When I was twelve years old I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a disc jockey on the radio. That was my dream job, I told my parents.
As a kid growing up in a small prairie town three hours away from any big city, my best escape was listening to the radio. Transistor radios came out in the late 1950s. I got my first one for my birthday in 1961. It was a six transistor York, made in Japan for the New York Transistor Company on Fifth Avenue, NYC. My York had a gold metal front with perforated metal speaker, black and cream coloured hard plastic case hiding its guts and a heavy 9-volt battery. (Factoid: 9-volt batteries were invented to power transistor radios.) It was encased in a “genuine leather” case with YORK embossed in gold on the front.
As you can see (above, right) I still have the radio. It no longer turns on or off. It’s gone to radio limbo.
That little York became my constant companion filling my life with an ever-changing but comfortable soundtrack of pop music given extra depth and excitement by the on-air antics of the personable guys who spun the discs. That’s who I wanted to be.
Disc jockeys like Daryl B(urlingham), Jimmy Darin, Mark Parr, Peter Jackson PJ the DJ, Chuck Dann, Porky Charbonneau, Dennis Dino Corrie at CKY, Canada’s Friendly Giant originating in a little room on Winnipeg’s Main Street, came pounding across the prairie riding 50,000 clear watts. Here’s their chart from the week I turned 16. Click to enlarge.
CKRC, Winnipeg’s other less powerful pop station whose signal strength varied out in my little town, still managed to leave an indelible impression with DJs like Boyd Kozak, Jim Paulson, Don Slade, Bob Washington, Doc Steen, Ron Legge. Here is their chart from the week I turned 12 and got my York radio. Click to enlarge.
Near dusk when radio stations changed their signal patterns, WLS, 50,000 clear watts from Chicago came booming in. DJs like John Records Landecker, Dick Biondi, Larry Lujack, Chuck Knapp had incomparable pipes (voices) and songs never sounded better than on WLS. The massive wattage carrying the signal buoyed even the most banal pop ditty to powerful new heights. And WLS made great songs sound even greater. I was never sure how that mystical condition was achieved but I knew I wanted to be part of it, to ride those invisible waves crashing onto transistor beaches and young hearts across the continent. It was a big dream for a little kid.
All the hits, all the time! John Records Landecker’s motto was, “Records is my middle name.” That’s how I felt about records and pop music in general starting in 1960. This feeling increased by quantum leaps in 1964 when The Beatles et al were released to North America. I encouraged the local radio/TV repair shop in the little town to carry CKY’s weekly hit parade charts and I amassed a fine collection that I referred to often for this post. I loved poring over the charts, tracing the arcs of my favourite songs, what song debuted the highest, all the permutations and changes I could wring out of fifty pop songs.
How does the announcement by a 12-year-old that he wants to devote his existence to playing records on the radio go over with his parents? Some amusement at first but I was adamant about this which led to bewilderment then concern. Mom definitely wanted a doctor son to cure all her ills and Dad wanted a hockey player. I had to disappoint them both. They eventually understood. By the time I was sixteen and steadfast in my future career choice, my parents started to come around and say things like, “If you are going to be a radio announcer, we’ll send you to school to be a damn good one.” The universe was unfolding as it should.
Disc jockey was generalized and upgraded into radio announcer by my parents and in the 1960s the best place to learn how to be a good one in Canada was at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in downtown Toronto. The course was called Radio and Television Arts (RTA): three years of hands-on technical training on top quality, modern equipment mixed with psychology, sociology, writing, speech training and even a class in foreign pronunciations. First year was mostly radio, second and third all TV. I’m not photogenic so radio was my only interest in taking RTA. The program sounded interesting to both my parents and I so we started working toward it.
The day came in late August 1968 when I stepped off the train at Union Station in downtown Toronto on my way to Ryerson. The culture shock of moving from a town of 700 people to a city of two million (then) excited and stimulated me. Any fears I had struggled beneath a heavy covering of optimism and hope. It was the Sixties when anything was still possible. Everyone felt that.
Ryerson (now a university) is located one block off Yonge Street’s section called The Strip, at least it was in the late 1960s. Strip clubs, bars, XXX movie theatres, organ grinders with monkeys, chestnut roasters, buskers, Hari Krishnas, hippies and hipsters, the denizens brought throngs downtown every night.
The first year I stayed in Ryerson’s residence across the street from the school. Sam the Record Man and A & A Records were right around the corner on Yonge Street. Ronnie Hawkins’ club The Hawk’s Nest where I saw the Kinks and Parliament/Funkadelic (not on the same bill) was two blocks down. The Rock Pile, a Masonic Temple converted into a Rock & Roll Shrine where I saw Led Zeppelin two days after their first album came out, was a ten minute walk away. On the way you could stop at the Riverboat Coffeehouse in Yorkville and see John Lee Hooker or James Taylor. At the Ryerson folk club The Onion you could watch Bruce Cockburn begin his glorious arc or Leon Redbone perform to a tomato. At Massey Hall I saw The Fugs and Laura Nyro (not on the same bill). I had moved from lonesome howling prairie wind song to the 24-hour thrum and throb of Canada’s pop cultural heart.
