By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
We were on summer vacation. That helped.
We were driving on a sunny morning from the airport to the first stop. After some punching around, I landed on a CHR station.
They played seven uptempo songs in a row.
And that’s why CKOI Montreal is my 2017 station of the summer.
I should’ve known. Montreal has never been like other markets. In the worst, mushiest moments of the early ‘80s doldrums, heritage AM CKGM and a then-emerging CKOI cherrypicked British new wave, American R&B, Europop novelties, and, always, disco. The saying is that “disco” was never a dirty word in New York or Miami, even during the worst of the backlash elsewhere, and it was certainly never that in Montreal either.
Despite that rhythmic lean, in recent years Montreal has also been a market where rock, and even heritage rock acts, remained part of contemporary radio. Bon Jovi kept having hits in Montreal years after they had been exiled to Hot AC, then AC here. Not that long ago, Styx’s Denis De Young had a hit duet with a French-language artist.
CKMF (Energie 94.3), once the competing CHR, has been through a number of changes over the years, but for now it’s mostly gold-based, not quite Adult Hits, but close, with a handful of recurrents (mostly in French, to satisfy government content regulations). And some people (including a friend from French radio who I discussed them with) consider CKOI to be a Hot AC and Montreal to have no true CHR. (There is this border blaster.)
So Montreal CHR has not been, and is not now, CHR as we know it here. And that’s why these are the seven uptempo songs I heard on a Sunday morning, Aug. 13, between 10:45 and 11:15 on CKOI:
Ini Kamoze, “Here Come The Hotstepper”;
Yelo Molo, “Le Petit Castor,” Francophone teen punk—which seems to be a significant category for CKOI;
Alice Merton, “No Roots,” an Elle King-like bluesy pop/rock record, mostly heard here on Triple-A and a few Alternative stations;
Offenbach, “Be Mine,” an international dance/pop hit that we could have used here this summer (with a provocative video);
Shawn Mendes, “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back”;
Yes, “Owner of A Lonely Heart”;
Sonreal, “Can I Get A Witness,” bouncy, inventive Canadian rap from last year.
The next two songs were Onerepublic’s midtempo “No Vacancy” and Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder.” Suddenly we were back in the land of midtempo tropical house and trap pop with chopped up vocal samples. But both of those sounded okay to me after seven uptempo songs. There was one more uptempo international dance record. Then we arrived at our first destination, and I’d had everything I wanted from a radio station on a road trip—driving music, hit songs I don’t hear on my locals and ample sense of place.
For some people, naming CKOI my Station of the Summer is going to be as willfully contrarian as my Song of Summer choice. Most U.S. programmers are going to regard CKOI as irrelevant, or at least unactionable, when it comes to American CHR’s travails. Last year, WHTZ (Z100) New York began playing more ‘90s and ‘00s gold, and I saw it as them throwing up their hands at the available product. Who knows what I would have made of “Owner of a Lonely Heart”?
Bilingual French/English CHR with powers that spin less than 40x a week is not the suggestion for American CHR radio. But CKOI does show the power of taking CHR, or any format, into your own hands. It’s a station known among Canadian record people for doing what they want, successfully. Offenbach is a multi-format hit throughout Quebec. Alice Merton is CKOI only, and American CHR PDs would consider it a ridiculous, obscure suggestion, but it sounds like an uptempo pop hit in the mix.
On a nationwide basis, Canadian CHR doesn’t differ as much as it once did from the American charts for anything other than Canadian content. But there are still exceptions. In Canada, Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl” is a top 20 hit at CHR and Hot AC. CKOI wasn’t first on that one, but they were early and are more than 400 spins in now. When I suggest going on to the Sheeran album to find the next song, it may seem like I’m pushing for my own level of obscure music geekery. But I’m advocating for playing the hits, and the rest of the world can prove it.
CKOI is not the CHR format as we know it. But it’s the CHR format as Montreal knows it. And how much are you enjoying the tempo-challenged format as we know it at the moment?