cfny grows up: campfire stories of renegade radio

From the 1986 CASBY program:

CFNY Grows Up: Campfire Stories of Renegade Radio
Jonathan Gross

Somewhere between Scuttlebutt Lodge and the Hot Stove Lounge lies Ivar Hamilton's desk at CFNY, where anyone who can get past reception can come in and sample the campfire stories of renegade radio. Like the time the station was programmed by Bill Nelson's wife so she could hear what she wanted while riding around in a limo. Or the entire evenings of Frank Zappa music hosted by Zappa himself way back when. Or figuring out just who was it that was the first to play the Sex Pistols at CFNY, their import album like many others donated to the station library by the Ivar Hamilton Foundation, never to be confused with that of Henry Ford.

Fish tales or whatever, they mesh to form the legend of a rough and tumble, lone wolf, hell-bent-for-leather FM station that came out of the woodwork of blue-collar Brampton in the late '70s to become the nation's new music station. CFNY's history is one of firsts and few seconds, of flags planted in previously uncharged musical isles. Every week brought its new Okinawas.

Well, let's not get carried away. Being the first deejay to play Motorhead in Canada is not up there with Kenny Taylor's heroics in Tehran. But if there ever was a friendly beach head for the new wave landing of the late '70s, it was CFNY.

"I like to look at the pop phenomenon in basically three historical periods," says CFNY program director David Marsden, now completing his tenth year at the station.

"You have Elvis' breakthrough in the mid '50s, followed by a short but incredibly productive period that saw the rise of Buddy Holly, Little Richard and others and then I go directly to the years during which the Beatles influenced everything we did."

"But it wasn't until the new music explosion in England that music began to at least mirror the fun, excitement and discovery of those earlier times."

Actually, it's not quite that simple. There was a CFNY prior to Marsden's arrival in early 1977. The musical texture was more or less laid out by a promise of performance to the CRTC, in whic then owners Harry and Leslie Allen committed their 800-plus watts to total eclecticism, a broad range of programming that could survive out there on the fringe of FM radio in the mid '70s. Back then it was CHIC-FM.

It became CFNY in 1976, unprogrammed by one David Pritchard who came over from a crosstown rival with the hopes of turning his new turntables into what FM radio once was. At that time FM radio was thoroughly bogged down in a quagmire of joyless album-oriented sludge caked onto phone lines ringing off the hook with requests for "Stairway to Heaven." Better signals, more sophisticated car and home audio equipment increased listenership in the growing post-Top 40 demographic which translated to higher commercial rates. Risks were suddenly answerable to market research. The once-freeform FM band was playing by a set of rules set by consultants, approved by government and applauded by record companies who could shove superstars of yesterday and tomorrow down the music director's throat.

"I used to enjoy hearing Dvorak played against, say, Ozzie Osbourne," says original CFNY deejay Lee Eckley, who was fired in late 1976 and replaced by former CHUM-FM on-air guru Marsden. "Pritchard thought that anything that was 'roots' from folk to classical to jazz to heavy metal was valid and could be played without any thought to consistency because the music was bonded by that common quality. That was the license in a much purer form than it is today."

But with only 800 watts to play with, CFNY had few listeners to lose. Nobody in Toronto really heard what was going on until later in 1977 when it picked up its 100,000 watts beaming out from a 375 foot tower in the Caledon Hills. Still, the signal wasn't too fabulous for drivers, especially east of Yonge St.

From there grew the station's personality with the likes of Keith Elshaw, All Night Andrew, Terry McElligott, Bruce Heyding and Marsden, guys who actually knew of what they played. Hamilton was a teenager at Humber College, working in the library for 'zero pennies' according to Marsden, bringing in imports to Heyding when he could afford it.

"What you have to understand is that there were no music meetings, no formats, no rotations," says Hamilton, "Whatever came into the station was simply stickered for all tracks and added. That's all. You played whatever you wanted."

Therein lies the hubris, the essence of CFNY, the ability of deejays to weave, with no restrictions, other than meeting Canadian content regulations, his own fabric on the turntables. Up until very recently, there was a rule at the station that no single song could be played more than once during any 24-hour period. This kind of freewheeling attitude romances Marsden's former incarnation as Dave Mickey, a hyperkinetic AM deejay who created his own scene and his own hits.

But when the power increased and the audience grew to match the wattage and surpass it, the zealotry of Pritchard gave way to a more commercial methodology. There weren't many requests for Tchaikovsky. The fringers were resettled into specialized weekend segments. The dominant dialect was rock but the station was no less interesting for it.

The earliest chart available goes back to a published survey of the Top 50 albums of 1978 as compiled by the CFNY audience. On the top is the debut by The Cars, a record that was the bread and butter of pretty well every station on the continent that year. Two spots down was Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, hardly the left field.

But the number two record was Talking Head's More Songs About Buildings and Food, and furhter down were George Thorogood, Ian Dury, Max Webster, 801, Nick Lowe, The Motors, the debut by Kate Busy and Frank Zappa's Studio Tan. Bebop Deluxe, a station pet, like Zappa was in there too. The new music was here.

"I'm not too sure about that chart," says Hamilton who was playing imports sometimes as much as a year prior to domestic release, which irritated many label schedules. "We were playing XTC, the Stranglers, Television, Devo and Blondie before anybody else. I'm not sure why it didn't go into the charges."

