The great J. Robert Wood. Picture: Jonathan van Bilsen
The great J. Robert Wood. Picture: Jonathan van Bilsen

A Conversation with... Broadcast Hall of Famer, J. Robert Wood

J. Robert Wood was, unarguably, one of the most brilliant broadcast alchemists pop radio has seen in North America and last Friday the quiet, private man who transformed CHUM AM, CHUM FM and the CHUM Radio network into unbeatable brands was inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame.  

The legacy award also included his receiving the Allan Waters Broadcast Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him on stage at a CMW gala luncheon by Allan's son, Jimmy Waters, and Canada's longest standing morning personality, Roger Ashby. What follows is an affectionate walk-down-memory-lane with J. Robert that was done in the lead up to his induction.

The conversation, led by his longtime colleague Warren Cosford, offers a snapshot of when radio was top dog, personalities drove ratings through the roof, and rules were there to be bust. It was a time of innovation, camaraderie, and notable for some of the craziest, wackiest promotional campaigns imaginable. It was also a time of great radio.    

 

What inspired you to get into radio?

My initial inspiration came from Dennis Corrie on CKY in Winnipeg. As you know, the jocks in those days were gods, and Dennis was the first who caught my attention and got me wishing I could be in the radio business. He talked fast, used alliteration to great effect, and his on-air approach always conveyed a positive, uplifting vibe.

I was also inspired by other great deejays I was exposed to in Winnipeg. There were two top 40 stations there, each with phenomenal talent. In addition to Dennis, my favourites at CKY would later include Peter Jackson (PJ the DJ), Gerry Bright, Marc Parr, Chuck Dann and Jimmy Darin. My favourites at CKRC were Dave Palmer, “Frantic” Frank Todd, Daryl Burlingham and Jim Paulson.

What did you do to break in to the business?

I used to practice on a Phillips tape recorder that I purchased with the help of a loan from a friend, Bob Townsend. I also attended a 3-month course offered by Ed McCrae, founder of the National Institute of Broadcasting. I even used to practice as a deejay playing records over the Intercom during intermission at the Lockport Drive-In Theatre in exchange for helping the owners, Bill and Walter Kotchorek, set up the speakers and make preparations for the weekend crowds.

But it was Jim Paulson who gave me my biggest boost. Jim would allow me to use one of the studios at CKRC to practice being a deejay and later supply me with used tapes from the CKRC production studio so that I could send out applications to small market stations across the country.

What was your first job in radio?

My first job offer came in 1963 when I received a phone call from George Gonzo, Program Director of CKSA in Lloydminster. George hired me to do the all-night show for $145 per month. But shortly after I arrived at the station, the Manager, Jim Findlay, told me I was mistaken because the all-night salary was for $135 per month only. I didn’t care. I would have paid them just for the opportunity to get into radio!

What was it like being on the air at your first job?

It was pretty scary at first because the records kept coming to an end so quickly! Once I mastered the controls, however, I found being on the air boring. In fact, perhaps because I wasn’t very good at it, I didn’t really enjoy it. However, I was fascinated by the power that the program director enjoyed. My first PD, George Gonzo, was a very good program director. I learned a lot from him. George would later go into sales where he served as VP Sales and Marketing for CTV’s 25 stations across Canada, producing over $250 million in revenue annually from his business units. Prior to assuming VP responsibility for CTV, the stations he managed in Alberta produced more net profit than the entire CTV Network.   

How did your career progress from there?

I worked for seven months at CKSA, three months at CKRM Regina, and nearly a year at CKOM in Saskatoon. In each case, after less than a year, I resigned my position to pursue an opportunity in a larger market for more money.

But my big break came when an old friend, Brian Littman, who worked in the copy department at CKY, passed along an aircheck of my work at CKOM to CKY Program Director Jimmy Darin. CKY’s slogan was “Canada’s Friendly Giant” and indeed it was a GIANT. It featured a roster of mostly American jocks and was arguably the best sounding top 40 station in Canada in that era (a fact readily acknowledged some years later by CHUM owner, Allan Waters). Jim’s call was a huge break for me.

