Don Berns, CFNY Legend Passes Away

Toronto, ON, Canada / 102.1 the Edge
Don Berns, CFNY Legend Passes Away

Goddammit. F**K! We’ve lost another one.

Don Berns, the former program director (1987-88), assistant PD and music director (1985-87) and on-air personality (1985-92) from CFNY’s Spirit of Radio years has died. Word is that he suffered a heart attack yesterday afternoon (Sunday, March 1). He was found by friend at his home in Caledon yesterday (Sunday, March 1) afternoon. He was 67.

I last saw Don just before Christmas at a gathering of people who work for a voice talent agency. He gave me a big hug and we spent the evening talking about radio, common friends and his acting career.  He was funny and gregarious as always. When we parted, we promised to keep in touch. Now this.

There are plenty of tributes to Don on his Facebook page and on the page set up for the Spirit of Radio fan group. There’s more to be found on the NuMuzk page.

Don was American by birth–New England, actually–and after founding the campus radio station WBRU at Brown University, he became a legendary Top 40 AM DJ working at dozens of radio stations from Providence to Try to Albany to Buffalo to Kansas City to Dallas to Pittsburgh to San Diego. Here’s a selection of Berns doing his thing on the legendary WKBW/Buffalo in the early 70s. As you’re listening, scroll this interview he did in the early 80s about personality radio.

Here’s another thing you might not have known about Don: he recorded an album. It was under the name Ben Steele and his Bear Hans [sic] which featured Don singing album cuts from people ranging from Stevie Wonder to–wait for it–Barry Manilow.  Harry Chapin–yes, the “Taxi” guy–appeared on the album, too. That, for some reason, seems to have escaped the Internet’s notice. Anyone a have a copy?

It was CFNY architect David Marsden who finally  brought him to CFNY. After a management/format shakeup, he left the station to pursue other things, including a long stint as Dr. Trance (est. 1992), one of Toronto’s pioneering techno DJs–and that is a whole ‘nother story. Just ask any kid who got into the scene in the 90s and they’ll tell you that Dr. Trance was a Big Deal. He was to many the “Godfather of Toronto’s Rave Scene” and was behind some of the most memorable rave events the city ever saw.

Don was also the network voice for Global Television for many years and could also be heard voicing material for TSN. When he died, he was doing plenty of theatre and freelance voicework. Some of his stage roles including Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, Fagin in Oliver and–wait for it–Snoopy (!!!) inYou’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.

I met Don in September 1986 after I made a Hail Mary attempt to get hired at CFNY having made the final list of candidates, he arranged for me to fly in and out on a Sunday afternoon.  He picked me up at the airport in his brown Ford Taurus and immediately made me feel welcome. We went to straight to CFNY at 83 Kennedy Road South in Brampton where he and music assistant Kneale Mann subjected me to a series of musical tests. By the time all the interviews with him and David Marsden were over later in the day, the decision had been made to offer me the all night job. “Go home and think about it,” they said.

When I called the next morning to say that I was in, Don’s response was “Outstanding!” He used that word a lot back then.

When I arrived for my first day at the station on October 3, 1986, Don was there to greet me.

“Got a car? Good. We’re going to a General Public record release party at The Big Bop.”

“Who? And the what?”

“The Big Bop. It’s downtown at Queen and Bathurst. Don’t worry. You’ll get to know the place. Think of this as the start of your CFNY musical education.”

I found my way from Brampton into the city and made my way into a packed club where Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger were holding court with Don acting as the MC. Before he opened up to questions from the floor, he pointed at me from the stage and introduced me to the crowd, saying that I was the newest member of the “CFNY family.” It was my first exposure to the ‘NY audience.

Anyone who knew Don knew that he could be, er, prickly.  But even his occasionally explosive temper was fun.

Back in those days, the announcers picked a lot of our own music for our shows.  We noted what songs we’d played by writing the date on a sticker placed on the record. Each announcer had their own specific coloured felt pen, so everyone knew at what time of day any song was played. As the overnight guy, my colour was green. The rule was that NO ONE was supposed to take the coloured pens out of the control room, ever.

One day, Don was doing his afternoon shift and discovered that his coloured pen–I think it might have been red–was missing from the glass o’ pens next to the console. Nothing irritated him more. Later that afternoon, Don issued a memo saying that anyone caught taking the coloured felts out of the control room would be fired immediately. Classic.

It’s hard to believe today, but in the 80s you could smoke in the control room. Don often had two or three Marlboro Reds going at the same time in multiple ashtrays as he set up his mixes on the three turntables and three CD players. The person who followed him had to fight their way through plumes of blue smoke that hung in the air for hours.

Funny, but I never knew his middle name was Stuart.

I have lots of Berns stories, but they can wait. Dammit, I’m going to miss the man. We all are.

Don Berns (2009)

That’s Don at Martin Streek’s memorial, July 2009.

There was be a small invitation-only funeral on Friday, March 6. Condolences and memories can be forwarded through Humphrey Funeral Home.  My wife and I were there and through the almost two-hour event, there was almost nothing but laughter. And I mean real laughter.

Comedian and friend (42 years!) Eddy Dobosiewicz MCed the afternoon beginning with the words “I’ve done some tough gigs. And I’ve played Attica.” From there, it was story after story, tribute after tribute. And damn, it was fun. For me, the most touching moment came when a friend from Don’s theatre troup asked the audience to give him one last standing ovation. So we stood, facing the box that contained Don’s ashes and gave him the kind of send-off he would have loved.

Don Berns memorial 1

 

Don Berns memorial 3

 

Don Berns memorial 3a

 

Don Berns memorial 4

One more thing: does anyone have any airchecks of Don from the CFNY era? It would be fitting tribute if they were put up on Soundcloud so we could all hear the man’s voice again. Here’s a good start from the Spirit of Radio fan page. (Thanks to Scott for this.)

Here’s an obituary from the Buffalo news. I like how it mentions the “smaller stations” Don worked for in Toronto. (Thanks to Alan in the UK for this.)

Don Berns - Buffalo News obit