40 Years Later, 'Brave New Waves' Still Reverberates Through Canadian Underground Music

How the CBC's way to fill dead air became a beacon for boundary-pushing sounds

BY Daniel SylvesterPublished Feb 1, 2024

"Promised You a Miracle" is perhaps the most ideal yet unexpected soundtrack to start a revolution. On the one hand, it's a miracle that two public radio employees could push through 35 hours a week of challenging and subversive programming during the era of Mulroney, Reagan and Thatcher; on the other, the UK hit from Simple Minds that heralded the arrival of CBC's new late-night lineup didn't do justice to the cutting-edge and avant-garde radio that would define its next two decades.

Conceived 40 years ago and debuting nationally on Monday, February 6, 1984, Brave New Waves didn't exactly spring from CBC's commitment to bringing diverse voices to Canada's national radio airwaves — but rather its need to fill dead air space.

Speaking with Exclaim!, Augusta La Paix paraphrases a memo sent out to CBC Stereo employees in late 1983: "'We have to put something on the air from midnight to six, because we're going to lose our rights to overnight programming if we don't.' Then, of course, [it] finished by saying, 'We have no money.'"

A fill-in host for CBC's Morningside, La Paix seized the opportunity, explaining that she and Daybreak writer Alan Conter would "dream about how wonderful it'd be to do something really interesting and unusual in radio."

Conter tells Exclaim!, "One day she walked by my office and said, in her cryptic kind of way, 'The revolution has started.'"

Over several wine-fuelled brainstorming sessions, La Paix and Conter put together a pilot that countered CBC's populist music tastes and formatted interview style. "We felt that they didn't give the listener much in terms of getting a sense of who people really are," says Conter. "So, we thought we would build a show around contemporary music and conversation."

Green-lit just two months before launch date, La Paix's and Conter's vision needed to materialize quickly. "The first thing we did was scramble to put together a staff," explains Conter. "We lured Sophia Hadzipetros and Dave Ryan to jump on board, and we hired Brent [Bambury] as a researcher." Freelancer Philip Szporer would also join the team, while Kevin Komoda (of synthpop band Rational Youth) later came on board as programmer and producer.

Fresh off CBC's afternoon show in Saint John, Hadzipetros tells Exclaim! she couldn't pass on the offer: "I normally wouldn't leave a job that soon, but it was something new and exciting and different, and I had to be a part of it."

Months before MuchMusic premiered, and years before modern rock radio would expand outside Toronto, Brave New Waves gave a national ear to sounds rarely found outside the perimeters of university campuses.

Launched simultaneously, CBC's weekend counterpart Night Lines showcased international new wave from Elvis Costello and INXS alongside breaking Canadian artists Rheostatics and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. But Brave New Waves would delve deeper into the underground, showcasing avant-jazz like Jean Derome and electroacoustic composers like Norma Beecroft late into its initial 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. time slot.

"We were experimental from the get-go," beams Conter. "We started our first hour with what, at the time, would've been referred to as new wave. We built a kind of network of alternative, punk, post-punk, and independent music in Canada." Musical guests would perform and chat live right from their Montreal studio, with Augusta and Alan citing Skinny Puppy, Billy Bragg and Laurie Anderson as highlights. 

Filling five nights a week with new music would prove challenging for any broadcaster, but Conter and La Paix had a wide-lens vision for the program. "We wanted to create a place — not a show, not interviews," says Augusta. "A place that you could meet people who were really interesting, even if you weren't particularly interested in who they were."

Hadzipetros, who was largely responsible for booking guests, often looked beyond the world of music, inviting authors, filmmakers and even hairdressers onto the program. "We'd have such a mix of ordinary people and stars," she says. "They were usually paired with someone that there was some connection but that they didn't know. One of my favourite pairings was Timothy Findley and Eartha Kitt. It turned out he was a big fan of hers, and she came in a prima donna with her little dog. And within minutes they were fast friends."

After laying down the format that would define Brave New Waves, La Paix would soon grow restless, departing the show after just 18 months to host CBC's Two New Hours. "It was a fairly long pregnancy," laughs Augusta. "I'm very good at beginnings and endings; I'm not very good in the middle. I get bored."

Occasional fill-in host Brent Bambury seemed like the natural choice to take over La Paix's chair. "Augusta was enormously influential on me as a broadcaster, and I thought she was enormously cool and witty and funny. Plus, I love the music of the show," Bambury tells Exclaim!

With Conter and Hadzipetros continuing to work behind the scenes, Brave New Waves managed to keep grasp of its eccentricities, with the only shift coming from Bambury's on-air approach, which differed from that of La Paix. "They're like night and day. Although they're both so strong, he's more of a populist," says Hadzipetros. "The pairings were an Augusta thing much more than a Brent thing."

Despite Bambury's cheerful demeanour, the new host ensured Brave New Waves reflected — or perhaps acted as a fulcrum to — the changing times. "The Cold War was still on, there was the miner strike in England, and there was the AIDS crisis," adds Bambury. "So, the show was lefty and queer and extremely in-your-face with politics, and I really didn't have a sense of how of how it could be anything else."

