start of the Beat 94.5 in 2002 and remained even when it was rebranded by Bell Media into Virgin Radio.

Holly & Nira

The 5 O’Clock Traffic Jam with Amy Spencer and DJ Flipout, another voice that many Vancourites have grown up with, has been on the radio for so long that Flipout says people are shocked to learn he’s a dad now.

DJ Flipout in 2017

Flipout in 2017. @paulwijsen/Facebook

“Virgin is like Starbucks. There’s one in every city. You know what you’re going to get when you put it on. They’re the number one radio station in Vancouver, and they’re just playing the biggest pop hits more often than anybody else, and they’ve got good hosts, and they do a really good job at being the big top 40 radio station,” James argued.

“It’s just got the heritage. Jack has got the heritage, and CFOX has got the heritage. These stations tend to hang onto their audiences more.”

That heritage feeling also transcends to the PEAK, where many fans felt very loyal to the station before it made the switch. Some fans were quick to vent their anger on social media over the back-and-forth and the so-called lessons learned and how they missed the voices they had come to know and love.

Charis Hogg, former host, called it “deplorable” and called for execs to be fired.

peak vancouver radio

Former hosts Charis and Jeremy in THE PEAK studios in 2022.

“When you run a business, you got to try things, and people do get impacted, and it’s the crappy part of our business, “James said. “We had to make some tough decisions, and we gave them as much work, as much notice, as possible.”

“It’s an unfortunate part of the business, but… you know, it’s always been that way in radio,” James added.

The hosts now are not original Peak hosts but are those who were with the re-branded Now!radio, including hosts Jaclyn Tatay and Brayden Mack.

“No radio stations in the markets have big fat budgets to hire lots and lots of people. We’re no different. We have to do it with the team we have, and we have four on-air hosts right now. We’re looking to try and add a fifth, and really foster the connection with the artists and labels and the community. We do realize that Peak was something special, and we want to bring that back with the people that we have here,” he said.

The PEAK’s early days

peak radio vancouver

Studios at THE PEAK

Mark Irvine, a former long-time fan, says he still remembers the so-called glory days of Kevin and Sonia and the excitement that came from the station when it was new.

He says he followed the station from its earlier frequency of 100.5 to 102.7 and was, as a result, introduced to new Canadian music beyond the world of Nickleback copycats.

“The staff at the station clearly understood the format versus just basing airplay on charts,” Irvine argued. But, he lost the love in later years.

“In 2012, under the guidance of Tamara Stanners, it was brilliant, [focusing] on new music mostly not embraced by the mainstream. I did like the morning show with Jeremy and Charis when they moved over to HD. Now, I just see it as another cookie-cutter choice where I will hear too much Green Day and not enough Fontaines DC,” he argued.

“To quote the Rush song ‘Spirit of Radio,’ written about CFNY [Toronto radio station the Edge 102.1], ‘For the words of the profits were written on the studio wall.’ Around 2017, management changed, the old guard was all fired, and the format became a cookie-cutter station,” he argued.

A photo of Tamara Stanners with Rykka on the Peak Performance Project in the 2013 finale.

Tamara Stanners spoke with Daily Hive about the relaunch. The now freelance voice-over artist and podcast host is among those who brought The PEAK to life on November 13, 2008, and served as an on-air host and later as Program Director until 2016.

Stanners has had a lot of time to reflect on the station, its impacts on Vancouver’s alternative scene, and even where it could go from here.

“I was really surprised, actually, when we launched the PEAK that there still wasn’t an alternative station in Vancouver because just over across the Strait [of Georgia], they’re there in the Zone 91.3 FM in Victoria that is unbelievable, they’re a fantastic alternative station, you know, one of the best in the country, and also owned by the Pattison Group,” she said.

She says that when she would go back to visit family in Edmonton, she’d also listen to SONiC and wonder why Vancouver didn’t have something similar.

“We didn’t even know if we were going to get the license, but we did, which was incredible.”

Tamara Stanners throws prizes into the crowd for the 2013 Finale of the Peak Performance Project in Vancouver.

She says that by some kind of magic, they were able to switch their license from an AM license to FM and later swap signals with the Vancouver Co-op Radio—CFRO to have a stronger signal that could be heard outside of the downtown core.

“I will say that having the opportunity to launch the PEAK and to work with the PEAK Performance Project was, honestly, like my teenage dream come true. I feel so incredibly grateful that I ever had that opportunity because it truly was like everything I ever wanted to do,” she said.

“Bob D’Eith, who is now an MLA for Maple Ridge, was the executive director of Music BC at the time, and Gerry Siemens, who was spearheading the charge for the license for the PEAK, went to Bob and asked him, ‘What would you do if you had $5.9 million to spend on the music industry over seven years?’ Bob was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve always wanted to do a boot camp, you know, where we take all these artists to a boot camp, and they learn from the experts, and it would be amazing.'”

