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New documentary shows the ‘Spirit’ side of Toronto radio station

There is a film documentary on one of the more iconic and influential radio stations in all of Canada and around the world.

CFNY broadcast out of Brampton, Ont., first, from a two-storey house in the late 1960s, and then from an office above a strip mall in the ’70s and early ’80s.

The music that was played on CFNY at the time was not necessarily popular, nor was it considered commercially successful. Instead, the station played records from artists and bands that were deemed outside the mainstream or an “alternative” to the mainstream.

Five decades later, CFNY, now known as 102.1 The Edge, continues to play alternative music, this time from a state-of-the-art broadcast facility in downtown Toronto. But it was during a 14-year period (1978 to 1992) that the radio station found its identity. That period is being highlighted in a new documentary, CFNY: The Spirit of Radio.

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“A bunch of us had been complaining about other radio stations getting documentaries and had gotten credit for some of the things they did,” said Alan Cross, former CFNY afternoon drive announcer and current host of Corus Radio’s The Ongoing History of New Music, on the motivation behind doing the documentary.

“CFNY, especially during the Spirit of Radio years, did not, and we thought that was a huge oversight. We were also concerned that people were getting on in age and we had to do it sooner than later. ”

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Well before the internet came into existence, CFNY was viewed as a pioneer for breaking ground on new music, from punk and new wave to electronica and grunge, especially from artists that no one had heard before. That was something Scot Turner, a retired broadcaster and another former CFNY personality, believed needed to be told.

“We were getting imports and playing them regularly,” Turner said. “We had people entrenched in the U.K. and (record) labels got us stuff before anybody else.”

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Playing music no one else did was not the only thing that stood CFNY apart from other radio stations. The station also featured announcers who were passionate about the music they played.

“When I walked into that building and met other people, … it was like I felt like I belonged,” Turner said. “This is a place where I can enjoy the quirky tastes of music that I have.”

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“There were some real characters who worked there,” Cross added.

While that era was seen as the golden years of CFNY, the documentary will also cover the turmoil, struggles and other low points that the station had faced.

“That is part of the narrative,” Cross said. “There were some interesting times, many interesting times during that period, when the station almost disappeared and things got pretty bleak on a couple of occasions.”

Cross and Turner serve as two of the five executive producers on the project. The others are Ivar Hamilton (another former CFNY staffer), Barbara Hall, and Chantal Jackson.

Matt Schichter, a Canadian filmmaker based in the U.K., was brought in to direct the film. Turner recalled meeting Schichter when they were working at a radio station in Kitchener, Ont.

“Matt was working for Corus Radio as an intern,” Turner said. “He showed incredible passion and interest for the story. He ticked off a lot of the boxes and we said: ‘This is the right guy for the job.’”

The documentary features interviews with a number of former CFNY staff, both on-air and behind the scenes. Among them are (Humble) Howard Glassman, Fred Patterson, Maie Pauts, Liz Janik, (Captain) Phil Evans, and David Marsden.

It was the direction of Marsden that raised the profile of CFNY to become one of a few commercial radio stations in North America at the time to play alternative music and the only one in Canada.

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The film will also have interviews with musicians such as Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order, and others talking about how CFNY was able to expose their music to a much larger audience. There is also a segment in the film when Geddy Lee of Rush talked about how the station inspired the band’s late drummer, Neil Peart, to write the lyrics to the song The Spirit of Radio.

Both Cross and Turner feel this documentary is not just for fans of CFNY, or alternative music.

“If you know nothing about the radio station, you know nothing about the music, there is a narrative arc that goes with the documentary that is rather interesting,” Cross said.

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“(The documentary) is an interesting look back for anybody that is new, discovering music,” Turner said. “To see how powerful radio was to the artists, to the (record) labels, it was an incredible time.”

Shooting for CFNY: The Spirit of Radio began in 2022 and wrapped up production in April.

Cross said they are in the process of pitching the documentary to distributors and hopes to have it shown in places like the Toronto International Film Festival or on a streaming service by the end of the year.

The station, 102.1 The Edge (a.k.a. CFNY), and Corus Radio are a part of Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News.

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&© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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