It’s not often that journalists, editors, and other newsroom dwellers find themselves performing under the bright lights of The Opera House. Founded in 2004 by reporter Jonathan Jenkins, the annual Battle of the Media Bands — aptly named “Newzapalooza” — has raised over $100,000 for the Children’s Aid Foundation, with no signs of slowing down. Bringing together members of Toronto’s largest news and media agencies in a night of friendly competition, seven bands graced the 2014 stage, among them The Screaming Headlines, Conrad Black Sabbath, and The Bulletin Kill. Although Jenkins sadly passed away in 2014, Newzapalooza will be continued by friends and colleagues eager to carry on his legacy of giving-back.
Selected for a Community Award at the Children’s Aid Foundation’s annual Recognition Night, we had the opportunity to chat with the Toronto Star’s Jim Rankin who also serves as a member of Newzapalooza’s planning committee. Here’s what he had to say:
Children’s Aid Foundation: How did Newzapalooza get started?
Jim Rankin: It began with Jonathan Jenkins who was an excellent reporter, journalist, and father of two. He had a love for music and performing live and wanted to create an event where he could perform live with a bunch of his peers. Thus was born the battle of the bands concept called ‘Newzapalooza’, and that was the first one to go on about 11 years ago. Jonathan and Natasha Granatstein co-founded the event and right off-the-bat picked a charity that could fit with the nature of the event and the fact that journalists cover some pretty sad and horrific stories around children in care and when things go wrong. There was a sense that we knew the Children’s Aid Foundation did this great work that helped these kids and provided funds for things that aren’t in the regular budget for children’s aid societies. Things like special programs and scholarships; I think it was an easy pick from the beginning and then it just grew from there. We’ve raised over $100,000 now from the 10 shows that we’ve done and it’s growing every year. We’re pretty happy with the way it’s gone.
CAF: How are the bands formed?
JR: Some bands were already there and when word got out the media outlets were going to flush them out into something that could be up on stage for 15 minutes, that’s how long they get to perform. And then in other cases, like The Star’s band, originally there was no band at all so we heard about the contest and there was a challenge to join it, and The Star created a band out of nothing. They did it in six weeks in the first year that the contest was on, which is pretty quick. It’s a combination of musical skills, guts, and showmanship. These media-types are able to forget their day jobs for a moment and get up on stage and become gods of rock – at least in their own minds.
CAF: What’s the best part about participating in Newzapalooza?
JR: Not being a musician or part of any band, it’s one of the most fun events that you can go to as a media and non-media person. It’s just the nature of the night. Media is a fairly tightknit community so you get to see everybody. Even as the business is suffering and shrinking, it’s a great opportunity to catch-up with people. It’s just a party, a real big party. People tend to really enjoy the night. The tickets aren’t hugely expensive but people plunk down their money and go even further with internal fundraising and draws and raffles. People are generous.
CAF: The Toronto Star has been a Newzapalooza winner four years straight. What’s the secret to success?
JR: Every year the judges are different. We ask them to judge on musicality and performance and showmanship, and The Star bands over the years brought stage presence and sort of set a precedent that if you want to win Newzapalooza, you have to think about dancers and entertaining the crowd. Music is important but almost as important is how much of a show you can put on, and they’ve been doing that consistently. Last year, one of the acts that I thought was the best in terms of showmanship was the National Post’s band Conrad Black Sabbath. They came out in robes with dramatic lighting — it was just really a great stage presence. And those are the acts that tend to do well.
CAF: How do community events impact a work culture?
JR: In this case, the bands want to play in a really cool venue but we also stress that this is a charity event, and that the bands themselves sell the tickets. They understand what the charity’s about and I think that helps with the connection; we’ve been selling more and more tickets each year. We stuck with the Children’s Aid Foundation as a charity because it really connects with people. If they don’t know what the CAF does, hopefully we’re letting them know through the event. The Community Award that’s being handed to the group of us is really a testament to Jonathan Jenkins and his vision for the event. It’s thanks to him that we’ve kept at it for this many years and we’re going to keep going at it in his memory. He probably wouldn’t want it any other way.