We rocked around the clock thanks to Toronto airwaves

On Monday, May 7, CHUM Radio went off the air.

Not really. But CHUM 1050 Toronto abandoned its rock format in favour of a new all-sports format.

CHUM signed off by playing the song that initiated the radio station into being 44 years earlier, almost to the day. That was Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up”, the number 1 rock chart hit in 1957, May 27.

As CHUM left its rock berth, early DJs reminisced about the 50’s and 60’s when the radio station’s peak audience numbers catapulted CHUM into icon status. Located in the country’s largest population concentration, hooked into the baby boomer teenager, the first group of teenagers to have their own culture and media directed exclusively to them, CHUM became the unofficial voice of rock radio in Canada.

And as I read about the change in CHUM’s format (actually, the station has been playing golden oldies–fifties and sixties tunes–since the late 1980’s) it triggered memories of my own teenage years. I grew up in small town Ontario, isolated, semi-rural living. A trip to Toronto was a once or twice in a lifetime thing before you left town at the end of high school. Our world, as teenagers, was linked to two Toronto radio stations, CHUM and CKEY, from whose soundwaves we explored an emerging music genre called rock & roll.

Many musical genres have followed… punk, disco, dance, straight rock, heavy metal… and my mom says it all began with Frank Sinatra in 1940 when teenagers “logged on” to stardom, became original groupies, and developed a cult worship of their music heroes.

She’s right.

But for me, in 1962 and my first year of high school, music became everything. I remember well calling the Eaton’s Order Office downtown and putting in my order for a trendy “transistor radio.” It cost $17. My part time job at Parkinson’s Five and Dime paid 50 cents an hour… lots of Friday nights and all day Saturdays working to save for that radio. It measured five inches by eight inches and was about three inches thick. It came in a leather case. It was coral and cream in colour, about the same as my dad’s 19534 Chevy. It held six AA batteries. It gave me portable music. It was my world. I could listen to it in my room, I could walk holding it with its little earpiece stuck in the side of my head. I could sit in the back yard. It was a step up from Walter Boles and CBC Radio and the daily lunc h-hour Teddy Bears Picnic show.

I was so excited about getting this radio that I was at the order office half an hour early, waiting for it to open to so I could count out my money and walk home with my prize.

And that little radio opened up the world to CHUM. Elvis Presley had peaked and joined the American Army. The Beatles were moving into top spot. And I’d collect the CHUM charts that were distributed through the Simpson’s Sears order office with their popular “shopper” service… which allowed us to order a 45 single for $1 every Saturday, to receive delivery the next week. It was as instant in those days as Napster is today. Except, we paid for the music.

Faithfully I underlined my CHUM charts, recording the movement of each Beatles song. I pasted them, and all other news clippings, into my Beatles scrapbooks. Looking through those scrapbooks is a trip through my youth.

It was from CHUM that I learned about The Beatles arrival in Canada and mobilized a car and friends to go to the airport to be part of the greeting party. I was 15, a non-driver, so it took some doing to make my second ever trip to Toronto.

I was glued to my record player, with “Johnny Angel” playing again and again and again, its grooves so deep the needle scratched along picking up dust along the way. Or, I could tune in, as I stood facing north, and pick up transistor radio reception from CHUM.

As I take this memory trip with you, there were no Canadian content regulations, so the fact that Skeeter Davis, from Guelph, Ontario, went to the top 10 with “The End of the World” is a miracle. CHUM’s airwaves introduced us to the New Christy Minstrels, the Mama’s and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Barrie McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, David Clayton-Thomas’ Blood Sweat and Tears, Burton Cummings’ The Guess Who, the Doobie Brothers, Jeff Beck and Truth, Cliff Richard, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and on and on and on…

CHUM regularly sent its disc jockeys out to emcee high school dances and they brought with them a selection of 45’s for spot dance prizes. They always came equipped with CHUM charts and were the station’s number one public relations agents with young people all over the province. Did CHUM dictate the popularity of rock and roll music, or did teenagers actually vote and make the selections? I never knew. I still don’t.

I do know that this Toronto radio station with the courage to launch forth a music format designed for the biggest emerging generation of teenagers ever had an impact that could likely not be measured. For kids in small communities with little or no entertainment other than a movie theatre and high school dances, the Toronto radio station was our window on a bigger, wider world. It allowed us to explore, to listen, to filter, to develop attitudes and goals, to dream.

In 1967 I moved to Toronto to study Journalism, taking up residence in the Women’s Y on Woodlawn Ave. After unpacking my belongings, the first thing I did was walk up the street to stand in front of CHUM Radio on Yonge St. I don’t know what I expected to see, but the one-storey building, squat and ordinary didn’t look at all like the mecca I expected.

And where is my radio today, that symbol of young adulthood, that plastic box that differentiated me from my “kid” sister and brother? Well, my friend Tina collects 60’s memorabilia. I recently relegated it to her wall of 50’s and 60’s transistor radios. It’s a fitting tribute to an era.

Thanks, CHUM.