The Demise of The Big 8 - Laying a Giant to Rest
by Charlie O'Brien
Working at CKLW at the tail end of the truly glory years was and still is my professional highlight. There isn't far you you can go in a conversation about great radio stations without mentioning those legendary call letters: CKLW the Big 8 - Windsor/Detroit's 50,000 watt Top 40 powerhouse from the 60's and 70's covering 28 states and 4 provinces at night. Right up there with WABC, WCFL, WLS, KFRC, CHUM, KHJ, WJR and many other great names from around North America, CKLW lives on in the hearts of fans yet today. Jingle and aircheck collectors kept these stations alive. This web page is yet another tribute.
But why did many of these great stations and particularily CKLW fall by the wayside? Changing times, new formats, technology, poor management decisions, listener preferences and in CKLW's case: government intervention and meddling.
The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) is an entity that came into being out of the ashes of the Board of Broadcast Governors by act of Parliament. Their job was to interpret and enforce the Broadcast Act - the Act was made law by the legislative process of Parliament and the CRTC were the watchdogs. The CRTC were partially funded by private broadcasters in that once being granted a broadcast license you paid a hefty fee to the CRTC in annual licensing - and they had ultimate power over you and your station. Canada's private broadcaster the CBC also had to go before the CRTC every few years to reapply for licenses but I'm not sure if they directly paid fees - as the CBC is a public corporation funded by tax dollars dutifully handed out by Parliament. Those budgets have dramatically been slashed in recent years. The CRTC - a major player in our drama - will return in a later act.
RKO/General was the owner of CKLW-AM and FM and TV in the sixties and was running a successful full service station at 800 on your AM dial: Radio 8 CKLW. Lots of schlocky music your parents listened to but nothing a teenager could get into. Across the Detroit river from the Riverside Drive home of CK, WXYZ 1270 were getting into the new rock and roll sound as were WKNR (Keener13). (Aside - will there ever be a Keener 13 Web Page? (2021 Update: YES! www.keener13.com - run by Scott Westerman) Keener only covered the west side with their limited reach but still proved to be the station to beat. As mentioned on this page they had some simulcast help on FM.
CKLW, in an effort to compete, used the moniker "The Giant" for a short period in 1964 - the Giant would awaken as The Big 8 less than 3 years later - but first as Fun Radio 8 in 1967, then the Big 8 in July 1967. They played some rock records at night and for a while issued a chart - soon to be discontinued the same year. The exact blow by blow of this birth is a whole story unto itself to be researched in depth for one day in the future. RKO hired Paul Drew as P.D. and a major staff shuffle occurred; only two jocks survived the cuts: Tom Shannon from Buffalo and Dave Shafer who had come over from WJBK radio where he was Jack The Bellboy. These two were the starting core of what was to be The Big 8. Tom Shannon would own the night time airwaves and "Bear Skin Rug Music" after 11pm was THE love song radio show to make out to. It was "The Shannon Empire" signing off every night "drive carefully, make sure it's your own car. And above and beyond all else..later!"
The Drake format was instituted playing the Top 40 records in hot rotations with the classic Johnny Mann jingle package powering up those never to be forgotten Top Hour ID's with Bill Drake saying: "And now ladies and gentlemen...!" Or, "And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'!" CKLW started their charts again, the jock's energy was hot and the battle was on - it was only a matter of time before CK wore down Keener's lead and took over as the number one rock station.
Shannon and Shafer's record hops were legendary. Dave Shafer used the Riverside Community Center in Windsor while Tom Shannon's hops were mostly at Notre Dame High School if I'm not mistaken. It was not unusual to see Stevie Wonder or Martha Reeves or Bob Seger making an appearance to lip-sync their current hit song. The jocks were allowed so many free plugs for their hops and the kids poured in droves.
