The Vision of a Commercial Alternative:
The Story of CFNY-FM - "the Spirit of Radio"
by Wes Reimer
Alternative/college radio is becoming increasingly important to the music industry, and should be supported if the industry (especially in Canada) is to remain healthy and grow. With the right kind of management, a commercial "alternative" radio station such as CFNY can turn a profit, and thus support the industry all the more without taking away from it. The story of CFNY demonstrates the viability of a commercial, free-form alternative.
II. CFNY History
B. David Marsden
D. Popularity -- the Spirit of Radio
E. Ownership changes
F. CN Tower -- hitting the peak
III. The Selkirk Fiasco:
B. Listener response
C. Modern Schlock
D. Larry Bates & the hearings
V. Maclean Hunter & the future of CFNY
Having been a loyal listener for several years, I've always been curious about my favourite radio station. Until 1983 I lived outside the country, and I started listening to CFNY regularly around 1985. I remember the first time I discovered CFNY while fooling around on my portable radio. I was a Q107 groupie at the time, and I remember being startled and thinking, what is this weird music? My fascination never let up, and within a year I was hooked, and soon I wouldn't listen to anything else.
Things started to change pretty seriously in 1988. The station started to call itself "FM102," and one day while driving I heard them play Glass Tiger for the first time -- I knew something was wrong. Angrily, I pushed a tape in and the nasty Tiger went away. But things only got worse as the months wore on. Finally a classified ad in NOW magazine caught my eye. Somebody had started a petition; there was hope.
1989 proved to be a very interesting year for me and CFNY. I learned a lot about radio programming and the CRTC, and I got a bit of a peek behind the scenes. These few pages recount the adventures of CFNY-FM, from the early days through to the Maclean Hunter takeover and into the future.
II. CFNY History
I found out some information on the origins of CFNY when I talked to Jim Reid, a former announcer at the station. Reid, who now works at CKFM, is working on a book about his experiences at CFNY in the late seventies and eighties.
CHIC-AM/FM began in the early sixties as a small ethnic, talk-oriented community station broadcasting 857 watts out of small, yellow brick house in Brampton, Ontario. When a pair of "kooky" brothers named Leslie and Harry Allen Jr bought the station in the seventies, they started playing album rock music in the evenings on the station's FM counter-part, which would simulcast CHIC-AM's programming during the day. Soon amateur disc jockeys from Humber College were running loose at the station, which likely sounded like some of today's college stations.
By 1977, the Allen brothers were ready to give the FM station an identity of its own, separate from CHIC. In July 1977, CHIC-FM became CFNY-FM, the "NY" being short for New York, according to Reid. Anyone working there at the time was fired, and a whole new team was brought in. Dave Pritchard, CFNY's first program director, gave the station a little more structure and hosted specialty programs of reggae and blues music, and a nationally syndicated (and popular) Beatles show. Unfortunately, conflicts between Pritchard and the Allens led them to fire him before too long. David Marsden, who had started as an announcer, became program director of CFNY in 1978.
Marsden was already a legend from his time as the notorious Dave Mickie from CKEY in Toronto. He got his start as an announcer at Chatham's CFCO in 1963. One night, so the story goes, he got fed up with the easy listening music he was playing and brought in a stack of his own 45's. He became a raving lunatic on the air, and Dave Mickie was born. He was fired the next day, but almost immediately re-hired when it was discovered how the ratings had jumped that night. He was soon hired at CKEY and quickly became a sensation with a number one show. Marshall McLuhan quotes the following excerpt from one of his shows:
That's Patty Baby and that's the girl with the dancing feet and that's Freddy Cannon there on the David Mickie Show in the night time ooohbah scuba-doo how are you booboo. Next we'll be Swinging on a Star and sssshhhwwoooo and sliding on a moonbeam. Waaaaa how about that . . . one of the goodest guys with you . . . this is lovable kissable D.M. in the p.m. at 22 minutes past nine o'clock there, aahhrightie, we're gonna have a Hitline, all you have to do is call WAlnut 5-1151, WAlnut 5-1151, tell them what number it is on the Hitline. (McLuhan 77)
"Dave Mickie alternately soars, groans, swings, sings, solos, intones, and scampers, always reacting to his own actions," explains McLuhan, contrasting the spoken with the written word (77). It was the same creative and dynamic spirit of Mickie's personality that characterised the sound of CFNY and helped bring it success in the mid-eighties.
His popularity as Dave Mickie was intense, but brief. Later, as David Marsden, he spent some time with CBC radio, CKGM (Montréal) and CHUM-FM, a pioneer of free-form/alternative radio. He left CHUM when it became too commercial for him, but his three-year experience there was probably the greatest influence on his vision for CFNY.
