Pizza Box Cadillac Radio Hour: Dissecting culture over the air-waves

Every week at 5:00 p.m., the hosts of the Pizza Box Cadillac Radio Hour provide a voice for art and culture in St. Catharines. The CFBU radio show is hosted by Dr. Dennis Soron, a sociology professor at Brock and Stephen Remus from the Niagara Artists Centre.

“Culture is a complicated word,” said Soron. “When we hear about a cultural plan we typically think of the arts in the narrow sense, but there is also this anthropological meaning of culture which encompasses our whole way of life. Our way of living together with a focus on the everyday habits and symbolic communications of people. There’s the restricted definition of culture which is just the arts and then there is a broader definition which include popular culture and the media, hobbies and other interests of people.”

The focus on a broad sense of art and culture has driven the show since its conception in 2012 at a film house programming conference. Every segment of the show is designed with this important detail in mind.

“We were both members of the Niagara Artists Centre, so it heavily slanted towards that, but we wanted to come up with a show that was irreverent and broke down some of the elitist stigma surrounding the arts,” said Soron. “The notion that they are stuffy and only meant for a certain class of people and so on. That’s reflected in the title of the show itself which is a bit over the top. Steve came up with the idea because years ago he knew a street artist living in downtown St. Catharines that made money by selling model cars he made out of re purposed cardboard from pizza boxes. It captured this non-elitist idea of culture that we were trying to focus on. It seems silly at first glance but it does have a meaning behind it.”

The show is designed in the fashion of old radio shows, featuring different segments each time the show airs. A prime example of this is the segment titled “Data the Comedy Robot”.

“Our initial idea was to have a lot of different segments and have that feel of a variety show that switches from one segment to another,” said Soron. “I was trying to think of things we could have as segment and remember watching a TV comedy show one night and thinking about how kind of stale and formulaic it was. I recalled reading earlier about a Grad student who invented a robot that could do comedy, and I thought it would be funny to write a script and have it done text-to-speech style. It kind of used that news item as inspiration to point out the formulaic nature of stand up comedy. Comedy gets so boiled down to a formula that even a robot could do it.”

“Data” is just one of the many segments that make up the week-to-week programming of the show. Every week is something different but it is always focussed on culture and the arts.

“Most weeks will feature an interview with somebody who has done something notable,” said Soron. “They’ve published a book or are mounting a play or their band is playing here that weekend. In some cases we broaden out. I’ve done a number of telephone interviews with various people who have published books of general interest, who aren’t from St. Catharines but people may be interested in. We’ve also just taken our microphones out to event and interviewed people like vendors at the market, or Dave, the bartender at The Office about the community that has formed there. It’s just broadly focussed on culture. Most weeks it is someone doing art but there are also a lot of cases when it’s not. We’ve had fishing enthusiasts, journalists, Captain Video, academics from Brock, you name it.”

It has been a challenge to encompass all of St. Catharines’ culture into an hour of radio each week, but the Pizza Box Cadillac Radio Hour is doing its best to stay true to St. Catharines’ culture.

“We live in a working-class city,” said Soron. “Statistically, we are one of the lowest income cities in Ontario and have one of the lowest averages for education attainment. I think sometimes discussion of culture in the sense of the arts tends to glaze over that, pretending that we are all upper class people heading out for a night at the opera. One thing we try to do in the show is give a focus to that unpolished, working class culture in Niagara. We have a segment sometimes called Tales of the Trade where we interview tradesmen about their stories from being in a trade over the years. The happenings at their job and the crazy things they have seen. In general we try to bring a critical sensibility to our discussions. We live in a blue collar town and even if the arts redefine what downtown is, I think it would be a loss to forget about the nature of St. Catharines as a whole.”

For Soron, the most important part of running a cultural radio show in St. Catharines is providing the growing arts scene with the community awareness it needs to continue its steady rise.

“There are things in our city that we aren’t even aware of. There are a lot of things going on in St.Catharines but they aren’t always as easy to access as they would be in other cities like Toronto where you open a magazine and see a hundred different interesting thing to do that evening. There is a vibrant creative community here that could use more attention from the broader community. Maybe the new Performing Arts Centre downtown will help remove the boundaries around the downtown. For years, downtown area had been seen as a dead zone surrounded by highways and the majority of the population live in the north end and have lurid ideas of downtown that it’s this haven of vice and crime. Maybe as people start coming downtown more for the arts that boundary will erode and local artists will gain a larger audience,” said Soron.

Why choose radio as the medium to support culture with given its decline in recent years? Dennis Soron provided insight: “We tend to think of radio as a medium that has been left behind by other more immersive forms of media but I think there is an intimate quality to radio that is quite valuable. It’s the kind of thing that you can listen to while driving or doing dishes or you’re just occupied with something else. In lots of parts of the world, radio is still a primary form of media. I think mainstream radio has suffered a lot from over consolidation and the application of an industrial model to its production. Things like stations that play the same six songs on rotation all day or have more commercials than music. I think community radio stations such as CFBU are important institutions because they give people in the community an outlet in cases where otherwise they wouldn’t have one.”

To continue his explanation, Soron explained, “Being part of a show that’s under-the-radar on a small radio station has its benefits. You can get away with a lot, but people also tend to not take it seriously so sometimes you’ll have a guest lined up who won’t show. Sometimes we end up winging it or using previously recorded segments. The best part of the show is the range of people you get to meet who are doing interesting things in the city.”

Most of all, Soron and Remus are using radio to promote and inform St.Catharines residents about the emerging art scene.

“There is a large boost in the creative culture in St. Catharines right now and we’re trying to create this artistic culture downtown, but a lot of people I know who are actually in the cultural centre find it hard to get a lot of interest in what they are doing sometimes,” said Soron. “Community radio is more accessible and certainly fills a niche in culture media and exposure. It’s exposure for arts and culture, which is different than just selling tickets to an event. It’s a struggle for a lot of groups to get the coverage they deserve.”

To hear the Pizza Box Cadillac Radio Hour on CFBU you can either tune in into 103.7 FM at 5:00 p.m. every Friday or check it out online at cfbu.ca

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