BACK to NRC articles page

The day the music died on radio 1050 CHUM switch to all-sports format marks end of an era David Olive, Senior Writer, Financial Post

From the National Post.

CHUM Archives

The exploits of "Jungle" Jay Nelson, above, and his colleagues kept listeners riveted to 1050 CHUM.

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED: 1050 CHUM's switch to an all-sports format will leave Baby Boomers with just memories of "Jungle" Jay Nelson and rock 'n' roll that mattered.

History records that in 1985, British pop star George Michael's Careless Whisper placed a respectable 17th on 1050 CHUM's ranking of the year's top 100 hits. That was a promising augury for the solo career of a singer who was first introduced to the world as one-half of the pop duo Wham!

And that was pretty much the last gasp for the locally famous CHUM chart, a weekly and annual compilation published by 1050 CHUM, a Toronto pop-rock radio station. In its heyday, the CHUM chart, distributed to thousands of fans and posted prominently at every record shop in town, was followed closely by Toronto teens. For 20 or so years, it symbolized the power of radio as a uniquely intimate medium, acutely reflecting the local tastes of an intensely loyal audience.

The announcement this week by CHUM Ltd. that it is abandoning music at 1050 CHUM for an all-sports format seemed to repudiate that tradition. It triggered a mild despair among Baby Boomers over the loss of a relic from their past.

It also sparked a peculiar amount of media coverage. Was it a confirmation of the Toronto-centric nature of the media that both of Canada's national newspapers and the CBC's As It Happens deemed the event to be of coast-to-coast import? Or could it be that self-exiled Torontonians in Lotusland and Chester, N.S., did indeed feel the loss as deeply as stock jockeys on Bay Street who dimly recalled that they had once been CHUMbugs?

What is certain is that radio, now arguably less powerful than any mass medium, not even excepting outdoor advertising, has squandered its legacy.

Radio was able to pull families together in the 1940s to hear Vera Lynn and Jack Benny. Decades later, stations such as 1050 CHUM were able to unite teens of all ethnic and income groups to debate the great issues of the day, none more pressing than whether the Beatles or the Rolling Stones had the superior claim to greatness.

That was a North American phenomenon. The reason the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is located in Cleveland is that it was a local disc jockey, Alan Freed, who first sanitized the expression "rock and roll." He took a crude term for sexual relations that vaguely originated with dance-hall musicians and made it a worldwide label for the anthems of a new generation.

And it was a Canadian radio station, Windsor's CKLW, that first put Motown artists on the map in their homeland. "The Big W," as it was known in the 1960s, beamed into Detroit the music of the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson that lily-white station managers in the Motor City initially refused to include in their playlists.

But it would be hard to find a radio outlet anywhere on the continent that championed the new music more relentlessly, and with more affection for its audience, than the station that neophyte broadcaster Allan Waters, then a pharmaceutical salesman, bought in 1954 from a friend in the drug supply business. Three years later, he converted it into Canada's first 24-hour Top 40 hit machine. The station's ratings doubled by the end of the first week.

1050 CHUM was not content to merely spin discs. It aggressively promoted the artists who recorded them, sponsoring their local concerts, making them the focus of endless quizzes and contests, and updating listeners on their romantic and legal woes.

Not everyone signed up for membership in the CHUMbug Club. But everyone did follow the antics of "Jungle" Jay Nelson and his fellow disc jockeys. Their exploits are well-remembered today, all the more so for being in some instances no doubt apocryphal. Like the DJ who threatened to go on a hunger strike if Lulu didn't add a Toronto date to her concert tour. Or the colleague who lashed himself to a Ferris wheel seat for the three-week duration of the Canadian National Exhibition in order, if memory serves, to make his case that Mr. Waters should bump up his paycheque.

With its chart-driven playlist, 1050 CHUM precisely monitored the evolution both of music and its audience. It was its listeners' constant companion through the eras of pop-Mop (the Monkees), pop-folk (Puff the Magic Dragon), pop-protest (Ohio) and pop-shock (Sex Pistols).

