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Ken Newport: No Dress Rehearsal

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AM radio was only bad in hindsight. At the time it was all we had and we loved it. Every town in Canada had their own top-forty station that spoon fed the mushy hits of the day. Montreal had CKGM, Toronto had CHUM and in Ottawa we had CFRA.

We loved CFRA’s ridiculously short playlist because it meant that our new favorite song would be on soon. We adored the disc jockeys with their high-energy, bombastic voices, almost as much as the artists that they played. We loved tuning in on Sunday night to listen to Casey Kasem count down the week’s Top Forty. It was all so cool. Right until the moment that it wasn’t.

I may have only been thirteen years old in 1978 but my musical taste was pretty mature. I loved many bands that had been with me since birth including The Beatles, The Stones and The Who. I also loved seventies bands like Steely Dan, The Eagles and Queen. The problem was that my music wasn’t being played on CFRA. Disco was king in 1978 and the first half of the year, radio play was dominated by the dreadful soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever including musical affronts like Stayin’ Alive and Jive Talkin’. The Saturday Night Fever album and the summer of 1978 ruined AM radio for me and I found myself turning off my radio for the first time in my life.

I felt like a musical outcast but still saved my paper route money for the occasional album purchase down at Treble Clef Records. During my first week of high school I heard some older kids talking about a new Springsteen album and so that Saturday afternoon I found myself at the cash register holding my copy of Darkness On the Edge of Town. The bearded giant behind the counter smiled and commented on my timing because Badlands from that album was playing on the radio station blasting in the store. The radio was playing Springsteen? What?

“It’s CHEZ”, offered the giant. I returned a blank stare. “CHEZ 106 FM.” Until that moment I thought that FM was reserved for Bach and Beethoven but I learned that the owner of my beloved Treble Clef Records had recently started his own station playing music that AM stations wouldn’t play. It was my salvation and over the years, CHEZ would become a close friend.

I became devoted to the station in that manner that only young teenagers can comprehend. I talked about CHEZ non-stop. I listened as much as possible even keeping the radio quietly on in my bed for the overnight shows, and I collected every promotional item that I could find. I amassed a collection of posters, bumper-stickers, tee-shirts and even created my own, now famous, CHEZ message board.

With a little help from Dad, I converted a four-foot by three-foot wooden picture frame into a gaudy CHEZ promo whiteboard. We placed a two-foot whiteboard in the middle of two cedar wood slabs and snuggly bound those into the picture frame. I then sacrificed a couple of posters to come up with a message across the top that said “Ottawa’s Home of Classic Rock” and “Chez 106” across the bottom. The messages and logos got a coating of shellac and the art project was complete.

One would expect that the message board would have hit the trash bin before I finished high school but this board has been my prize possession since the day it was made. I am unequivocally a non-believer in anything mystical so I guess that I will call it a series of weird coincidences, but that home-made tattered board has played a role in some life changing events for me and many others.

In the era before cell phones and texting it was quite literally how I got my messages. The board hung on the outside of my bedroom door and would be where my mom would leave messages like, “Your father and I are out for dinner. Leftovers in the fridge for you.” It would also be the site of profound messages like the one that my emotionally-stunted father wrote the day that I was moving away to university: “I am so proud, I am so happy, I am so sad.”

The fame of my message board grew in university residence where it was adopted by my floor-mates as the place to post messages about important things like where the party was or where you could buy weed. The board followed me into a string of dingy student apartments but always claimed a place of prominence and seemed to be the place that life events were noted. In my final year of school, the board was the place where my girlfriend (now wife) told me that she loved me for the first time. Years later when the board hung in the garage of our starter home she told me that we were going to have a baby by writing out “I think that it’s going to be a boy” in blue. She was right.

Dad and I made that board thirty years ago and it really doesn’t look like much these days. The CHEZ logo is barely visible and the wood has cracked in a couple of places but I still love it. It has the prime location in my coffee shop and is the home of a little music game that we play every morning. I know that for many customers the game brings them a little pleasure and is one of the reasons that they are so loyal. I also know that the board is strangely important and that for a few lost souls the board will work its magic and play a role at a big moment of their lives.