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In the days before music TV, the electronic streetcorner was radio. The streetcorner that was the hippest and loudest in the world was the Motor City's CKLW.
Since I was only a few years old when it finally closed its doors, I knew nothing about the Big 8 before sitting down to watch Radio Revolution. The fact that a Canadian station would take the American radio market by storm, making and breaking numerous music acts in one of the most crucial periods of popular music is pretty cool. And so is this documentary, which celebrates the station with the same edgy, rebellious spirit that made the station a huge hit in the first place.
But I'm already getting ahead of myself. For those of you who, like me, don't remember the Big 8, I should do some explaining. Between 1968 and the mid '70s, a radio station from Windor, Ontario—just across the river from Detroit—became one of the biggest rock radio stations in North America, serving the whole East coast of both Canada and the United States. It bridged race and country, giving birth to the style of hit station that we now associate with music radio. It was fast-paced and slick, playing more music, and turning the news into a feature rather than a requirement. The result was a critical location for music, a station that made and broke a decade of new bands.
The story of the Big 8's rise and fall is told through narration, old footage, and interviews with the DJs, program directors, and Rosalie Trombley, the woman who controlled the Detroit music scene. It's a fast-paced blur of stories, recollections, and discussions about how much the current radio scene has been affected by this groundbreaking station. And it's a blast. The nice thing about interviewing a group of disk jockeys is that they have a carefully honed ability to talk clearly and articulately. The result is a collection of truly amusing interview segments, as well as a look behind the scenes at a world we seldom see. I am a bit suspicious about a few of the segments, as I find it hard to believe that a radio station I have never heard of before could be that instrumental in the music scene during such a crucial period in history.
That's not to say that Radio Revolution is a mindless trip down memory lane. Many of the interviewees discuss the implications of these new developments, as well as the impact that the station's 20/20 news team had on radio news reporting. They question the ethics of this style of reporting, which has become commonplace now in the world of big media business. The documentary also takes a good hard look at the political situation in Canada that brought this broadcasting powerhouse to its knees. In trying to protect itself, the Canadian government killed some of its most successful stations through its harsh new regulations and standards. It's this thoughtful analysis that makes the documentary interesting for people who didn't grow up listening to CKLW.
The disc is great too. The video transfer varies in quality. The producers have done the best they could with the old archive footage, while the new interviews look great. The disc sounds solid, too, sporting a stereo track that captures the rich voices of the DJs, and tosses in tracks of music that take us back to the era. Once the film is over, there's an additional hour of interview footage to flip through, with even more anecdotes from the key figures. Director Michael McNamara was wise to keep these conversations out of the main film, which is the perfect length at a brisk 72 Minutes.
Whether you're a fan of the Big 8, interested in broadcasting history, or just a fan of classic rock, Radio Revolution is a documentary that is well worth your time. It's nostalgic without getting sappy and informative without getting dry. The Big 8 may not be back on the air, but this documentary is a great way for fans to relive the glory days.
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