Sounds of Motown

Thirty years ago in Windsor, cklw, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stations ever, lost an angry battle with the newly created CRTC who demanded more Canadian content.

A song would be playing — say, Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Takin’ Care of Business — and the normally arrogant rock stars and record promotion reps would look nervously at each other, occasionally stealing a glance at the woman known as the “Girl with the Golden Ear,” sitting behind an office desk, her eyes narrowing in concentration. There were often no niceties to come, they knew, just a smile and a casual “I like it,” or a frown followed by a blunt dismissal.

Rosalie Trombley, music director at cklw in Windsor from the late-1960s to the mid-1980s, earned her nickname because of her uncanny ability to pick which songs would, or wouldn’t, be hits. The station dominated the trend-setting Detroit market and Trombley launched the careers of diverse artists, being the first to play Alice Cooper’s I’m Eighteen and The Guess Who’s These Eyes. Little wonder The Stones, Iggy Pop, Lou Rawls, Dionne Warwick, The Osmonds, and Diana Ross all felt it necessary to visit the station. Heartland rocker Bob Seger even wrote the hit song Rosalie about her, singing in his soulful voice, “she’s got the tower, she got the power.”

But while the rockers mingled with Rosalie and the station’s long-haired deejays, a different kind of celebrity was watching from Ottawa. They had arrived with Pierre Trudeau from Quebec, and preferred well-pressed suits and manicured haircuts — people like Gérard Pelletier, and Pierre Juneau who would soon head up the newly formed Canadian Radio-Television Commission (crtc). They had forged their credentials as cultural nationalists in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and were now determined to protect English Canadian culture from American domination. One of their first targets was cklw, a station the crtc would soon claim was American masquerading as Canadian. In the words of one crtc official of the day, they intended to “repatriate” it, a move that triggered a national debate over artistic freedom that echoes today and still enrages Trombley, who remains in Windsor. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” she groans, her voice rising as she recalls the showdown with Trudeau’s cultural czars. “They had no idea! Retired teachers, nurses, and accountants, telling me about the music I should be playing. fuck the crtc!”

Listening to cklw was a visceral experience –– fast-paced and punchy with its fifty thousand watts capable of blanketing the region and, at night, when atmospheric conditions made it possible, stretching north to Sudbury, east to New York, and south to Florida. (Even listeners in Scandinavia and New Zealand reported hearing it.) It routinely captured more than 20 percent of the listeners in its market — a figure impossible to imagine in today’s fragmented radio industry. By 1973, with twelve million listeners, it was the third-largest station in North America. “The culture, when I got there, was, ‘if you’ve made it this far, you can pretty much walk on water,’ ” recalls deejay Pat Holiday, who arrived as a green twenty-two year old from Hartford in 1970. “No one was going to hold you back on shore.”

cklw’s success was built on the work of a handful of radio pioneers. After seeing teenagers playing the same songs over and over on jukeboxes, they created the Top-40 playlist, used promotional stunts, and developed the concept of deejay as a “personality.” But in California it was Bill Drake, a deejay and program director turned consultant, who finally pulled it all together into a powerful format dubbed “Boss Radio.” His target audience was baby boom teenagers crazy for rock ‘n’ roll.

Working from a “hot clock” that divided an hour into segments, Drake, whose real name was Philip Yarbrough, set his newscasts at twenty minutes before and after the hour (dubbed “20/20 News”), which meant his deejays could “sweep” three or four songs back-to-back to catch the attention of those surfing the dial. More controversially, Drake insisted that his jocks talk less and play more music. He was famous for showing them how to say in eight words what they’d previously said in twenty-four. “The deejays, at times, sounded as if they were broadcasting at gunpoint,” recalls David Carson in his book Rockin’ Down the Dial.

cklw’s American owners watched the Drake formula breathe new life into moribund stations across the U.S., and in 1966 decided their Windsor operation, which began in 1932 as ckok, had to catch up with the times. They turned to Paul Drew, who had worked with Drake. An indefatigable bulldog of a man, Drew spoke in a nasal monotone and practiced management-by-intimidation. He cleared out many of the old-time staff, hired fresh talent, and trained them in the Drake style. To make sure they stuck to the format, he went everywhere listening to cklw on a transistor radio with an earplug. He also controlled the “Batphone” in the studio, which was connected to a red, one-hundred-watt light bulb in the control room. When it flashed, Drew was calling, usually with a criticism. One deejay lasted only four hours before being fired.

