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Radio host's program crosses every border: Grant Lawrence's CBC Radio 3 Podcast celebrates two million downloads by Lynn Mitges

Jun 1, 2006

Source : Vancouver Province

What you first notice when you walk into Grant Lawrence's place is that it's quiet. Wonderfully quiet, with only the sound of songbirds outside his windows.

Then you notice the albums -- hundreds and hundreds of them that take up most of a bookcase.

His life is music. As the host of the phenomenally successful CBC Radio 3 Podcast, he knows more about music and bands and eccentric band members than most of us. And for a guy who's spent his life around, in and feeding on music, you can cut him some slack for the music-free environment on his day off.

"When I got up today, I had to fight the urge to put on music," he says. "I'm around music six days a week."

Lawrence hosts not only this podcast, but CBC's live RadioSonic on Saturday nights, plus another gig on Sirius Satellite Radio on weekdays.

And in his free time he's a member of the Smugglers and has been for 18 years, although the band is in sort of semi-retirement now that its members all have regular day jobs. The band released eight full-length albums and toured North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.

"We were comfortably satisfied," he says. "It's a different chapter of life now."

The roving-band experience comes in handy because Lawrence knows what it's like to tour -- he's lived the horrors, the elated highs and the gut-wrenching lows that mark every band's existence.

"I didn't know it at the time," Lawrence says, "but it was setting me up for CBC."

As the host of the podcast, Lawrence plays selections from up-and-coming Canadian bands. From this show, bands such as Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene and Elliott Brood share their music around the world. Since the kickoff a year ago, the podcast has had more than two million downloads. But the coup is that more than 50 per cent of those are from outside Canada.

"We just got e-mailed from someone in Africa," says Lawrence. "We get them from Sidney, Copenhagen and New York City -- but we also get them from places like a uranium mine in the Gobi desert in Mongolia."

Lawrence says the response and success is amazing.

"Every since this launched, it has been the biggest thing I've ever been a part of in my life, whether it's journalistically, or musically, whatever," he says. "Two million downloads later, I never would have guessed it."

Consider that in late 2005, the noun "podcast" was added to the dictionary. Shortly after that, the iPod was recognized as the first iconic object of this century.

Timing is everything, says Lawrence.

The podcast zeal can be explained by these Canadian bands who want to be a part of this and who want to share their music around the world. (All music on the podcast is pod-safe and, as far as we know, no animals are harmed in the process.)

It's also Lawrence's love of music and attention to detail that creates a sense of community for ex-pat Canadians who are far from home but can download a piece of it.

Canadian talent explains the popularity outside North America, but local radio is largely to blame for the vacuum in this county.

"For whatever unknown reason, commercial radio isn't buying into the success of Canadian music beyond Nickelback and a few others," says Lawrence. "Rock radio just has its head buried so far up its ass."

Lawrence says Canadian independent music is at an all-time high, the strength of which can be measured far away from the schlock scale of commercial radio.

"What's driving this is the unbelievable Canadian renaissance of music," he says.

It's no anomaly, says Lawrence. Bands were forced to be insular because crossing the border into the U.S. was difficult. Or at least not as easy as touring from Halifax to Vancouver. But now these bands get a worldwide audience.

"This podcast crosses every bloody border."

Lawrence makes it his mission to offer little-known details or information about the bands. He admits he's anal-retentive about details -- research is approaching status as a secret weapon for Lawrence -- but also because he wants to get it right.

"I probably tend to over-research bands, which makes me put a lot of effort into the show."

Every band has a story and Lawrence likes to dig for it.

"It's one thing to play Canadian hip hop, it's another thing to play a Canadian hip-hop artist from Churchill, Manitoba, the polar-bear capital of the world."

This sense of place is a huge factor in the podcast and it resonates with every Canadian -- especially those living abroad.

Lawrence says he'll sometimes stare at the playlist and wonder: "What the hell am I going to say about these guys?"

But it's a phone call, a dig through a website or a Google, and he finds what he's looking for.

"There's always a story, an anecdote to tell, that can paint the picture for people."

After featuring more than 600 bands in his podcasts from the last year, Lawrence has a fear that the well will run dry. And just when he's about to despair, he finds something that blows him away -- such as the Victoria band Shapes and Sizes. Or the P.E.I. band, Smothered in Hugs.

"They're great -- really accomplished bands -- and it keeps my passion alive."

© Vancouver Province