This is one in a series of articles Radio World has published exploring the business challenges and successes of AM radio.
MONTREAL — 2010 began with a sad note for radio in Quebec’s largest city as the oldest station in Canada went off the air just four months shy of its 90th birthday.
CINW, “AM940 Montreal’s Greatest Hits,” signed off for the last time on Friday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. Its shut down, along with that of its sister station, Info690, had been announced that morning by its owner, Corus Entertainment.
“Despite the excellence and dedication of station employees, Info690 and AM940 are unprofitable,” the news release explained tersely. “It is clear that these two AM stations are not viable, particularly in the current economic climate.”
“I was shocked when Corus made the announcement and the plugs were pulled,” said Canadian radio historian Bill Dulmage. “CFCF was a legendary station with 90 years’ of history. It is hard to believe that it is now gone.” (The station used the call sign CFCF, only becoming CINW in 1999.)
World heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, center, speaks into a mic connected to a Marconi YC-3 set during a visit to CFCF in 1922. Photo courtesy Archives and Library Canada/C-066695
Ironically, Corus had stripped AM940 so much by this point, that there was hardly anyone left to fire. Explaining the impact of the closure, the news release stated, “At AM940 Montreal’s Greatest Hits, two positions were affected: one on-air host position and one technician position.” Just two jobs lost, and the station was gone.
In its prime, this station was CFCF — “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest” — and it was a dominant player in what was then Canada’s largest radio market. In addition, CFCF owed its existence to Guglielmo Marconi; the radio pioneer who knew that consumers would only buy his radios if there was something to listen to.
In the beginning, it was XWA
CFCF’s first call sign was XWA, indicating the experimental nature of the station licensed by the Canadian government in 1919. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of Canada launched is test after acquiring Reginald Fessenden’s voice broadcasting patents. Fessenden is credited with making the world’s first voice broadcasts sometime in December 1906, although the actual date is under dispute.
XWA/CFCF’s history has been extensively researched by the nonprofit Canadian Communications Foundation (CCF). According to the CCF, Darby Coates was one of the original XWA engineers.
“Darby remembered borrowing a record player and records from a local store in return for mentioning it on the air — thus introducing the concept of ‘contra’ (trading goods for on-air mentions) to the airwaves for the very first time,” says the CCF’s CFCF profile page. “They would also rip and read news and weather forecasts from the local Montreal papers.”
The CCF marks May 20, 1920 as the true beginning of radio broadcasting in Canada. This is when, as the foundation’s website notes, “XWA broadcast the first ‘real’ radio program produced by Coats and his partner, the first such program in the world, from studios on the top floor of the Marconi plant on William Street.”
CFCF signs on
Given that Marconi had been manufacturing radio equipment in Montreal since 1909 — albeit mainly for commercial customers — it only made sense for the company to push receiver sales locally.
For this reason the company stepped up its XWA broadcasts, adding live musical performances and selling ads to local retailers like Layton Brothers — who was selling Marconi receivers in its music store.
According to The Broadcast Archive at Oldradio.com, XWA became VE9AM on May 1, 1921. It was now operating on 1,200 meters, moving to 680 kHz in May 1922.
By May 15, 1922, VE9AM had been licensed as commercial broadcaster CFCF, broadcasting on 750 kHz from studio in The Canada Cement Building on Phillips Square.
By 1925, CFCF had moved to a more listener-friendly 730 kHz at 1,650 W; sharing the band with CHYC and CKAC. (In those early days, one transmitter was sometimes shared by a group of stations; each taking turns going on air.) Two years later, CFCF moved its studios to the penthouse of the 1,110 room Hôtel Mont-Royal, at the time the largest hotel in the British Empire.
In 1928, CFCF got its own frequency at 1030 kHz; moving to 600 kHz in 1933. The studio grew, then moved to even bigger quarters at the King’s Hall building on Rue Ste. Catherine Ouest. A 1929 network affiliation with NBC Radio gave CFCF access to all of NBC’s popular stars and programs, including Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” “One Man’s Family,” “Ma Perkins” and “Death Valley Days.”
