Author Ian Howarth tunes in to the golden age of Montreal radioBy Bill Brownstein, The Montreal Gazette May 17, 2017
Like many a kid in the early 1960s, Ian Howarth would feign sleep late at night and, with a transistor radio tucked under his pillow, pick up signals from Boston, Chicago, New York and even Schenectady (who can forget WPTR?) to check out the latest Top 40 hits — which would hopefully not wake his parents. That’s because Montreal was a little behind the times in those early years of rock radio.
But that was soon to change — and with a vengeance. Radio stations once devoted to talk and tame music changed their tunes to compete heavily for the mighty teen demographic. A new breed of hero quickly emerged on the scene here: fast-talking DJs, who kept the kids transfixed with the latest 45 rpm releases from the U.S. and the U.K.
Howarth chronicles Montreal’s rock-radio revolution from the ’60s to the ’80s, spinning a fascinating and comprehensive slice of life in his new book Rock ‘n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves.
He revisits such Montreal anglo radio legends as Dave Boxer, Dean Hagopian and Buddy G (George Morris) from a time when AM ruled at the now-defunct CFCF, CFOX and CKGM.
Howarth also picks up on the new musical tastes that swept the land with the rise of FM radio in the late ’60s, reflecting the social and political changes of the era. And with that came a new breed of DJ — hello, Doug Pringle et al. at CKGM-FM, soon to become CHOM — who relied less on bells and whistles and Top 40 and more on esoteric philosophies and spiritual mind expansion in their musical programming.
Yup, what a long, strange trip it was.
“It all began with me sleeping with the radio,” says Howarth, 66. “Even before the transistor, I had a little crystal, rocket-shaped radio, which was hooked up to a metallic surface with a little claw-like booster cable. Music then, as it is now, was such an integral part of my life.”
Born in Toronto, Howarth was 12 when his family uprooted to Montreal. Without many acquaintances when he moved here, he relied on his trusty radio to keep him up to speed.
“The radio was my link to the outside world then,” he recalls. “Rock ‘n’ roll was my musical foundation, and the guys who delivered it did so with such personality. They would put a nice personal spin on the music. They became my world.”
No longer would Howarth have to scour the dial for tunes other than those of Patti Page or Perry Como: Boxer and Hagopian brought him the frenzy of the Beatles and the Stones.
“They brought home the British Invasion, which wiped a lot of people off the charts for good. It was just such an exciting time — even though the music was mostly mono 45 rpm recordings, before the days of the 33 rpm albums. Nothing very sophisticated, yet these were pioneer days.”
Those days led to plenty of diversity in the late ’60s and early ’70s. FM made major inroads at the expense of Top 40 AM, which turned back to talk in the ensuing years. With FM came rock as well as roots and blues and folk in longer album cuts and from an array of performers, from the icons to the obscure.
“CHOM, for example, did not have programming boundaries constricting its sound in its early days,” Howarth explains. “CHOM stood out even from the other free-form FM stations in North America by bringing a spiritual component — inspired by its owner, Geoff Stirling, who, like Pringle, was a big meditator. He would sometimes even have a four-hour show with maybe a swami or two on hand or the recordings of Ram Dass.”
Howarth had his own dreams of becoming a DJ. While attending Loyola College (soon to become Concordia), he had an afternoon show on Radio Loyola. No matter that his show could only be heard on speakers in the school cafeteria and lounges — it was a fantasy come true for Howarth.
“I had a great time, but I wasn’t like those heavy-duty Top 40 DJs — I had more the FM mellow tone. It was a refuge for me, giving me a place to hang out between classes. I had the fever for it, but, in all honesty, I just didn’t have the chops.”
So Howarth opted for a career as a teacher. After earning his degree in education, he taught at John Rennie and Lindsay Place high schools for 27 years. He retired in 2001 and then began a career as a freelance journalist.
“So I launched a career with about as much job security as that of a Top 40 DJ,” he cracks. “What more could I ask for than lousy money and infrequent gigs?”
When Howarth sensed the freelance writing market was fast drying up, he decided to follow his heart and begin research on his first love, rock radio, four years ago.
“I reached out to people who had been in the business at the time and wound up doing extensive interviews with a whole range of radio characters. And I ended up gathering a load of stories, and this labour of love turned into my first book,” Howarth says. “I just hope it can strike a chord — maybe a B-flat, which is less harsh on the ears.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m locked into a time warp, but there are so many great stories from that era — unfortunately, some not fit for print.”
Fortunately, there are enough fit for print to make this a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
AT A GLANCE
Ian Howarth’s Rock ’n’ Radio: When DJs and Rock Music Ruled the Airwaves (Véhicule Press, $19.95) is launched Thursday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. at 900 Lacasse St., the former RCA Victor facility. For more information, call 514-844-6073 or email email@example.com.