Behind the beautiful music, Canada's first stand-alone commercial FM station experienced turbulence.
The original home of 98.1 CHFI-FM wasn’t as sophisticated as the “beautiful music” it played. Or at least, long-time owner Ted Rogers didn’t think so. When he bought the fledgling radio station in 1960, it was located at 13 Adelaide Street East, which he later described as “a cramped and drafty old three-storey building.” From a ground floor entrance between a greasy spoon called the Dilido (get your mind out of the gutter) and a cigar store, visitors climbed a steep staircase lined with linoleum and fake wood veneer. Rogers later compared his office’s location to Being John Malkovich’s 7-1/2th floor. The site was so infested with cockroaches that the first chief financial officer quit when he couldn’t handle having the bugs crawl up his pants while using the bathroom.
Despite these surroundings, CHFI endured. Whatever you make of its past as a purveyor of elevator music or its current adult contemporary format, the station has set many landmarks since it signed on the air in February 1957. When it debuted, CHFI was Canada’s first commercial FM station to carry its own unique programming. Apart from Ryerson’s training station CJRT, the few FM stations in Toronto simulcasted their AM siblings’ programming. FM listeners of the period were, according to American surveys, audio enthusiasts with higher levels of education and income.
CHFI’s call letters (“High Fidelity”) tapped into this market. Launched by Edward James Piggott, whose other business ventures included renting radios and televisions to hospitals and selling coin-operated toilets, CHFI provided an alternative to the stream of chatter and commercials elsewhere on the dial. Both were minimized to allow the rich sound of high-quality recordings to shine through.
What was on those recordings was a radio format CHFI pioneered in Canada that came to be known officially as “beautiful music,” and insultingly as “elevator music.” The selection of light instrumentals, orchestral pieces, string-laden covers of contemporary hits, and mellow vocals resembled the background music services offered by firms like Muzak—for several years after its launch, CHFI provided a similar separate package for offices and stores. Artists like Percy Faith, Andre Kostelanetz, Mantovani, Andy Williams, and any ensemble with “strings” in their name formed a stream of sound to relax listeners. As the format developed across North America during the 1960s, unofficial rules developed, such as avoiding mixing tempos and, depending on the size of the station library, preventing DJs from mentioning artists so that listeners weren’t aware of how few artists were played.
Besides beautiful music, the early CHFI also offered current affairs programming. To compete with Mayor Nathan Phillips’s broadcasts on CKEY, the station hired his political rival, controller Jean Newman. She aimed her show at a highbrow audience, spotlighting such topics as zoning bylaws, humane slaughtering techniques at local abattoirs, and subways. “I give a progress report,” she told the Star. “The public isn’t interested in personalities. I give them the facts.” Sadly, other media outlets didn’t provide recaps for those who couldn’t tune in.
The station’s mellow mood was briefly shattered on October 17, 1958. That night, an urgent announcement was aired: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going off the air now, the reason being there is a fire.” Three staffers fled through a rear window. The blaze sent two firemen to hospital and resulted in $40,000 worth of damage to the building.
The station was purchased in late 1960 by Ted Rogers and Joel Aldred, who had both recently invested in the city’s new private television station, CFTO. For Rogers, then a 27-year-old lawyer-in-training, the purchase represented his family’s return to an industry whose pioneers included his father, Ted Rogers Sr. As a boy, he hung out at his father’s station, CFRB (“Canada’s First Rogers Batteryless”) until new management led by W.C. Thornton “Winks” Cran banned him from the premises following the elder Rogers’s death in 1939. Resentment over Cran’s treatment of his family’s legacy fueled Rogers’s competitive streak, resulting in an intense rivalry between CHFI and CFRB. While Aldred left the partnership after a year, the purchase effectively launched the Rogers communications empire.
One of Rogers’s first moves was to increase FM penetration into the Toronto market. He struck a deal with Westinghouse to produce low-cost radios with FM receivers. Gold lettering was placed on the radios promoting CHFI as “Canada’s First Station for Fine Music.” Over $100,000 was spent on an ad campaign targeting subway riders and radio retailers. The signal was boosted when its transmitter was moved from 13 Adelaide East to CFTO in Scarborough. Audio geeks were excited when, on September 1, 1961, CHFI became the first Canadian radio station to broadcast in stereo. These strategies worked—from no more than 10 per cent penetration in 1960, two-thirds of Toronto homes could listen to FM by the end of 1962.
But building the station’s profile cost money. During the first year of Rogers-Aldred ownership, CHFI lost $200,000. While Rogers was convinced that FM was the future of radio listenership, he realized that simulcasting on AM would build a larger audience. After wrangling with the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG, the forerunner of the CRTC), 1540 CHFI-AM debuted at 6:15 a.m. on August 7, 1962. “In effect,” Rogers told the Globe and Mail, “we are loaning everyone an FM set from sunrise to sunset—the hours during which we broadcast on AM. Then we cut it off because we are not allowed to broadcast on AM after sunset. We intended to woo the housewife with FM quality all day so she will press her husband into purchasing an FM set.”
