Thursday, April 26, 2007

Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8

Seldom do I feel genuine pride in my hometown, though being of a historical bent, well, I have a tendency to find things that please me.

One of these things is knowing that a radio station here was to the Midwest in the 1960's and 70's what Mexican Radio was to the Southwestern states and Southern California. And it was the very same station my grandfather worked at as a security guard, so I have a familial connection to the place.

The documentary, Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8, tells the tale of the glory years of CKLW, a station just south of the Detroit border that became a phenomenon and helped to change the face of modern radio and cable television.

The cast of characters is eclectic to say the least: a 19-year old wunderkind news director who would go on to record one of the most iconic spoken word albums of the 1970's, a secretary who became one of the most powerful women in music programming and the subject of a Bob Seger song and a program director who had such a feel for the format that he could tell when the clocks were off in the studios or the record players needed to be calibrated and a spasmodic newscaster who ended up winning the first Edward R. Murrow Award by a non-American news news team.

CKLW was one of the most influential stations in the Midwest during their prime, as it reached up to 28 states and 4 provinces, and if they played a record here, well, other markets would pick it up, a fact that wasn't lost on record executives. And because the station had a very integrated playlist and proximity to and close relationship with Motown, it was often referred to as the blackest white station in the world, and the list of artists that the station helped to stardom is a virtual who's who of the rock world.

And the 20/20 News segments were infamous for their sensationalism. I mean, the writing and presentation were almost poetic, like the headlines from a scandal rag in a James Ellroy novel, and given the fact that the station was covering Detroit in the late 60's and the 1970's, when violent crime was on the rise, well, there was quite a lot of gory details to report. In the documentary, one of the reporters stated that when he would go to conferences, he would often have to hide his id badge as CKLW was often critized as representing the worst qualities of newscasting. The documentary doesn't pull any punches about their style, and the reporters are the first to admit that they wouldn't tell it that way again.

But alas, their dominance couldn't last, as its strengths were taken away by a couple strokes of the pen with the introduction of stringent Canadian content regulations and a reluctance by the powers that be at the CRTC to allow the station to make the leap from AM to FM in the early 1980's. Of course, by that time, programming director Les Garland had gone on to cofound MTV(with a few stops in between).

The documentary tells an engaging tale, and as someone who is currently taking shots at the RIAA and Clear Channel, it is amazing to see how radio and the music industry used to be.

Of course, don't just take my word for it... check out a review at the Onion's AV Club or Variety.

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