The House That John Built

Trent Radio's veteran eccentric, John Muir

John Muir (photo by Bryan Reid)
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If a radio station is broadcasting, but no one’s tuned in to hear it, does it make a sound?

When the station in question is Trent Radio, the answer depends on who you ask, and when. If you asked the average Peterborian, they might not be able to tell you where Trent Radio is on the dial, let alone on a map.

The organization rarely draws attention to itself. You don’t see ads on buses or in local papers, urging you to tune in. A few times a year, the staff and equipment venture out into the city to broadcast from summer street festivals and block parties, or onto the little patch of grass outside Trent Radio House at the corner of Parkhill and George for the annual Radio on the Lawn. But for the most part, Trent Radio lives in its red brick century home, chatting away merrily to itself.

John Muir (photo by Bryan Reid)“By keeping Trent Radio small and unimportant, we can offer the programmers freedom to be big and important.” That’s John Muir, Trent Radio’s General Manager. While he isn’t the sole architect of Trent Radio’s construction, much of its current organizational structure is by his design.

He, however, describes himself as simply “the last man standing.” John was one of the original members of Trent University’s AV club, back when Trent Radio operated out of a closet in the school’s basement. As his original colleagues moved away or became too busy with paid work, John was the one left “holding the pieces together,” as Trent Radio’s production manager Jill Staveley puts it.

When I arrived at John’s home to interview him for this story, he was dressed in a pink polo shirt and not much else. His hair, probably his most defining physical characteristic, sprouts wild and grey from his head, untended for unknown years, but probably dating back to at least the 60s, when, in central Ontario, letting your hair grow out at all was an act of rebellion.

This wildness extends to the operation of Trent Radio, which has very little say in the content of any programmer’s show. In fact, the organization is officially a registered charity that just happens to run a radio station. Trent Radio itself broadcasts nothing. Instead, producers speaking on air must be sure to say that they are “broadcasting through the facilities of Trent Radio” and never that they are broadcasting as Trent Radio, or even so much as suggest that Trent Radio is a radio station instead of a broadcasting facility.

The difference in phrasing is small, but it allows immense freedom. Instead of emulating a commercial station as many campus and community radio stations do, instead of acting as a sort of career training ground for the arguably stagnant radio industry, Trent Radio is free to develop individual voices. It is an organization that operates a radio station for the benefit of the radio producers—the people who show up with an idea for a show and the commitment to make it happen every week—and not for the listeners.

“Sometimes new programmers, or new student presidents, or even staff ask why we aren’t charting the songs we play, or why aren’t we selling merchandise, why aren’t we doing more this or that,” says Production Manager Jill Staveley. “But John is the one who knows. Every decision that has happened here has happened for a very specific reason.”

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These decisions often have to do with John’s notions of accountability and individuality. He spent his formative years in a British boarding school where, unlike the magically charming adventures of a certain famous boy wizard, students were expected to do menial labor as part of their education, and were publicly caned by the administration if they misbehaved. While most syrup-blooded Canadian kids have at least experienced what it’s like to wash their own camp dishes, the corporal punishment regime of the old world seems unbelievably draconian to most modern minds.

Yet John’s experience was a positive one. “It saved my life. It’s changed now, but at the time, as strict as it was, the British education system was very concerned about the individual and what that person could do for the world. It pushed you to find out what your talents are, and made you develop them. Everyone has a talent or something to offer the world, and they helped you hone it and bring it out.”

John Muir (photo by Bryan Reid)John does the same thing for Trent Radio novices, like me. Nearly three years ago, when I was producing my first show, John arrived on some unrelated errand but took the time to sit down with me and talk. This was not just a nicety; he knew I was new, and wanted to figure me out. He wanted to “know my brain” as he puts it now. He asked probing questions that built on the information he had already gathered, and asked my opinion on my own biographical data to better know my personality.

If someone else did this I would call it an interrogation, but John is an effortless interviewer. His voice is naturally honeyed, or perhaps this quality has been cultivated through years of warm, on-air repartee. Juxtaposed against his eccentric looks—”I’m pro-eccentric,” he says, gesturing to his attire but speaking about his management style—he strikes me as the loudest quiet person I’ve ever known.

If you visit Trent Radio House around 1pm on any weekday, you’d find yourself smack in the middle of the station’s homey kitchen, where a half dozen or more Trent Radio and Sadleir House employees, volunteers, and transients are holding a half dozen or more conversations over lunch while a radio plays the facility’s broadcast, volume cranked but, for the moment, ignored. You’d be forced to admit then that in fact, Trent Radio makes quite a bit of sound.

These communal lunches are not happy accidents, but are by mandate. The luncheoners all chafe at the use of that word, mandate; if you’ve voluntarily joined a cult, you probably enjoy the commandments. If you work at Trent Radio, you must eat your lunch at the same time as everyone else, at the same table as everyone else. It is in this way that Trent Radio community is built. No matter how busy you are, you are required to sit down across from another busy human being for an hour. With work forbidden, you must find other uses of your time. So you talk. You talk about the station’s business, you talk about your personal life, you gossip and gripe and confide, and while you walk away without having done any work, you’ve deepened your connection with other members of your community whether you wanted to or not.

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After school, John hung out in London’s Soho arts district and got a job using an ancient technique as viable today as it was then: he loitered in bars until strangers became friends and those friends hired him. He learned audio tech for events and live bands, setting up for big names like the Beach Boys. Though he valued his unofficial apprenticeship, he “began to feel alienated, before that was even a word I’d heard. The British identity, the British problems, didn’t feel like they were mine.”

