Stephen Stohn’s Pioneering Spirit

From Trent Radio and Arthur to The Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame.

The following came from the October edition of TRENT Magazine.  Be sure to read the entire edition online today.  And check back here for exclusive content that you won't find in the magazine.

Today he is the executive producer of Degrassi, a former longtime executive producer of the Juno Awards, and the president of Epitome Picture.  Flash back almost 50 years and Stephen Stohn was a fresh-faced kid trying to figure out how a radio studio was supposed to work.

As one of the creators of Radio Free Arthur – soon to be Trent Radio – the learning curve was steep.

“We really had no clue of what a radio station was or how we were supposed to do things,” he recalls.  “Peter Northrop had the language lab set up in the library and there was a recording booth there with a 4-track tape recorder.  We didn’t know how to be announcers, we didn’t know how to breathe on air, we knew nothing about programming.”

True to form, though, the younger Stohn had an ear for matching his product to his market.  He and his colleagues did a university-wide survey to decide upon optimal programming for the fledgling station.  In the early days, they followed this survey stringently.

“We followed it to the letter,” he laughs today.  “If 17% of respondents wanted jazz, we tried to make sure that 17% of what was on the air was jazz.”

Those early days featured reels of tape spooling to the floor as they tried to get good takes, sprinting these tapes across town to CKPT AM and CHEX FM by bike, and generally a whole lot of chaos for a considerably limited audience.

“Our programming ran on Sunday evenings – I think from 7-11pm.  And it wasn’t like Trent Radio today, where you turn it on anytime and there it is.  You had to tune in specifically for us.  Which is probably why it was aired on Sunday nights.  I mean, who listens to radio on Sunday nights?  I think there were probably three people tuning in – and we may have boosted that to 30.”

Known as a Canadian media giant now, Stohn was a Trent media mogul in the 60’s.  Along with Trent Radio, he was one of the founders of Arthur newspaper – even giving the paper its name.

“It was just called ‘The Trent Newsletter’ at the time” he remembers.  “And people were insisting that it had to have a real name.  And yet none stuck, so each week we would come up with a new one.  Names ranged from the Trent Telegram – which wouldn’t be bad – to the Stoney Creek Gazette to The Stentorian – and I’ve never even figured out what Stentorian even mean.  One week, my friend, Geoffrey O’Brien ’66, and I were working on the paper.  It was 1am and everything was delayed.  We were finishing the front page and still didn’t have a name.  Geoffrey asked what we were going to do, and I replied ‘let’s call it Arthur.’”

The name came from Stohn’s love of The Beatles.  In particular, it comes from George Harrison’s quip in the Hard Days Night movie that his shaggy Beatle haircut was, in fact, named Arthur.  You can be sure that both Harrison and Stohn had tongues firmly in cheek.

“Geoffrey and I roared with laughter at that – we were tired and punch-drunk – and didn’t think the name would even last a second edition, let alone almost 50 years.”

At the same time, he was a contributing member of the Trent and Peterborough music scenes – teaming up with good friend (and eventual #1 Billboard hit writer) Christopher Ward.  But where Ward was making more serious folk music, the Stohn/Ward duo were another matter entirely.

“We created our own fictional group, Cookies and Milk,” says Stohn with a mischievous smile.  “One of us was Captain Cookies and the other was Major Milk – we never said which one of us was which.  That remains a mystery to this day.”

The duo would steer their music away from the mainstream – taking an Everly Brothers song, for instance, and adding some high falsetto harmonies.

“We carried this on, even after we left university,” he notes.  “We spent a year travelling Europe in a Volkswagon Van and ended up playing songs in various locations – including on a U.S. Destroyer and the Playboy Club in Ankara, Turkey.”

As songwriters, Ward and Stohn would go on to collaborate on a couple of modest musical successes – “Once in A Longtime” and “Maybe Your Heart,” both charted in Canada.

It was this passion in songwriting that led him to help form the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) – a group that aimed to develop and financially nurture the creative process of Canadian composers, songwriters, and lyricists.

“Songwriters are a downtrodden, lonely lot.  They tend not to be really strong when it comes to standing up and lobbying for their own rights. They tend to be more withdrawn.  They tend to be really into their art – which is exactly the way they should be.”

By the time that Stohn had become a founding Board member for SAC, he was already a young lawyer with a keen interest in the entertainment field – and he was looking to help strengthen Canada’s copyright laws, which he found to be “woefully weak.”  The organization that he helped found has helped countless songwriters ever since.

And while interested in shining the light on songwriters, he also carved a niche promoting the best in Canadian musical performance as a longtime executive producer for the annual Juno Awards.  At the same time, he was a director and then chair of the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Although he has produced a number of network television shows, including Instant Star, the L.A. Complex and Riverdale, Stohn is probably best known for his role as executive producer of Degrassi: The Next Generation.  At 500 episodes in, he’s once again at the forefront of emerging media.  Degrassi has just made the leap from traditional television to the Netflix stream.

Along the way, Stohn has been showered with awards and accolades, including 24 Canadian Screen Award/Gemini nominations (with 11 wins), four Emmy nominations, a Peabody Award, and more. In 2011, he was inducted into the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame.

Earlier this year, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trent.  He looks back at his years here and can only describe them as ‘transformative.'

“I majored in philosophy and economics – two very disparate uses of language and ways of thinking – but that is the kind of thing that Trent really promoted, and still promotes.  You add in the extra-curriculars onto that – working on the radio station and the newspaper, as well as all the social events – and your mind starts working in whole new ways.  We used to call it a Rennaisance mode of thinking – it really is the Trent way of thinking.  And I think it is quite unique.  That has been a foundation for everything else I’ve done for the rest of my life.”

Stohn will be back at Trent next month to deliver an impressive donation to the university – a million dollar gift that will enhance student lives through the creation of the new student centre

He feels honoured by the opportunity to give.

“The fact is that I have been given the opportunity to ‘pay back and pay forward’ for an early experience which shaped my life and career.”

While here, he’ll be spending a week as alumnus in residence at Champlain College – a stay he is most excited about.  While Stohn regularly communicates with members of the Trent community, it’s not often he gets to interact in person.

“I love social media and digital interaction, but there’s nothing like face-to-face get-togethers.  In my producing and legal career I’ve benefitted from being surrounded by extremely talented and grounded young people – many of whom are the same age as most Trent students – and are just starting the great path through their lives.  I’m a huge fan of mentoring, and not just because it’s good for those who are being mentored. It’s equally as good for those who are mentoring.  It’s a chance to revisit my own experiences and worldviews in the light of fresh and entirely open-minded questioning.  Now, the alumni-in-residence program is not mentoring in the traditional sense, but it certainly has many of the same elements. I’m looking forward to all the different chances for interactions with the students.  And on a more down-to-earth note, I’m really looking forward to the Escape Maze adventure, which I understand will be taking place on the Sunday afternoon!”

And, who knows, perhaps we can persuade him to start a show or two on Trent radio.  They’re always on the lookout for fresh new talent.

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