Historicist: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes at 1050 CHUM
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Historicist: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes at 1050 CHUM

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Images courtesy Dale Patterson/Rock Radio Scrapbook.

March 26, 2009. For the second time in a decade, the music died at 1050 CHUM. With little fanfare and citing declining ratings, CTVglobemedia pulled the plug on the station’s oldies format and replaced it with programming from television’s all-news CP24. Time will tell if this move away from music lasts as long as the station’s brief spell with an all-sports format in 2001–2002.
Though 1050 AM has gone through several formats in its sixty-plus years on the air, the most influential in terms of the radio industry and the memories of its listeners was during its days breaking new pop hits from 1957 to 1986. CHUM went to a “top forty” format to solve financial problems and ended it to “grow up” with most of the station’s listeners.

Phil Stone at CHUM microphone, giving a woman a cheque, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4320.

CHUM signed on the air on October 28, 1945 as a daytime-only station operated by Jack Q’Part, a manufacturer of patent medicines. The station’s first decade was marked by a weak signal from Don Mills, struggles to attract advertisers, and programming ranging from country music to horse racing. As far as consistent streams of revenue went, the station relied on ethnic programming (including large chunks of time bought by future CHIN radio operator Johnny Lombardi) and recorded sermons from Southern preachers. After a decade, Q’Part sold the station to Allan Waters, who had worked for CHUM in various capacities since its early days. While on vacation in Miami, Waters paid attention to WQAM, one of the first stations to run a rock-based Top Forty format. Waters found listening to WQAM an experience akin to “rocks smashing together. Very hard to listen to.”
Though Waters may not have enjoyed what he heard in Miami, he felt the format might be the station’s salvation. Staffers at CHUM were shocked by a tape Waters played of fast-talking DJs, perky jingles, and that crazy rockin’ and rollin’ music. After studying tapes from several American Top Forty stations that finished first in the ratings in their markets, Waters settled on six key points that made these stations successful:

1. Exciting news all day and night, with regular newscasts at five minutes to the hour;
2. Playing the top forty tunes all the time, plus some standards;
3. Concentrating on “personality” shows;
4. Using announcers with enthusiasm and zip in their voice;
5. A fast and exciting pace all the time;
6. Unlimited on-the-air promotion.

On May 26, 1957, The Telegram tipped off the public that changes were coming to CHUM:

Radio station CHUM, whose work, like man’s has been ending with the dying sun is taking on a woman-sized job tomorrow night. That’s right—CHUM’s work will never be done. With stepped up power (from 3,000 to 3,500 watts) and with new transmitter moved from Don Mills to Algonquin Island, CHUM, “the friendly station,” aims to make more friends and influence more people with clearer signal and continuous programs for Metro and immediate areas.

At all hours of the day, listeners could now enjoy “the top 50 on 1050.” The station’s first published chart showed Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” at number one, followed by the morals-destroying music of Pat Boone and Andy Williams. Opening day DJs included Phil Ladd, Harvey Dobbs, Josh King (sound sample), Phil Stone, Peter Nordheimer, and Hank Noble.

The final CHUM Chart to be published. The Toronto Star, June 6, 1986.

Current hits kept coming for the next thirty years. By the mid-1980s, CHUM and 680 CFTR were the last chart-following holdouts on Toronto’s AM dial, as listeners increasingly moved to crisper-sounding stations on FM or flipped the television onto MuchMusic for their new music fix.
Listeners on Friday, June 6, 1986 could have opened up that morning’s Star to see what would become the last published CHUM Chart for the AM side, with Madonna’s “Live to Tell” topping the list (one more was prepared but not published until it appeared in a book several years later). At 3 p.m. that day, the switch was made to a “favourites of yesterday and today” format, mixing lighter current tunes with some oldies. A montage of past hits was followed by the first song under the new format, “Beginnings” by Chicago. The rest of the weekend saw the station’s airwaves unpolluted by commercials, newscasts, or announcers.
New program director Terry Williams explained to The Globe and Mail who the target audience was:

People say, “Oh, you’re going after the suburban baby boomers in their BMWs.” It’s not true. I think it’s more like the guy with the five-year-old K-car who lives in Mississauga, has two kids and is worrying about meeting his mortgage. It’s people who listened to this station in their teens, faded away from it in the late seventies and early eighties, and now are coming back…Personally, I’m 35 and 10 years ago I could tell you who swept the floor after every session on every record put out. But now music is not as much a priority in my life. I hear the voice of my dad, looking at an album cover, and saying ‘Is this supposed to be a boy or a girl?’ We’ve got to acknowledge the times we live in. We started the whole top-40 thing here at CHUM, and eventually other people beat us at our own game. We’ve decided it’s time to grow up. The radio is now for Mr. and Mrs. average Southern Ontarian.

Reactions were mixed. Calls to the station switchboard were three-to-one in favour of the new format, mostly from older listeners who liked the music mix. The media and some music industry officials were less enthusiastic. The Sun’s Gary Dunford described the new CHUM as “a dog’s breakfast of Lite Rock gone to Gold,” while Canadian Recording Industry Association President Brian Robertson saw the move as “another step in the continuing asphyxiation of opportunities for Canadian artists” (which sounds much like the language he used two decades later while battling file sharers). One executive from WEA Canada thought that “growing up was about accepting new challenges, not retreating.” Star radio columnist Henry Mietkiewicz felt the station had waited too long to take “the initiative to refresh its bored audience.” He also predicted that “a new breed of easy-listening music, which includes limited components of oldies and ultra-light pop hits, will be the most desirable radio format by the year 2000.”
CHUM didn’t live up to the “today” portion of its new slogan for much longer. The station gradually lessened the amount of contemporary material it played until the station officially switched to oldies in September 1989.
Additional material from The CHUM Story by Allen Farrell (Stoddart, 2001), the June 14, 1986 edition of The Globe and Mail, the June 7, 1986 and June 14, 1986 editions of The Toronto Star, and the June 8, 1986 edition of The Toronto Sun.