cfny, the little station that could, couldn't
by ian pearson
from "the city" magazine, october 1979
This September morning belongs to the blue suits. The Rossetti Room of the Chelsea Inn is swarming with them, but here and there the wave of blue is interrupted by a garish mauve silk jacket embroidered with the inscription "CFNY - The Only One." The blue suits speak their own tongue, a language of amortizations, tax shelters and legal decisions. The mauve jackets utter a different vocabulary, one composed of Sex Pistols, Talking Heads and Drastic Measures. The blue suits are assembled here to decide what to do about the mauve jackets.
It is the end of one of the most idiosyncratic chapters in Canadian broadcasting history: the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has convened to determine the fate of the tiny Brampton "progressive rock" radio station, CFNY-FM, and its sister AM "all-disco" station, CHIC. The history of CFNY has been a chain of misadventures; this morning the mauve jackets are hoping that the blue suits will fulfil its dream of becoming the little station that could.
Indeed, CFNY, one of the last truly alternative radio stations in North America, began as a dream in the summer of 1977. Its mandate was to play music that the others weren't playing, a throwback to the "underground" or "free-form" stations of the late Sixties (CHUM-FM's programming of that period is one of the best examples). The spontaneity resembled the boisterous days of early live radio; "The Spirit of Radio" was adopted as a slogan. But "Accidents Will Happen" would have been equally appropriate. The dream, while not becoming a full-blown nightmare, assumed proportions of a very strange hallucination.
With totally antiquated equipment, a transmitter that quit in thunderstorms, and notorious mismanagement, the operation was ramshackle but also refreshingly personal in its approach. The emphasis was on "new wave" music, the heady rock 'n' roll that evolved as a protest against the complacency of the Seventies. Although perhaps limited in its appeal, the CFNY programming meant as much to its audience as Betty Kennedy or Gordon Sinclair meant to theirs.
But the crash came on April 9, 1979, when the controlling company of CFNY, All-Can Holdings (owned by Leslie Allen and his brother, Harry J. Allen Jr.) was placed in receivership by the Supreme Court of Ontario and the Allens were charged with stock price manipulation and conspiracy to defraud. The Clarkson Company Ltd. was appointed receiver with responsibility to run the station in the interim, while a buyer was sought.
So the blue suits at the CRTC hearing are out to save the punks. The question of the day is whether or not the Civitas Corporation of Montreal should be allowed to buy the station and what will happen to the unique character of the station. Certainly the listeners are concerned: program director David Marsden estimates that the station received 6,200 letters and 150,000 names on petitions that were circulated to "save real radio."
Legalese is tossed around all day among chartered accountants, lawyers and businessmen. The sober proceedings are about as far removed from CFNY's cultural milieu as possible. It is difficult to imagine the blue suits driving away from the hearing and cranking up songs like Anarchy in the U.K. and Drug Stabbing Time on their car radios.
The transmitter itself seems to make its own comments on the proceedings on this rainy morning. In the tradition of CFNY, it breaks down for half an hour.
CFNY reposes in an old, yellow brick house on Brampton's Main Street, a lazy stroll away from Premier William Davis's home. The building looks better suited to an antique store than a rock 'n' roll station; much of the broadcasting equipment could be mistaken for antiques. On the main control board, meters marked "Stereo" bear the inked-in rejoinder "sort of." Allnite Andre is operating the board, and doesn't flinch at the irony as he announces, "You're listening to Allnite Andre on a sunny Sunday afternoon." The lights on the phone lines flicker with requests for music ranging from punk band Teenage Head to eccentric French composer Eric Satie, but Andre is occupied trying to instruct the newscaster on the proper switches to pull for her newscast.
"Press the red button," he instructs, trying to shout through the glass of the control-room.
"Where?" she asks, baffled at the ancient controls.
"To the right," Andre points, and she finally finds the correct switch. "Where did you learn radio?"
"Here," she replies.
"Ah," Andre sighs knowingly.
He's 24, but his pudginess, short black hair and brown-rimmed glasses give him an air of boyishness, as if he had fallen out of a 1965 photograph of Freddy and the Dreamers. Yet he's the veteran disc jockey of the station and describes the experience as "like working in a Saturday Night Live skit."
In fact, Andre started working at CFNY before there was a CFNY and even before the owners knew about him. Although the station had been operating since 1962 as CHIC-FM, its programming was largely a simulcast of the AM station. "At 857 booming watts," Andre recalls, "the signal barely reached beyond the newsroom."
In 1976, with visions of landing a lucrative license to operate at 100,000 watts, the CHIC management started separate programming to prove to the CRTC that they could fill a need in the Metro market. What they didn't know was that Andre, through the help of a friend at CHIC, had been running a show from a spare turntable in the AM studio for about six months before he was hired, along with a crew of novice broadcasters.
"It felt like the radio in Hogan's Heroes, it was so underground," remembers Andre. "We had high school kids, postal employees, people who had speech impediments and people who hated music. When I heard we got the license for 100,000 watts, I thought 'No way.' It was a complete farce. We were going to be heard everywhere and make complete fools of ourselves."