According to Jim Reid, whom Marsden hired in 1978 as a midday announcer, the programming structure had always been very loose. For example, they had basic guidelines to play, at least once an hour, a blues song, a jazz song, a dance song, and so on. The CFNY team shared a common vision: they wanted an exciting, progressive, creative radio station that would stand out from all the others, and that played music from all over the world.
Pat Hurley, who became station manager in 1980, said that CFNY had a game plan
...much like a twelve-lane highway . . . where there's no doubt in
anyone's mind where they're going, where everybody knows the objectives, but sometimes you're in the middle lane, sometimes you're away to the outside yet you're all going in the same direction. All our on-air personalities, for instance, know exactly where we're going, they're guided yet have the flexibility to develop individually. Personality and a variety of music makes us unique. (Curlook 40)
A news article in Marketing magazine from 1981 described CFNY's "eclectic programming that can range from an examination of the occult to a discussion on the social structure of bees." Marsden offered the following explanation:
Much of what we will present cannot be outlined in our promise of performance simply because CFNY-FM responds to the constantly-changing circumstances of our environment. ("Brampton" 28)
The Spirit of Radio
Needless to say, the station had developed "a fiercely loyal audience, nourished by the station's progressive-personal approach to radio" (Curlook 39). So loyal, in fact, that listeners used to wire coat hangers to their radios in order to pick up the weak signal (Blokhuis). Until October 1981, when the antenna site was moved to the top of the Bank of Montreal tower in downtown Toronto, Pat Hurley says listeners had long tolerated an often interrupted, unclear signal (Curlook 40).
According to Hurley it was the listeners who affectionately tagged the station "the spirit of radio," a label which it used until 1988. Neil Peart, drummer for one of Canada's best known rock bands, Rush, wrote a song in 1979 titled "The Spirit of Radio" which was inspired by CFNY. In Rush Visions, a biography of the band, Bill Banasiewicz says the song is a description of CFNY:
Lyrically the song is both hopeful and pessimistic, describing an ideal radio station that really exists and comparing it with the commercial stations that play it safe in the interests of profits. The station still flies high the flag of free-form radio. "The Spirit of Radio" praises this approach and castigates stations that have abandoned it. (In Blokhuis)
CFNY-FM has gone through four ownership changes in the last twelve years. Although there was always a fear of a change in format among staff and listeners, each new owner was convinced to invest in the vision of CFNY. Ironically, it has always been these takeovers that saved the station from extinction, and that allowed it to achieve the success that it did.
In April 1979, the Allen brothers were charged with stock price manipulation and conspiracy to defraud, and CFNY-FM and its AM relative CHIC were put up for sale ("Brampton" 28). In November 1979, the CRTC approved a take-over bid by Montréal's Civitas Corporation.
Although Civitas president Ed Prévost admitted he found the "anarchic environment" in which the station operated to be "unsettling", he was committed to CFNY's sound. In March 1980
Prévost applied to move CFNY's transmitter to the CN Tower. He felt that signal delivery was their "most important problem," because CFNY was the type of station that "should be free to compete in the Metro marketplace" ("Brampton" 28). That application was turned down because of technical complications.
Civitas committed about $300,000 for new facilities and equipment, and the station moved out of the yellow brick house to modern studios in February 1981. Civitas expected a three- to four-year growth period before the station would make money.
The proposed move to the CN Tower didn't become a reality until late 1983, soon after the station was sold to Selkirk Communications Ltd. Unfortunately, due to high interest rates and a recession in 1982, Civitas ran out of money and had to sell. When Selkirk came in, there were rumours the format would become all talk, but David Marsden convinced them to keep the format, and the money started rolling in.
In September 1983, the CRTC approved the move to "distribute the signal in all directions" from the CN Tower. The station celebrated the event by throwing a champagne "push-button radio breakfast party" at the tower in late November. About 450 people (including local artists and 100 listeners) showed up to cheer on Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton as he pushed the button that transferred the broadcast signal to the tower. 10,000 helium balloons were released from the base of the tower, the restaurant was filled with laser lights, and airplanes congratulating CFNY flew across the city ("Push Button" 9). Art Eggleton described CFNY as "a station with its feet in Brampton and its head above Toronto" (Wright 4). According to an article in Marketing, there was a strong feeling among supporters at the event that CFNY radio had "finally come of age" (Wright 4).