So there I was working all-nights, weekends and late nights with jocks I had idolized just a few years earlier as a teenager growing up in Teulon, Manitoba. I was at CKY for less than a year when I was dismissed along with other jocks because the station changed format.  Still, the station, the jocks, and the approach to programming by Program Director Jimmy Darin (aka James Hilliard) left an indelible impression on me.  I wanted to become a Program Director. Besides, as mentioned, I was never very good on the air and found on-air work boring.

What happened next?

A few months later, after scouring the country for a job, I called Allan Slaight. He suggested I call CHYR Leamington manager Lou Thomasi. Lou, he thought, knew about a couple of openings in southwestern Ontario. So I called Lou. He immediately tipped me off about a job at CHLO in St, Thomas. Lou said “…the owner, John Moore, doesn’t know he needs a program director, but he does!” So instead of accepting an offer I had received to do 9pm-Midnight at CKLG in Vancouver, I drove to St. Thomas to meet with Mr. Moore. Within an hour he hired me do mornings and serve as Program Director of the station. I started several weeks later. When I arrived, I was able to convince him to drop the traditional programming featured on the station and replace it with Top 40 around the clock. Within 90 days, the station became the number one station in London and St. Thomas. Many factors contributed to our success, including great jingles, big league imaging by Bob Green and Chuck Riley, a $65 dollar reverb unit that made the jocks sound as though they were talking from heaven, and a dynamic lineup that initially included Arlene Dee (who may have been the first top 40 deejay in Canada), Rick Smith, Hal Weaver, Paul Ski and Chuck McCoy.

How did you make the leap from CHLO to CHUM?

Ward Cornell, who used to be the General Manager of CFPL-AM, FM and TV in London plus the London Free Press, told their programming consultant, George Davies, to do what he could to get Wood out of town because “CHLO is taking away all of our audience.”

About the same time, having been at CHLO for nearly 18 months, I was ready to make a move and wrote a letter to Foster Hewitt (owner of Top 40 CKFH) and Allan Waters, owner of CHUM. I got a letter back from Barry Nesbitt of CKFH, stating that they had no need for my services because they already had a Program Director and that he was the Program Director! 

Fortunately, though, I got a call from Larry Solway’s office asking me to come into Toronto to interview for the position of Programming Assistant. After being interviewed by Larry and later Mr. Waters, I was hired. I didn’t learn until later that Ward Cornell’s desire to get me out of the St. Thomas-London market and CHUM Consultant George Davies’ glowing reports to Larry and Mr. Waters about CHLO, had a lot to do with my being hired. It was a tremendous break, and much of the credit for it belongs to the above-mentioned lineup we had at CHLO at the time including two future Hall of Fame broadcasters no less (Paul Ski and Chuck McCoy)!

Tell us about CHUM.

CHUM was a cluttered, hokey-sounding radio station that lacked focus, on-air discipline and direction. There were no quality control systems in copy, production and traffic, the music mix was badly flawed, and commercial loads were excessive. To make matters worse, most of the jocks were no longer young enough or hip enough to fit a youth-oriented, contemporary top 40 format. In its early years, CHUM had been programmed by the legendary Allan Slaight. But he resigned and in the few years prior to my arrival, the station was run by committee. It showed.

So then what happened?

Shortly after I arrived, I met CHUM’s consultant, George Davies. We became good friends and soon both of us were submitting reports to Larry and Mr. Waters urging that the station was in need of a complete makeover. Finally, with CKFH moving into top 40 and beginning to attract attention, Mr. Waters decided the needed changes could wait no longer. Before long, a number of personnel changes took place. Fred Sherratt was brought in from Halifax to take over from Larry Solway as VP Programming and Operations, U.S. consultant Ted Randal was retained to help revamp the programming, and I took over control of the music when Bob McAdorey resigned.

What had to be done to revitalize the station?

Our number one priority was to find and hire good people. One of our most important hires was Dick Smyth from CKLW. The moment I heard Dick on a talent scouting trip to the U.S., I knew he would be the perfect choice for us to run the news department and serve as morning news anchor. Dick had a lively, fast-paced delivery with a top 40 flair that was rare in those days. His arrival immediately made us more competitive in news.

About the same time, we hired Mike Kornfeld from CJOB in Winnipeg to run the Copy department. Mike played a pivotal role in helping to establish the systems we needed in copy, production and traffic to improve efficiency between departments in the writing, production and scheduling of commercials.