Drew also had a broader strategy. He knew that kids in Windsor and Detroit of every race listened to black music. So at a time when most pop stations skewed toward white artists, he tilted cklw toward soul, and rhythm and blues — not hard to do in a market that was home to Berry Gordy’s celebrated Motown Records. It all came together, and Tom Shannon, then in his early twenties and one of cklw’s stars through the late 1960s, remembers that within two months of the April 1967 launch of what was now called the Big 8, everyone knew the station was a winner. “We were getting more phone calls than ever before and the record company promoters were suddenly very interested in us,” recalls Shannon, who now hosts a drive-time show at whtt, an oldies station in Buffalo. “We’d get onto a record that nobody else was playing, and there would be incredible sales peaks.”

As the station’s popularity grew, Trombley, a divorced mother of three, who started out as a station receptionist, continued to meet with a steady stream of rock stars and promotion reps who arrived each week to hype their artists. Not only could she intuitively sense which songs might be hits, she backed it up with research, part of which involved phoning a network of fifty record shops in Windsor and Detroit to find out what was selling.

From the 100 to 150 records she received each week, Trombley chose no more than six to add to the playlist. “If there was a record I wasn’t that interested in but they [the reps] believed in, I’d say, ‘Show me,’ ” says Trombley. “I’d tell them, ‘Take it out to Grand Rapids or Flint or Lansing. See if you can get some airplay out there. Get the thing started, if it’s gonna start.’ ”

In 1968, with the Drake formula firmly in place and Trombley picking hit after hit, Drew left the station just as a wave of Canadian nationalism, fueled by Pierre Trudeau’s arrival in Ottawa, hit the cultural industries. A new Broadcasting Act passed that year required Canadian radio and TV stations to be at least 80 percent Canadian owned.

The Broadcasting Act also created the crtc, which was preparing Canadian-content regulations that would soon lead to a dramatic showdown with cklw, now arguably the most important radio station in Canada. Pat Holiday, who today is vice-president and general manager of three Toronto stations, including Mix 99.9 (ckfm), says programmers were routinely studying cklw’s playlist, often picking up a song they had previously rejected just because the Big 8 was playing it.

cklw’s growing clout wasn’t lost on Ottawa, where the crtc’s first chairman was Pierre Juneau, a French Canadian intellectual whose sensibilities couldn’t be further removed from that of the freewheeling, entrepreneurial world of commercial radio. As a young man in Montreal, Juneau was part of a dynamic clique clustered around the political journal Cité libre, which included Trudeau and future cabinet ministers Gérard Pelletier, Maurice and Jeanne Sauvé, and Marc Lalonde. They were all part of the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s, when the province went through a period of progressive political, social, and cultural upheaval symbolized by Premier Jean Lesage’s slogan, maître chez nous (masters in our own house).

To Juneau and others involved in shaping Canada’s broadcasting policy, the crtc (which in 1976 was renamed the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) was seen as a potent force that could usher in a similar revolution, one in which the state would intervene to strengthen English-speaking Canadian culture against the pervasive American influence. Regulations were soon changed, requiring domestic control of radio and television outlets. As public policy, Juneau’s move was radical. It marked the first time the government had required that foreign control of an industry be repatriated to Canadian ownership. As a result, in 1970 cklw’s American owners sold the station to Baton Broadcasting, controlled by the Eaton and Bassett families of Toronto, for $4 million (U.S.).

In 1971, new regulations also required that 30 percent of the content on AM stations had to be Canadian. To qualify, a record had to meet at least two tests: a Canadian must have written the lyrics, composed the music, produced or performed the song, or the recording had to have been made in a domestic studio.

