Exactly 20 years ago today, as the final notes of Starship’s paen to 80s era commercial rock “We Built This City on Rock’N’Roll” faded away into the murky 440 hz fuzz of amplitude modulation, Toronto’s once mighty Top 40 radio station AM CFTR 680 was re-born as the city’s very first all-news radio station, 680News, where it remains today as the most successful radio station in all of Canada.
CFTR began life in 1962 on 1540 kHz as CHFI-AM, simulcasting CHFI-FM. In 1971 it changed its call letters to CFTR, standing for “Canada’s First Ted Rogers,” honoring founder, owner and all around media guru Ted Rogers. The station flirted with different formats over the years, at first championing Top 40 and giving 1050 CHUM a run for the coveted title as most popular Toronto music station. Known in the industry as a trend setter for modern radio programming, CFTR switched to adult contemporary in 1986 and found great success with its commercial free Sundays, as well with popular DJs like Tom Rivers, Mike Cooper, and later Tarzan Dan. However at the dawn of the 1990s, it had become obvious that music ergo advertising revenue on AM was drying up, and a radical overhaul was necessary to survive.
A few markets in the US had successfully experimented with the all-news format, but the concept was untested in Canada in both radio and television. At the time, CNN had only recently completed its first decade on the air, and the value of a 24/7 news service was amazingly still considered niche. Had it not been for the breathless under-the-Baghdad-desks broadcasts from Wolf Blitzer and Bernard Shaw during the Gulf War of 1991, it’s conceivable that even CNN would have remained an obscure cable channel, and the format of all news would have taken even longer to gestate as a sustainable commercial and populist enterprise. War, what is it good for?
After looking at the so-called “AM problem” in depth, CFTR toyed with the idea of switching to an all-news format, spurred on by rumours that rival 640AM was close to doing the same: no one wanted to be the last station still playing music on AM radio in Toronto. Thanks to some meticulous planning and research from CHFI News’ director at the time John Hinnen, who had visited WINS 1010 New York, the originators of All News radio (tagline: “You give us 22 minutes we’ll give you the world“) and formulated a six-day turnover plan.
After acquiring their news manual, Hinnen was confident he could overhaul CFTR into a top shelf All News station. Now he just needed a buy-in. “The board called up Ted and asked him what he thought” recalls Hinnen, now General Manager of 680s News and VP of News, Rogers TV and Radio. “They said, hey Ted, we’re making a million bucks a year now and if we do this we’ll probably lose 5-7 million a year for the next few years. Ted said, sounds like a plan, let’s do it. So, the entrepreneurship of a guy like Ted Rogers is the only reason why a station like 680 is around today. If you look at guys who are worried about quarters, it’s a much different environment, but because Ted being Ted, he was prepared to invest in the long term, and we started making a profit in year five. Now it is the most profitable radio station in the country”
Hinnen recalls “It was an interesting launch. That week was crazy, totally crazy. People thought we were crazy. The competitors just couldn’t believe we were doing this, they thought it was a waste of money”.
While most of CFTR’s existing on air personalities at the time were given pink slips (including Tarzan Dan, who went on to a prolific broadcast career at YTV as host of HITLIST), the news staff survived and eagerly stepped into the breach of this brave new All News era. Thankfully this carryover included the dulcet tones of Traffic reporter Darryl Dahmer: “I’d already been with the radio station for 20 years. We knew that this was coming and the shock was to change the major format of music, because we were at the top of the heap. But the seers had looked at what was going to happen on the horizon and I thought, great, traffic is part of the news department, so hopefully I will continue to have a job. And I’m still here today.”
Dahmer: “I’ve seen a lot of transitions in the 50 some odd years I’ve been in the industry, but to make a change like this, and then realize the concept, it was absolutely fascinating to have news at your fingertips 24 hours a day. We all thought it was a pretty good thing. We missed the music because when we were working in the music format, we were part of the product, and now we’re delivering the product.”
Asked about the jazzy signature tune which accompanies all his TV commercials and has become another de facto aural mark of 680News, Darryl admits he was unsure of it at first. “I had nothing to do with it and I didn’t think much of it when I heard it, but now it’s grown on everyone. It’s like mushrooms on the side of a tree. It’s an absolute perfect piece of music as a bed for the commercials. I’m really proud of our commercials, they introduce our audience to one of the main things we do for them which is traffic reports”.
In addition to Dahmer’s essential airborne Traffic reports, another thing 680News has delivered consistently well in the last 20 years is consistency itself. John Hinnen remembers “In 1994 we were offered the Leafs rights for 4 years, so we thought about it and said no. The way we’re gonna win is to be consistent, and I think that this is the most consistent radio station in the country in so far as we haven’t changed formats.
The people are consistent, Darryl Dahmer has been with Rogers since 1973, the longest serving employee with Rogers is Russ Holden who started in 1967, at least a half a dozen of us who have been here since day one, myself, James Monroe, Gloria Martin. The fact that we haven’t made a ton of changes, people have come to expect what this is, we’ve looked at it as a utility, as opposed to a radio station.”
Has the rise of Twitter, and citizen journalists armed with smart phones and loose standards changed the way in which 680 operates, especially with pressure to break news before anyone else?
“Twitter now has certainly become a great source for tips, sometimes for news and information” wryly notes Hinnen. “We try and treat it in such a way that it’s another source for us, and we’ll try to check things out best we can. But traditional media needs to think of themselves in a slightly different way now, we’re all trying to be competitive, but rather than get the story first, get the story right, and more importantly to be fair, but in terms of journalistic integrity, there’s a real challenge to the media right now, which was a real problem with Boston coverage, Cleveland coverage, even the Rob Ford story, which we held off running that morning.
I believe 680 and City were the only media that held off. We didn’t run the story until we’d had a chance to at least provide some balance so we wanted to make sure that we had a comment from Ford before we ran the story because to me it was such a damning accusation.”
680News remains as relevant today as when it first launched 20 years ago, with radio now being only one platform for their reporting, but if the power goes out or your smartphone runs out of batteries it is ultimately the most important.
“We’re a 24 hour a day wheel. When people tune in they know what they’re gonna get. And it’s exciting to provide this information in all the forms that we do to our audience. We edit this material on the fly, so it’s not stale dated, like a newspaper. We say, when you read a newspaper, you’re reading old news…” says Darryl Dahmer, not untruthfully.
Happy birthday 680News, here’s to the next 20!
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