CBC doc explores rise, fall of CKLW

CKLW programmer -- the "girl with the golden ear" -- Rosalie Trombley poses with her...

CKLW programmer -- the "girl with the golden ear" -- Rosalie Trombley poses with her daughter and members of KISS.

-- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:47 AM ET

All CKLW wanted was for its unique position in a unique society to be recognized by the Canadian government.

Of course, that sounds a lot like Rene Levesque's argument for sovereignty association in Quebec.

Be that as it may, Windsor radio station CKLW now is far removed from its days as "The Big 8." It was an AM juggernaut that dominated musical airwaves in nearby Detroit -- and beyond -- in the late 1960s and through the 1970s.

The fascinating documentary Radio Revolution: The Rise And Fall Of The Big 8, which won a Gemini Award two years ago and airs tonight on CBC Newsworld (10 p.m.), details not only the staggering influence of CKLW at its peak, but also how the long regulatory arm of the CRTC eventually quashed the station's innovative identity.

With no disrespect intended, Windsor is a weird place, caught as it is between two national psyches. The mighty American metropolis of Detroit is just across the river, and as is opined in Radio Revolution, Windsor looks upon Detroit with "a combination of smugness and envy."

Back in the mid-1960s, one thing CKLW definitely envied was the large number of potential radio listeners in Detroit. So CKLW came up with a rebellious format: As much music as possible, no long speeches by DJs (who learned how to talk over the intros of records right up until the singer's first words) and frenzied newsmen who presented stories in a theatrical and arguably offensive manner.

CKLW quickly became the No. 1 station in Detroit, appealing to both white and black audiences. Many listeners in the Motor City had no idea the station was situated in Canada.

The marquee acts of the day in music-rich Detroit understood the importance of CKLW. They often would make the trek across the river in an attempt to impress The Big 8's "girl with the golden ear" -- musical director Rosalie Trombley.

Ever hear the Bob Seger song Rosalie? Guess who it's about?

"CKLW, we owe everything to them," Alice Cooper says in Radio Revolution. Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman of the Guess Who once drove all night from Winnipeg to Windsor just so they could take Trombley out to lunch. Trombley convinced Elton John to put out Bennie And The Jets as a single. And Trombley's daughter convinced her mom to start playing Beth by Kiss -- voila, big hit.

Canadian-content laws came into effect in 1971 that required stations to play at least 30% Canadian music. Given the benefit of hindsight, those laws did what they set out to do (whether they still are needed today is another debate). But 35 years ago the policy cut CKLW at the knees, since there wasn't a lot of Canadian music that appealed to the rhythm-and-blues-loving audiences in Detroit.

CKLW somehow maintained its top-drawer status for another decade. But The Big 8's open mocking of Can-con rules -- playing the shortest Canadian songs possible, holding overnight Can-con marathons, saying "Here's one for the CRTC" rather than even bothering to announce who the band was, etc. -- hardened the government's resolve to bring the cocky station down a notch.

By the early 1980s, The Big 8 knew it had to move to FM to remain competitive. The CRTC told the station to shove it.

Elements of The Big 8 format had been adopted by countless radio and television stations, including a little something called MTV. But in 1984, the format died at CKLW.

The Big 8 never thought it should be exempt from Can-con laws, but it believed it deserved special status, since the bulk of its competition came from the U.S. As it turned out, Canada as a nation rejected that point of view, much in the same way it rejected Rene Levesque's point of view.

Ultimately, the unique position and mindset of Windsor contributed to both the rise, and the fall, of The Big 8.


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