At that time, according to sales manager Jim Fonger, CFNY was "positioned in the marketplace for the 25- to 34-year-old who
"can't stand the heavy metal and rock sounds generated by CHUM-FM, CHUM-AM and Q107, and who isn't ready for the "easy listening" sound. . . . Forty per cent of the music played on CFNY you won't hear on any other Toronto station. That's who we'll market it to, perhaps a smaller but a more exclusive audience.'" (Wright 4).
Hitting the peak
Many agree that CFNY hit a peak in the quality of its programming between 1984 and 1985. The station had a easily-identifiable sound that stood out from the competition. CFNY has prided itself in "breaking" many new international and Canadian independent artists (the Cowboy Junkies and Kon Kan being recent examples). But each song selected for play was evaluated according to its sound or production values, independent of its success. David Marsden explains:
We hesitate to play poorly produced records because it may do more harm than good. We do as much as we can to break unknown acts -- through showcase programs like Streets of Ontario -- but the goal is to expose them in the best light, not the worst. (Elbert 9)
The programming was still essentially free-form, within certain guidelines, and
listener requests were always important to the mix. The format clock was structured something like this: at the top of the hour you had to play a record that was determined to be a CFNY "hit," followed by something that was five years old, followed by something new, and so on. Jim Reid says that besides Canadian content, however, the only essential requirement was to play at least three "new" songs per hour. Wilma Blokhuis summed it up this way:
The control room, filled with 10,000 musical selections and the latest in radio broadcasting equipment, was the "heart" of CFNY. Announcers chose the music, mixing listeners' requests with their personal choices. Friendly voices and honesty gave the station integrity. The music charts were vehemently ignored, and no song was played more than once during the full 24-hour broadcast day.
"Sensitivity to its audience's needs and temperament has meant playful spontaneity and thus great successes with CFNY-FM-sponsored events" (Curlook 40). According to Christine Curlook, the biggest rock concert of 1981 was the Police picnic, sponsored by CFNY and Carling O'Keefe; about 30,000 attended.
In 1980, CFNY started the You Know Awards, a parody of the Canadian Junos, because they felt the Junos were "not at all representative of the activity in the industry" (Curlook 40). CFNY let its listeners choose the award-winners, and "for the first time in history, there was a group of fresh young winners that was reflective of our poll. All of a sudden Martha and the Muffins and Carol Pope were there" (Hurley in Curlook 42). Today the You Knows are known as the CASBYs -- Canadian Artists Selected By You, and ballots are filled out annually across Canada.
III. The Selkirk Fiasco
Financially, CFNY has had difficulties right from the start. The station began with a one per-cent audience share in 1978, peaking at three per-cent in 1981 before it started broadcasting from the CN Tower in 1983. Between 1984 and 1988, CFNY maintained about a five per-cent share, about 500,000 listeners. This went up slightly to 550,000 listeners in the fall of 1988, and the station was making money for the first time. Coincidentally, this is about the same time that major changes started to take place.
In 1988, owner Selkirk Communications Ltd put pressure on CFNY management to up the ratings. Apparently, Selkirk had "decided that an alternative, free-form format, without repeats, was no longer acceptable -- despite its success" (Blokhuis). CFNY had become North America's most successful alternative music station. According to Blokhuis, CFNY had become known internationally, and in February 1987 was one of six finalists for the Gavin Media Professional Award in San Francisco. CFNY was the first Canadian radio station to be nominated.
Acting director of operations Jim Fonger wrote a letter to the CRTC in October 1988 outlining programming changes at CFNY. In the following excerpt he gives the rationale for changes in music policy:
Since broadcasting from the CN Tower, CFNY has experienced a shrinking share of market. Not only does this indicate that the station has failed to recognize the appropriate programming technics [sic] that would promote audience growth by serving its listeners more adequately, but indicates future revenue complications for the station as well. CFNY has recognized that if it is to be the Toronto and Canadian new music outlet, a proper marketing approach for this new material must be implemented. The only way that new material has an opportunity to grow is to be exposed to a significant number of people the correct number of times. As a result CFNY must achieve audience growth and increase the number of times a new selection of music is heard. . .
Like many things Jim Fonger was saying at the time, this is somewhat misleading. According to ratings information from the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, CFNY's share has remained constant or increased slightly between 1986 and 1988. In fact, CFNY had its highest share ever in the summer of 1988 at 5.4%, followed by 5.2% in the fall.