My first year was intense and exactly what I needed and wanted to learn about radio, not just as an announcer but as a producer with awareness of potential future career growth. I wasn’t as ambitious as many of the others though I succeeded the first year. That summer I worked at Clear Lake and went back to Ryerson in the fall of 1969 much less enthused.
Culturally Toronto still overwhelmed with the new and the shiny but TV was the main focus that year and, at the time, I hated TV. As a result I developed a kind of accidee, a good old word meaning torpor or sloth, which combined with a yearning to be away from the cold city and back on the prairie. It made for a rough year.
My saving grace came in the form of a radio station. As much as the DJs on CKY, CKRC and WLS had inspired me and the teachers at Ryerson had taught me, CHUM-FM, Toronto’s underground radio station, completed my radio education. CHUM-FM was my post-grad work.
Underground radio was free-form radio, usually on FM, no format, few ads, the announcers played what they wanted usually in long music sequences, lots of brand new music mixed with familiar tunes, unpredictable crazy fun to the highest degree. CHUM-FM was Canada’s premier underground station.
I remember listening to Dave Marsden doing a laidback but amusing persona completely opposite that of his previous role, Dave Mickie on CBC-TV’s noisy Razzle Dazzle. The graveyard shift on CHUM-FM was filled by David Pritchard (left) whose delivery, style and choice of music had an enormous effect on me and the radio would later create. Pritchard had a dark and dry delivery that was full of surprises and always made you wonder if he was putting you on. Frank Zappa described his show as “an utter freak out.”
That year I lived alone in an apartment paid for by a classmate as a cover so he could live with his girlfriend elsewhere. The apartment, across the street from Allen Gardens, had at least two inorganic occupants as well. David Pritchard and I became adept at scaring away the night spooks. I saw many sunrises and few classrooms that year.
The summer of 1970 I worked in the little town until I got my first radio job. Dad had a drinking buddy who had a drinking buddy who had a buddy who ran CFAR, the radio station in the mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba. Connections!
I started at CFAR in October 1970. On my first day station manager Jay Leddy had me run the controls for him early Sunday morning for an hour then stood up and said, “You’re on your own, kid.” No net! It was delightfully terrifying. The first song I played on the radio, real radio with people listening, was Sunday Morning Coming Down by Johnny Cash. By the end of shift I had settled in, almost comfortable, getting chatty. Ryerson was right! I’d been taught well.
At a little 1,000-watt station like CFAR, whose staff was maybe six people, I got to do everything: play records, prepare and read news and sportscasts, interview people on-air, read the daily stock market closings, answer the phone, write and read ad copy, type logs, sell ads, sweep the floor and even train announcers newer than me. Gary Roberts from Winnipeg was one such guy.
We both cut our teeth at CFAR, became good friends and shared lots of small town fun. Admirably ambitious, Gary, real name Reg Johns, went on to program radio stations in the U.S. and now runs Mass2One Media in Carlsbad, CA. We chatted about a year ago.
I spent ten months at CFAR. In July 1971 I got my second radio gig at CKX-AM in Brandon, an hour from my hometown. Mom was thrilled! She could finally listen to me. Frank Bird, whom I had listened to since childhood, hired me to do the CKX all night show 1:00 to 7:00 a.m. six nights a week. The only music restriction was I had to play country music from 5:00 to 7:00, otherwise I could play whatever I wanted. The music library at CKX was adequate to my needs and the record companies were generous with new releases. I had my own underground radio show for four hours a night. The freedom was delicious! It was heaven!
I was required to rip and read a three-minute newscast at the top of every hour. My time at CKX coincided with Watergate and Richard Nixon’s destiny. As a consequence I honed a passable Nixon impression often using it for the whole newscast. This is a shot of me (below) at 6:00 a.m. in the CKX studio about 1972. Although not a major market, Brandon was a step up in my career. CKX had an FM station that was on auto-program during the day and simulcast AM all night. CKX-FM leaked into Winnipeg somehow, maybe cable TV. I recall several Winnipeg people calling me to say they’d listened to me on CKX.
I did the CKX all-night show for twenty-three months having no ambition to do a day shift. I was happy with my freedom and whatever audience was generated all night. I was getting tired of Brandon though, overly familiar Brandon, the city of my birth was getting real stale at 23.
