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John Martin didn’t have a face for television. Even his son allows that his father was “not a good-looking guy.” He was more the kind you would see in a pub, and to a large extent his life revolved around pubs. His former assistant jokes that he was a “ladies’ man”—with dreadful teeth.

Google doesn’t turn up much about him. But it would be unjust to overlook the significance of what the late Martin created behind the scenes of Canadian journalism and entertainment. Martin pioneered music journalism television in this country in the late 1970s, with the hour-long rockumentary show The NewMusic. He took the Rolling Stone magazine template—an intelligent focus on popular music, mixed with political and cultural commentary—and transferred it to television. The show predated the launch of MTV, and helped CHUM-owned Citytv push the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to green-light MuchMusic in 1984.

Martin was a visionary, but not one who demanded praise or accolades. His jovial character is what friends and co-workers remember. It’s been seven years since his death, but it’s important to put Martin back in the picture, to appreciate where TV music journalism got its start, and where it’s going today.

Martin meets Moses

Martin, a native of Manchester, England, came to Toronto in the early ’70s in pursuit of a young Canadian named Val Ross. They’d met while she was studying in London. (She would later write for Maclean’s and The Globe and Mail, before her death in 2008.) Their romantic relationship did not last, but Martin stayed in Canada anyway, pursuing television producing at the short-lived CBC show 90 Minutes Live, hosted by the late Peter Gzowski. After 90 Minuteswas cancelled in 1978, Martin became a cabbie, never abandoning his dream of starting a music documentary show.

Back in England, music interview shows had already taken shape. One in particular, Ready Steady Go!, gained a loyal audience during the swinging ’60s, largely due to the appealing young host. Cathy McGowan often showed her nerves, stumbled over lines, and had no background in journalism or broadcasting. She was a train wreck, yet became a massive hit. Audiences could identify with her genuineness. “McGowan-ism” became a model for what Martin wanted to bring to Canada and its music scene on television.

He shopped The NewMusic around to a number of stations, including CBC and CTV. But they all passed, not knowing what to make of it or what type of audience it would speak to. It wasn’t until Martin met with Moses Znaimer, the co-founder of Citytv, that he got a deal: Znaimer would take the show in half-hour segments on a trial basis if Martin would direct the 6 p.m. City newscast. The first episode aired on September 29, 1979, with hosts Jeanne Beker and John (J.D.) Roberts. It quickly caught fire and grew to be a one-hour show.

At a time when musicians didn’t undergo media training, Martin was able to present them to Canadians in the raw, and they would discuss anything, from their music to global politics. The breezy style of the hosts and formats was frowned upon by more traditional media. “I don’t think anyone in the early days took it seriously,” says Larry LeBlanc, one of Canada’s longest-serving music journalists, and a friend of Martin’s. “We didn’t see them as journalists. They were TV people. TV was not journalism and still isn’t journalism; it’s puff to a large degree.”

LeBlanc has been obsessed with music since booking bands in the early ’60s as a high school student. Since then, he’s written thousands of articles for most music publications, from Billboard to Rolling Stone, and has travelled the world surveying music culture. LeBlanc also does consulting work for Heritage Canada and was awarded the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the 2013 Juno awards in Regina. Despite his successes, LeBlanc remembers looking at The NewMusic (episodes of which he still has on Betamax tapes) with some resentment in its early days.

“They could get anyone we couldn’t get. They got to hang out with the artists, travel with them, take pictures, trips to Jamaica. Are you kidding? Complete jealousy,” says LeBlanc.

It wouldn’t have helped if LeBlanc had known the laissez-faire approach the rumpled Martin had to being a producer and boss. Most often he was at his “other office,” across the street—he hated the office environment, preferring the dark corners of a pub and the loud music from a subpar sound system. He was a walk across the street for his staff if there were pressing issues, which they accepted.

“I think it was really smart,” says Laurie Brown, former host of The NewMusic, and current host of The Signal on CBC Radio 2. “If you are making rock-and-roll television, you don’t want to sit around a place that makes you think you are working for OHIP.”

Martin wouldn’t breathe down the necks of those he hired. Instead, he let them put in their hours until they got it right.