Rogers hoped recent additions like a morning newscast anchored by former CBC host Larry Henderson and writer Scott Young, featuring commentary by Pierre Berton, would draw new listeners. Both were gone by the end of December 1963 to pursue other opportunities. Young discovered two drawbacks: having to request fill-ins when he was away on writing assignments, and waking up at 6:15 a.m.:
Each morning when the alarm went off I would bunch a pillow under my head and think: What the heck am I doing, getting up so early in the morning? None the less, I would rise and throw water on my face and put on the first clothes I came to. This resulted in some combinations that would have made my tailor put his hands over his eyes and cry “Take it away!” I did have some sense of propriety, however. I decided that if I ever got to the kitchen in the morning and the dog put his paws over his eyes, I would go back and change. This only happened twice.
The dawn-to-dusk license for 1540 AM played havoc with rush hour audiences in the winter. Almost immediately, CHFI hunted for a stronger AM frequency which could run 24 hours. The solution appeared to be 680, except that the signal would interfere with CHLO in St. Thomas, Ontario and WRVM in Rochester, New York. The American problem was easy to handle; on a flight to a broadcasting convention in Washington, D.C., Rogers purposely booked a seat next to WRVM’s owner, who had resisted his initial offers. The tactic worked, as Rogers agreed to pay for a frequency switch and land for new transmitters.
Solving the CHLO problem was trickier. Initially, the BBG agreed with a proposal that CHLO move to another frequency, which Rogers would also pay for. CFRB objected to the scheme, claiming CHFI was “trafficking” in station frequencies. A London station, CKSL, was allowed to place an application for 1410 AM. A change in federal government in 1963 may have sparked political inference—Rogers supported the defeated Progressive Conservatives, while the owners of CKSL were tied to the newly-installed Liberals.
Researchers working for Rogers looked into every technical workaround. The solution CHFI proposed to the BBG offended nearly everyone: operate CHFI-AM on 680 at low power during the day to avoid interference with CHLO, crank up the power at night, and retain 1540 as a daytime station to cover areas that a weak 680 couldn’t. In short, the same station on three frequencies. An interim solution was approved in mid-1965: Rogers received 680 for 24-hour use, though it would cause interference with CHLO, while 1540 was sold to a group led by Johnny Lombardi for an ethnic station, which became CHIN. The frequency follies finally ended in 1970, when CHLO was allowed to move to 1570 AM.
Outside of its regulatory battles, CHFI continued to promote itself as the city’s top choice for listeners who couldn’t handle energetic Top 40 stations like CHUM. The station was mocked by some—Toronto Life called its playlist “music to doze off at the wheel by”—but it was constantly in the upper tier whenever ratings were released. The station’s hardiest program was Candlelight & Wine, which ran from 1961 to 1986. For three hours a night, smooth-voiced host Don Parrish presided over a playlist suited for a cozy romantic dinner. “Candlelight & Wine was the ultimate easy-listening program, a mega-dose of musical valium,” Star writer Peter Goddard reflected during the station’s 40th anniversary. The show inspired a long series of records lovers could play at any time. One person who probably didn’t own any of them was Frank Zappa; Goddard recalled accidentally flipping the show on while in Zappa’s hotel suite. When Frank Mills’s “Music Box Dancer” came on, “Zappa practically short-circuited on the spot. His eyes bulged. It was the only time he seemed more scared of me than I was of him.”
By the end of the 1960s, the AM side reduced its simulcasting. Winning rights to Argonauts games symbolized a divergence which increased until 680 was rebranded as CFTR (“Canada’s First Ted Rogers”) on June 21, 1971, the anniversary of Ted Sr.’s birth. While CFTR switched to a Top 40 format within a year (and eventually evolved into 680 News), CHFI-FM maintained its classy, antiseptic tone and cranked out more Candlelight & Wine albums.
As time went on, the beautiful music slowly started giving way to more contemporary light sounds. The old-style programming effectively ended in 1986, when the station filed a request with the CRTC to reduce their mandatory, licensed requirement of 30 per cent instrumental music to a suggested minimum of 15 per cent. Station general manager Tony Viner felt that mellow instrumentals were “an idea whose time has passed for us.” That same year, Parrish served the last offerings of Candlelight & Wine before retiring. Ironically, the music that Rogers and the station’s early programmers disdained—the Top 40 sounds of the 1950s and 1960s—became a CHFI staple via Don Daynard’s long-running Saturday night oldies show.
Additional material from Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong by Joseph Lanza (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Relentless by Ted Rogers with Robert Brehl (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2008); the June 1, 1957, August 9, 1962, June 8, 1963, October 1, 1963, December 16, 1963, and March 26, 1965 editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 26, 1957, October 18, 1958, August 7, 1962, June 18, 1964, July 20, 1986, and August 30, 1997 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 1967 edition of Toronto Life.
This post incorrectly referred to Don Parrish as Jim Parrish. We regret the error.