But only Andre survived. This was, after all, a big-league station, ready to take on CHUM-FM and Q107. When CFNY started broadcasting in Toronto at 100,000 watts in July, 1977, an experienced corps of announcers was recruited, including David Pritchard and Reiner Schwarz (both veterans of the CHUM-FM free-form days), Kitchener blues and rockabilly expert Dave Booth, and Terry McEllicott from Montreal (presently with CHUM-FM).
The license was granted by the CRTC based on a promise of performance, that CFNY would offer innovative programming unavailable elsewhere. With Pritchard as program director, it definitely provided an alternative: it was the best - if not the only - outlet for reggae, punk, blues, electronic and Quebecois music while maintaining a comprehensive rock, jazz and classical emphasis.
Above all, it was unpredictable. Perhaps the most outrageous announcer was John Morris, a former talk show host who handled the Saturday midnight-to-dawn show. "I am only taking requests tonight," he would say, "from people in formal attire." When he was swamped with calls, he added a further restriction. "I'm only going to talk to men wearing tuxedos." With the phone lines still plugged, another limitation was added: "I'm only answering calls from men in evening gowns."
Where other stations would pamper their audiences with a smooth delivery (bringing to mind Woody Allen's quip, "Sometimes I get so mellow I tend to rot"), Morris wasn't afraid to, uh, challenge his audience. Once, while he was starting his shift, an overlong psychedelic cut from the Sixties that the previous announcer had started seemed to drag on and on. Listeners heard the microphone switch on, footsteps stomp over to the turntable, a horrific scratch, a chuckling "That's enough of that" and the crashing opening chords of a punk song.
But sometimes Morris could be tender with his listeners: "I've just received a call from a listener who thinks I shouldn't be playing Patti Smith because she's sold out and gone commercial. Well at least Patti has a Number One hit this year. That's better than you little clones, sitting around in your parents' rec room smoking dope."
Not for everyone, obviously, nor was it intended to be. But compared with the anonymity of announcers on other FM stations, it was a refreshing change. When Andre was stricken with laryngitis 15 minutes into his show, he simply opened up the phone lines and let the listeners announce the records on the air. For five hours. "To me, that epitomizes what radio is all about," reflects Andre. "No jock at CHUM-FM or Q-107 would have been allowed to do it."
But the staff spent as much energy squabbling with management as worrying about the competition. Not the least of the problems was the transmission tower, which had authorization from Transport Canada to rise to 800 feet, a height that would feed a signal into Toronto as strong as one from the CN Tower. Yet the Allens chose to build the FM tower on the same site as the AM tower, and limited the height to 300 feet so as not to interfere with CHIC's signal. Consequently, the station that had the plum opportunity to smother Metro with 100,000 watts could barely be picked up in its major market.
The shabbiness of the studio was quaint, but a hindrance to those who worked there. "Working in a dumpy closet can be fun," says Reiner Schwarz, who now freelances for CHFI and CBC-TV, "but when the stylus jumped because the building trembled, it was unbearable. We never did find out what made it tremble."
"Once I was on the air talking about noise pollution," Schwarz continues, "and my announcer's chair collapsed beneath me. The thing had been held together with tape. The timing was so perfect that my listeners had a hard time believing that it wasn't choreographed."
Promotion was almost nonexistent, save for some T-shirts and spray-painted graffiti. Not surprisingly, the station came dead last in its first ratings, behind even the French station and the all-news station. The stage was set for some rash collisions between the Allen brothers and their staff.
Leslie Allen showed an impatience with program formats, even though any format changes require CRTC approval. CHIC-AM, over the years, had by turns been an all-girl station ("CHIC - Where the Girls Are"), a talk show station, a Top-40 station, a country station and finally an all-disco station.
The format changes were usually the result of one phone call from Allen, as when he changed CHIC to country. Allen phoned the early morning announcer, who was alone at the station, and commanded, "Go country, right now." The announcer protested that there was only one country album in the library. "Well, play it," ordered Allen, "and then play it again." CHIC listeners were treated to hours of the same John Denver record until the day staff arrived at the station and someone was dispatched to buy more country albums.
With CFNY, the small listenership was too intensely loyal to take format changes lying down. David Pritchard was eased out as program director ("They offered me a consulting job at $15 a week, so I quit," he scoffs) and Allen attempted to convert the eclectic programming to Top 40. "It lasted three days," says Andre, "until the sponsors threatened to pull out unless the old format was returned."
John Morris took advantage of the situation on April Fools' Day. He announced that forthwith the station was going to play nothing but marching band music, and put on a John Philip Sousa record. "The first few callers actually enjoyed the switch," Morris
Another CHUM-FM alumnus, David Marsden, was hired as program director. The mix of rock, classical and jazz remained but the emphasis shifted to "progressive and "new wave" music aimed at a younger audience.
And announcers dropped like flies. For a company with about 35 employees, All-Can issued 150 T4 slips in one year. Dave Booth, Lee Eckley (now at Q-107), Terry McEllicott and Reiner Schwarz were gone within a couple of months. Schwarz left a week after Leslie Allen interrupted his Sunday afternoon show.
