Over the river and through your speakers: AM 580 plays Motor City favorites

If you could only listen to one radio station, which would you choose?

When my old Volvo's radio knob broke, it was an easy choice for me to set the dial to AM 580 CKWW, an oldies station broadcasting from across the river in Windsor, Ontario.

AM 580 isn't your typical oldies station. It's an audio time capsule for Detroit, playing "Motor City favorites" like the Supremes, Mary Wells, the Dramatics, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, and the Rationals. AM 580 pays respect to artists and tunes you won't hear on any other frequency in North America, let alone in Detroit.

Personal preference can lead your finger back to the dial. Too much Gordon Lightfoot and Elton John, not enough Eddie Kendricks or MC5. You're at the mercy of the gods of radio. Mentally, you're throwing dice before a song ends, hoping for a good roll. But when the thundering bass line of Bob Seger's "Heavy Music" comes on at midnight and you're headed downtown on the Lodge with the windows down, well, it doesn't get any better than that. And when the Temptations come on, you start feeling like a teenager again and your old Volvo starts feeling like a Ford Mustang as you cruise down Woodward Avenue.

AM 580 favorites

Of course, the gods can be cruel. They can follow it up with Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love."

AM580 CKWW has played a big part in Detroit's musical history, too. Once the sister station to 60s and 70s ratings powerhouse CKLW AM 800, the two Windsor stations switched formats in 1993 with the 800 frequency turning to talk radio and 580 continuing in the musical tradition of CKLW.

Known as the "Big 8", CKLW AM ruled the Detroit airwaves from Windsor in the late 60s and early 70s and was one of the most popular stations in North America. With it's powerful signal and revolutionary, fast-paced Top 40 format, CKLW could be heard well beyond the Detroit area, reaching receivers far to the south and deep into Canada.

Windsor, Ontario

The disc jockeys and programmers worked in a tightly controlled atmosphere with short and snappy, irreverent introductions spoken right before a song kicked into the first verse. News, traffic, and weather were perfectly synced with the time of day and the hit songs and short, station identifying jingles were packed in with precision. "And the hits just keep on coming."

CKLW provided the soundtrack to the Motor City, an identity that Windsorites, like Detroiters, embraced. The station's popular radio personalities were local celebrities and CKLW was the highest rated station in the metro area across a wide range of demographics: young and old, black and white. It seemed that everyone listened to the sounds of the Big 8.

Charlie O'Brien, AM 580's current programing director and morning host (he's on air weekdays from 6 a.m. to noon), was broadcasting at CKLW during the mid-70s. He's worked as a DJ and programmer at stations in Ottawa, London, Toronto, and Windsor.

O'Brien talked about what it was like working at CKLW and the pressures and contradictions of working on the airwaves.

"In the 70s, it was very intense. A lot of pressure. People glamorize it, but if you failed, you were gone. Mistakes were not allowed." says O'Brien. "A lot of people in radio are introverts. You're just talking in a closet to yourself but you're talking to thousands of people. It's quite strange, really."

O'Brien began his career in radio during his college years in London, Ontario, saying he became a disc jockey, "on a dare from friends, because I had a record collection."

O'Brien said the local station in London would let young people work the late-night shift. A few 20-year-olds would be in control of a studio all night. If you stuck around and had talent, you'd get your chance to be on the airwaves. Within a few years he found himself at CKLW in Windsor and working with some of the top DJs in the country. It was quite a change for O'Brien.

"It was go, go, go at CKLW. I walked in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and suddenly was there working with my idols. They could have been jerks to this inexperienced youngster, but they were great folks who really helped me out."

Disc jockeys at CKLW - image courtesy of Charlie O'BrienThe talented and smooth-talking DJs kept their audience tuned in with quick wits and funny personas. Legends like Pat Holiday, Big Jim Edwards, Scott Regen, Ted "The Bear" Richards, and Bill Gable entertained fans with nothing more than their voices and kept the days and nights rolling right along.

"The producers were always telling the DJs, 'Be zany, be creative, push the envelope.'" says O'Brien. "Then you'd get zany and they'd say, 'Woah, hold on a minute, you're getting too far out there. Come on back.'"

Stockholders, stakes, media conglomerates, and corporate offices. Radio advertising was big business with lots of money involved. At its peak, over one hundred people worked at the station and the studios buzzed with activity. But the days when millions listened to AM radio were numbered. Radio is a fickle industry. One day you're at the top, the next you're sliding down the ladder of popularity.

Today, you probably listen to the radio in your car for 20 minutes on your way to and from work. You have a million musical choices with the internet: Spotify, Pandora, and MP3 players that can go anywhere and hold thousands of songs.

O'Brien said at one point CKLW had 26% of the radio audience listening. Now each station hopes to capture just a tiny niche, whether it's news, commentary, country, classical, hip hop or rock.

"Everything has shrunk in radio. Now you have one sales staff for seven stations, a handful of people in the studio, and syndicated programs. Everything has to be even more efficient," says O'Brien.

Yet there's still room for the personal touch. During O'Brien's Sunday afternoon oldies show he hand picks the songs he wants to play for his two-hour program. He plays girl groups like the Ronettes, the Crystals, or Little Eva. His between-song banter is casual and light-hearted. He's the consummate professional. No mistakes allowed in radio. Someone will notice.

On AM 580, it's always the same time in a not-so-distant past. Where else will you hear soul hits from Detroit like Darrell Bank's "Our Love", The Superlatives' "I Don't Know How", or Carl Carlton's "Competition Ain't Nothing"? You pass under a bridge and the signal fades. The warm buzz of tubes in a transmitter sending out radio frequencies from a tower miles away. The magic of radio. How can you not turn up the volume when you hear the drums kick in on Bob Seger's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man"?  

"Yeah, gonna tell my tale come on. Come on. Give a listen."

Next time you're out riding in your car, put the Ipod down and flip over to the AM band on your radio and tune into the frequency at 580 KHz. You won't be disappointed.

Glen Morren is a musician, writer, and chronicler of Detroit artists and culture.
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