So he moved back to Canada, enrolled at Trent University, and joined the AV club that ran Trent Radio, unwittingly laying the rails the rest of his life would travel on.

John Muir (photo by Bryan Reid)Even after leaving Trent Radio for a career in television production, the radio station—sorry, broadcast facility—practically begged him to return when they suddenly lost their general manager. He refused several times before negotiating for “total fucking power,” which in his mind meant his own office where he could smoke cigarettes with impunity. He lit his next cigarette with his old one, only needing a lighter once a day. He had a fan blowing out his window even in the dead of winter. That office is still stained yellow.

John qualifies his “total fucking power” by explaining, “Power is something other people give you. You can’t actually take it. You surf on the goodwill of others.”

Lots of others had a hand in making the station what it is today, but John was the champion of the producer-oriented ideal. “John wants it to be commercial radio from the 30s: an endless live variety show,” says James Kerr, Trent Radio’s Program Director from 2008 to 2016.

“He managed by setting you up and getting out of your way. When I worked there, the day-to-day operations largely fell to me, but John collected and energized the weirdos. I would do the technical training but John would do the philosophy. There would be some training sessions that he would take over and just talk. No one would learn anything about using the radio but they would be so jazzed to do radio. He deep-ends people, not in the hope that they will survive, but that they will drown and learn from the experience of drowning,”

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These are noble intentions, but Muir is fast to admit his policies are not always popular, most notably concerning the idea of safe spaces.

“I’m becoming creeped out by the idea of safe space. I like people being safe in dangerous places.” This philosophy manifests itself physically in some of Trent Radio’s siege defenses. There are doors that lock simply by closing them, so that a lone radio producer can barricade themselves inside and call for help should they feel the need. There are peep holes and secret door switches, lists of numbers to call in case of an emergency. Programmers are equipped to steer their own ship through the waters of a sometimes tumultuous city.

John’s concept of safe space doesn’t address the more systemic aspects of the idea. A locked door is great against an armed assailant but it doesn’t stop you from being harassed at school or work, any more than a peephole stops someone from screaming epithets at you from the back seat of a moving car. He could be, and has been in the past, accused of running things like an old-fashioned boys club, if not in demographics than at least in his antiquated British “suck it up, soldier” tone.

John Muir (photo by Bryan Reid)And he’s had his share of critics, even among his admirers. “I’ve never been as mad at a person I wasn’t married to,” Kerr jokes. There was even period in the 70s (during his hiatus from the station, mind you) when what Muir labels a “corrosive sort of feminism” led a movement of students to try to get access to Trent Radio broadcast archives in order to destroy the ones they considered sexist. “They tried to make Trent Radio comply with their worldview. They eventually left,” he laughs“Students are like locusts,” he laughs. “Good or bad, they come and do their thing and then they’re gone.”

John doesn’t think censorship is a valid tool of accountability. “People who don’t want free speech are performing an act of self harm, because they are limiting their community. The ‘others’ have as much right to breathe the air. They live in the same city you do. How do you deal with that? I don’t have an answer. I see people look at me and wilt because they wish I wouldn’t say these things. Let’s say you have control of the idiots for 24 hours. What are you going to do with them? Do they get to eat? Sleep? Who are you to decide? Let them talk. I want idiots to expose themselves and I want them to suffer the consequences when their communities hear what they say. But it only works if there’s accountability. Names you can put to faces that you recognize.”

These are noble ideas, but they might not be enough. A quick glance at your newsfeed will tell you that the consequences of idiocy exposed are in fact often nonexistent. Communities, be they schools, police districts, cities, or entire nations, will not automatically restore themselves to a moral baseline everyone can agree on, simply because their extremists are exposed. Who accounts for the unaccountable?

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These are problems beyond the scope of one human being and the radio station—sorry, broadcast facility—he helped build. They are however topics that belong to radio producers, beyond the reach of editorial meddling. John is in the twilight of his career, taking ever more steps back from the microphones to focus on his health and on his young family, which he started late in life after pouring most of his personal and financial resources into Trent Radio.

I asked him, and others, what they see in Trent Radio’s future, after he leaves for good. With podcasting’s emergence as a prominent medium, and YouTube channels surpassing the most popular television shows in viewership, I’m worried that soon, our community radio station won’t have anyone around to listen to it.

James Kerr shares my concerns about Trent Radio after Muir. “In all honesty, I don’t know if it could survive. You need an acolyte. That’s too much to ask of one person. It’s like passing a spiritual tradition. Once the people who knew John move on, it might not survive. Other people will have their own ideas.”

John Muir (photo by Bryan Reid)But John barely answers me. “I’m afraid, but who isn’t? Individuals are what make the world great, not policies.”

Certainly, over its lifespan, Trent Radio has done a lot to promote those great Peterborough individuals. Nearly every person featured in this magazine has at one time or another had their voice or their work broadcast through Trent Radio’s facilities, reaching any radio tuned to 92.7FM within a half-hour’s drive of the city.

However, back in the house on the busy corner, they’d almost prefer if you didn’t listen. Instead, they’d like to get you through the screened-in smoking porch, through the kitchen, and into the studio. Even if every radio in the world were turned off, everyone at the station would hear the sound you made.

 

Photos by Bryan Reid.

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Chris Lawson

Chris Lawson

gumroad.com
@ChrisMLawson

Chris Lawson reads books on the radio and mostly writes comics about dogs which his wife has to edit and his dogs have to pose for.