CKOC Oldies 1150-AM – Canada’s Oldest Radio Station Turns 90

From high atop the picturesque Niagara escarpment in southern Ontario, Canada’s longest-running continuous on-air radio station 1150 CKOC-AM in Hamilton celebrated its 90th birthday last month.  It’s also one of a dwindling list of AM stations that continues to find success playing music.  Most other stations on the AM band have long since switched over to some form of news talk or sports talk leaving music to the FM band as well as iPods and MP3 players.  

Considering its age, the station really has not undergone that many format changes during its 90 years.  In fact, it may have had as many physical location changes since 1922 as it has format changes – seven moves in all, including the current address on Upper Wellington on Hamilton Mountain.  The station also saw its frequency change from 880, to 630 and then 1120 kHz before settling on its current dial position at 1150 back in 1941.

When CKOC began broadcasting in May, 1922, it was only on the air for two hours a day and most of the content was either religious or about prohibition.  By the 1930s and 1940s programming had moved on to what we now know as the old radio shows.  By the 1950s it became a Top-40 radio station.

Along with Oldies 1150, there are two other sister stations working out of the same building: CHAM 820-AM and 102.9 K-Lite FM.  While there are still a fair number of employees in the large fourth floor, it’s about half the numbers of the old days when the on-air announcer had to spin his own records – which were lined up on the wall and commercials were produced on 8-track cassettes.  Now of course everything is all programmed through a computer, which means the announcer’s main job is talking to the audience and pushing the appropriate button to trigger a particular audio feature.  

Nevin Grant

You can’t mention CKOC without immediately thinking of the name Nevin Grant.  Throughout his illustrious 45-year career at the station he has acted as mentor to many young people who have their sights set on broadcasting.  He continues to contribute to the training of aspiring broadcasters through his role as chairman of the Program Advisory Committee for Radio Broadcasting at Mohawk College.

Grant has been a long-standing member of a number of organizations in the Hamilton area.  In 1972, he was one of the founders of “The Christmas Miracle” toy drive. In 1986 the Central Canada Broadcasters Association presented him with the Howard Caine Memorial Award for outstanding community service.

A graduate in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Grant is known as for his encyclopedic knowledge of the music of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.  A lifelong piano player, he has performed as both a classical and dance band pianist and as a rock musician.

Although he officially retired in 2003, Grant has remained a mainstay at the station which takes his tour of duty to an incredible 45 years – exactly half the age of the radio station.  During that time CKOC has maintained a tremendous level of consistency, which is likely one of the main reasons it’s been so successful.

“When I came the station was already a Top 40 station and we stayed a Top 40 station until 1991,” Grant mentions.  “There were always format changes going on within, but no major change of format per se.  The only big change I went through was in 1991 where we changed from a Top-40 to an Oldies format and that didn’t represent that big a change because we just were playing the music of the three generations of people before that. It was all familiar to us.”

Other than changes in personnel, the current basic format model has been in place for the past 21 years.  During his 45 years at the station, Grant has seen a number of broadcasting legends come through CKOC.

“Dave Charles, who was our drive guy for five years during the 1970s, is one of the top consultants in the world, working mostly in Asia the United States and Canada,” Grant notes.  “We’ve had Bob Bratina who’s now the mayor of Hamilton work for us on two different occasions, once as a midday announcer and then another time as a talk-show host.  We’ve had Roger Ashby who is still doing mornings on CHUM-FM in Toronto and Bill Bright who went on to do mornings at CFRB in Toronto.”

The alleged demise of radio has been predicted since the advent of television, but Grant takes it all in stride.

“I think radio has been pronounced dead about 30 times and it usually comes back,” Grant states.  “Television was supposed to kill radio but radio just reinvented itself and said we can’t do the Amos & Andy Show anymore – we can’t beat them (TV) at these quiz games but we’ll just play music and news and then talk shows came on very big.”

Big Changes in the 1980s

However, there’s no denying many AM stations struggled financially with FM taking on a much more dominant position, especially from the 1980s and on.  

“It’s been a rough haul for AM, especially the formats that deal with music because it’s not stereo and there’s also the interference factor,” Grant states.  “AM’s big advantage over FM is that we can kill them as far as range is concerned.  You can get CKOC at night almost at the North Pole while an FM station hits the curvature of the earth and they’ve got about a 90-mile range and that’s about it.”

“There are very few successful Oldies’ AM stations but we seem to be doing very well.  There’s still a vast audience that grew up through the ’50s, ’60s and the ’70s who love that music and if it’s still done right they don’t mind that it’s mono because that’s how they originally heard it.”

In fact, there were occasions in the 1970s and 1980s when CKOC was still a Top 40 station that they would sometimes phone a record company and request the mono version rather than the stereo mix because the mono mix would be hotter than the stereo.

Grant also believes Oldies’ 1150 has remained vibrant because of the strong on-air personalities employed at the station.

“With some of these stations now it’s like they’re reading a card – read a liner, play a piece of music, run some commercials and there’s nothing different between A, B, C or D,” he says.

On the Air

On the day of our visit, Music Director and Interim Brand Director Ted Yates was on the air along with Rock ‘N’ Ray Michaels with former CKOC staffers like Doug Farraway and Bob Bratina roaming the halls.  Farraway was the one-time news and sports director at CKOC.  Many sports fans remember him in more recent years as the sports director at Sportsnet The Fan 590 in Toronto.