If the 1930s and 1940s were radio’s Golden Age, then CFCF was Montreal radio’s Golden Child. The strength of the NBC lineup, backed by a subsequent affiliation with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and CFCF’s own on-air stars, including Bill Deegan, Gord Sinclair, and Rex Loring, made CFCF an undisputed ratings and money-making powerhouse.
This staying power continued into the 1960s and beyond.
“For the longest time, CFCF was the home of both the Canadiens [NHL ice hockey] and the Expos [Major League Baseball],” said Mark Korman, a broadcaster on Montreal’s CINQ(FM) and an avid radio blogger. “CFCF was where you could hear legends like Dick Irvin, Dave Van Horne and Duke Snider, just to name a few.”
As the years passed, CFCF’s future seemed assured. The company had cannily branched into FM, with CFCF(FM) in 1960, and local television, CFCF(TV) in 1961.
“It wasn’t unusual to have CFCF Inc. employees working both the TV and radio sides,” said Korman. “Pulse [TV] sportscasters would often do the afternoon sports on AM 600.” Meanwhile, CFCF’s transmitter power was up to 5 kW, while the advent of music radio had been handled by changing CFCF’s format to keep up.
This said, “CFCF(AM) was never really a top 40 station per se, except on weekday evenings and weekend dayparts,” said Marc Denis, longtime Montréal radio personality and weekday morning man at CINW 940 from 2008 to 2009. “In the ’50s, it was a ‘mom and pop’ Perry Como/Jack Jones-type MOR outlet 24/7, then in the ’60s, it was pop/adult contemporary full service during the day, with top 40 in the evening.”
Unfortunately, CFCF’s best days were tied to radio’s Golden Age. The onslaught first of TV and then FM rock radio in the 1970s took its toll on the station’s ratings. Meanwhile, the Marconi Co. was forced out of its majority shareholding position by a nationalistic Canadian government, eventually selling out of CFCF entirely in 1971.
As rock FM took hold during the 1970s and 1980s, CFCF struggled to find a niche in the shrinking AM market. Their solution was common to many Canadian AM stations; namely to keep switching formats until one appeared to work.
The result was a confusing parade of different CFCF radio personas; all aimed at different audiences.
For instance, “They went to the “Magic Memories’ format during the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, where they stopped doing talk,” said Korman. “They lost the Expos in 1989, then got them back in 1991.”
At that point, CFCF’s management took drastic measures by switching to a contemporary country music format in 1991. But even this move and a name change to CIQC Country 600 didn’t work. Instead, the station “lost the Canadiens’ broadcast rights for good after that,” Korman said.
After dropping country music for talk some years later, CIQC “decided to ditch 600 kHz in 1999, along with all of their programming,” he said. “Many got axed. Expos were ditched.”
The station’s move to 940 kHz was meant to achieve better coverage, supplemented by a power boost to 10 kW daytime and 5 kW at night. Meanwhile, management changed the name and format yet again; this time from CIQC (talk) to CINW AM940 News.
Despite the move to all-news, CINW’s ratings slide continued. In desperation, the station became “AM940, Montreal Radio” (news-talk) in 2005, and then “AM940 Montreal’s Greatest Hits” in 2008. Eighteen people lost their jobs when this last format change occurred; resulting in a skeleton crew that apparently dwindled down to two people by 2010.
By the time the former CFCF(AM) went dark at the end of January 2010, it truly left with a whimper. In some ways, Corus’ decision to shut it down was a mercy killing, because the CINW audience had become virtually nonexistent.
“The station tried every format in the book until its ultimate demise,” said Denis, “a victim of the changing times.”
In its heyday, it seemed impossible that the invincible CFCF could ever go dark, let alone be relegated to the bottom of the ratings. But the changes that brought this titan to its knees were symptomatic of Canadian AM radio’s general decline due to TV and then FM radio.
Still, CFCF’s history is worth celebrating, because it ran from AM radio’s earliest days to its swansong. For many, many years, this station truly was “Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest.”