I’ve just spent the last 36 hours listening obsessively to a radio station in a way that I don’t often listen these days. They played one song after another that I haven’t heard on the radio in years.
But don’t try to listen to them. They’re gone now.
To be fair, I did try to draw your attention to the last days of Ottawa’s 93.9 Bob-FM (CKKL) a number of times. In the weekly “Radio’s Best & Worst” column that I fashion out of serial tweets, they made so many appearances that PD Ian March posted a comment on my Facebook page, “Sorry for monopolizing, folks.”
News of Bob-FM’s format change broke on Monday night, Nov. 10, after the station released its air-staff, took the Bob-FM name off the air, and announced on its homepage that a change was coming. The new format, “New Country 94,” launched Wednesday at Noon.
And therein lies part of the reason why the Bob-FM sign-off was so fascinating. Ottawa and Montreal still operate under broadcast rules that have been relaxed in other Canadian markets. To protect their Francophone competitors, English-language FM stations are ordered to play music that is more than 50% “non-hit,” songs that peaked below No. 40 on Billboard or certain other charts. That’s on top of the 35% or higher Canadian Content requirement that exists for most stations.
The “non-hit” rule is an interesting one to negotiate. Certain Classic Rock and Oldies/Classic Hits mainstays, particularly those that were never singles, are “non-hits.” If you play the now-forgotten Beatles version of “Ain’t She Sweet,” which peaked at No. 19 in Canada, you are playing a hit. If you play “Here Comes The Sun,” however, you are playing a non-hit.
Same goes for a number of Canadian radio warhorses. Trooper’s “We’re Here For A Good Time,” perhaps the most enduring Canadian song not well-known to Americans, peaked at No. 43, making it a particularly valuable gift to stations like Bob: a well-loved Canadian “ non-hit.” But there aren’t enough songs like that to meet the “non-hit” requirement without actually having to play some songs that actually were not hits.
When Canadian stations change format, it is not unusual for them to up their “Cancon” in the last days of the old format so that they can launch the new format with slightly less. I didn’t count the percentage, but in those last 40 or so hours, there was a lot of Cancon, a lot of non-hits and a lot of Canadian non-hits.
Besides, this was Bob-FM, part of the Jack- and Bob-FM movement of the early ‘00s that was built on variety and “oh wow” songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s. Ottawa’s Bob was launched in 2003 at a time when the phenomenal success of similar formats in Winnipeg and Vancouver meant that even successful stations were dropping their formats to grab the “Adult Hits” franchise before a competitor. Those stations remain viable in most Canadian markets, and Bob’s departure was due, in part, to Ottawa actually having two Adult Hits stations.
Finally, Canadian top 40 stations in the early ‘80s were always friendlier to new-wave than their American counterparts. Acts like XTC that were college-radio only in America managed a string of Canadian pop hits. And in the last days of Bob-FM, there were so many new wave “oh wows” that I found myself flashing back to WLIR/WDRE, Long Island’s beloved and now defunct alternative station, especially after XTC's "The Mayor of Simpleton."
Hearing a radio station go to the vaults in its last days or hours used to be a special occurrence for music and radio geeks. I remember it happening a lot in the early ‘80s when a lot of once free-form album rock stations were switching formats (often to top 40). I have only heard Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” once on radio, and it was on just such a changeover at WABX Detroit. A few months later, I heard the same jock during the last days of a short-lived attempt to revive the top 40 format on the legendary KHJ Los Angeles.
That kind of sign-off doesn’t happen as much now. Format changes are more likely to take place in stealth with jocks notified at the end of their final shows and not allowed to say goodbye, or break format (even a moribund one). The type of station where one would want to hear the jocks indulging themselves is mostly a throwback to an earlier time. The circumstances that would prompt a jockless sign-off like Bob-FM to nevertheless “dig in the crates” are unusual.
One might also think that the novelty of hearing “oh wow” songs on the radio is reduced for most people. I’ve had my obscure favorites on my iPod and now iPhone since early 2002. There are plenty of online stations and even broadcast stations outside the U.S. where I can hear songs not usually available here. (I particularly recommend this one from Latvia.) And yet, the rush of excitement about the launch of “classic hip-hop” stations in Houston and Philadelphia in recent weeks shows that for normal listeners, radio’s power to surprise and delight is undiminished.
Bob-FM’s change proves that there’s still some excitement in knowing that you are hearing something special that will not last indefinitely. And while I encounter “Bohemian Like You” by Dandy Warhols on a pretty regular basis when the music in my phone plays on shuffle, there is still something different about coming across it on the radio, especially if it follows “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Sinead O’Connor.
Here’s an hour of Bob 93.9, according to Nielsen BDS, after the changeover was announced:
Bob Marley & Wailers, “Could You Be Loved” (Marley is now a Canadian radio mainstay whose biggest songs never charted at the time)
Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”
Kings, “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” (Canadian radio mainstay that peaked at No. 59, and as a medley, it counts as two songs)
REO Speedwagon, “Time For Me To Fly” (They weren’t yet regular hitmakers when this was a single; it got more pop airplay afterwards)
Doucette, “Mama Let Him Play” (Another Canadian rock anthem that peaked at No. 46)
Matchbox Twenty, “Push”
R.E.M., “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” (Resisted by all radio at the time, it went on to become one of their most enduring)
Colin James, “Chicks ‘N Cars (And The Third World War)”
XTC, “The Mayor Of Simpleton”
Madonna, “Into The Groove” (Never charted because it wasn’t even commercially available at the time)
Tom Cochrane & Red Rider, “The Untouchable One”
Trooper, “We’re Here For A Good Time” (This song is the Canadian “Margaritaville,” another 1977 Caribbean-flavored soft-rocker from about the same time that could still prompt an all-ages sing-along at any bar or party today. The chorus is “we’re here for a good time/not a long time,” but March says the on-air timing was coincidental.)