Introduction to The Classic CKLW Page

This site is for you, if (like me) you were a CKLW listener during the "heyday" of the Big 8 (the 1960's or the early 1970's). But if this is the first time you've ever heard of the "Big 8" (so named because the station occupied the 800 kHz spot on the AM radio dial), read further and discover the magic of what was once one of the top radio stations in the world!

[CKLW sign] CKLW was a 50,000 watt station in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, which is just across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan. The "LW" stood for "London" and "Windsor", the two largest Canadian cities that were supposed to be within CKLW's listening area when the station first went on the air back in the 1940's. By the mid 1960's, CKLW played to a huge audience in both the United States and Canada. It could be received clearly all the way to the Eastern seaboard on a good night, yet was often unlistenable only 100 miles away to the west because of two other statons that that also operated on or near the same 800 kHz frequency (XEROK, a 150,000 watt blaster in Juarez, Mexico, and PJB on Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. Grant Hudson tells me in e-mail that the latter station was, and perhaps still is, a church-operated station that could afford neither good equipment nor good engineers, and therefore couldn't stick to their assigned pattern, but see the bottom of this page for an additional comment about PJB. Personally, I heard XEROK more often in Grand Haven, Michigan, but Grant says PJB did the most damage).

The reason CKLW was so popular was probably not so much because of the music they played, although they broke many of the Motown hits in the '60's. Their playlist was probably much like any other "top 40" station of the day. What set them apart was the format, which was the creation of a guy by the name of Bill Drake. This was a very tight format that gave the station a very professional sound. D.J.'s were generally not allowed to engage in much idle chitchait - the idea was that the D.J. was there to announce the music and get out of the way. Bill Drake had a phone line installed at each of his stations so that he could call and listen to what was going out over the air at any time, and then he would call back and give criticisms or comments as to how the "sound" could be improved. The "Drake format" was also used at a few other stations such as WRKO Boston, KFRC San Francisco, and KHJ Los Angeles.

[Button: I Love the BIG 8] Of course, most listeners knew none of this. All we knew was that CKLW had that truly professional sound, from the deep-voiced announcer that intoned the station I.D.'s, to "CKLW 20-20 news" as delivered by professionals such as Byron MacGregor, to the announcers who were generally the best in the business. After you listened to CKLW for a while, other stations sounded downright amateurish by comparison. The closest competition to CKLW in the mid-60's was station WKNR, "Keener 13" in Dearborn, which didn't have the power or the tightness of CKLW, but did have an FM simulcast during the daytime hours that got their signal into places that CKLW couldn't be received clearly (CKLW had an FM outlet, but it only simulcast the "Big 8" between about midnight and 6 A.M.). During the years 1963 through 1967, WKNR actually pulled better ratings than CKLW in the metro Detroit area, but CKLW's AM outlet had a much stronger signal, and Bill Drake's format finally pulled CKLW up to number one in the ratings during the latter half of the 60's.

The "sound" of CKLW was what really held the listeners. Indeed, I personally didn't care all that much for some of the music that CKLW played (to be honest, although there was a lot of great music in the 60's, there was also a lot of stuff that was really awful. Of course, one person's "awful" was another person's "great"). But as someone who had secret dreams of being a radio announcer, the CKLW "sound" was the sound that I aspired to emulate. Alas, having not been blessed with a deep resonant voice (like most of the CKLW announcers) or the ability to talk moderately fast and make it sound natural, I could never really hope to truly copy the sound I heard (but it didn't stop me from trying!).

What finally killed CKLW? There is some debate over that (and perhaps someone reading this can fill in the details) but many people blame it on the Canadian government, which in 1970 passed a law saying that all Canadian AM radio stations had to carry at least 30% Canadian content (Grant Hudson says this was "lovingly called 'CanCon'"). This law went into effect on January 18, 1971 (according to A Brief History of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and was phased in over a period of a few years, with the restrictions gradually getting tighter and tighter on what could be counted as "Canadian" under the rules. Also, cars were beginning to be equipped with FM radios, and many listeners preferred the clearer sound of FM. So, many listeners started to tune in Detroit area FM stations, where they were not force-fed Canadian content, and could hear the hits in glorious stereo. As Bill Gable commented, "It certainly is true that the CRTC was the main factor in CKLW's decline, although FM penetration played a secondary role: Detroit was a highly FM-penetrated city early on."

As you visit other pages on this site, you'll have the opportunity to learn more about what made CKLW so special, and you'll even be able to listen to some audio from the "Big 8." I hope this site brings back a few pleasant memories for you!

Note: In March of 2003, I received an e-mail from Kelvin Schubert of Nenana, Alaska, who wrote in regard to the mention of station PJB on this page. He wrote, "Dear Jack, I was reading your web contribution to CKLW. I noticed a comment about PJB, Bonaire one of the 800KHz stations to give CKLW trouble. I worked at PJB during the late 70's and early 80's. One thing you need to know about the station is that it was legally licensed and operated with 500,000 KW of power. The station did not have a problem with keeping its pattern nor qualified engineers. It in fact had seven different patterns. The station operated very much like a shortwave station and changed its pattern depending on the language program it was airing. Each night at 10:00 EST the antenna pattern was changed to due north for the English language service. PJB was heard very well up and down the eastern sea board. Depending on the sun spots it was heard better in the north country of Canada. It is my understanding that it has now cut back to operating as a 50KW station airing to the Caribbean region. Thanks for the radio history on your page." And thank you to Mr. Schubert for finally explaining why I often had to reluctantly retune my radio from CKLW to WABC or WCFL or WLS at 10:00 PM, all those years ago!

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