Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the quirks of living near a Great Lake is that the Great Lakes are, truly, great. Whether it’s Michigan or Erie or, in your editor’s case, Ontario, these are very large bodies of water. You can easily spend an entire day (not even counting border delays) driving all the way around one of the Great Lakes – or, as in this Site of the Week installment, just going from the middle of one side of the lake to the middle of the other side.
Welcome to Belleville, Ontario, at roughly the midpoint of the north side of Lake Ontario. By air (or radio wave, or boat), it’s only 70 miles or so from the port of Rochester over here to this pretty port city just about due north across the lake. But until they build the bridge or dig the tunnel from my side of the lake, it’s at least four hours of driving around the end of the lake to get over to Belleville.
Instead of the nonstop traffic clog that is greater Toronto on the western end of the lake, we opt for the east side, a 260-mile drive through Syracuse, up into the Thousand Islands, across the bridge into eastern Ontario and then along the teatureless blur of the 401 expressway westward into Belleville.
There are two commercial radio groups here, and our destination is the older of the two. Quinte Broadcasting has been at its present quarters at 10 Front Street South since 1985 and its oldest station, CJBQ (800), traces its history back to 1946. Back then, it was a 250-watt signal on 1230, moving to 800 with 1000 watts in 1957 and then to its present 10,000-watt signal in 1970. (We’ll see the towers in a bit.)
For the last 50 years, CJBQ and its Quinte Broadcasting sisters have been in the hands of a single family, and today it’s the fourth generation of the Morton family at the helm here.
There are three stations in the Quinte Broadcasting family up here on the top floor of the building, enjoying a spectacular view of the harbo(u)r and the Bay of Quinte beyond it to the south. We’ll see all three, but we’re here with radio buddies George Greene (he of the big International Falls trip of 2005) and Jerry Bond to join in their annual summer visit to spend an afternoon with CJBQ’s afternoon oldies host, the fabulous Freddy Vette.
Freddy has a great radio story: he’s a musician by trade (check out his band’s website) who wandered into radio almost by accident back in 2009, turning a brief daily appearance on CJBQ into what’s now a five-hour afternoon extravaganza that…well, here, I’ll shut up and let him describe it: “I do my best to re-create a rock and roll radio show straight out of the ’60s with high energy personality, jingles, goofy cornball humour, some theatre of the mind, and of course, the music. The music ranges from the hits, seldom played hits, to obscure rarities with lots of listener participation. I take the same approach to the program as I do when performing with The Flames. Study the originals. I listen to radio announcers from the past and you’ll hear the influence of Cousin Brucie, Wolfman Jack, Jack Armstrong, Jungle Jay Nelson and other radio greats during my program.”
Freddy’s afternoon oldies show is just one part of the block programming that makes CJBQ a most distinctive station these days: there’s country music during the full-service morning show, talk middays, Freddy’s classic oldies sounds in the afternoon, John Tesh’s soft AC at night, and it all combines to form a station that’s still a top biller and ratings-grabber in the market.
There are some renovations underway now in the complex, but these pictures from August 2013 capture the CJBQ facility largely unchanged from its original 1985 layout. The main air studio was right in the corner, with big arched windows looking west over the harbor and north to downtown Belleville. (Dig that classic Ward-Beck console, a fine Canadian product!)
The main air studio looks into a talk studio that’s used for the midday show; that, in turn, looks into the newsroom that provides an extensive news product to CJBQ and its sister stations.
AC “Mix 97” (CIGL) also enjoys a nice harbor view out its picture windows down the hall from CJBQ (I believe this room is slated to become the CJBQ air studio, with Mix moving over to the current CJBQ corner studio). The third station here is “Rock 107,” CJTN, which is one of the many Canadian stations that started on AM and moved to FM. CJTN was a pretty late arrival on AM, signing on in 1979 at 1270 on the dial from Trenton, just west of Belleville, as a second semi-satellite of CJBQ. (The first was CJNH 1240 in Bancroft, up to the north, which was sold in 2000 and has since also moved to FM.)
CJTN moved to FM in 2004, initially as “Lite Rock” and more recently as a full-fledged rocker, using a studio down the hall from its two sisters right here in Belleville. It no longer has offices or studios in Trenton – and indeed, there’s not even a “Trenton” anymore, since that community was amalgamated into the larger municipality of Quinte West a few years ago.
After Freddy’s signoff, there’s just barely enough daylight left to go over the bridge to Prince Edward County, the island that sticks out into the lake south of Belleville and the Bay of Quinte. CJBQ’s six-tower array sits on the western end of the island, where it’s one of a small handful of Canadian AMs that actually sends a significant signal to the south.
That matters, in this context, because many years ago, when your editor was just a ’70s kid with a GE AM transistor radio, it was a chance dial spin that landed at 800 – “What? I can hear a station from a whole different country?!?!” – that played a big role in getting me started with the radio bug.
One more picture before we close out this week’s look at Belleville: we mentioned that the Quinte Broadcasting cluster is one of two commercial station groups in town, and here’s a quick exterior peek at the other one.
CJOJ (95.5) signed on in 1993 as AC “OJ 95,” though that brand suddenly stopped making sense not long afterward thanks to one Mr. Simpson. Today it’s “95.5 Hits FM,” and it’s had a country sister since 2001, CHCQ (100.1), known these days as “Cool 100.1.” They’ve been in their current building just west of downtown on Dundas Street since 2010, and they make up the other half of a rather unusual market these days: this may well be the biggest market anywhere in Canada without any of the big corporate owners in town.
(The rest of the dial? There’s the Loyalist College station, CJLX 91.3, the flagship of the “UCB Canada” religious network, CKJJ 102.3, and some new entries on the outskirts, My FM’s CIYM 100.9 in Brighton and CJPE 99.3 in Prince Edward County, which signed on just last fall.)
Thanks to Freddy Vette for the visit – and to CJBQ for getting it all started, way back when!
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Next week: South Bend, Indiana