Home Feature Meet podcaster Cal Koat, who’s been promoting world music for more than...

Meet podcaster Cal Koat, who’s been promoting world music for more than 30 years

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Cal with Burning Spear.

For over 30 years, Vancouver’s Cal Koat has been programming and presenting music from all over the world on radio, TV and podcasts.

Often referred to as “world music,” a term that was popularized in the 1980s as a marketing category for non-western traditional music, much of it defies categorization.

It sits outside of the knowledge and sphere of influence of mainstream music production and promotion.

Cal’s focus is on what he has come to define as “worldbeat” music, and we start with him offering an explanation of what that means to him and to his many listeners.

Cal at the Dragon Boat Festival, where he could often be found hosting world music showcases.

“I’ve always thought of what I do as a way of helping people dip their foot in the water,” he said.

“It’s a bit like what labels such as Putumayo World Music do. They release music from different countries in sampler albums and they give you a little bit of information to help you get intrigued by it.

“In my case I have to have stuff that has an element of western accessibility to it — and listeners who have an element of… I guess you can say ‘ethnic curiosity.’ So that’s where my head is at. That’s what I’m trying to do in introducing people to the whole idea of world music. I think ‘worldbeat’ better defines what I do, because it suggests it’s something that you can immediately start to bop your head to. It’s accessible, not something that’s going to sound so unfamiliar and strange that people will just abandon it immediately. So I’m just trying to get people interested in global music in a world where sometimes it seems like everybody’s kind of playing the same thing a lot of the time. There is room for something completely different, and I’m trying to fill that void.”

For a guy who is a self-confessed rocker, it may seem odd that he’s ended up as a worldbeat music DJ, presenter and programmer. So how did he get from there to here?

“I’m not a folkie,” Cal said.

“Simon Emmerson from Afro-Celt Sound System told me, ‘Listen. We weren’t the ones who were screaming Judas when Dylan pulled out the electric guitar right?!’ Most of my broadcasting career has been spent in multicultural radio. Each community would get allocated a certain amount of airtime. If it’s a big community, like the Chinese community or the Indian community in Vancouver, they got more time. If it was a small community, say like the Finnish community, then they only got a little bit of time.

“The other aspect was that the station had to have a percentage of Canadian talent featured, and they were using stuff from an old library that was really, really out of date. I thought there had to be a better way of doing this, so I started a program called Crossing Cultures. I used local acts like Asza and Silk Road Music. Then I expanded into Celtic music with bands like the Paperboys. Then one day I got this CD on my desk, and it was from Real World Records, and it was by Abdel Ali Slimani. It was Algerian, and I thought wow! This is not only culturally significant; it’s also cutting edge. No wonder people like Peter Gabriel and David Byrne and Paul Simon are all gravitating towards global music. There was some really interesting stuff going on, unlike what was happening in pop music at that time.

A clip of World.Beats hosted by Vanessa Tomasino

“So I started immersing myself in that, and then the station got the FM radio license. So I established The WorldBeat WakeUp, an early morning program of world music. We then went into a Caribbean program, which slid into a Latin American program and then into an Italian program, to try to encourage longer blocks of listening time and more cross-cultural interest from the general community.

After that, I found myself getting to do a television program called World.Beats, which was a music video MTV-style program, and that lasted through five seasons. After that five-year run, the station changed format to religious programming.I thought, ‘I must keep on doing something with this stuff,’ so then I started getting into podcasting.

It made sense for me because it was something I could do under my own power. Then Roundhouse Radio came on the scene in Vancouver. The founder, Don Schafer, liked what I was doing, so he brought me onto that station, and so I was on that platform for a while. Then that station turned out not to be profitable. Meanwhile, I had been continuing with podcasting, and now I have two podcasts. I have Celt in a Twist and Worldbeat Canada Radio. We do it like a mom-and-pop type of thing between myself and my wife, Patricia Fraser. She hosts the Celtic program, and I do the Worldbeat program and produce them both.”