The PEAK Performance Project

The PEAK Performance Project/Flickr

But that idea led to so much more. The project would allow those unsigned Canadian groups to get a golden ticket: radio play.

“[It’s] super hard to get played on the radio where you’re an emerging artist, it’s almost impossible, you know, to break through clutter and noise, and we knew that, so we had this sort of megaphone to highlight these artists,” Stanners said.

“Those three things: the boot camp, the radio play, the mentorship that came with all of that, and the marketing really ended up doing more than I think we even thought it would do because in and amongst that triangle, what also really grew was an incredible community that really supported each other,” she said. “You could feel it. You could feel it spinning out and growing and becoming something way bigger than its parts.”

With Current Swell, Jordan Klassen, Dominique Fricot, Dear Rouge, Said the Whale, The Matinee, The Boom Booms, and more getting their break through the project, it was considered a success far beyond Vancouver alone. Plus, it paired artists together, including The Wild Romantics & SAVK and The Good For Grapes & The Royal Foundry, for songs you’d never have heard without this support.

End of an era

However, the PEAK Performance Project was only given a seven-year lifespan as part of its pledge to the CRTC to promote Canadian content. When that ended, Stanners tried to keep it alive, but it turned into a major fight, and it was obvious that it wasn’t going to happen.

“The senior management had changed, and it was just different, I thought, for a while to continue to keep that local focus, that community focus, that we’ve really been able to grow, but I could see that things were changing, and I’m not much of a fighter,” she said, adding she felt it was time to leave.

Years later, and still very much a music fan, Stanners spoke to Daily Hive about the health of Vancouver’s alternative scene.

“It’s always something that I wonder about because I do still go to shows where there aren’t a lot of people and wonder, ‘Okay, how do we get the word out?’ Is it that people don’t care?” she asked.

She says the world has changed, adding that radio stations with reach have to pick up the slack and remember their roots.

“I hope that this new PEAK takes heart, you know, and shares this incredible gift of a megaphone that they have with artists that could really use the help. I mean, I listened, and I heard my friends Hotel Mira and Fake Shark and Mother Mother, and that’s awesome. It would be so wonderful if they could get behind the next round of up-and-coming bands, too. I’d love it. It would be dreamy.”

“I just look at this world where I kind of feel like radio has this opportunity to be the Wild West again, where you know you can do anything you want. You really can; you can do anything you want,” she said.

“Where Great Music Lives”

For those within the industry, that freedom might have been crushed. One of the major barriers now is that radio’s listener base has taken a massive hit overall, and its advertising sales have been gutted practically in half as a result.

You can hear the impacts on most radio stations, with popular personalities replaced by less experienced “fresh” voices. Many local segments and news that were once 24/7 have segments or shows being simulcast out of Toronto (or the states), where the mentions of the Blue Jays aren’t the only giveaways that you’re no longer listening to the same station you thought you knew.

Efforts to save money and decrease the overhead are happening everywhere.

James says the station is no exception.

“What the general public thinks is good radio and what actually works to get ratings are kind of two different things.”

“There is a bit of a misnomer about, you know, why radio stations do what they do. Why do you play the same songs over and over again? Why do you change formats? I get it from the outside looking in. It’s like, you know, ‘What are you guys crazy? You could play 3,000 songs instead of 500,’ but, you know, the truth is… the average person listens for 15 minutes at a time, and they just want to hear the song that they know. So that’s kind of the battle we’re up against.”

The future

Among the biggest questions that music fans have expressed is whether The PEAK will bring back The PEAK Performance Project?

“In 2024, we don’t have that level of funding to invest, but we do have a way to use our transmitter and our audience to help propel artists, and the PEAK is — even after being off the air — quite an influential radio station in the North American spectrum.”

That includes investing in local artists and in programs like Band of the Month.

“We get behind an artist and play them, an unsigned artist, and that will help them. We know that we’ve seen it, and that’s where we think we can shine is by, you know, every month, spotlighting a band, playing a song on the radio, supporting your shows, having them in our Peak Lounge, which we’ve kept going and are going to be reigniting, not just for signed bands or bands that have records deals but for also for indie bands and local bands,” he said.

The welcome back party for the Peak Lounge is on

102.7 THE PEAK/Facebook

“I hope that people see that side of it as valuable because it’s not something any radio station needs to do to get an audience. It’s something we want to do because we think the artist community needs it, and we want to try and support it as best we can with the tools we have,” he said.

Even with Jim Pattison, one of BC’s richest men, behind them, he says they can’t spend money like crazy.

“The number one thing for the PEAK is to serve the audience. The musicians and the bands are important too, but we need to serve the audience, and that’s our number one focus,” he said.

“It’s still a business.”

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