"I was doing my salute to spring," Schwarz recalls, "mixing pop with classical - following Bruce Cockburn with Debussy - and bridging the music with sounds of birds. Leslie Allen stormed in, out of his brains with anger, screaming at me for playing classical music and telling me to get into the hits. So I suggested that he go on the air."
"He took over the microphone and offered free tickets to Saturday Night Fever to the first 10 callers who could tell him why they didn't like my show. It was ridiculous to see an owner of a radio station denigrating his own programming and then offering tickets to a disco movie on an "alternative" station. Out of 30 calls, only one was negative.
"I came back the next week and found a memo instructing me to follow a precise format. I ignored it, did my normal program and at the end of the program let my listeners know I was leaving."
Keith Elshaw's departure was also under strange circumstances. In December 1978, his late-night show, according to Elshaw, had dramatically increased its ratings and he had been named FM disc jockey of the year by The Toronto Star. Within two weeks, with no explanation, he found himself laid off: But he feels little bitterness because the experience introduced him to many local bands, some of whom he is now recording on his new Airwave Records label.
"CFNY returned my youth to me," says 29-year-old Elshaw, who has worked in radio since he was 13. "I felt like a kid again. When I worked at Q-107, it wasn't any fun. You weren't allowed to think under the format. At Brampton, I found it incredibly invigorating working for an audience who loved you.
"It's funny, but the only other guys I respect in radio are CFRB, where people are talking about things that other people are interested in. Like lost cat announcements - that's great because it reaches people."
After Elshaw's departure, the station accelerated its emphasis on rock, but still played music shunned by its competitors and allowed its disc jockeys to choose their own music. When it fell into receivership in April, 1979, the Allens were removed from the scene. With the station up for sale, the loyalty of the listeners became vehement. CFNY was suddenly a cause. When CHUM-FM broadcast rising rock 'n' roll star Graham Parker, an artist first played heavily on CFNY, live from El Mocambo, some sound problems developed and the band had to stop. With no prompting, the crowd burst into a chant of "C-F-N-Y, C-F-N-Y," which was duly transmitted to CHUM-FM listeners via the open microphones.
David Marsden sees the station functioning as a telephone where other stations shout like PA systems. "I think we have an intimacy that other stations lack," says Marsden, who once played a Fleetwood Mac album at 45 r.p.m. in a satirical claim that "At CFNY, We Play the Hits Faster." "We're obligated to prove to the listener that radio can be more than a vast wasteland, that there's more in life than pap and drivel."
The listeners say it best themselves. I talked to a number of them who were phoning in requests on a recent Friday night. CFNY not only honors requests, it occasionally announces dedications, a practice virtually extinct in major markets. The callers ranged from drunken partyers to extremely articulate types passing on their observations about CFNY's role-in-a-new-society.
Glen Fans, 21, Bowmanville: "They play the bands we want to hear, especially the Canadian ones like Teenage Head and Rex Chainbelt. They care about what the public wants. The others are so commercial they reek." (His request: Top Down by Teenage Head)
Unidentified 13-year-old-girl, Toronto: "I like it because you can phone in for requests. John Lennon is my favorite; the Beatles are much better than the Knack." (Her request: Don't Bother Me by the Beatles)
Ian Marchant, 22, Toronto: "I'm into all kinds of music but I like CFNY because of the variety. Other FM stations are pretty boring and you hear the same stuff as AM. I like new wave because it's got a heavy beat and something to say. But I enjoy the jazz and blues as well." (His request: Nyet Nyet Soviet by B.B. Gabor)
John Harcourt, 20, Toronto: "Other stations just deal with images. CFNY is broadcasting the culture itself through the music. The values really come through in the music. (His request: At the Zoo by Simon and Garfunkel)
And, yes, all the requests were played.
Whither CFNY? The ultimate verdict of the blue suits was yes, it will be given a chance to survive and yes, the present programming will be maintained. Civitas Corporation was given CRTC approval to buy the station and plans immediate upgrading of the facilities.
"It's not my intention to make any changes people-wise," explains Ed Provost, president of Civitas. "It took me a while to come to terms with a full appreciation of the unique potential of CFNY. We won't be opting for an easy and convenient type of programming, but there will be a major tightening-up of the situation.
What Civitas promises is a major streamlining of the physical facilities, with a new building, a new transmission tower and improved equipment. And a no-nonsense attitude toward the work. "The people here have been superb in their enthusiasm," says Provost, "but they have to be disciplined. The punctuality has been terrible and a lot of bad habits developed during receivership. They might be a little shocked by the workload we're giving them."
The music might remain the same, but the air of uncertainty that fed much of the spontaneity has disappeared. It's like a charming, funny old drunk who suddenly picks himself up and goes on the wagon. The humor may remain, even the warmth, but he loses that giddy magnetism that is projected when one is looking over the edge. With a new set of clothes, accidents tend not to happen anymore.