WILLIAM COWLING RECALLS THE 1970S AT CFRC
SHARED BY WILLIAN COWLING
I grew up in England in the late fifties and early sixties, when the BBC was still enjoying the Golden Age of Radio. Their aim was to entertain, inform and educate, with a wide range of mixed content that moved unobtrusively from one category to another: drama, comedy, talks, features, news, current affairs, live concerts, studio sessions -- and very few records. With only two TV networks, no commercial radio yet and no local stations, there was little competition for national radio, so quality was high and audiences huge.
After our family moved to Canada in the mid-sixties, I probably listened to the radio more than most people my age. I quickly discovered the CBC’s Radio and FM Networks, which together provided a surprisingly similar range and pattern.
So when looking for a university in 1970, I chose Queen`s, not only for its strong academic reputation, but also its student radio station, CFRC. It was then one of just four educational stations in Canada which offered real radio, over the air. Other student stations were all closed-circuit then, only in residence rooms, lounges, cafeterias, etc.
CFRC was unique in having both AM and FM transmitters. Both were on the air year-round, but only on Thursday and Friday evenings, Saturday afternoons and evenings, as well as Sunday mornings and afternoons (to avoid interfering with engineering experiments). The previous academic year, it had just started offering separate programming in term-time. AM content was aimed mainly at the university campus, while FM targeted the broader Kingston area with a high proportion of classical music and the arts. Afternoon content was shared, with popular music on Saturdays and Classics by Request on Sundays. Summer programming was all shared.
CFRC was then arranged for student broadcasters to sign up on Mondays for times when they would be available that week (rather than having a regular weekly slot).
Like most students, my first programmes were two-hour popular music sequences; but my first structured one was an edition of Spotlight, on then-famous comedians Flanders and Swann. I followed it with a range of classical programmes, so I worked closely with the Classical Music Director, Phil Brown. I succeeded him for a year when he became FM Director in 1971/72; then I held the FM position for two years. I also wrote and performed many recorded comedy spots for Open Season, which Phil produced with numerous student actors, singers and musicians.
As Classics Director, I began International Concert Hall which ran for two years, using lighter music to introduce the classics to a general audience. I also expanded the range of recorded concerts, talks and features we ordered free of charge from international stations such as Deutsche Welle, Radio Nederland, Radio Moscow and Belgian Radio.
As FM Director, I started Bandstand, which ran for a summer, each week featuring a big band, brass band, dance band or a light orchestra. I also launched Comedy Classics, which ran that summer, with records featuring a different comedian or comedy team each time. I later piloted the weekly music series which became Festival, presenting full-length light classical performances, alternating among operettas, grand ballets, Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas and orchestra suites by a particular composer.
During that time I also worked closely with Steve Cutway (before and after he replaced Andrew Marshall as Station Manager); and later with Shelagh Rogers, who became one of the Classical Music Directors and is now famous at the CBC.
When I became FM Director, I was invited to join the Radio Advisory Sub-Committee. We were involved with the CRTC’s major policy changes for radio. They had recently introduced Canadian Content regulations: all AM stations had to provide 30% Canadian (based on the number of selections played, rather than length); and FM stations had to make their own commitments in a Promise of Performance, which was 10% for CFRC.
The CRTC then added a new FM requirement to include 25% Foreground features (of at least 15 min. each). This replaced the previous 20% specification for Arts, Letters and Sciences. Rolling (DJ-style) formats and Mosaic mixes (DJ-style, but including shorter Foreground items) were allowed, but not the so-called Gramophone content (without any music announcements). This was difficult for the commercial stations but easy for us at CFRC, as our classical and jazz programming met these requirements.
Many of us believed in what had become known as Foreground content. This enriched material was intended for people to tune in specifically, rather than to have on in the background. It needed to be planned well ahead, being more complex to produce and requiring additional publicity in print and on the air. This was hard to match with CFRC’s weekly sign-up system. Many of the new series we added over the years closely fitted the Foreground definition, long before the new rules had been introduced.
I stayed at Queen’s for a two-year MBA right after my B.Sc. (which was possible to do then). I was invited to be Popular Music Director for 1974/75. In that role, I asked the announcers to include one 15-minute Foreground segment each hour, covering a particular performer, songwriter or genre of popular music.
In 1975/76, my final year, I began Music Hall Matinee, which included short comedy tracks, with two featured singers and a different orchestra each week.
I also started With Murder in Mind that year, where my sister Anne Cowling and I read half-hour mystery stories (together or alternating week by week), mainly using some early short stories by Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Steve Cutway introduced the programmes and took care of technical production. The following year Anne was joined by Graham Sellers, as they continued the format under the broader title Skeletons in the Closet, with Steve still assisting. In Anne’s final year, 1977/78, she read an assortment of stories with lighter themes, as part of a longer Sunday afternoon series entitled Book Ends, still alternating with Graham, but with Shelagh Rogers announcing and providing technical production.
CFRC has changed a lot over the past half-century. In my six years I worked with many announcers, operators, producers and directors. It was hard to pick a few to mention by name here. I wish I had room for the others, who were all essential to CFRC’s success.