YZ it seemed was never able able to score numbers like CK - somebody out there may be able to fill in those blanks. WXYZ did hire Dick Purtan from Keener 13 to do mornings and he did own a big morning share. He too would be part of the CK story. On air it was guys like Johnny Morgan, Gary Mitchell, Big Jim Edwards, Bob Todd, Billy Mack, and hold overs Dave Shafer and Tom Shannon.
Later on Frank Brodie in mornings, Johnny Williams starting on the allnight show later to move into middays. Tom Shannon again (after a quick trip to 'KB in Buffalo), Charlie Van Dyke, Bill Winters, Steve Hunter, Jim Jackson, Chuck Hobart, Bob Clark, Ed Mitchell, Walt "Baby" Love, Tom Rivers, Brother Bill Gable, The World Famous Pat Holiday, Eddie Rogers, Jack Anthony and Dave Shafer (again - after being fired by Paul Drew - later to be fired by Drew AGAIN!!!!). see the ANNOUNCERS page
The great Alden Diehl (a Canadian) was programming in the early seventies. Later it was Bill Hennes, Les Garland, Bill Gable and Pat Holiday (right to the end). The superjocks kept rolling in to the "8": Ted Richards (Teddy "Truckin' Bear), Super Max Kinkel, "Cowboy"Cosmic Bob Moody, Mike "The Killer" Kelly and Gary Burbank (The Morning Mouth) were among the great guys to sit behind the microphone. Dick Smyth with 20/20 News also including names like Byron McGregor, Grant Hudson, Joe Donovan, Steve Madley, Randall Carlisle, Jon Belmont, Keith Radford and others.
In addition, the following comments are from Steve Hunter: First, Frank Brodie was at CKLW from 1968 through the mid '70s. He was Program Director at CKLW at least twice: once during the transition from Jim O'Brien to Paul Drew in the summer of 1969, and, again, following Drew in 1970. Most of the rest of the time he was at CKLW, he did mid-days. Alden Diehl began programming in 1970 immediately following the sequence of O'Brien, Brodie, Drew, Brodie...and Diehl. Steve notes that 1969-70 was Drew's second whirlwind -- or hurricane! -- tour through CKLW. Sadly, it must be reported that Alden Diehl passed away on October 26, 2000 (there was an Alden Diehl Tribute Web site that contained many recollections, including some from former CKLW employees)(2021 Update - website no longer active.)
These were the guys I listened to from miles away and was lucky enough to join on air. I was collecting their airchecks and all of a sudden I was right there. These years were the heyday - from about 1967 to 1978. It was "CK" or The Big 8 - people knew the station you were talking about. In fact when I arrived at CK in '75 our share was a 7.6 which was down from years past peaking in the double digits. Even in the 70's there were still dayparts that would pull say a 25 share on a weekend or evening. CK was listened to by over two million people a week in the Arbitron rated counties reaching to Cleveland in the east and Ann Arbor to the west. Throw in the Canadians in Essex county and there were another 100,000 or so. Many Americans then, and to this day, thought CKLW was an American radio station. When the CRTC applied their will, most people quickly figured out it wasn't so.
The CRTC was duly bound to protect "Canadian culture", whatever that was. To them it meant keeping out most things American, assuming that by controlling broadcasters and what they could play on air that the sanctity of our culture would be protected. The Ministry of Labour passed a rule that stated Canadian media and broadcast outlets must be majority Canadian owned. If RKO/General wanted to stay they could only keep 20 percent of the company. They ended up selling the whole thing to a combo of Baton Broadcasting from Toronto and the CBC. Together they ran the radio/TV outlet but Baton divested itself of the TV station to the CBC and moved into new radio digs at 1640 Ouellette Avenue in 1972. The FM transmitter remained in the old CBC building and the antenna on the Channel 9 stick.