In time, the superior sound quality of FM created a rival to AM as a town square. But not before Mr. Waters had parlayed the burgeoning cash flow from 1050 CHUM into a broadcast empire. Today's CHUM Ltd. owns about two dozen radio stations, Citytv and other television stations, and CP 24, Bravo! and other specialty cable channels.

In the meantime, 1050 CHUM eventually gave up on Top 40, adopting the aural wallpaper of Favourites of Yesterday and Today, a concept imported from the United States. When that failed, it switched to the still more numbing oldies format that it is now shedding, which held a trifling 2.6% audience share. That made 1050 CHUM one of the least listened-to stations in the market, although it did seem to be the mood music for every discount department store and doughnut shop in the greater Toronto area.

1050 CHUM ultimately failed as a music station because it was boring. It was boring because CHUM Ltd. didn't spend enough money to make it interesting. Mr. Waters and his son Jim, who heads the CHUM Radio Group, opted for an endless loop of canned content. 1050 CHUM was no longer animated by the often manic voices of disc jockeys who weren't above accusing listeners of traitorous behaviour if they dared switch for even a minute to arch-rival CFTR, a minor province of Ted Rogers' empire.

The Waters were hardly alone in their mistake, although the redundancy of CHUM Ltd. as both a Muzak franchisee and an operator of innocuous radio stations was a telling irony.

Across North America, the response of radio owners to the threat of rock videos on cable was not to improve on their own programming innovations of the past, but to surrender the field. If they could no longer boost top-line revenue with ease, they could, and did, slash their bottom-line costs. They cut personnel, replacing colourful on-air personalities with syndicated programs. They assumed that listeners in whitebread Toledo and multi-cultural Toronto have the same ear for recorded music.

They don't, obviously, and music radio is in trouble in most markets. Hence CHUM Ltd.'s plan to yoke CHUM 1050 with some of its other stations to create an eight-city sports network, pledging to insert at least some local content in each market.

But the shift to sports in Toronto and elsewhere is hardly a panacea. The health of sports stations is tied to the fortunes of local teams, as Toronto sports station the Fan 590 learned when the Blue Jays stopped winning World Series and audience numbers plummeted.

Worse, the strategy most stations have chosen for sports is identical to the methods that undermined the music franchises.

Like many other radio-sports broadcasters, CHUM Ltd. plans to rely heavily on syndicated shows, saving the expense of employing more than the minimum number of local on-air voices. It will, for instance, be filling a fulsome three hours of the programming day at the new Team 1050, set for a debut likely on April 1, with a syndicated U.S. afternoon talk show featuring Jim Rome.

It is possible that Mr. Rome will use some of that time to speculate about Vince Carter's trade-bait status and Curtis Joseph's prospects for winning the Vezina Trophy. But don't count on it. When the Fan 590 dispensed with the services of Spider Jones, a quirky late-night host, his replacement was canned ESPN broadcasts in which mention of Toronto sports developments is timed for the appearance of a new moon.

The Fan 590 commands a mighty 2.5% of the Toronto market. But then, station owner Telemedia boasts that those hardy listeners are skewed to the demographically lucrative audience of high-spending males aged 18 to 45.

Radio isn't quite dead. The case for its continued relevance is made by the CBC, and by commercial talk-radio outlets with controversial hosts such as Vancouver's CKNW and Toronto's CFRB, along with non-profits such as Toronto's CJRT, a champion of local jazz.

Elsewhere on the dial, however, commercial operators keep finding new ways to reduce radio to the afterthought medium. As for former CHUMbugs in Toronto, they can still find a broadcasting showcase of local talent whose innovative programming is on par with the best broadcasters on the continent. It is called MuchMusic, a cable channel owned by CHUM Ltd.

Somewhere out there on the broadcasting spectrum, the Waters family is keeping the faith, after all.

BACK to NRC articles page