Denise Donlon is someone who gets the job done. Just ask anyone who’s worked with her.
A major force in Canada’s cultural industries, Donlon has had a huge impact on the media landscape as GM of CBC English Radio, President of Sony Music Canada, and various executive/on air/producer positions at ChumTelevision, including The NewMusic, MuchMusic and MuchMoreMusic.
Her storied career began while working at the University of Waterloo as a concert booker. Having no prior experience booking talent, Donlon quickly taught herself the ins and outs of the business. With an ambition of working in the music industry, Donlon was connected with entertainment agent Sam Feldman while attending an entertainment firm conference at the University.
Feldman recalled hearing stories of Donlon walking around the conference wearing a “for sale” sign and was impressed by her progressiveness. He organized a meeting and after several weeks of working with her, it was clear to him she was a woman of undeniable talent and character.
In 1985, after working for several years managing musicians, Donlon was hired as an Anchor for MuchMusic’s “Rockflash News.” By 1993 she was appointed Director of Music Programming for both MuchMusic and Citytv and was named Vice President and General Manager shortly thereafter.
“I hope that you have been able to use your powers for good. That’s all. That you’ve been able to make a positive contribution. That you’ve left the world a little better than you found it maybe.”
– Denise Donlon
At MuchMusic, Donlon made it her mission to bring Canadian talent to international audiences. She is credited with helping boost the careers of several Canadian artists such as Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip, Jann Arden, and Barenaked Ladies by successfully expanding MuchMusic’s reach to the U.S, Finland, and Argentina.
“I think when you meet Denise, the one thing you quickly realize is that this person can get shit done,” says former VP & GM of MuchMusic, David Kines. “She already had a great way of connecting with musicians so you layer on that new journalistic approach of The NewMusic and it was the perfect connection.”
During her time at MuchMusic, Donlon’s philanthropic spirit played an integral role in advancing MuchMusic’s humanitarian efforts. Donlon produced several programs with a focus on education and social justice, inspiring the entire station to donate their time and services to local Canadian charities.
“When we were starting War Child we heard ‘no’ more often than we heard ‘yes’ because we didn’t have a track record. We were very small, we were completely new. And [Donlon] was the first person who said ‘Ok, I’m in. Let’s do this,’” remembers Dr. Samantha Nutt, Founder & Executive Director of War Child Canada.
In 2000, Donlon left MuchMusic to become the first female president of Sony Music Canada. Donlon recalls the pressures of attending international meetings and having to represent Canada on a global level, “People would say ‘Denise, did you lean in? I was like, oh my God, I was leaning so far my feet were off the ground.”
Following her work at Sony, Donlon went to work at CBC where she continued to make an impact with her work. Donlon was praised for her efforts in protecting the smaller radio stations during a precarious time when cuts were being made. “She really defended, especially regional radio,” shares Host & Co-Producer of The Next Chapter on CBC Radio One, Shelagh Rogers. “She wanted to save it and she did.”
In 2018, Donlon was awarded The Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award in honour of her long standing commitment to the growth and development of Canadian music. As a talented and fearless leader, Donlon’s contributions have had a direct influence on the success of countless people in the industry.
“I hope that you have been able to use your powers for good. That’s all,” Donlon shared while reflecting on her career, “That you’ve been able to make a positive contribution. That you’ve left the world a little better than you found it maybe.”