North East RadioWatch Special: June 27, 1999

Adieu, CBL

by Scott Fybush

A week ago, 62 years of radio history came to a close in a small white building at the end of a dead-end road in the tiny hamlet of Hornby, Ontario.

NERW was there as engineers pulled the plug on CBL (740), and this is what we saw.

We arrived on Friday afternoon, June 18, the last day of regular programming on the 740 frequency. It had been 14 months since we traveled to Toronto for the inauguration of CBL's replacement, CBLA on 99.1 FM. When the FM signed on, the occasion was marked by a huge open house at the CBC Broadcast Centre in downtown Toronto, complete with fireworks, live broadcasts, studio tours, even souvenir T-shirts.

This time around, it was just us and the engineers -- a lot of engineers, as it happened. When we pulled up at the building on Eighth Line Road, more than a half-dozen engineers were working on one of CBL's two identical Continental 317 transmitters, trying to fix a problem that was keeping that unit off the air. The good news was that retired engineer Rod Hillman had time to show us around the facility.

The Hornby plant was built in 1937, when CBL (then at 840 kHz) became the CBC's Toronto flagship station. The 650-foot vertical tower at the site was, for some years, the tallest structure in Canada, and the transmitter site itself became a tourist attraction in the years leading up to World War II. As a result, the building was designed to accomodate visitors, who watched the transmitter operators from a viewing platform just inside the door to the transmitter room.

The Art Deco door and steel-railed platform are still there, but today's visitor sees a different transmitter room. The old console is gone, as are the Northern Electric transmitters that once walled in two sides of the room. Today, there are the two Continentals for CBL off to the left, two more identical transmitters for French-language CJBC (860) straight ahead, and in front of CJBC, racks of equipment for audio processing and transmitter monitoring. Behind the rack is a wall topped with several rows of glass block. When this site was new, Hillman tells us, the entire wall was glass.

After taking some photos of the transmitter room, we head downstairs, past the generator room, towards the basement. That's where a Cold War-era fallout shelter holds a small studio, and where the last words to be uttered on CBL will be heard in just over a day's time.

Right now, though, we're headed back outside and out to the tower. The current tower, Hillman tells us, was put up just a decade ago to replace the 1937 stick. The new tower is just 18" on each side, about half the size of the old one (whose base still sits on the lawn outside the transmitter building). At its base sit not one, but three, tuning buildings: the original, a later version that proved unsatisfactory, and the current one, where the CBL and CJBC signals are combined and sent out to the antenna -- at least for the moment.

Our tour completed, we drive away from Hornby listening to the CBL signal, complete with frequent interruptions reminding us that CBC Radio One will move to 99.1 FM for good in just a few hours. Later that night, we visit fellow aircheck collectors Russ Horton and Sam Ward in nearby Georgetown, then head back to Hornby around 11:30 to hear what will happen at midnight.

Midnight comes and goes with no change to the CBL signal -- but a few minutes later, when the CBC hourly news ends and the FM side returns to the second hour of "That Time of the Night," CBL slips into a non-stop loop advising listeners where to tune on the FM dial to find the Radio One signal. Saddened, we pull out of the transmitter driveway, out to Trafalgar Road, and over to Tim Horton's for donuts.

The next day, as the loop plays on, we distract ourselves by heading into downtown Toronto and taking in a Blue Jays game. From our seats in the top deck of SkyDome, we note that in addition to being able to hear the Jays game on four stations (CKGL 570, CJRN 710, CHAM 820, and CHUM 1050), we can't hear the new CBLA FM signal very well. That's because we're looking right up at all the other FMs on the CN Tower, while CBLA's directional signal emanates from First Canadian Place a few blocks away. CBL still comes in just fine, albeit with nothing but that loop playing on and on. The Jays win, 7-0.

After dinner, it's back out to Hornby, this time to find a transmitter site full of people. The CBC has invited all its current and former transmitter engineers to be at Hornby for the occasion, and ten of them are there. The middle of the transmitter room now sports a table filled with food and drink. The time is almost at hand.

As the 1937 clock ticks off a half-hour remaining, engineer Tom Holden and Philip Savage, of the CBC communications department, head downstairs to the studio. Meantime, we remain upstairs, telling various CBC engineers just why it is that we can't hear 99.1 in Rochester ("You see, we have this 50 kilowatt local FM on 98.9...").

With just a few minutes left, we go down to the studio, where Savage sits waiting for the end. The loop nears its end, plays again, and finally Holden pots up the mic and Savage begins reading:

This is CBC Radio One, broadcasting from the Hornby transmitter at 740 AM. In the Toronto area, we now move to 99.1 FM, with additional frequencies throughout Southern Ontario. This transmitter has served the community well since 1937, and at 740 AM since 1941. This is the end of an era in Canadian broadcasting history. Signing off now from CBL, adieu.

In the meantime, we've sprinted back upstairs, where Savage's announcement is playing over the loudspeaker in the transmitter room. As he reads the final "adieu," engineer Art Slade has his hand poised on the "high voltage" button on transmitter 2.

Slade is the veteran of the group, having worked at Hornby from 1956 until 1990. Around him, the engineers click their cameras as he reaches for the button, presses it -- and 740 goes silent.

Once Savage and Holden have returned from the basement, the toasts begin, to the new 99.1 and the departed 740. The group of engineers pose for photos in front of the equipment rack. The list of those attending is compiled, photocopied, and distributed with copies of the script for the final announcement.

As we prepare to leave, we see transmitter engineer Roberto Vissani making the final entries in the CBL transmitter log, and this, too, is dutifully photocopied and passed around to all in attendance. We dub a copy of the final moments (we were rolling tape in the car, the only ones at the site to do so, it seems) and are presented with two parting gifts: a tube from the site's junk bin, and the CD from which that loop was playing all day.

It's a long drive back home to Rochester, made all the more strange by the silence on 740. There's DX there, strange stations from North Carolina and Texas and Florida (and, who knows, Cambridge?) that were usually buried under CBL -- but I'm not ready to tackle it yet, for some reason.

We reach the border crossing just after 2 in the morning, to find a surly customs agent who barely bats an eyelid at our explanation of the trip. Perhaps he's been listening to the Sabres lose the Stanley Cup just minutes before, or maybe he's always that way. In any event, we're waved through for the final 90 minutes of the drive.

Somewhere around Batavia, the last remnants of the 99.1 signal are lost below the hash from WBBF in Rochester on 98.9. When the sun rises in Rochester the next morning, there'll be no listenable CBC signal for the first time in 62 years.

"The end of an era in Canadian broadcasting"? Absolutely. But it's also the end of an era in upstate New York radio listening. No longer a local, the CBC is now a DX signal here, caught on the skywave from Windsor or Moncton at night, or on FM from Kingston when the trops are up, or on RealAudio with all those other distant, exotic outposts of civilized radio -- but never again to be a local preset at the start of the AM dial.

Adieu, indeed.

(If you have RealNetworks' RealPlayer, you can listen to an audio version of this report.)

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