While attending a joint honours program in Environmental Studies and Psychology at the University of Waterloo, Donlon booked bands for university events and coordinated national conferences for university entertainment firms. In the 1980s, she opened a music publicity agency in Vancouver and gained firsthand experience in tour management, public relations, and record label administration. She helped manage musicians as an assistant to entertainment agent Sam Feldman, and began touring North America and Europe with various Canadian rock bands, including Doug and the Slugs and the Headpins.
In 1985, Citytv hired Donlon to anchor MuchMusic’s “Rockflash News.” From 1986 to 1993, she produced and hosted MuchMusic’s “The New Music,” and in 1992 the program garnered a Gemini Award for Best Light Information Series. Donlon won another Gemini in 1995 for the network’s coverage of the 1993 federal election. Also in 1993, Moses Znaimer appointed her as director of music programming for both MuchMusic and Citytv, a position she held until 1997, when she was named vice president and general manager.
At MuchMusic, Donlon was determined to bring Canadian music to a larger and more international audience. Knowing that MuchMusic was not just viewed in Canada but also in three times as many homes in the US, she seized the opportunity to export Canadian culture. By providing airplay, she helped launch and build the careers of such Canadian musical acts as Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip, Jann Arden, and Barenaked Ladies. She also played a key role in expanding MuchMusic’s reach to countries such as Finland and Argentina.
In addition to marketing music, Donlon produced programming with an educational and socially conscious angle. “The New Music” regularly featured episodes that focused on AIDS, the environment, and world issues. She prepared “The New Music” special “In Your Face: Violence in Music,” which received the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival’s Golden Sheaf Award for Best Documentary by a Broadcaster, in 1993.
To further develop media literacy skills in young people, Donlon started the panel discussion program “Too Much 4 Much,” which promoted debate on images of violence, racism and sexism in music videos. She also promoted teenage literacy by creating “Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘n’ Reading,” which featured prominent rock musicians discussing their favourite books. Literacy advocate Peter Gzowski called the show “a stroke of genius,” and in 1993 Donlon was awarded the first Peter Gzowski/ABC Canada Award for Literacy.
An advocate for freedom of social expression, Donlon was involved in MuchMusic becoming the first broadcaster represented in the Toronto gay pride parade. Her special program “Vote with a Vengeance” aimed to raise political awareness among youth. In 2000, she travelled to Sierra Leone, Thailand, and Burma as a field producer for the documentary “Musicians in the War Zone,” co-produced with War Child Canada.
In spite of MuchMusic’s popularity, Donlon believed one music channel could not truly serve the needs of both teenage and adult audiences. In 1998, she was instrumental in establishing MuchMoreMusic, or M3, a video channel created specifically for adult listeners and musical acts.
Music Company Executive and Public Broadcaster
In 2000, Donlon left MuchMusic to become the first female president of Sony Music Canada. In this position, she continued to promote emerging Canadian talent and work with internationally established Canadian artists such as Leonard Cohen and Céline Dion. She also maintained her commitment to human rights by producing the gold-certified benefit album Peace Songs (2003) in support of War Child Canada.
Donlon left Sony Music in 2004 after it merged with BMG Music. She became actively involved in Music Industry Coalition, which lobbied the federal government for copyright reform and achieved renewed funding for Canadian music initiatives through the Department of Heritage. Donlon served as the executive director of CBC Radio from September 2008 to July 2011. During her tenure, CBC Radio was twice named Broadcaster of the Year by the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promo Awards.
In 2012, Donlon produced and hosted a War Child Canada documentary focused on Uganda called “Access to Justice.” In 2013, she co-produced and co-hosted The Zoomer on Vision TV.
Continuing with her humanitarian efforts, Donlon was involved in Canada’s portion of Live 8 (a worldwide series of benefit concerts in support of Make Poverty History) and the Concert of Hope, which was a worldwide fundraiser to provide aid and disaster relief for the victims of the 2004 Tsunami. She also produced a 2008 charity event for the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, which raised money to improve health care, education and the environment in developing nations.
Donlon has been the chair of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, co-chair of the Canadian Music Council, and a committee member for the Nature Conservancy of Canada as well as Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. She has served on the boards of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), Canada’s Walk of Fame, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Foundation, the Peter Gzowski Foundation for Literacy, and MusiCounts. Donlon received the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the 2018 Juno Awards in recognition of her contributions “to the growth and development of the Canadian music industry.”
Donlon married Canadian singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan in 1990. The biographical documentary “Ms Much: The Life and Times of Denise Donlon,” was broadcast by CBC Television’s “Life and Times” program in 2000. Her memoir, Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances), was published by House of Anansi Press in 2016.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
- Best Light Information Series (“The New Music”), Gemini Awards (1993)
- Video Personality or Programmer of the Year, The Record (1994)
- Broadcast Executive of the Year, Canadian Music Week Industry Awards (1994, 1995 & 1997)
- Best Special Events Coverage (Election Night ’93), Gemini Awards (1995)
- Outstanding Achievement Award, Women in Film & Television (WIFT) Toronto (1997)
- Woman of Vision Award, Wired Women (2001)
- Woman of the Year Award, Canadian Women in Communications (2001)
- Hall of Fame Inductee, Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame (2002)
- Member, Order of Canada (2004)
- Humanitarian Spirit Award, Canadian Music Week Industry Awards (2006)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Waterloo (2007)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Calgary (2007)
- Honorary Doctorate, Royal Conservatory of Music (2011)
- Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, Juno Awards (2018)