Many Canadian music stars at this time were going to the U.S. and becoming international greats: Paul Anka, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and The Guess Who to name a few. The CRTC was truly at its protectionist best when it came up with the 30 percent Canadian content rule in 1970. Canadian radio stations including CKLW had to play 30 percent Canadian content as part of its daytime music (6am to midnight). They reasoned it would keep Canadian artists at home, giving the record industry here a chance to grow and thrive and support its own. In a nutshell, it didn't happen. CKLW broke its lion's share of new Canadian artists because of its market dominance. The master music director Rosalie Trombley was recognized as one of the pre-eminent star makers in radio. When she programmed a record it was almost sure to be a smash. Canadian artists like The Bells "Stay Awhile", Motherlode "When I Die", Blood Sweat and Tears (David Clayton Thomas is Canadian) "Spinning Wheel", The Guess Who "These Eyes" and Gordon Lightfoot "If You Could Read My Mind" and many others owe a debt of gratitude to Rosalie and CKLW. It wasn't long before competing stations in the market caught on (WDRQ 93FM) and stopped playing these records, putting sometimes stronger U.S. hitbound songs or gold into the holes in the playlist and hurting CK's reputations as the "music leader." It was one big factor in this erosion, the other being the growth of FM radio on the dial and album rock stations (WRIF, WWWW, WABX) taking big shares of music listeners.
Yet Detroit AM radio was and continues to be strong with stations like WJR, WWJ and WXYT (used to be WXYZ) still getting top numbers among FM competitors. CKLW was still profitable through the 70's, grossing about $7 million a year. These dollars were starting to fall as national radio advertising money was being spread among more stations. Many listeners don't know, but CKLW was really two entities. CKLW Radio in Windsor (the broadcast outlet) and CKLW Radio Sales in Detroit, a wholly owned company. Essentially CKLW had two sales managers, two sales staffs, two rate cards for advertising, two promotion directors and a bunch of cross border headaches. CKLW had always sold ad time with higher rates for U.S. clients and lower rates for Canadian clients (smaller BBM rating samples and listener amounts). The Canadian sales force had to fight "sold out" conditions or get bumped by a higher paying U.S. account. Let's face it, the money was on the Michigan side of the river and the beautiful broadcast house on Ouellette Ave. was a monument to that. Ironically, Canadian sales would help keep the stations afloat later in the 80's when the recession hit. Just having that little extra revenue base was a help the U.S. rivals didn't have. But, the big glory days were slowly eroding. U.S. revenues were slipping to match the sinking ratings, and changes were to come.
A very painful event in CKLW's history had to be the strike by NABET unionized workers in 1977. Oddly, CKLW had two unions in the shop - AFTRA, under which the on air and news talent fell, and NABET, which covered everyone else not in management. This was unique in the fact that secretaries and commercial traffic personel were in the same union as the technical producers, board operators, and engineering department. CKLW planned to reduce the size of its board operator staff by asking for several givebacks by the union but NABET, under advise from the parent union, stood ground and went on strike. A truly dark period in that AFTRA, with a no strike no lockout clause in their contract, had to cross lines and go to work. Some NABET crew of course came over right away, and then there was management scrambling to keep the station on air, because the jocks couldn't run their studios without a producer.
Some staffers never came back. In a union town this black mark on CKLW hung on for a very long time.
Changes came - a new studio was built to accomodate the solo announcers and Dick Purtan was hired away from WXYZ as the saviour of the station. This was the late Herb McCord's last action as he moved on to future success with Greater Media, and he was replaced by Chuck Camroux from Toronto. The "Great Entertainer" was the new moniker, and CKLW was to be in a position to attack long time AM rival WJR.
CKLW fought unsuccessfully for the rights to Lions NFL football, and did manage though to land Pistons NBA broadcasts, U of M football and NASL soccer (yes, soccer on radio). Pat Holiday took over as Program Director and took the station into the 80's - yet ratings were falling. Chuck Camroux was replaced by a string of GM's. There was an attempt by the station to put the "Top 40" style format on its FM sister station but the CRTC, in its disdain for the format on FM, flatly refused. Their attitude was still protectionism of AM radio, which predominated the Canadian scene. Their position on FM was that it should be for "good" music - almost a cultural ghetto where classical and jazz lived. "Who would dare bring high repetition and the Top 40 mentality to FM!" was their battle cry.