In its infancy, The NewMusic had a shoestring budget. The joke among the staff was whether there was enough money for Post-It notes. Script approval and perfectly shot angles were of no concern. This was the age of experimental live television. “Sometimes it’s Iggy Pop trying to grab Jeanne Beker’s tits, other times it’s a really thoughtful quote from Pete Townshend,” recalls David Kines, former editor of The NewMusic.

Despite sneers from the print world and the show hosts’ natural growing pains—on live television—it was all according to Martin’s vision as he continued to experiment. The show was making up the rules along the way, playing less well-known genres such as jazz, reggae, and rap (which was still in its infancy, and considered a “fad” by some critics), giving the music industry a wider selection to present to Canadians.

Rock (TV) around the clock

Martin had his finger on the pulse of the underground music scene, and lived the lifestyle as much as he was documenting it on TV. It wasn’t uncommon to see Martin with bands like Motörhead after shows, sharing a laugh and a pint. Martin ran The NewMusic through personal relationships with artists and his English charm. He could make an impression on Van Morrison at social events, call him up a week later, reprise a joke they’d shared, and ask Morrison for an interview with no hesitation. He could do a special in Jamaica on the death of Bob Marley and persuade Ziggy Marley to do an interview by challenging him to a “football” dribbling contest, knowing what a fan Ziggy was of the beautiful game. But for Martin it wasn’t a matter of “he could.” Mostly, “he did,” and with success. Martin didn’t punch out at 5:01 p.m.; he was at it 24 hours a day. The crew would often be at a show and wait for the final encore to get the clearance for an interview. They wouldn’t end up at Citytv headquarters till 2 a.m. and would work on their tapes with editors throughout the night.

The aura around The NewMusic was enticing for both music fans and those who wanted to join the team. That team did expand and added depth with Daniel Richler, Laurie Brown, and Denise Donlon. Richler, a London-born Montrealer with big hair, made a demo tape and called Znaimer every week for six months until he finally got the position, working the alternative underground street beat. Brown, a Citytv film editor and actor, had some experience with television. Donlon joined the mix after working a show called Rockflash News.

Turning the amp to 11

Despite never blatantly having the label, The NewMusic was a sociopolitical show that encouraged the audience to think beyond the hit parade. The crew would use music as a springboard to talk about bigger issues, such as drug addiction and politics. To get those stories, however, hosts sometimes got too close to the rock-and-roll lifestyle.

“There was a lot of bad behaviour on a work trip,” Richler recalls. “We found ourselves inCocksucker Blues moments,” he says, referencing the raw and controversial 1972 Rolling Stones documentary. According to Richler, journalists reporting on the rock scene could sometimes end up being privy to unsavory behaviour. “What do you do with that footage? That’s something that troubled me a lot.”

In those situations, Martin sent the footage back to the band manager; he was not obsessed with gossip and up-skirt moments. He wanted a more collaborative approach, not an us-versus-them situation. Richler describes Martin as discreet and fair, making sure there were no victims. However, Richler does bring up a moral question that he had to deal with in his early days at The NewMusic as a music journalist: “Do you want to be a goody two-shoes when you are a journalist? When you see someone snorting cocaine are you going to call the police?”

By the time an entire new cast of The NewMusic debuted in 1984, MuchMusic had just launched. Znaimer and Martin smartly kept the two entities separate. MuchMusic provided nonstop fun devoid of criticism or music discourse, while The NewMusic became the place for serious music fans, where the questions they had could be answered.

Soon, The NewMusic was becoming a heavyweight, getting more and more syndication worldwide and gaining the credentials and respect of those in the music industry. Martin’s baby had grown up. But as the show moved into the ’90s, establishing its relevance to the Canadian and international music scene, the music industry was becoming savvy about how the TV medium could be advantageous to image, a vehicle to promote buzz around an act and generate sales. Substance wasn’t necessary for profit. Not all artists were choosing this route, and MuchMusic wasn’t only catering to what music executives wanted, but it was hard to ignore the strategy when the results were clear.

“Why would you want to sit down with a snotty [print] person when you could go on TV and control the medium and the image?” asks LeBlanc.