Despite the fact automation and computers have taken over the programming aspect, there’s a great degree of nostalgia in the studios, especially where Ted Yates works, with an endless number of old 45 records still on display.  Among some of the other toys on display is an old 1960 transistor radio that Yates has by his side.  The studio décor seems a lot like what you’d expect from a time machine that takes you back to the 1970s.

“I put a nine-volt battery in it and it said ‘inspected July 1960’ so it’s 52 years old,” says Yates.  “All of our music and commercials are on computer now.”

“We can see the length of each song and how much time is on the intro before the singing starts so we know how much time we have to talk,” Yates continues.

“It could be eight seconds, it could be 15 or it could start cold, which means right away it gets into the vocal.”

“We also have built in 30 per cent Canadian content, which is a CRTC requirement for AM radio.  For FM radio stations it’s 35 per cent, so we must adhere to that.”

Oldies 1150 has a playlist dating back to the early origins of rock & roll in 1956.

“‘Rock Around the Clock’ was considered the first real rock & roll and when Elvis arrived in 1956, that’s the era we do – the ’50s,” Yates says.  “A lot of oldies stations don’t do ’50s music anymore.  We do, and our listeners love Elvis, Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers and Fats Domino.”

Although the CKOC playlist goes as far back as the mid-1950s, it’s the decade of the 1960s that remains most popular with the listeners based on a fair amount of research data collected by the station.

The Mayor’s Memories

Bratina, the current mayor of Hamilton, was an employee at CKOC from 1966 to 1970 and again for about six months in 1988.  He was also the long-time radio play-by-play announcer for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats on cross-town rival 900 CHML.

“When I was a kid listening to the radio it was the old shows like Jack Benny and The Green Hornet and the station was called ‘The Station of the Stars’,” Bratina recalls.  “So then in the 1950s when TV came on the audience was lost for that so one of the members of the Sifton family who owned it at the time determined that it should go rock & roll which was the new thing and a whole new life for the station began.”

“I was here at the end of the Oldies’ era because the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Elvis were huge and we were putting the 45’s on turntables.” he fondly recalls.

“We had to play a cycle of hits, including a number one hit, but there was more announcer individuality in the way the music was formatted.  Now they wouldn’t trust the DJ to come up with that, so it usually comes from a service,” Bratina chuckles.  “The real success anytime in local broadcasting is to connect with your audience so the DJ patter is really key.”

Bratina agrees with Grant and Yates that radio will somehow survive as a communications medium, even in this ever-changing world that includes the Internet.

Radio has been under siege from other forms of communication since the 1950s when television hit the market, but he says its ability to adapt to change will work in its favour. 

“There’s still something about putting your car radio on that’s different from all the other tech platforms that we have, so I’m going to bet that radio pretty much in the form we knew and loved it – and know and love it – will continue on for at least a generation; it just works too well.”

Farr-away and Home Again

Hamilton native Doug Farraway has many fond memories of his time spent at CKOC and considers it to have been the staging ground that helps launch his broadcasting career.

“It was the first opportunity I had to open a door to radio and to learn from people,” Farraway says.  “It was when I was still going to college and I got a part-time job.” 

Showing his true commitment, he came in and trained for six weeks, receiving no pay.  He did that, got his foot in the door and started the learning process before going out and taking various jobs in southwestern Ontario.

“There I am in London at a station for about a year when Pauline Mitchell, on behalf of Con Stevenson, called me up and said we have a job opening, would you be interested? So I got to come home.  I’m a Hammer guy.” 

That was back in 1978, and from there Farraway’s career really began to accelerate.  He spent six years at CKOC before trying a job in Toronto for two years.

He returned to Hamilton working as the news director from 1986 to 1993 before finishing out his successful career in Toronto at The Fan, Canada’s first all-sports radio station.

“Not only was it a great experience working here, I got married while I was here and made friends for a lifetime like Nevin Grant and other people.  But the sad thing is we’ve only been running into each other at funerals of some of those workers and friends from the 1970s and ’80s.”

This station was unique.  It always was treated like family from the top on down.  We partied together.  We did a lot of things together and we all grew up and matured and started our families when we were at CKOC.”

While speaking with Farraway he was proudly wearing a sharp looking CKOC jacket from 1989. In fact, he has other paraphernalia from those days showing a strong sentimentality for those days gone by.  But he can also chuckle about some of the more better worn items as well.  

“I’ve got an old baseball T-shirt that right now is a paint rag but I’m not gonna get rid of it,” he laughs.

Farraway is of the belief CKOC managed to survive when many other AM stations migrated to some form of talk radio because it stayed true to its routes.  Had an attempt been made to stick with Top 40 or turn to country or some other genre, he’s convinced it would have failed.

“Nevin set the template even for the Oldies,” Farraway says.  “He always played stuff that wasn’t necessarily a No. 1 hit but it was a song that had memories for somebody. He would take a risk on music the big boys wouldn’t take a risk on and he made some careers.  It’s the brilliance of Nevin Grant as a programmer that’s allowed this station to survive playing ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.”

Farraway is now semi-retired but hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to the airwaves if the right opportunity were to present itself.  Right now, he’s being paid not to work in Toronto, which is fine with him.  He’s spending most of his free time volunteering and sincerely enjoying every moment of it; that and listening to CKOC.