Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8

Michael McNamara's exuberantly nostalgic "Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8" should play well with baby boomers receptive to blasts from the past. Docu offers affectionate and informative overview of Top 40 colossus CKLW, an Ontario-based outlet that had profound influence on musical tastes in 1960s and '70s.

Michael McNamara’s exuberantly nostalgic “Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8” should play well with baby boomers receptive to blasts from the past. Docu offers affectionate and informative overview of Top 40 colossus CKLW, an Ontario-based outlet that had profound influence on musical tastes throughout much of the U.S. and Canada in 1960s and ’70s. Pic is natural for fest circuit, and could generate respectable coin as special interest homevid product.

Mixing archival material and recent interviews in briskly paced and smartly edited package, McNamara displays a fan’s warm zeal and a historian’s sharp eye while detailing the heyday of the station nicknamed “The Big 8” (after call numbers 800 on AM radio dial).

The 50,000-watt clear-channel station — located in Windsor, just across the river from Detroit — totally dominated its market, and reached a hefty swath of North America, for the better part of two decades. (During peak listening periods, station had potential audience of more than 60 million.) An ex-employee fondly recalls driving along a Detroit street on a ’60s summer night and hearing CKLW blasting from almost every car he passed.

Station’s distinctive features — pumped-up volume, rapid-fire jingles, tabloid-style newscasts, idiosyncratic disc jockeys who talked over record intros — were widely imitated by countless other outlets during era when AM ruled airwaves. Program director Les Garland frankly admits he merely expanded on his CKLW format directive — maximum number of records played per hour — when he eventually co-founded MTV.

Pic credits CKLW music director Rosalie Trombley, a straight-talking maverick with an unfailing ear for potential hits, as key figure in station’s rise to prominence. The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Mitch Ryder and other rising stars routinely courted her favor during early ’60s, in hope of getting airplay on her famously trendsetting station. “If she liked your record,” Ryder remembers, “it was almost guaranteed to be a hit.” Later, Elton John, Alice Cooper and KISS benefited from her support.

“Radio Revolution” credits Trombley with launching various Top 40 singles — including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” for which Tony Orlando graciously thanks her — and introducing Motown sounds to mainstream auds. For latter innovation, she earned CKLW the adulation of many African-Americans as “the blackest white radio station on Earth.”

CKLW stopped rocking for good in 1984. Docu blames downfall on government regulations that mandated 30 percent Canadian content on all AM stations. (It didn’t help, McNamara notes, that other regulations restrained CKLW from switching its popular format to its sister FM station.) But “Radio Revolution” keeps alive the spirit of a legendary broadcast outlet where boss jocks spun stacks of wax for Jills and Jacks.

Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8

Canada

Production: A Market Street Films production. Produced by Judy Holm. Directed, written by Michael McNamara.

Crew: Camera (color, video), McNamara, Jim Borecki, Rick Boston, Walter Corbett, Patrick Lobzun; editor, Roderick Deogrades; music, Kurt Swinghammer; associate producer, Sarah Jane Flynn. Reviewed at South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats per Second), Austin, Texas, March 12, 2004. Running time: 70 MIN. Narrator: Michael McNamara.

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