The end of a long, strange trip

Corporate culture went into full swing at MuchMusic. The station was no longer an adolescent, and moved past its experimental, awkward phase. It wanted to be taken seriously, and that meant branching out from the practices of its early days. No longer was it okay to be taking professional calls at a pub. By this time, the CHUM-City building had an extensive video vault of music and music-related shows. Why create new television when the company was sitting on years of content?

CHUM started relying on its archival footage instead of producing and airing new material. Martin was slowly being pushed out of an organization he helped create. Every fibre of his being rebelled against what the music industry and CHUM were turning into. His days at MuchMusic were numbered.

“It was very difficult for John; it was his baby—he was being asked to leave home,” says Bill Bobeck, a friend of Martin’s who worked in publicity at CHUM Television for more than 10 years.

Depending on whom you ask, Martin was either fighting for relevancy in a company that was changing every day or getting bored without even realizing it. He was in a rut and being forced into a desk job, which was making him crazy. Running a tab on Queen Street with a phone in his hand, Martin was still conducting business the way he had been doing all along. “John Martin was his own worst enemy,” says Ward. “He was very engaging. If you met him, you would have learned a lot and laughed a lot, but he didn’t help his own cause in a lot of ways because of his own personal behaviour.”

Martin was fired by CHUM in 1993, a tough break for someone going through a divorce and with a young son. There was no company going-away party. Instead, LeBlanc and Richard Flohil, who has been promoting Canadian music for decades, threw a party on the second floor of the El Mocambo. LeBlanc purchased a gold record for $65 and had it framed, with Martin’s picture in the middle, as a tribute to his contribution to the Canadian music industry. LeBlanc swears he still has the receipt somewhere.

The new NewMusic

Denise Donlon took over as director of programming, and The NewMusic got new hosts: Jana Lynne White, Avi Lewis, and George Stroumboulopoulos. Donlon calls this era “the drive to relevance,” as MuchMusic pushed shows that engaged audiences and artists in such issues such as HIV, censorship, and politics, coverage that led to MuchMusic winning a Gemini Award.

Under Donlon’s command, The NewMusic was syndicated in over 13 countries and found individuals like Avi Lewis, who had a political background and could tackle music from that perspective.

I meet Lewis at a quiet Roncesvalles Timothy’s on a mild afternoon. The coffee shop is full of regulars escaping the day with a newspaper or a book in hand. An old couple sits across from us, speaking in Polish, occasionally smiling and trying to listen in on our conversation.

Lewis got his start as a local news reporter at Citytv, and was approached by Znaimer to cover politics for MuchMusic. He extracted a promise from Znaimer that he if covered politics for MuchMusic, he could work on The NewMusic, a dream since he was 12 years old.

“My friends and I were rabid watchers. We didn’t make plans for Saturday night until after the show was over,” says Lewis. “Watching The NewMusic on Saturday night was beyond appointment TV, it was do-or-die TV.”

Lewis, who has hosted and created serious political shows for CBC and Al Jazeera English, remembers a MuchMusic with a corporate mandate, executives coming down from meetings and congratulating the crew for keeping “everyone happy today.” That was revealing, says Lewis. “What that meant was we kept all the different record companies happy that day and the management saw that as its role.”

With huge commercial interests beating down the door, the show rarely paid for trips and CDs. It was a trade-off for Lewis and his colleagues: For every item of music journalism, there would be promotion for a band or musician. Lewis proudly remembers going to South Africa and looking at the role of music after Nelson Mandela was elected. The flip side: His first big interview for The NewMusic was with Jon Bon Jovi, who was disappointed that he couldn’t sit across from a journalist whose breasts he could stare at; the piece was fluff. But that was the game Lewis had to play in order to get to the artists he felt mattered.

“Once in a while you got to do a story that you really liked. I got to interview Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which was one of the highlights of my life, forget my career.”

Despite artists often not being open to probing questions, The NewMusic asked anyway. Lewis remembers being very nervous before a David Bowie interview. As a long-time fan, Lewis felt that after the release of Scary Monsters, Bowie embarked on an entire decade of commercial records. Lewis knew he had to ask what the fuck happened.

“He was fantastic about it; he answered pretty honestly,” says Lewis. “Uncomfortable questions have to be embraced—not for the drama that they create, but if they need to be asked. Still, Lewis questions the level of music journalism that was accomplished during his time at The NewMusic.