Following the devastating changes at CFNY, a gaping hole was left in the airwaves for professionally-presented alternative music. This is reflected in many letters of protest and newspaper articles printed in 1989. In several letters to NOW magazine, former listeners lamented the loss of their favourite station. One listener wrote that CFNY was being "ruled by demographers . . . offering programming designed carefully as to not offend one single yuppified urbanite, providing background music for designer decor and little else" (NOW, Nov. 88). Another letter from a marketing graduate made the point that CFNY's move was "bad business":
Most entrepreneurs today are searching for a niche, something different and unique, in order to capture a special segment of a market. CFNY had that niche, broadcasting to a fairly large group of people with alternative tastes, lusting for something out of the ordinary. But unfortunately, with the allure of big money comes the death of the small market segment and the birth of another mega-, mass-supporting monster. (NOW, Winter 1989)
Lee Carter, who used to broadcast "Live From London," a weekly report on the British music industry, wrote the following after his show was dropped:
Poor old CFNY, the Spirit of Money. It is a ruined station. I'm not bitter, but I'm very sad that the station has basically been turned over to accountants, advertising people and those ghastly radio analysts. (NOW, Winter 89)
There was a glimmer of hope when 32-year-old sheet-metal worker Larry Bates began a protest movement. Bates, who described himself as "CFNY's biggest fan and best salesman" took out protest ads in various papers, sent letters to the station and its advertisers, started a petition and picketed the October 1988 CASBY music awards with a group of friends (Dafoe C8).
CFNY responded with advertising of its own, and form letters to listeners like myself who had sent in letters of protest. Jim Fonger tried to gloss over the changes
and convince protesters that the station was still committed to new music, that its basic philosophy was unchanged.
But to loyal listeners the change in the sound of the station was drastic. Not only had its name and logo changed -- "Modern Rock FM102," all the best personalities behind the mic began to leave or were fired -- it was never clear which. Don Berns was David Marsden's assistant and replacement program director when Marsden left the station in 1987. But in December 1988, Don Berns resigned when
...it became clear that the management's definition of 'modern rock' was not the same as my definition of modern rock. When they handed me the list of artist that we were going to have to play -- people like Whitney Houston, Def Leppard and Rick Astley -- I felt I had no choice but to leave. (Jones 29)
Peter Goodwin, host of Streets of Ontario, was another one that had to leave. "By catering to the lowest common denominator, [CFNY] is shutting out musical adventures," he said. "There's not enough room on the playlist for new indie Canadian acts. CFNY may have lost the spirit of radio forever" ("Radio activity" 17). Lorense Eppinger, President of the Toronto independent Amok Records is quoted in Music Scene as saying, "CFNY should no longer be credited as a supportive station for young Canadian talent . . . [indie artist] Psyche was removed from the playlist; their terminating line: 'It's just not us anymore'" ("Radio activity" 17).
Although CFNY gained about 100,000 listeners in BBM's winter 1989 survey as a result of joining the mainstream, its overall market share was down to 4.6% (from a high of 5.4%) because people were listening for fewer hours per week (Jones 29). Eight-year listener Ross Kuch, who intervened at CFNY's licence renewal hearing, remarked: "Next to fans of Peter Gzowski, I'd say CFNY listeners are probably the most loyal in Canada. . ." (Jones 29). Larry Bates also stated in an interview that "CFNY really was a cultural institution. We relied on it for musical direction and we responded with our loyalty" (Jones 29).
Both Bates and Kuch intervened at the CRTC public hearings which took place for three days in March 1989. I was among about twenty concerned listeners who attended, along with former station personnel, at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto where the hearings took place. CRTC commissioner Rosalie Gower commented on the "unprecedented" public response, and the eloquence and sincerity of Kuch and Bates, whose petition had 5,000 signatures by this time (Jones 29).
While Larry Bates and protesters like myself may have made an impact, it is hard to say whether our efforts would have made a real difference in the long run. Maclean Hunter had already bought Selkirk Communications by the time of the hearing, and once the takeover was approved, would assume direct management of CFNY. When this finally happened in the fall of 1989, then gradual changes began to take place.
V. Maclean Hunter & the Future of CFNY
If CFNY and Selkirk didn't recognise the importance of the listener protest, then Steve Harris (vice-president of broadcasting) and Reiner Schwarz of Maclean Hunter certainly did. In April 1989 they invited me, and others who had sent letters of intervention to the CRTC, to "a private luncheon and discussion regarding the future of CFNY-FM." The purpose of the meeting was two-fold: to show support and to get support. Reiner Schwarz gave a presentation of Maclean Hunter's commitments and proposed Promise of Performance, in contrast with Selkirk's. Among other things, Maclean Hunter continued to support special interest music such as jazz where Selkirk proposed to eliminate it, increased the number of distinct selections per week, and decreased the hit to non-hit ratio. It also made a 1.5 million dollar commitment over five years "toward the promotion of Canadian talent," including a new digital, live music mobile and the "Discovery-to-Disk" programme (160).
