Ross On Radio: An Award For Music Heroics

Technically, the Rosalie Trombley award, to be presented to Liz Janik May 8 at Canadian Music Week isn't an award for music directors. It is a "radio trailblazer award . . . celebrating women in radio." Janik wasn't even MD of legendary alternative station CFNY Toronto. She was "Director of Canadian Music Development" and a prominent host at a station where music was a heavily collaborative process. But if you were to create an award for championing music, you would name it after Trombley and you would present it to Janik.

Trombley, the longtime music director of legendary top 40 CKLW Detroit, was the first recipient of the CMW award nearly a decade ago before becoming its namesake. Throughout her career, Trombley resisted any attempts to lure her to the programming side. Trombley believed that staying in the MD job was better for career longevity, but it's hard to imagine her having any greater influence as a programmer anyway.

Janik did move from CFNY to research and consulting for radio stations. As part of the team that launched WKQX (Q101) Chicago in the early '90s, she was effectively one of the founders of what coalesced over the next five years as the "modern AC" format. At KKDM Des Moines, Iowa, she oversaw a station on the cusp of alternative and pop that bewildered label reps, sometimes with songs that were played nowhere else, but which can now be identified as a forerunner to today's "whatever adult women like" version of Adult Top 40.

CKLW didn't create the mix of hip R&B, hard rock, and (by contrast) surprisingly soft pop that defined top 40 in Detroit. The market's previous top 40 outlet WKNR played that, too. But CKLW consistently found hits (or should-have-been-hits) across all three genres better and sooner than anybody. In particular, it was the station watched for any potential R&B crossover that Trombley might help propel into the format.

There are a few stories that always surface quickly when Trombley is discussed. She picked up on local R&B activity for "Bennie & the Jets" and got Elton John to switch singles from "Candle In The Wind." Bob Seger wrote a song about her -- best described as grudgingly admiring of Trombley's influence -- and she threatened to resign rather than play it. (She needn't have worried. Seger was established in Detroit, but not exactly an automatic hit-maker yet.)

But Trombley's constant monitoring of Detroit mom-and-pop retail also uncovered unlikely reverse crossovers like Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown" (because it was bluesy). She found at least two major hits as b-sides of other singles.  The Ontario-licensed CKLW's American success made it the target of culture wars in Canada years before that term became common-currency. However reluctantly Trombley may have fulfilled CKLW's 30% Canadian content requirement, she nevertheless curated a golden age of international pop success for Canadian artists and songwriters in the early-to-mid '70s.

Toronto, meanwhile, was a North American stronghold for the late '70s/early '80s new-wave that wouldn't fully be accepted as pop music in the U.S. The trade publication R&R only printed full playlists of top 40 stations in that era, so I was always impressed that top 40 CHUM-AM was hip enough to play XTC, the Boomtown Rats, and Squeeze at a time when American CHR was at its wimpiest. But natives associate those acts with CFNY (and rock rival CHUM-FM). 

Americans are often not fully aware of CFNY's full heritage and impact. It was one of the few first-generation alternative stations to survive the format's boom/bust in the early '80s. By the late '80s, it was posting significant ratings well ahead of the "new rock revolution" that finally made alternative a first-tier format elsewhere. When Toronto's adult hits Jack-FM failed in the early '00s, at a time when the format was working everywhere else, it was because Jack didn't play enough CFNY music. When CHBM (Boom 97.3) finally made the format successful years later, it was with a clear nod to CFNY.

As for CKLW's legacy, the songs associated with the Trombley era now play on AM sister, CKWW (AM580). Top 40 radio in Detroit has continued to lean to the R&B side through a succession of stations -- WHYT in the early '90s, WDRQ a few years later, and WKQI (Channel 95-5) for most of the last decade. If it's harder for songs like Kid Ink's "Show Me" or Ty Dolla $ign's "Paranoid" to get to top 40 these days, it's not because WKQI doesn't acknowledge the market.

It's no secret that there are far fewer heroics from radio's music and program directors these days, and far fewer opportunities for them to take place. Trombley's era of the off-air MD is long ended. PDs and MDs are less encouraged to dig through the album these days in search of the next hit. There is little mom-and-pop retail to watch. And there are no "B"-sides to flip over. When unlikely records break, they often do so as part of chain-wide initiatives; not because there was a story in a single market.

But there are always exceptions, and in recent weeks there have been several at once. Parmalee's Country hit "Carolina" is making its move as a pop hit in the Carolinas (and elsewhere in the south) as you'd expect. Major-market stations grabbed Tiesto's "Wasted" instantly, even as "Red Lights" was still climbing the chart, the kind of thing that happened on a regular basis in the late '80s/early '90s. WDJQ (Q92) Canton, Ohio, is playing the Pretty Reckless' "Heaven Knows," continuing its long tradition as a successful top 40 station that plays active rock crossovers.

Detroit's legacy as a starter market for Canadian crossovers long outlasted CKLW as well. Along with Buffalo, it was an early American stronghold for both those acts that found U.S. stardom (Barenaked Ladies), those that didn't (D-Cru) and those between (SoulDecision). Now, "Rude" by Magic! is already No. 2 at WDZH (Amp 98.7) and building at WKQI.

Trombley and Janik didn't just help find music. They contributed to their stations' sense-of-place. As somebody with a soundtrack for every place I go, they helped define the feel of their markets for me, but I don't think I'm the only one. Detroit and Toronto maintain a distinct music-and-radio identity, even though the same songs have been available to everybody in some fashion for the past 30 years. I'd like to give Liz Janik an award in Rosalie Trombley's honor for music heroics, and I'd like to know that there will be somebody to give it to in a year as well.