“I want to be really clear. I am not saying that we didn’t do journalism,” he says. A little later, he elaborates: “We have to look at systems and structures in journalism because they determine so much of what is possible in journalism. What we look at right now is the crisis of journalism and the funding of journalism and how they make money online going to foundations for money; that has its own issues.”

Lewis left The NewMusic in 1998 and the show returned to a half-hour slot. As the years progressed, what had once made it special became ubiquitous, as analysis of music and social issues could increasingly be found online. Every music magazine was making these connections. Hannah Simone (currently playing the role of Cece Parekh on the hit TV show New Girl) was the final host before The NewMusic was cancelled in 2008. For many, it marked the end of an era.

The new NewMusic TV

Despite the dwindling of intelligent TV music journalism, some have continued to promote the genre. Aux TV, a Canadian music station founded by GlassBOX Television (now owned by Blue Ant Media), offers music documentaries and reviews. Launched in 2009 as a specialty channel catering to the 18-to-34 audience, it airs shows that take music fans behind the scenes. Hosts of music-related shows include Alan Cross and George Pettit of the band Alexisonfire. Aux can be viewed in over a million Canadian homes, but it isn’t part of basic cable packages, and carriers like Telus or Cogeco don’t carry it. But, according to Raja Khanna, co-CEO of Blue Ant, Aux TV didn’t start out wanting to gain mainstream Canadian attention.

“We launched Aux for music fans, for people who love music. Not people who just listen to music—that’s everybody,” says Khanna. “It was all about the real music fan.”

The heart and soul of the Aux brand lies in its website and digital publication, Aux Magazine, for iPad and iPhone. It’s obvious that care and extra planning go into the digital front. The first digital issue launched in June 2012, and despite being less than a year old, beat out the more established BBC Music and iGuitar to win the 2012 Digital Magazine Award for music magazine of the year. The website—the origin of the Aux brand—gets steady traffic, but according to Khanna, Aux has not gained a strong following in TV. He believes music fans are a “fickle thing” the station is still trying to figure out. “I am the first one to admit that we didn’t get it right.”

Khanna and his team have big plans for Aux TV, with a possible revamping of the whole TV model. The mantra is “Real Music Television,” and for Khanna, that means rethinking the channel’s purpose in today’s TV music culture.

“Music journalism on television has become a joke. Journalism is not the right word. It’s not even happening; it’s entertainment,” he says. Khanna, 39, who grew up on The NewMusic, attests that the show changed his life. He remembers almost every episode. “When we were cooking up the idea of Aux, we literally said the words, ‘We want to take what was The NewMusic and turn it into an entire channel,’” says Khanna. “For better or worse, that was our plan.”

The voice of the channel, Alan Cross, provides a degree of weight and legitimacy. Cross, now in his 50s, never intended to be a music journalist. But after lasting only 23 days as a news reporter, he realized he wanted to talk about and play music. He joined the CFNY radio team in 1986. In 1992, as CFNY was transitioning into “The Edge,” the station was looking to create a program segment with historical context. The only on-air personality with a history degree, Cross was chosen against his will and given an ultimatum: either do the show or get fired. “I had to really work hard to find information, to find stuff to write about,” says Cross. “After a while I found out I was actually really good at this, and I really enjoyed doing it.”

I meet Cross at Soho House Toronto. The private club for “creative types” in media, arts, and fashion is the most recent of the Soho Houses in the world. Antiques sprinkle the lounge; most could be props from an Indiana Jones film. We sit beside a black Steinway Boston piano between the entrance and the main bar. Cross, who recently got membership, is just as unfamiliar with the setting as I am. Despite his release from Corus Entertainment in 2011, he continues to work on a variation of his famous Ongoing History of New Music show (now entitled The Secret History of Rock) and has a close relationship with the Aux brand. When you talk to him about music and music journalism, he makes you care about it. He remembers The NewMusic vividly, and sees an uphill battle for smart music television today.

“The problem is that, like all news programs and documentaries, it’s expensive. It’s expensive to produce a documentary. Especially licensing audio and video is hideously expensive and it’s getting more expensive,” says Cross. “It’s very difficult to clear that video for broadcast, so it takes time, it takes effort, it takes people, it takes money.”