In the "music policy" section of its application for CFNY, Maclean Hunter states: "It is the intention and commitment of the applicant to nurture the spirit behind CFNY since its inception" (133). It proposed, however, to target a much larger audience than before:
Since new music will be more readily accepted by younger people it is natural that the applicant would focus on the 18 to 24 year old. However, given that much of today's new music attempts to appeal to the . . . baby-boomers, it is necessary and desirable to include selections from among the classic rock influences. In general, CFNY's appeal, and the audience being sought is 16 - 34, well-educated and open-minded. (133)
While the spirit behind the programming philosophy may have returned, the sound of CFNY has certainly changed from what it was in the mid-eighties. 1985's CFNY had a very careful, focused sound, as described earlier. Today, a different CFNY is emerging. While the majority of the music heard is traditionally categorised as "alternative," many other styles of music have been thrown into the mix as well, such as more classic rock (AC/DC, the Who), as stated above. It could be argued that this is more like the original CFNY of 1978, but it also gives the station the appearance of having no direction. These days, everything from Madonna to the Gipsy Kings to Ministry (dance/pop, gypsy, industrial/hard-core respectively) can be heard in the regular music mix.
One evening in May 1990, Reiner Schwarz, who became director of programming and operations in fall 1989, went on the air to take listener comments on CFNY. In defense of his music policy, he said: "We're trying to create contrasts; we don't want to give you just one sound, there's too much music. . . " He went on to describe a new attitude for the nineties, and a new direction for CFNY. In some ways this is similar to what station manager Pat Hurley said in 1982, that "with any radio station the background fabric is always change because music's trends are constantly changing . . . the rock music base has broadened dramatically so that an increasingly wide range of rock-oriented music is currently played" (Curlook 39). If that was true in the eighties, how much more in the nineties!
Many professionals agree that college radio is playing an increasingly important role in the music industry. Recognising this, Billboard magazine created a new "Modern Rock" chart about two years ago, partly as a result of the influence of university and commercial stations such as CFNY. René LeBlanc of Montréal's Aquarius Records observed: "As the trend for major radio leans towards hits, campus stations will be counted on more than ever to advance new acts" ("Radio activity" 17). But as Peter Goodwin said, "it's tough for the industry to see the trends in college radio. They need to be more organised; we need reliable campus radio charts" ("Radio activity" 17). The trouble with college stations, however, is that they aren't well organised, because most of them are run by amateurs. To me, this underscores the need for more radio stations like CFNY, which can introduce new music much more effectively, and which can also make money in a good-sized market.
As television continues to degenerate, we also need more radio stations that can really entertain, and which aren't afraid of free-form programming, which aren't afraid to take risks. ". . . Ultimately, a greater dose of free-form principles is the only way to break this medium [radio] out of its doldrums" (Whittington 9). CFNY's fight for survival and success is a great testimony for radio stations to come. May the Spirit of Radio soar to new heights!
Banasiewicz, Bill. Rush Visions. Toronto: Omnibus Press, 1988. In Blokhuis.
Blokhuis, Wilma. "A lament for The Spirit of Radio" (editorial). The Oakville Beaver 13 January 1989.
"Brampton stations vie for a place in Toronto market." Marketing 23 February 1981: 28
"CFNY-FM Push Button Breakfast." Broadcaster January 1984: 9
Curlook, Christine. "CFNY-FM -- the little station that thought it could . . . and it did." Broadcaster February 1982: 39-40, 42
Dafoe, Chris. "Hit songs miss the mark for disgruntled radio fans." The Globe and Mail 17 March 1989: C8
Elbert, Tarin. "Radio and the independent artist" Music Scene July-August 1984: 8-9
Fonger, Jim. Letter to Peter Fleming, CRTC, 4 October 1988.
Jones, Christopher. "Alternative radio fans rise against CFNY switch." NOW 23-29 March 1989: 29
Maclean Hunter and CFNY. (Highlights and excerpts from Maclean Hunter's CRTC application for CFNY-FM), April 1989
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
"Radio activity." Music Scene January/February 1989: 17.
Reid, Jim. Interviewed by Wes Reimer (telephone), January 1991.
Reynolds, Bill. "CASBYs return the Spirit of Radio." Metropolis 2 November 1989: 17
Schwarz, Reiner. Live broadcast on CFNY-FM, recorded by Wes Reimer, May 1990.
Whittington, Jeff. "Give free-form programming a chance." Billboard 1 September 1990: 9
Wright, Colin. "CFNY scales CN Tower." Marketing 5 December 1983: 4