40 years on air and still going strong
Tim Denis wasn’t always the voice of Niagara.
Decades before his smooth baritone voice was a daily staple for radio listeners, Dennis was ducking flying beer bottles and playing a guitar at a bar in Dunnville.
“It was place we called The Bucket of Blood,” says Denis. “They would throw stuff at you on stage. It was a place where we’d go on for half an hour, and then the strippers would come on for half an hour, and you knew (the audience) weren’t there for us. It would be one of those days when you said, ‘I don’t think I am going to make a living doing this.’”
The Bucket of Blood wasn’t the high point of his music career. Shortly after a brief stint in radio, Denis and his band travelled to Nashville to record an album during the heyday of Kenny Rogers’ foray into pop music. He even rubbed shoulders with an up and coming Shania Twain.
“I sang, played guitar, played the piano,” he says. “Whatever got us hired. We had a repertoire so that if we were at a country bar, we would play country. If it was pop, we could play the pop stuff, or the rock stuff.”
But even while in Nashville, Denis wasn’t far from radio. Between performances and recording sessions, Denis worked for local Nashville radio stations to pay the bills.
Music, it turned out, was just a detour. Denis was meant for broadcasting.
Come September, the 58-year-old father of six will have been on the air for 40 years, the past 22 of them spent behind the microphone at Newstalk 610 CKTB in St. Catharines
“I got into it because I spent my life with a transistor radio under my pillow when I was a kid, pretending I was the disc jockey, and fell in love with the idea of having a show for myself,” he says. “And I’ve held onto that.”
Today, listeners know Denis as the voice of morning news radio in St. Catharines. But his first on-air iteration was closer to Johnny Fever from the TV comedy WKRP in Cincinnati than Edward R. Murrow.
His first radio show was at a music station in Simcoe, where he spun records.
“I was Johnny Fever. And Venus Flytrap. I was picking my own music, playing vinyl records and tapes and I was a one-man show,” he says. “When I started in Simcoe I was doing music, news, sports and vacuuming when I was finished.”
Still, Denis couldn’t resist the temptation to editorialize about current events — something frowned upon in the world of disc jockeys.
Knowing they couldn’t entirely restrain him, Denis’s producers allowed him two minutes every day to talk about the news, a short burst of commentary that pushed him toward moving his career in a different direction.
“I looked at myself in 1995, and I couldn’t see myself as a 50-year-old jock. I am watching it burn out a lot of the guys I knew and the music part of it changing so much I didn’t want to be part of it,” he says. “I thought I wanted to try something different and, in some ways, grow up.”
Denis got his shot in 1995 when CKTB hired him to do an afternoon show. But he wasn’t ready to a host a program that didn’t rely on music.
“I had no idea what I was in for,” he says. “It was noon to 6 p.m. with no producers, no call screening and no news person in the afternoon. It was just me and a microphone, and after about three days I wanted to kill myself.”
Denis says he took his cues from the Larry King late night talk show. No disc jockeys or music. Just interesting guests and great interviews.
“So that is what I started to do, and it hooked me,” he says. “I started getting feedback, calls started coming in, and I started having fun.”
Eventually, Denis became a mainstay at CKTB. His show has survived seven ownership changes and deep staff cuts.
He’s heard the people predict the death of talk radio for almost as many years as he has been on the air. But he is still there every morning from 5:30 to 9.
“AM radio continues to survive because it has got a local connection that you cannot get in podcasts,” he says. “There is a personal connection I have always loved because people get to know you in a way you cannot find in anything that is recorded ahead of time because listeners know, intrinsically, that you are not there on the other side of the radio talking to them.”
Being a trusted voice comes with a particular responsibility to offer facts instead of easy, gut reactions to current events, Denis says.
“There is a responsibly, particularly lately, to be as accurate as humanly possible when you are doing live radio, and not just knee-jerk react to things, To check sources, to look into where these reports are coming from,” he says.
Being that trusted source also provides him with a platform to strike a blow for causes that mean something to him and his family, Denis says.
For years, for instance, Denis has been a spokesperson for the annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser for the Gillian’s Place women’s shelter in St. Catharines, a cause important to him and his six daughters.
“It is not that it’s something I feel I have to do, but I’m grateful to be in a position to do it,” he says.