The lack of quality music television journalism is directly affecting the way we consume music. According to Cross, music, more than ever, is becoming more disposable, less savoured.

“What you end up doing is, with an iPod and a set of headphones, you end up sealing yourself in a bubble of music that you only find agreeable. There is no one taking you by the hand to say, ‘Hey, stupid, you need to listen to this, you need to pay attention to this or try this. I know it’s going to hurt at first, but you’ll thank me for it.’ I think it’s limiting people’s appreciation for music and limiting their musical experience.”

Cross would like to see a return to interviews done in more casual settings. It worked for The NewMusic and often led to interesting dynamics, as opposed to staged interviews. But, Cross says, it’s hard to rekindle what once was, especially with the current reality-TV culture. A&E, TLC, and History—with roots in promoting education and discourse about arts and culture—now rely on shows such as Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty.

“What happened to us?” he asks.

What’s happening now

NewMusic alumnus George Stroumboulopoulos hosted the show in 2000. He’s been preaching the importance of smart music and entertainment journalism for years. He has called the CBC home since 2005 and—much like The NewMusic—his show has switched from an hour to a half-hour format. At the time of our interview, his office was an explosion of Canadiana. Taking up all the real estate on his leather couch is a gritty painting of the Ontario flag. To the left, in front of his desk, is a box of knickknacks ranging from a Corner Gas mini-pump to a papier-mâché statue of himself. Behind him sits a bag of Holy Crap cereal that appeared on Dragons’ Den. Before our interview he pops open an energy drink, mentioning before taking a sip that it’s made by a Canadian company. The only exceptions to this patriotic theme are his desktop wallpaper of rap group Public Enemy and an Alexander Ovechkin hockey stick standing in the left corner. (Then again, the Ovi stick is made by Canadian company CCM.)

Stroumboulopoulos admits his first love was music radio. His mother often hid the TV in the closet and only let him watch on Friday nights. His first glimpse of music on television was The NewMusic; a twisted coat hanger served as the antenna and pliers turned the broken dial. He remembers the Jesus and Mary Chain, Grandmaster Flash, and later on, a band that had a tremendous effect on him: Public Enemy. After creating a fan base with The Strombo Show on 102.1 The Edge, he went to MuchMusic in 2000 and left in 2004. He brought a third of his staff from MuchMusic (most of whom worked on The NewMusic) to the CBC, to surround himself with his own pack, knowing he was throwing himself to the wolves.

His phone constantly flashes with text messages and calls during our interview. But much as he does on television, Strombo focuses on the topic at hand and pays no attention to anything else.

What he finds missing in music journalism today is what he calls the “myth.” “Back then, rock and roll was filled with shadows, and music journalism—when done right—would shine a light on a few corners, but not too much of a light, because it was journalism and it was storytelling, he says.

Now that he has been covering music for over 20 years in both radio and television, he has it on his mind 24/7. He has popularized the term “insongnia,” often tweeting and sharing songs in the late hours of the night. During our chat he takes out his iPhone and plays Tracy Nelson’s “Down So Low,” having listened to it about five times at three in the morning the night before. He is excited when he can share a track on his radio show.

“Whatever job I do in my life, this show, music is still a big part of it. I am still putting Jello Biafra and Tom Morello in the red chair,” says Strombo. “It doesn’t matter how old I get, I am going to be a music fan, a music guy, my whole life.”

While he understands the importance of business and revenue, he also feels television today is lazy when it comes to the arts. “I don’t think the CRTC has done a good enough job protecting Canadians and Canadian interests when it comes to music and culture. I think they have been very short-sighted,” says Strombo. At the same time, he points out that music fans don’t need mainstream media to create places to gather. Real music lovers form a “small but loud army” that drives the cultural shift. In his opinion, what often permeates music culture is the exposure of gossip, humiliation, and failures. A discourse on music is an afterthought.

“Most music programs on TV are insulting and idiotic simply because they make no effort to get under the surface of ‘So, what’s it like to be a star?’” says Daniel Richler, in an exaggerated American accent. “Who gives a fuck about what it’s like to be a star? You know what it’s like to be a star? It’s isolating and damaging and a dead end, that’s what it is. We should stop celebrating it.”

