- Published on Friday, 31 January 2014 13:48 31 January 2014
- Written by JUSTIN WILSON JUSTIN WILSON
Calgary indie radio show host shifts focus from the airwaves to his health
It's Halloween, and Internet radio host Bill Laplante is broadcasting his show Big Bill's Indie Underground live from the Blind Beggar Pub. The broadcast marks the one-year anniversary of the show's official launch party.
Costumed attendees are flooding the Beggar for the 2013 Halloween Monster Jam, several of whom beeline it to Laplante, who is sitting just to the left of the stage, his long hair hanging from under his trademark black bandana. Behind an array of headphones, microphones, a mixer and a laptop decked out with the logos of several local bands, Laplante is in his comfort zone.
Many at the venue are musicians who have been guests on Laplante's local radio show. They've had their songs played, voices heard, engaged in serious discussions and told tasteless jokes, which Laplante says is the show's norm.
"I just hammered away with the idea of what I wanted it to be," 33-year-old Laplante says, enjoying the air on the Beggar's patio prior to the broadcast. "I was never trained or anything, I just went with it. I've always spoken from the heart. You're going to get some bad humour, some great humour, but mainly, you're going to get some really awesome tunes."
Laplante's on-air moniker is "The Big Man," and he owns it. Literally. The words are tattooed across his knuckles. Laplante says he has embraced his size, and it's hard not to smile at how he's made the name work for him.
This Halloween, the smiles on the faces of those around him convey the positivity the radio host is known for. But tonight's show carries more meaning than those of the past.
"I've got to say, it's been a while. I've missed this. I really enjoy doing this, but this is the second last one guys," Laplante says into his mic.
He's putting the show on hold. He has to.
No stranger to the hospital
Since 2005, Laplante has dealt with congenital heart failure, a diagnosed sleeping disorder, a systemic infection, the H1N1 influenza, and most recently, a hospital stay lasting several weeks caused by severe chest pain.
The stay put his health issues in perspective, and has pushed Laplante to start making changes.
"To be completely honest, I was too heavy to go on some of the machines to be tested," Laplante says. "They gave me morphine, antibiotics, blood thinners and oxygen. They put me on everything until basically they were like, 'we don't know what's wrong with you, but you need to sort your stuff out, because you're dying.' That scared me."
The Big Man's childhood
A born and raised Calgarian, Laplante says that the issues started at a young age. His father left when he was five-years-old, and Laplante says that he became a sad child who ate a lot, which according to a variety of sources, is a common reaction when dealing with loss.
Laplante lived with his mother in a Calgary housing project, while his father remained in his life from a distance. This, he says, is where he first learned about support and how to push through the hard times. Looking back, he says he only remembers there being one or two fathers in the entire complex.
"It was the norm," he says. "Moms trying to work hard to put food on the table for their kids, neighbours would lend each other stuff and we'd all pull together."
Laplante credits his mother, Eva, for getting him into music like the Eagles, Prince and the Doobie Brothers. He'd sit in his mom's 1980 Camaro — a car the family still owns — and drift off into his safe place.
Laplante's mother says that one of the biggest things she tried to instill in her son was positivity and knowing that he was always loved, even through the dark times.
"I was hurt, but I wasn't bitter," Laplante's mother says of her husband leaving. "I went on with my life because I had to. Everyday is a new day. That's what kept me positive. Having Billy kept me positive."
Regarding her son's decision to shift his focus from his radio show to his health, Laplante's mother says that radio will always be there, and once the Calgary music community understands why Laplante is doing what he's doing, his future is going to skyrocket.
"Your journey is your life, it's your health, it's your future and it's the most important thing that you have to do right now," she says.
A voice for change
When not invested in Calgary's local music scene, Laplante says he often turns his focus to social change. His church, Deer Park United, has opened the door for him to explore different ways of donating his time to different causes.