We hit a speed bump when our award-winning Production Director, Doug Thompson, resigned to pursue his career in Hollywood. Doug is a master when it comes to production. There simply isn’t a production specialist anywhere who can come close to the number and importance of awards he has won for radio and television production. However, we were able to find Warren Cosford at CJOB in Winnipeg to fill his position. Warren ran the Production Department, hired and supervised the team of Operators we brought in to relieve the jocks from running their own board, and played an invaluable role directing the John Gilbert talk show. In addition, he helped us to find and recruit talent, helped to organize the troops when we were launching a special promotion or community event, and led the team that produced the music specials and documentaries that played on radio stations around the world.

One of the keys to the tight, fast-paced sound we strived for in those days was the operators. When I arrived at CHUM, the only shifts covered by Ops were morning and afternoon drive. But we wanted a tight, seamless sound around the clock.  One of the first things we did was to find Ops who worked at top 40 stations in the U.S. who could show by example what we wanted in board operation. We were fortunate to recruit Colin Kennedy and Larry Menkin from CKLW and David Mazmanian from WCFL in Chicago. They were accustomed to tight, fast, Top 40 execution. Their arrival helped other Ops we would hire to learn how the job should be done. 

Other stand-outs included William Anderson (the amateur psychiatrist who kept Tom Rivers from going too-far overboard in his business and personal life), Rick Murray who became every bit as solid on the Board as anyone we hired, and a number of character guys Warren recruited including Bob McMillan, Rick Hallson, Ken Porteous, John Tucker, Brad Jones (who would later go on to become program director), Bob Humenick and Zeke Zdebiak.  These and other Ops played a vital role in keeping the sound tight, alerting the jocks if they strayed from the format, and motivating them when they were having an off-day.

In addition to great Ops, CHUM had also been blessed with great writers. Larry Solway and Garry Ferrier wrote some of the most popular commercials in the country on radio or TV. Garry would later go on to write for the Johnny Cash and other U.S. television shows. When Larry and Garry left, the incomparable Bill McDonald joined our creative Department. Bill wrote the most amazing copy, our award winning, 64-hour Evolution of Rock, and a host of other music specials, programs and special features.  Bill would eventually leave to join Chuck Blore and Associates in Hollywood where he would go on to win more awards for writing than anyone on the planet. Luckily, when he left, the amazing Larry MacInnis arrived on the scene to fill the void. Larry was an incredible writing talent who would become one of the best anywhere in the development of creative copy, program specials, and station imaging.  He also wrote humour for the Tom Rivers and Roger Ashby morning shows.

For a period of 2-3 years after Bill McDonald left for L.A, and before Larry MacInnis returned from a stint at a local ad agency, Dr. Don Reagan (Tom Brownlie) played an invaluable role in helping to create and write the non-stop contests, promotions and year-end Top 100 specials that would air on CHUM, the CHUM Group stations, and other stations across Canada. During this period, some of the biggest promotions we ran were Don’s brainchild. He played a vital role at a crucial time in the station’s evolution.

While all of these ingredients were falling into place, we were devoting a great deal of time and effort scouring Canada and the U.S. to build one of the best on-air lineups in radio.

How did you attract such great talent when others didn’t?

Most program directors were usually too busy or too lazy to do anything other than check their tape drawer for tapes that had accumulated over the months. But great jocks rarely send out tapes – they were happy where they were. By comparison, we placed exceptional emphasis on finding great jocks. We found them through an ongoing outreach process which involved my or members of our staff travelling to other major markets to tape every jock on every top 40 station in each market. These trips always bore fruit. We also worked the phones, calling U.S. PD’s we knew to see if they would send us an aircheck of anyone they wanted to get out of the market.

Who were some of the jocks you hired?

Our lineup back in the seventies included Jack Armstrong, Roger Ashby, Steve Bolton, Daryl Burlingham, Scott Carpenter, Dave Charles, Mike Cooper, Dave Foreman, Mike Holland, Gord James, Bob Laine, Chuck McCoy, Bob Magee, John Majhor, Russ McCloud, Johnny Mitchell, Jay Nelson, Jim Nettleton, Gary Gears, Dr. Don Reagan, Terry Reid, Pat Riley, Tom Rivers, Duke Roberts, J.D. Roberts, John Rode, Duff Roman, Terry Steele, Jim Van Horne, Dude Walker, Hal Weaver, J. Michael Wilson and Wolfman Jack.        