Even as word of mouth grew the audience to include more than just underground music obsessives and nursing mothers, Brave New Waves wasn't a priority for the higher-ups at the CBC. "I don't know why they let it continue because I know that we irritated them," says Bambury. "They never understood the show, so it was never overfunded, but it was never championed."

If the CBC wasn't taking interest at this juncture, the program's critics certainly were. "There was [an Edmonton] Sun columnist who hated us; Dave Billington," says Conter. "He kept referring to the show as anarchic with radical lesbians and pornographic. There was also a manager of CBC Radio in Alberta who ordered his overnight tech to record the program to see whether there was any stuff he could complain about."

But it took a 1986 visit from firebrand activist and performance artist Karen Finley to truly catch the CBC's (and the House of Commons') attention. "Her performances were very sexual and explicit, but this was radio so there were no visuals involved," explains Conter. "She wasn't inserting the yam into her vagina, as she would do on stage. I got a call from the police in Alberta, and I thought, 'Oh my God, we're gonna be charged with obscenity.' But charges would never be filed."

After Conter departed the following year, Bambury continued hosting until 1995, when he pivoted to CBC Television's Midday. "I was kind of fried," Brent says. "I thought, 'I'm not willing to do this on a shoestring forever.'" And with Bambury gone, the reigns would again pass on to a fill-in host, Patti Schmidt.  

As budget cuts began to affect Brave New Waves, Schmidt — a McGill graduate who played an instrumental role at their station, CKUT — would be forced to run the program like college radio. "When Brent was there, it was six support staff, including a technician," Schmidt tells Exclaim!. "When the cuts came and he left, it was down to three."

While La Paix and Bambury approached their hosting duties from a broadcasting perspective, Schmidt came directly from the underground music scene — weaned on zines, college radio and Brave New Waves itself. "I had stumbled across [the program] without really understanding the context of the CBC," adds Patti. "I was astonished by the professionalism of it, even at 17 or 18. They were doing a profile on Nick Cave, like public broadcaster style, and I was like 'Oh my God.'"

Starting as a writer and researcher, Schmidt took the program's playlists into even bolder territories, often dedicating airtime to 90-minute profiles and sessions on IDM artists like Aphex Twin and Lowfish, experimentalists like Jim O'Rourke and John Oswald, sleek indie rockers like Stereolab and Mecca Normal, and backpacking hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Kid Koala. "It was important to always be on the move," says Schmidt. "There's so much creation and productivity — why wouldn't you give it away to something new?"

As the age of streaming music, YouTube and podcasting started to emerge, the CBC brass began to look into who was still listening and who had tuned out. "The drums started getting really loud at the end of 2005. They were doing surveys, and they went into six people's houses and discovered, 'Oh my God, they're listening to classical music and Blue Rodeo.' We could see this one coming, and this one really seemed like it was super real."

Schmidt continues, "My heart was starting to break in 2006 when I found out that all the contracts of the writers and researchers were not going to be renewed."

Seeing the writing on the wall, Schmidt would forge ahead and record the final episode of Brave New Waves in secret. William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops — an ambient composition characterized by eerie crackles and hiss caused by the magnetic tape corroding in real time — would close off the program's 22 years. "I played it because it was metaphoric," clarifies Schmidt.

A zombified version of the program would run until March 2007, held together by guest hosts and reruns. But Schmidt's final episode from the previous May essentially marked the end of Brave New Waves.

Even though CBC failed to air-check and provide a library of episodes, the program lives on through a community of amateur archivists. Alan Kollins, who began recording shows while attending the University of Victoria, has uploaded dozens of programs and segments to digital library site Internet Archives. "I had roughly 50 cassettes to mine through," Kollins tells Exclaim! "This was an added benefit of the project, revisiting episodes I adored some 20 years ago."

In the 17 years since its end, Brave New Waves' focus on diverse voices and sounds still permeates through modern Canadian music programming and journalism. Grant Lawrence, longtime CBC broadcaster says, "My host was Brent Bambury for sure; he had the coolest voice." As host of CBC Radio 3, Lawrence would choose Calgary hip-hop duo Dragon Fli Empire to kick off the network's first-ever podcast. "I would often think to myself, 'What would Brent Banbury choose here to kick this one off?'"

Host of the Kreative Kontrol podcast (and an Exclaim! contributor) Vish Khanna credits Schmidt with introducing him to "a universe of music and a style of broadcasting.'" He remembers, "One summer in my mid-teens, it was hot so I decided to sleep in the basement, and I brought a radio with me. I heard something that sounded cool. It turned out it was Butterglory, and the voice that told me this was Patti Schmidt's. Changed me forever."

Most importantly, the undying legacy of Brave New Waves lives on through countless listeners who discovered a gateway into underground culture that was exceedingly insightful, revolutionary and downright brave.

"Oh my God, can you imagine having a national radio program?" says Schmidt. "It was my passion to show people portals that had been shown to me that changed my life."

Bambury adds, "Today if someone comes up to me and says, 'Are you Brent?' the next thing that they say is, 'I just want to say that Brave New Waves is really important to me.'"

"It still stuns me that people remember those 18 months when I was there" concludes La Paix. "Isn't that a really wonderful thing to happen?"

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