"Right now, we have a project where we're building water systems in Malawi. We do outreach with Inn From The Cold, and we also help out with the Calgary Food Bank," Laplante says.
He says he attributes his desire to help the food bank to the amount of times he and his family had to use it growing up.
Laplante's launch into web-based radio was on Feb. 1, 2008 with Big Bill's Flamecast, though the idea originated four years prior during the Calgary Flames Stanley Cup run in 2004.
"To be honest, the first hundred podcasts were horrible," says Laplante with a laugh. "But I've always been about not messing around. That's always been my thing. If the players sucked, I told people. It was about being real."
The podcast paved the way for Laplante to explore other topics on-air. He eventually began Bill's Happy Hour. The program, originally broadcast three times a week, explored everything from video games, to movies, to indie music. Since Big Bill's Indie Underground was launched in 2012, Happy Hour has become a special broadcast with no set time-slot.
Before Laplante's hiatus, he was doing five Indie Underground broadcasts a week, along with a weekend podcast.
Laplante says he expected a much smoother transition when switching his focus from Happy Hour to Indie Underground. In the initial stages, he says he would often go out of his way to be shocking to attract an audience.
"It was easier talking about video games and joking around with Happy Hour than it was to promote independent music," says Laplante. "I thought the audience would carry over, but there were two different audiences."
The difficulty with promoting independent music, he says, is that people want to know lyrics – familiarity is key for a large draw.
"That's why a lot of these terrestrial radio stations just over play the hell out of everything. They hammer it down your throat," says Laplante. "I don't do that to my audience."
Listeners as far away as the U.K. have heard Laplante broadcast from over 100 live events, with the primary venue being the Blind Beggar Pub.
Relationship with the Beggar
He says his broadcasts at the Beggar stemmed from a Shark Fin Free Calgary awareness event held at the bar in September of 2012.
Impressed by one of the bands, Laplante called the bar the day after the event to ask about booking them for a charity barbecue. Adam Gawryluk, the pub's general manager, answered the phone.
As it turned out, the band in question was Gawryluk's band, Bloom.
Bloom played the barbecue, and the two of them discussed bringing Laplante's broadcast to the Beggar.
"He brings an awesome presence," says Gawryluk "He brings a big smile, a lot of fun, energy and excitement. I love the fact that if you're the band in the room and he's got all his mics set up, he's going to make sure he gets everyone on the mic."
At the Halloween Monster Jam, that's exactly what Laplante is doing. Throughout the night, he seems to get almost everyone who says hi on the air.
The Halloween broadcast — the one marking his show's anniversary — was, for the time being, his last.
Until next time
With that sign off, his health officially became priority No.1.
Laplante says he is determined to reach his goals without surgery, something one of his doctors told him would be impossible. Laplante emphatically disagrees, as is evident by his use of profanity when mentioning said doctor.
"I can do this," says Laplante. "I've been able to do many things through will power and if someone tells me I can't do something, they can shut their mouths. I'm going to prove them wrong."
Laplante says he knows the process will be long, but with three near-death experiences attributed to his heart, he says he is more serious about making the change than he's ever been about radio.
"I started to go back to the YMCA. I'm swimming again, reading lots of books and researching foods," Laplante says. "I'm learning a lot about diets and what works for me. I have cut out all pop and chips, and all fast food. I have also started making my own food and eating lots of fresh, organic veggies."
Looking to the future, Laplante says he dreams of one day of owning a bar with a unique take on supporting local music. At this point, he is keeping the idea close to the chest.
For now, the Big Man will focus on his heart. And with how much of it he's been dedicating to Calgary music, the break is long overdue.
It has been over three months since Laplante's last sign-off. In that time he has continued swimming nearly every day, has become a member of two Calgary gyms and says he regularly spends upwards of two hours in an infrared sauna. Since ending his regular broadcasts from the Blind Beggar, he has cut out alcohol and pub food completely, something he deems responsible for the hoodie he now finds too big.
What choices have you made to stay healthy this year?