Why are there no women on the list?

It was not for lack of trying. Unfortunately, in those days, the talent pool of female jocks was virtually non-existent, especially in top 40. I know, because we would have hired them.

But we did hire two outstanding women during the 70s. One was Maryanne Carpentier, who did morning traffic and co-hosted the morning show with Jay Nelson and later Big Tom Rivers. Maryanne was a superb talent with a lightning-fast wit, hip persona, and engaging personality. She was articulate, well-read and always sounded 100 percent authentic on the air. She could mix it up with the best of them, including Jay Nelson, who often became annoyed because she would frequently top him with funnier comebacks than what he contributed to their exchanges. Maryanne, I believe, was the first female in Canada to co-host a major market morning show. We were lucky to find this extraordinary woman.

The other standout was a young woman we hired to do our lifestyle and community event reports. She would go out each day to research something unique happening in the city and return to the station to prepare her report in time for the afternoon news. She had real presence, charisma, and drive. It wasn’t long before she transferred to CITY-TV where she co-hosted the New Music show with J.D. Roberts. Later, as host of Fashion Television, she would go on to become a global fashion icon. Jeanne Beker was a star from the first day she turned on a microphone.

Why did CHUM pattern itself after the Drake format?

It was announced that a new top 40 competitor, CKFH, had just hired Gary Pallant. Gary had worked for a Drake-consulted station in San Diego so it was obvious what he was going to do.  We decided to take the wind out of his sales by pre-empting anything that they would try to do. Virtually overnight we introduced a new-design for the CHUM chart duplicating the design of the Drake chart, launched our own 28-hour History of Rock music documentary ahead of their launch of the Drake History of Rock, and purchased a new jingle package featuring the same acapella jingles and Johnny Mann singers that Drake used on all of his stations. We also pre-empted any contests and promotions they were about to launch, thanks to some great inside intelligence we received from the station at the time.

Did the Drake format cause the station to sound too tight, too regimented?

The Drake format in markets other than Los Angeles usually sounded this way because they didn’t have the talent to lift the format off the page. We never had this problem at CHUM because we had a killer lineup with personalities in virtually every time period who really knew how to entertain an audience. Their efforts were enhanced by a non-stop presence of outstanding contests, promotions, and music specials that kept the audience enthralled. The Drake orientation in format helped us to achieve consistency and uniformity around the clock, but thanks to an extraordinary group of jocks, writers, producers and news personnel, we were more – much more – than a format.

Tell us about the criticism CHUM received for its attitude toward Canadian content.

CHUM’s popularity was viewed as a mixed blessing when it came to Canadian content. Record companies felt that if CHUM played their record, it would become an instant hit. But if CHUM rejected their record, they felt it was the kiss of death. But CHUM did not have the power to create hits. Yes, it had the power to expose music to a large audience, but if a record did not have it in the grooves, no amount of airplay would persuade listeners to buy it. As a result, the record industry came around only very slowly to the view that if they wanted to achieve success with Canadian acts, they would have to create legitimate hit records that competed on a par with the best in the world. And they did. But it took them a long time to “get it”.

How did you feel about Canadian content?

I liked every Canadian record I thought had the capacity to attract an audience.

How do you feel about the Canadian content regulations?

I think the CRTC did Canadian radio and Canadian music an injustice by the way they introduced the regulations. First, 30% was way too much, too soon. Second, they alienated programmers by not seeking their input as to the rules of the road. Had they consulted us with an open mind, they would have ended up with a far more effective and creative way to build an industry, not just by using airplay quotas, but by focusing the quotas on new music and using the power of radio – through unsold airtime – to promote new Canadian releases, concerts and artist merchandising.

Tell us about some of the contests and promotions you ran.

Contests and promotions were an integral part of the magic that we tried to create daily.