The crtc’s rules soon triggered a national debate over the merits of protectionism and the Canadian public’s sovereign right to listen to foreign music. In the long run, most agree that the new Canadian content regulations (the so-called CanCon rules) accelerated the speed at which the nation’s music industry matured. But Larry LeBlanc, a veteran music journalist who today is Canadian bureau chief for Billboard magazine, believes that too much emphasis is placed on the role of CanCon regulations in its development. What is beyond dispute, though, is that in the early 1970s there wasn’t enough high-quality content to adequately fill the air time, resulting in seemingly endless repetitions of songs by famous singers such as Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, and transplanted Canadians like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

In most Canadian cities, where U.S. radio stations were far enough away to be a weak presence on the dial, the crtc’s interference was annoying but manageable. The staff and management at cklw, however, directly competing with powerful Detroit stations, felt betrayed by Ottawa. At repeated crtc regulatory hearings in the capital, they pleaded for an exemption. It would prove fruitless.

Fred Sorrell, a Windsor native who was the station’s general manager from 1969 to 1973, is still appalled. “We were talking to a brick wall,” he says. “They didn’t understand this city and didn’t respect the success of this radio station. They only knew the cbc mentality.” Asked what was behind the crtc’s stubbornness, he replies bluntly, “Nationalism. Wave the flag. And ignorance of the market.”

Class and regional politics were also involved, says Toronto filmmaker Michael McNamara, who recently completed the documentary Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8. Why would the crtc, he asks, led by Quebec intellectuals, pay any attention to the people of Windsor? “cklw was in a blue-collar city and it reflected rock ‘n’ roll,” explains McNamara, a native of Windsor. “It was loud, brash, working class. The men and women running the crtc were upper-middle-class central Canadians, many of them from Quebec. None understood, let alone liked, commercial pop radio.”

That was a sentiment often expressed in Windsor, where McNamara says people share the same sense of alienation from Ottawa as Western Canadians do. In Radio Revolution, legendary Toronto newsman Dick Smyth, who worked at the station in the 1960s, points out that the city is located in Essex County, a neck of land that juts into Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, giving people a kind of “island mentality,” a sense that they’re psychologically isolated from the rest of the country.

There is, in fact, a clear orientation toward the U.S. in Windsor — nearly 30 percent of all trade between Canada and the U.S. crosses the Ambassador Bridge. Many Windsorites also work across the river and McNamara says they are about as American as you can get without U.S. citizenship.

There was also an argument — probably legitimate, and certainly keenly felt by those who worked at cklw — that the Big 8 contributed to the easing of racial tensions in Detroit, which had been shaken by some of the worst race riots in U.S. history. After all, not many radio outlets in America blended black and white pop music so seamlessly, and even fewer had so heterogeneous an audience. Whether that overstates the transformative power of pop music or not, it didn’t dint the crtc’s fiercely nationalist resolve.

When all else failed, John Bassett, the station’s owner (and probably to his disadvantage a prominent Tory insider), tried bullying the crtc. Bassett, an old-fashioned high roller who ran Baton Broadcasting Inc., was physically intimidating — over six feet tall and aggressive, with a loud bark of a voice. Once, after Sjef Frenken, who was then chief of radio at the crtc, had been quoted in a New York Times article about cklw, an angry Bassett called him up. “He asked me, ‘Who are you to make statements like that?’” recalls Frenken. “Well, I told him, ‘I’m the chief of radio and someone asked me what the likely topics will be concerning cklw.’” When Bassett threatened to go over his head to Juneau, Frenken told him, “Go right ahead. You won’t get a different answer from him.”

Frenken also says cklw’s deputation repeatedly tried to con the crtc. “cklw was considered a problem by the Commission even before CanCon,” he recalls. “They were proud that they had this massive audience in the United States, and you could tell that all the programming was fixed on Detroit. Everything was done to hide from its American audience that this was a Canadian station. So there was a feeling that we should repatriate the programming of cklw for its Canadian audience.”