Somebody had to be playing this stuff because in downtown Toronto at landings like The Horseshoe and The Edge, promoters Gary Topp and Gary Cormier were changing the face of the concert scene by featuring these bands and others. Hamilton recalls how The Garys would let him in for free and allow him to bring his own beer because he couldn't afford to buy at bar prices. It was a period that new wave old timers recall with pride.

"I think it was the last period when you could play in a band without much concern for anything but the music," says Mark Gane, who was then rummaging around the inchoate Queen Street scene with the then extremely green Martha & The Muffins. "Today Television or Patti Smith wouldn't stand a chance of getting a deal."

Indeed the Muffins can credit CFNY with playing their independent first single "Insect Love" which pre-dates their big hit "Echo Beach" by almost a year. And there were plenty of other local yokels hearing their thrashing on CFNY. Teenage Head, Drastic Measures, The Diodes, The Demics, The Curse and The Government were station faves, all covered with black and blue marks where the competition had been touching them with ten foot poles. Not to forget the Poles and their biggie "CN Tower." Oh, for the lost innocence and militance that created the 1979 Worst Album List headed by the industry's 'new wave' entry The Knack.

By 1980, the 'worst of' list was damning former heroes The Cars, Gary Numan and The Rolling Stones. The populism of the past had given way to a self-righteous elitism, a holy war that championed the likes of Simple Minds right back from day one. In the wake of dramatic slumps in record sales in 1979, the record in-dustry in North America, as it is pronounced by Marsden, had by and large capitulated to new wave as the sound of the future. Only two records on the stations 'Best of' 1980 poll were heard exclusively on CFNY: Kate Bush's Never Forever and Magazine's Alternative Use Of Soap. There were many others to be sure but the turf itself was no longer exclusively CFNY's, remembering too that Hamilton's Import Show was also breaking out then bubbling under metal acts like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, a largely overlooked CFNY tradition going back to Eckley's period.

Not that what was now Marsden's formula, which by this time had its own music meetings and all the attendant administration, was being picked up all across the country. The one-play-a-day thing left them shepherding a flock of pimply college programmers which commercial stations groped in the dark for some divine wisdom from their consultants.

At one point, it became apparent that dayglo zebra stripes, short hair and sleazy production did not automatically cut it. New wave was developing its own cliches. Duran Duran, 'discovered' by CFNY is hardly heard today in their megastar status. And if CFNY was playing al these hot young Canadian bands like multiple U-Know winner Blue Peter, how come very few of them were actually going on to any national fame? The phenomenon seemed local. The vibe just wasn't translating to Calgary and Halifas in such penetrating proportions.

Last year CFNY pets and U-Know winners Images In Vogue, were dropped by their record company. "The day they were dropped I called two other companies and said, 'Dont miss the band,'" says Marsden. Nonetheless Images In Vogue remain unsigned.

And as the record companies fought to bring domestic releases closer and closer to U.K. timetables, CFNY wasn't making any friends by burning out records before the were even released in Canada. "The station is not, even today, part of the success equation in this country," says one national promotion director who would like to remain nameless because he has to do business with Marsden on a daily basis.

"I think the problem is less ours than theirs," contents Marsden. "I think the industry has to remain attentive because we ultimately help them do their jobs. True there was never much talk of other stations like ours opening in other markets. It is not just where we exist, it is why we exist."

There are now over 500,000 CFNY listeners in the Metro area listening to a signal that now competes from the CN Tower, tuning in Pete and Geets, the Live Earl Jive and others. It is no longer just a cult deal, just as Simple Minds is no longer a little band sneaking into The Edge for a couple of hundred fans. The whole thing has grown up, CFNY now has very serious music meetings and, pressures are such that selected cuts are now offered to deejays for repeat plays during the day.

It's not that simple anymore as it was maybe three years ago when you could go to a Police Picnic and look at the big festival of new bands and applayd CFNY which played a blue vinyl import copy of The Police's "Can't Stand Losing You" even before "Roxanne" was a hit. There's video now, which in its purest form works on a corollary of what Gane was talking about.

It seems that any opportunist with a visual concept and command of one megabyte software, without regard to real music, can have a hit dance record. As such there are video outlets, including Hamilton's long-running video road show extension of the Import Show, that will beat CFNY at its own game. And how can CFNY have made a difference if there's so much less radio now? Top 40 stations have gone to oldies formats not discernable from many FM stations which have gone yuppie-soft. It is bigger than both us, we, the CFNY listener included.

"There is no doubt there is less new music available to us or any other station," adds Marsden who now finds himself in the unlikeable position of refusing to playlist bands that major labels have positioned as 'new music' packages. "It's something that we all know and worry about. There is very little that's independent available anymore. I complain about the compromise to the future but, you can't compare these times to even six or seven years ago. Things are that much more expensive to attempt."

Whimsy is at an all time low. We settle for diminished returns. Instead of sending smoke signals that send every radio station on the warpath, we're happy when a Chalk Circle can pick up a record deal after winning the best unsigned category at last year's Casbys.

If the body of CFNY's work can no longer be considered renegade, there's always Chris Sheppard's Saturday Night Dance Party that's bringing in the rapping likes of The Beastie Boys and Run DMC; stuff you just can't hear with any regularity elsewhere. Instead of introducing ten new bands headed for the mainstream next month, we're happy when Hamilton brings one or two, like Boys Don't Cry, a featured guest on tonight's show who were first heard on CFNY.

Not second.

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