Contests like Don’t Say Hello, Say I Listen to CHUM, The CHUM Starsign, treasure hunts for Corvettes, the chance to go backstage to meet some of the biggest names in rock, front row seats at major rock concerts (including the famous Rolling Stones’ concert at the El Mocambo), live concerts at Nathan Phillips Square, the 35-minute video history of rock that played in every high school in Toronto and in other markets where CHUM had stations, our music specials and  documentaries including the Evolution of Rock, The History of The Beatles, The Elvis Presley Story and others that aired on stations all over the world, our six hour, year-end top 100 music review that played on over 50 stations across Canada each year, the CHUM Christmas Wish which is still going strong after nearly 45 years, the world premieres of new releases by the biggest names in music, the annual Graffiti Parade and Greaser’s Ball, and a new and entertaining on-air contest every month – in addition to the promotions.

I won’t bore your readers with an account of everything we did, but for those who are interested, I refer them to an article I wrote which appeared in Broadcast Dialogue in September 2007.

Tell us about your battle with CFTR.

CHUM was the number one music station in Canada for nearly 25 years (from 1957 until the early 80s). Our primary competitor, CFTR, eventually caught up to us. But our team did a great job holding them off for as long as they did, especially considering that with our much heavier schedule of hourly news, a commercial load of 12-14 minutes per hour (18-22 minutes per hour in mornings), and a daily two-hour talk show, we were playing 3-4 songs less per hour than they were. Even then, they didn’t catch up to us until Ted Rogers secured a massive increase in their coverage by orchestrating a move by WYNR in Rochester from 680 to a fulltime operation on a Canadian clear channel, (990 kHz). Their footprint eventually dwarfed ours. No matter. By then the audience shift to FM had begun in earnest, and the battle was no longer between CHUM and CFTR, but between AM and FM. Before long, CFTR switched to news, and CHUM to oldies.

Still, they were a very good radio station, and had some great people, including Keith Dancy, Chuck Camroux, Jim Sward, Sandy Sanderson and one of the most honourable guys in the business, Tony Viner.

What about CHUM-FM?

CHUM-FM adopted a progressive rock format in the late 60s. I believe it was the first station in Canada to adopt what was such a radical format for the time. The station quickly became a huge music and cultural force in the city and held this position for well more than a decade.  Eventually, though, we started to feel the pinch from the arrival of David Marsden’s new wave music on CFNY to our left and Allan and Gary Slaight’s album rock on Q107 to our right.  Fortunately, it took Mr. Waters no more than a nano-second or two to agree to my proposal that we abandon CHUM-FM’s heavy rock approach and come up the middle instead with a hot AC format aimed at 18-49 women.  Coupled with Ross Davies’ brilliant move to install Roger Ashby in mornings, then hire Marilyn Denis to co-host the show with him and Rick Hodge, CHUM-FM would soon go on to become one of the most-listened to and most profitable FM stations in the country. Abandoning rock enabled us to avoid a rock slugfest with the great station that Gary Slaight was assembling (Q107) and ultimately achieve a bottom line that never looked better.

How do you feel about being inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame?

I’m delighted to have been selected because it’s a chance to acknowledge the work of the talented men and women of CHUM whose hard work, dedication and creative brilliance helped to build one of broadcasting’s great radio stations. Let’s face it: Many broadcasters deserve to be in the Hall of Fame but are never recognized because they work in smaller markets or in positions that don’t receive the recognition managers, program directors and on air personalities receive.

If the choice was yours, who would you nominate for induction into the Hall of Fame?

Off the top of my head, a few of the names that come to mind from CHUM are George Davies, Warren Cosford, Larry MacInnis, William McDonald, Dick Smyth and Doug Thompson. Their accomplishments are so varied and extensive that the Canadian Broadcasting Hall of Fame committee will never find anyone their equal in their respective positions.

Who was George Davies?

For those who are unfamiliar with the accomplishments of the late George Davies, he was the first radio programming consultant in Canada. George spent much of his career locked up in hotel rooms listening to his client’s stations and their competition and then filing strategic reports aimed at urging and helping his client stations improve their programming. His strong advocacy for better radio programming did much to improve the quality ofbroadcasting in the country and the service they provided to Canadians at a time when modern radio – following the arrival of television – was struggling to reinvent itself.   

Finally, do you have any advice for today’s programmers?

Yes, they should be focusing far more on what they can do to help make the world a better place. We live in a troubled world where the new normal seems worse than last week’s new normal. Program directors have the power through their news and spoken word, on-air promotions and community service to change this.

 

 

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