"We're serving the music, and that's a wonderful thing to do"
Had things gone differently, Holger Petersen (Radio and Television Arts ’70) might have been a dental technologist.
Unsure of what to do after graduating from Bonnie Doon High School, he was told by a student counsellor that he might consider a career working with teeth, as described in a NAIT course catalogue.
Thankfully, Petersen didn’t listen. Influenced by the British Invasion, and so by the blues and roots that influenced that seminal era of rock music, he flipped through that catalogue to land on Radio and Television. Jerry Forbes, then general manager at CHED and father of a classmate named Marty (who’d become a media mogul, too), wrote a letter that helped get Petersen into the program.
He sunk his teeth in, and never let go.
This year, long after starting at CKUA as a volunteer during his first year at NAIT, Petersen celebrated 50 years on air as the host of Natch’l Blues, Canada’s longest-running blues and roots program. It’s a job that has seen him interview musicians ranging from B.B. King to Frank Zappa, co-found a record label, and earn a considerable number of awards, including being named to the Order of Canada and, in the coming January, to the Folk DJ Hall of Fame.
We caught up with Petersen following the anniversary bash at the CKUA station, where the man who has always put music first was the centre of attention.
techlifetoday.ca: Was it strange at the celebration to have the spotlight shifted to you from the music?
Holger Petersen: I didn't really know everything that was going to happen until I walked in and there were all these people working away, setting things up. I walked in and saw posters of myself and they had a special beer, Natch’l Brew, that was made for the occasion. I guess all of a sudden I'm kind of like an elder person there.
When was your first show and what was it like?
It was in January of 1969. It was really scary.
Ed Kilpatrick, the program director at the time, knew that I was into blues. They had done a year-end show where various people at CKUA got together and talked about their favourite records. I was [volunteering] and was invited to [join in]. I pulled up a bunch of blues records that I liked and Ed was listening and he said, “Would you be interested in doing a blues show?” I said, "I’d love to."
When I started Natch’l Blues, I was 19. I remember hearing [a recording of] my first show and I just sounded horrible, and I apologized to Ed. He said, “You know, we know that you love this music and that's why you're here.” That was really affirmative.
You must have been the envy of your classmates, having your own radio show while you were at school.
That’s true. [But] it was a pretty natural thing. I had a little bit of training behind the mic and the board. [At school] I was broadcasting into the lunchroom; we had a little booth and that was NAIT Radio. I also started writing for the NAIT Nugget in fall of ’68.
If it wasn't for NAIT and CKUA I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today.
I'm very grateful. If it wasn't for NAIT and CKUA I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today, I don't think.
When you first started with Natch’l Blues, what were your hopes for the show?
I was always inspired by the music, so I just wanted the opportunity to share that. As far as expectations go, I didn't really have many. You're just hoping that you get the show renewed! Who thinks ahead too much, you know?
You mentioned fear in the early days. I wonder when you overcame that.
I think there's still an element there, depending on who you're going to interview. You want to spend time in advance, being as prepared as you can. I think that's how you overcome part of that [fear], by feeling confident.
Who were the interviewees that made you feel most intimidated before meeting them?
All the early ones! But I would say probably Frank Zappa. I think it was 1971 that they were in town for a show at the Kinsmen Field House.
[That] was a scary proposition for me because I was such a big fan. I knew the records really well, but I also knew that Zappa was tough on interviewers, and at one point he had bonked an interviewer on the head with a microphone. So I thought, Well, as long as he's not going to bonk me on the head, I'll be doing all right.
How did it go?
He was very kind. I went to their hotel for the interview and he was there with [bandmates] Flo and Eddie, and Ian Underwood. And they said, “Let's go to your radio station.” So I said, "OK." We jumped in the car – I had a 1963 Valiant or whatever it was.
I can't remember if it was Flo or Eddie, but one of them was filming with a Super 8 camera. So I think there's some footage of me and Frank Zappa walking down Jasper Avenue, somewhere in the world. I remember he had a very thick Russian novel that he was carrying around.
There's some footage of me and Frank Zappa walking down Jasper Avenue, somewhere in the world.
Your show has evolved over 50 years. How do you think you’ve changed?
You bring different things to it. I think there's more of a sense of purpose … to share that spotlight with up-and-comers and people putting out new records. I think we're all kind of serving the music, and that's a wonderful thing to do.
Why has Edmonton been a good place for you to do this for so long?
Historically, CKUA has really played a large role. It's 92 years old now. It's offered such eclectic music and I think it has the second-largest record library in Canada. So you've had all that great music available to the announcers over the years.
Would you like to keep doing this for awhile?
Radio is something I want to continue as long as they'll have me.
My mentor was [CKUA manager] Jack Hagerman, the man who hosted The Old Disc Jockey. He passed away earlier this year, which was so unfortunate. He was the mentor for most of us at CKUA. It was always wonderful to run into him on a night [when] I'd be going in to pre-record a show or something. He'd be there, full of enthusiasm, spending hours cleaning up old 78s and programming the very best take on a big band tune from the ’30s or whatever.
And he loved it. He was well into official retirement, but to be able to have the opportunity to continue to play music and share music, why would you want to retire from that?