George Pollard, a social psychologist at Carleton University, worked in radio policy at the crtc in the late-1970s and is considered an authority on the regulator. He still blames the uproar on Drew, who decided to flout the new broadcast rules. “Remember,” he says, “that station ran in Windsor for thirty years, without there ever being a problem.” But once it became the Big 8, he argues, the crtc couldn’t back down. “It was simple. The station was licensed to serve that small Canadian community and it never did that job. Then they came to Ottawa and tried to turn the situation into the OK Corral. But they were the Clanton Brothers who arrived without their guns, and the Earp Brothers shot them dead.”

More than thirty years later, the crtc shows no sign of shrinking from its role. A case in point occurred in July, when the agency announced that it was pulling the licence of choi-FM in Quebec City, claiming it routinely broadcast offensive material. (One deejay advocated dispensing with patients in a nearby psychiatric institution by gassing them.) Even so, the crtc’s decision was met with outrage, and in July nearly fifty thousand people protested in the streets of Quebec City in support of the station, and another five thousand marched in Ottawa shortly afterwards. Even in a two-hundred-channel universe, with Internet, satellite TV, and radio, it seems the crtc can still find ways to enrage.

The agency’s mandate may yet be challenged over the choi affair. The station’s owners are appealing the decision to the Federal Court of Canada, and politicians of all stripes rallied under the flag of free speech in support of the station, including ndp leader Jack Layton and Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who said the crtc is out of touch with the public mood.

Both sides in the debate cite growing media competition to support their case. With so much available, the regulator’s detractors argue that it is no longer possible or necessary to control content. But its supporters maintain that it is precisely because there is so much competition that there has to be an agency that represents Canadian interests. “The crtc, or something like it, is absolutely fundamental to any country, any society, that believes itself to be worthwhile and important,” says Pollard. “Every country has something like it — France, Germany, the U.K.” Today, the crtc does have more on its plate than perhaps at anytime in its history — much of it the result of the rapidly expanding media universe. A recent decision imposed severe limits on broadcasters who air the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, even though it is available uncensored on television in many countries and can be obtained in Canada via the Internet and illegal satellite.

The crtc was also recently vilified for rejecting a licence application by the Italian TV channel rai International, on the grounds that it would put the Italian – Canadian Telelatino Network at a competitive disadvantage, even though Canadians with satellite dishes can watch rai.

In the case of choi and cklw, Pollard says, it’s impossible to make a direct comparison. By defining and criticizing people according to race, he argues, choi flew in the face of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while cklw was always inclusionary. “They were the only station serving the black community in Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland,” he recalls. “Their problem was only that they were a bunch of American guys who said, ‘Just let us do what we want; we know what to do.’ There was never any contempt, no hatred toward a race or anything.”

By the late-1970s, its glory days over, cklw was a victim of the crtc, a fragmenting audience, and new FM technology. Les Garland arrived as program director in 1974 and stayed for three years before moving on, but he would be responsible for permanently, if subtly, immortalizing cklw when he helped create mtv, the first TV network devoted to music videos. “No doubt about it,” says Garland, “mtv was derived from everything I’d learned about the Drake format. It was cklw with pictures.”

Trombley also eventually moved on and would never again enjoy the power she wielded at cklw. For a while, she worked in Detroit, and later at ckey in Toronto. But she didn’t fit into the tightly managed, corporate-driven era. For one thing, playlists were being formatted by consultants, so music directors had become glorified ordertakers. She eventually moved back to Windsor and worked for Barney Ales, a former Motown Records executive who ran an independent label in Detroit, until she was in a serious car accident that prevented her from working for years.

It took McNamara years of negotiations to convince Trombley, who now works at Casino Windsor, to appear in Radio Revolution, in part because she has become increasingly publicity shy. “They all want to hear stories,” Trombley complains, shortly after the Windsor screening of the documentary. “Who you’ve met. The records you broke. It’s like, ‘Oh, God, you met Elton John? You were with Paul McCartney?’ Do you understand what I mean? People getting to know more about me than I would prefer that they did.” Finally, when I ask her how she felt after leaving cklw, she replies sadly, “I knew it could never be duplicated again.”

David Hayes
David Hayes teaches writing at Ryerson University in Toronto, and at the University of King’s College in Halifax.