Cal at the Harrison Festival of the Arts.

So how does Celtic music programming fit in with the Worldbeat theme?

“Celt in a Twist often features what I affectionately call ‘Celtronica,’ Cal said.

“So we play bands like the Peatbog Faeries from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. We also have the traditional element going. You’ll be interested yourself to know we will be playing Fear of Drinking this week — so, you know, it’s still nice to pull it from your own backyard too! [editor’s note: Fear of Drinking is the band led by Tim Readman, the author of this story] Broadcasters have a commitment through the CRTC to the Canadian government to broadcast to particular communities. With Celtic music, you can say, ‘Well there’s however many Celtic nations, and we are broadcasting to them all at once!’”

We talked about how the process of distribution works and approaches to getting the programs out to a wide market, in order to reach as many people as possible.

Cal with Natacha Atlas.

“Programs are syndicated into 25 different stations around Canada and the USA — mainly small community stations, campus radio [and] that kind of thing. There are ‘share sites’ for smaller broadcasters who can’t always produce their own programming. There’s a Canadian one called !earshot-Distro, and there’s an American one, so I send programs weekly to both of those, and then the broadcasters find the programming through there.”

It seems like these days everyone and their dog has a podcast, but Cal is keen to point out that he was way ahead of that curve and is still managing to ride the wave.

“When we started, we were innovators in developing podcasts,” he said.

“Now there are literally millions of people doing podcasts. Revenue streams are slim. There’s been some occasions where there have been tie-ins with some other agencies, but those opportunities are few and far between in terms of generating revenue through that means. Now I am 65, at this point, I’ve given up the thought of trying to make any real money. It’s more than a hobby though. I’ve probably got about 10,000 titles that I programmed and curated that are in programming scheduling software. So if somebody were to ask me, can we do a program, a global music radio show, I’ve got all the music necessary! I am still doing it because I think there’s value there. I do believe in the concept of cross-cultural programming, rather than just third language programs being directed to a specific community. I think if you open a window on the world, you can really generate interest among everybody and not just one specific community.

Cal at the Leo Awards, BC’s film and television awards.

“I enjoy the work, and I get really good feedback from listeners and from the industry itself. The record labels and people involved in promoting the music, they know who I am. If there’s something I need, I just have to ask. I probably get as many as a dozen albums a week — new releases. I go through and I listen to everything, and if it’s something I think will fit either program, then I’ll add it to the playlist rotation and start to give it some spins. Listeners can find the podcast on iTunes Canada, and I use a subscription-based service called Podbean — they get your podcasts up and available on the internet. They provide you with links and stuff, and then I take that in turn and put it up on social media, so the general public can get a hold of us through those general podcast distribution facilities.”

You can find lots more information about what’s going on with Cal by visiting his excellent website which is http://www.worldbeatinternational.com and scrolling down to the “sign up for our e-blast” section.

“The weekly email blast is a one-page newsletter, which has the playlists from both programs,” Cal explained.

A recent shot of Cal on the Aquabus between Granville Island and English Bay.

“It also has Album Cover of the Week and our monthly charts. There’s also a whole bunch of links to cool YouTube videos of Worldbeat and Celtic tunes. You get all of that straight into your inbox in your email. Both programs change over every week, so if you’re a weekend listener, you always find brand new material each week.”

As we part company, I find myself reflecting on how impressive it is to meet somebody with the fortitude and resilience to keep pushing, no matter what outrageous fortune may throw at you, because of a genuine love for music. As Cal himself said as we got to the end of this interview:

“The thing that triggers my interest, that makes me think that’s something I’d like to play, is when something just pricks up my ears and makes me say, ‘Wow!'” he said.

“Like the other day, I heard something by a Senegalese group, and it started off with tribal chanting and then suddenly this distorted guitar came in out of nowhere, and it just about ripped the top of my head off! So what I’m really looking for is something that makes me go, ‘Holy crap! I haven’t heard that before!’ And that’s why I go exploring. I love the idea of travelling the globe virtually through music.”

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