Even when music journalists try to go beyond the surface, the environment does not lend itself to natural discussions. Richler, who interviewed Mick Jagger in 2011 about his music project “SuperHeavy,” a collaboration between Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman, and Damian Marley, remembers being ushered into a room with bodyguards, sitting around a table with half-a-dozen European radio DJs and reporters. They were instructed not to ask certain questions. “It was impossible to get into depth,” says Richler.

Despite the obstacles, Strombo, like Richler, feels that music journalism, at its best, is about personal connection, and sharing that with an audience, whether it’s a top-40 hitmaker or underground rock band. “Music is just a song written by some cat that you will never meet in a country that doesn’t exist anymore and he wrote it about a girl we will never know, whose name is probably not recorded,” says Strombo. “How can something so disconnected from you work so well in that moment? That’s a real human connection. That’s what I built my life around, that connection.”

The last waltz

David Martin, son of John Martin and Margaret Konopacki, was born in 1987. He remembers his father as jovial and confident. He also remembers a man with no money, living in squalor. It was a hard upbringing, as his mom worked three or four jobs to pay the mortgage on their house, which they ended up renting out while they lived in an apartment after the divorce. David would see his dad on weekends, making the most of their visits.

“We weren’t going to baseball games or hockey games. At times we were sitting by candlelight in his apartment because he couldn’t pay his energy bill.”

John Martin continued working in the music field, directing the 1999 documentary The Genius of Lenny Breau, which ended up winning a Gemini. Despite Martin’s name being the first shown as the credits roll, his name is not mentioned anywhere on the IMDb page of the movie. In fact, the role of director is attributed to someone else. Martin followed up with another documentary looking at Nova Scotian country singer Hank Snow.

When Martin was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he was working on other musical projects about Canadian artists. Close to the end of his life, he fell and broke his nose. David remembers waking up at 4 a.m., the hospital calling him to come. John was in his bed, wheezing, trying to breathe through an oxygen mask. To the surprise of the people in the room, he opened his eyes. They all waited to hear what they thought would be his final words. In a perfect Marlon Brando voice, he looked up at those around him and said, “I bet you’re wondering why I gathered you here today.”

That is what David Martin remembers of his dad. “He had this stoicism to the bitter end. He stuck to his guns and never sold out.”

John died in 2006. The NewMusic was cancelled in 2008. It still exists as a blog, but it hasn’t been updated since September 2010.

It’s hard to find another show that spawned talent the way The NewMusic did, and hard to imagine it all started with a working-class Manchester kid who had an idea while being a cabbie on the streets of Toronto. There has been talk about naming a Juno award after Martin, or a posthumous induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

“He had his foot in both sides of the industry. We have had no one since, not in Canada, with the scope and background and understanding,” says his old friend, Larry LeBlanc. “He’s the hidden man in our industry.”

The NewMusic helped launch names that have gone on to become staples in Canadian music and beyond. Former hosts and reporters include a president of a multinational company, hosts of their own radio and television shows, respected music journalists, a star in a popular comedy show, and a recipient of the Order of Canada.

“These people became icons of music television,” says Ward. “John saw them in the raw and he knew instinctively they would fulfil some kind of destiny.”

The legacy of The NewMusic is profound: It respected its audience, showcased a diversity of youthful talent and veteran musicians, and promoted political and social discussion in a musical context. It gained admiration from fans and musicians by challenging the conventional interview structure. Denise Donlon remembers covering a music festival in Knebworth, England, where Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, and Eric Clapton were playing. Donlon and her cameraman were up against the BBC and MTV, which had built their own sets and had several big trucks of equipment. Despite the odds, Donlon was able to grab interviews with all the musicians, thanks to the show’s reputation. At the end of the night, she and her colleagues found themselves trying to hitch a ride back to London; the makeup truck of an MTV host passed them by. In that moment, Donlon says, the difference between The NewMusic and everyone else was clear.

“I challenge any of those broadcasters there to have any of the material that we brought back. We aced that shoot—we got everybody,” says Donlon. “Everything in our backpacks was gold.”

Before Martin’s death, he frequented an English pub in Toronto on the Danforth called the Old Nick. A few of his awards, donated by his son, hang above the bar. If ever in the area, grab a pint, look up, and toast the man who helped bring music journalism television to Canada.

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