Occupation: vice-president and general manager of MuchMusic Defining characteristics: bustle, social conscience, pop-music caregiver
Even in its quieter moments, the openfloor nerve centre of Much Music’s video empire is not for the faint of heart. Located in a funkified rococo building on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street, MuchMusic is what the word interactivity is all about. Rock videos blast from every conceivable corner and, of course, across the country on specialty channels. Pop stars troop through its glittered chambers. Teenagers are constantly smushing their faces against its storefront windows. Doctors, educators, rights activists are regular supplicants, trying to channel the power of Much for every good cause. “We had David Bowie here once and, of course, we were all gaga,” says Denise Donlon, the resident den mother. “I heard him call his manager and say, This is really great. But, you know, it all seems to be run by children.’ ’’
Donlon laughs at the recollection, a throaty, barrel-chested laugh that seems to reverberate from every part of her six-foot, one-inch frame. But this is no joke. She truly believes in the punch
line. MuchMusic grew out of television visionary Moses Znaimer’s eclectic empire and his passion for innovation. But it is innovation with a point of view: to have a TV enterprise run by enthusiasts, people who are more keen on the content than the technology. And Donlon, the woman credited with helping launch dozens of Canadian actsBlue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies among them-just because she believed in them, is chief enthusiast.
Donlon says she just happened to fall into this line of work. It was probably more of a lurch. While booking bands at the University of Waterloo in the mid-1970s, she discovered—when award-winning acts had to sleep on her dorm floor to make ends meet-that there was something seriously wrong with the business of music in Canada. So she set out to correct it. She organized a national conference of campus co-ordinators to hear directly from bands and booking agents (it’s now an annual event). She jettisoned her own Joni Mitchell ambitions (“reality set in”) and became a publicist, then a roadie, hauling out equipment and organizing events for a series of Vancouver-based acts. Then, when opportunity came and Znaimer offered her the reporting job on his New Music program, she balked. Fear of flying? “Yeah, I saw myself as a big,
ugly kid with a speech impediment.” She lisps, and she recalls the situation with such disarming sincerity that it is easy to see why Znaimer persevered and eventually gave her the keys to the playground.
Married to folksinger Murray McLauchlan (they have an eight-yearold son, Duncan), Donlon lives the boom-box life of the busy pop-music executive: frequent business trips to New York City or Buenos Aires to check on affiliates; reporting outings to Sierre Leone with camera crew and rap group in tow to package the horrors of west-
‘Sometimes out of naïveté can come purity/
ern Africa for the clicker generation. One part Peter Pan, one part pragmatic Wendy, Donlon says she gets her energy from her mother who overcame a life of hardship in England-abandoned by her family to a girl’s home for eight years-to start over in Canada and infuse her new family with dreams of the future. MuchMusic-popular music-is about dreams, too, of course. But it is also a way for the generations to interact, to share some of the same big-life ideas. MuchMusic’s goal, says Donlon, is to add context to the energy. “And sometimes,” she notes, almost wistfully, “out of naïveté can come purity.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.