The new FM regulations specifically laid down ground rules that forced more restrictions on broadcasters. No American broadcaster had ever had their hands tied like this - in fact the F.C.C. had deregulated the industry and gave almost free rein to radio and TV in the U.S. CKLW over this time continued to petition the CRTC to ease the rules, especially in border markets (like Windsor, Fort Erie etc) where high U.S. competiton made it impossible to succeed. It was only in the 90's that this finally happened - much too late for CK.
An important chapter in CK's history was the station known as "The Fox." CKLW-FM had been for many years a country format, dutifully failing as CK's weak sister and switching to a Big Band/Jazz mixture in the late 70's. The FM's programming was aimed towards Windsor, while CKLW-AM (now AM 800 in stereo) was still targeting the U.S. Dick Purtan survived almost 5 years at CKLW, making a mark in mornings - most of his WXYZ listeners had followed him over. The station, however, failed to translate his success into other dayparts - after Purtan signed off at 10 A.M. his listeners went to FM music stations to spend their days listening at work. Dick Purtan moved over to WCZY-FM (Cosy95) in Detroit to work for P.D. Dave Shafer. Dick's sidekick, Tom Ryan, was enticed to stay and continue hosting the CKLW-AM morning show - which he did for about a year.
"The Fox" was Pat Holiday's brainchild. Pat, a longtime successful jock, was now the Program Director and V.P. Programming. I still call The Fox the best station that "NEVER" was. Pat developed a hybrid rock/urban format that mimicked CK's 60's formula, yet fell within the restrictive CRTC music guidelines. At this point, a brand new FM tower costing over a million dollars had been built on land outside of Windsor. Channel 9 wanted CK's stick off their tower and transmitter out of their building, partly based on the lingering effects of the NABET strike (Channel 9's crew being NABET).
The preparations for The Fox continued - music was recorded, jingles were commissioned, and the staff were culled from CK's AM side to move over to the new station. We practised the format in a studio for 30 days while waiting for the CRTC to give approval. Dave Shafer had been hired over to program CKLW-AM so that Pat could oversee the Fox. Advertisers were presold on the format, and 3 massive billboards touting the arrival "of a new radio animal" were installed in Detroit overlooking the major freeway routes. We were ready to unleash this great new station.
On a fateful day the 3 P.M. announcement from the CRTC carried the sad news. The application was only partially approved! An "experimental" licence was granted whereby the FM would be partitioned. The commission only gave approval for 4 hours of "The Fox" - 2 in the morning drive hours and 2 in afternoon drive! The rest of the station was essentially the same - BIG BAND. What a fiasco! The collective morale of the building plummetted - we were devastated! The Fox was doomed to fail at the hands of the CRTC when it could have proved to be the saviour.
This continued for a few months, when management had to make moves. CKLW AM & FM were spun off into "Russwood Broadcasting", a holding company of Baton just waiting to be sold.C.U.C., a cable company from Toronto, had an agreement to purchase and Baton was left with the unenvious task of cleaning house. Close to 40 staffers were let go on a fateful day. Dave Shafer survived the cuts and took over programming both stations - CKLW-AM inherited the Big Band/Music of Your Life format, and did quite well albeit with much older listeners. CKLW-FM adopted an easy listening music format and sputtered along harmlessly. It was 1985, and The Giant had been laid to rest. The Big 8 was dead and buried. So ends this chapter.
1984 Dave Shafer launched CKLW-FM with an Oldies format and was dubbed "The Legend." Over the years CKLW-FM would be known as MORE-FM, I-94 and The River. It is now Virgin FM owned by BELL Media (iHeart Radio.)
CKLW-AM continued as a Music of Your Life Station until the two stations were sold to CHUM Radio Ltd in the early 90's. CKLW-AM changed to a Talk/News format and has been so ever since serving mainly the Windsor listening market.
Big 8 Radio is heard Coast to Coast in Canada, the USA and the UK!