In July of 1973 I scored my major market job. Duff Roman hired me to do an evening underground radio show from 7:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. on CFRW-FM. During the day, FM simulcast CFRW-AM until I took over for the evening. Again free form, no format, run wild. So I did.
When I started at CFRW-FM the office and studios were in the Confederation Building on the curve on Main Street. They were cramped and chaotic. A few months later CKY moved their studios to Polo Park. CFRW bought the former CKY studios, which were located in the London Block, a three-storey building at 432 Main Street N. next to the McIntyre Building. All are gone now.
Turns out after the move, the studio where I did my show was the same one the CKY DJs I admired so much on my York radio had used (left about 1965). It was a shivery and wonderful completion of a life circle for me.
The precedent for underground radio in Winnipeg had been set a few years before my arrival by Now Flower on CKY-FM. On-air from 1968 into 1971, Now Flower was created and manned by Jan Thorsteinson and Harold Gershuny who called himself Gersh. It broke the ground for me by creating an audience and a taste for free-form radio that lingered then disappeared briefly to be reincarnated on CFRW-FM.
FM radio was relatively unknown in the 1960s, having been used mainly for classical music. Underground radio helped change that. This Advance ad (left) indicates how popular and cool Now Flower was. The late 1960s ad for a Lloyd’s FM/AM radio mentions Now Flower on 92.1 CKY-FM along the bottom of the ad. I spoke with Jan Thorsteinson recently to do some fact-checking of dates for this post. He’s happily retired in rural Manitoba. I’m not sure of Gersh’s whereabouts.
With the benefit of The Long View, I see Now Flower as the opening bracket and my show on CFRW-FM as the closing bracket since it was the last underground radio on a commercial station in Winnipeg. Between us lies the full extent and duration of alternative radio in Winnipeg. Thereafter, university radio stations began filling the gap. Click to enlarge
As these two diverse lists of albums I played in 1974 and 1975 indicate (above, right), music on underground radio needed to be unabashedly varied because the element of surprise (never knowing what you’re going to hear next) had to be maintained – the less predictable the better.
The first two Bruce Springsteen albums came out in 1973 and I played tracks from both of them every night in Brandon and Winnipeg. CFRW-FM had a very active and demanding audience so I played lots of requests.
Manitoba had a rash of UFO sightings in the 1970s. During self-proclaimed Alien Week, I did a bit where every night at a certain time I would announce the co-ordinates of our transmitting tower and invite any amenable aliens to contact us using our transmitter. Two minutes of silence, dead air, followed. The aliens never took me up on my offer but apparently there were more than a few earthlings glued to the silence.
In the 1970s it was illegal to advertise alcohol before ten o’clock at night (imagine that!). CFRW-FM had a heavy contract with Club Beer which meant I had to play three or four beer commercials an hour. Though humorous and nutty, the ads wore thin fast.
In 1975 CHUM from Toronto purchased CFRW AM & FM and the death knell for underground radio began to sound. CHUM changed the call letters to CHIQ which became Q94-FM and adopted a nauseating ice-water format of banality and conformity.
The irony is that CHUM, whose FM flagship station taught me so much about free-form radio, were the ones to put the kibosh on alternative radio in Winnipeg.
Since I could think and talk at the same time, CHUM kept me on to do a 90-minute afternoon talk show on Q94 called Forum. I interviewed people on the phone and live in the studio, like the 12-year-old evangelist preacher and Mr. Manitoba, adding in interviews from my Toronto counterpart. There was still something unpredictable and free-form about a talk show plus I got to ask weird questions. I enjoyed that greatly. Extra bonus: I loved pissing off the “music director” by playing Tom Waits instead of Elton John during my musical interlude.
Looking back it seems as if the main reason I worked at CFRW was to meet, fall in love with and spend my life with Linda. She was the boss’s Girl Friday, traffic reporter, occasional copywriter and all-around beauty. Though mostly an evening creature at the station, I did appear occasionally during the day after making sure she’d be there. I quit CFRW in early 1977, Linda and I moved in together and we lived a bohemian lifestyle, making art, meeting new people, having fun. Much of that era is documented on the DTC ART page.
My next and final radio gig was at CJUM-FM where I was hired by Brent Mooney as music director for the struggling University of Manitoba station which had come on the air in September 1975 and closed in June 1980. New wave was just underway when I started there in 1978 and we ran with it. With niche tastes serviced while enlightening others, CJUM-FM had even more diversity than underground radio. We played plenty of Winnipeg bands as you can see by the music lists from 1979 (below). Click to enlarge
Though the 1980s and 90s were dry radio-wise, CJUM-FM returned in 1998. The following year CKUW, at the University of Winnipeg, debuted on air. Both continue to provide high quality accessible radio.
My childhood dream came true. I was a disc jockey for ten years. Then I had the epiphanal moment: when one dream is realized, another begins…