Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Just over a week ago, your editor was traveling across England, where the BBC was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its expansion into local radio. Since making its first inroads into local markets in 1967, the BBC now offers distinctive local services in pretty much every region of England (and they even celebrated the milestone with a special documentary that we caught while there!)
Which makes this week’s Site of the Week quite timely: in Canada, where public funding for broadcasting is rather more constrained, it took until June 12, 2017 for the half-million people of greater London, Ontario to get their own full-fledged local CBC Radio outlet.
CBC, of course, does things a little differently from its big brother across the pond: the BBC offers five full national radio networks that sound just the same in Aberdeen as in Dover, with local radio as an additional separate service. The CBC has just two national radio networks, and local content appears as drivetime shows on the otherwise national Radio 1 service. London has had its own Radio 1 transmitter, CBCL (93.5), since the late 1970s, but local content was limited to just a few daily newscasts inserted into a provincial “Ontario Morning” show produced from Toronto and a regional afternoon show from Windsor, two hours to the west.
In 2016, the CBC finally got the budget line it needed to put a local London service in place, and it moved quickly to secure studio and office space on the ground floor of the London Public Library downtown.
When opening day arrived, we made the three-hour drive west across the border to see the new space for ourselves. The library building on Dundas Street had plenty of shiny new CBC signage, plus big “CBC” balloons in the studio window just off the front lobby.
Inside, this is a simple space designed for the new digital universe. It’s dominated by a long row of desks and flexible workspaces for the station’s new news staff, all lined up in the space between the streetside windows and another wall of windows looking in to the library.
There’s no walled-off studio here: “London Morning” and the regional “Afternoon Drive” show (shared with CBC transmitters to the west in Chatham-Kent, Leamington, Windsor and Sarnia) come from a desk at one end of the newsroom workspace, with a window looking into a small enclosed control room.
There’s a small wall of racks across the hall from the control room (master control for this, like all CBC stations, is back at the mothership in Toronto, so all programming goes from here back to Toronto on its way to the transmitters), a handful of small edit booths down the hallway – and that’s basically it for this stripped-down CBC operation.
We didn’t drive this whole way just to spend half an hour inside the shiny new studio, of course. We’d seen the AM sites of London a year earlier – just two remain and a third had just gone silent when we passed through in 2016 – but it had been many years since we’d checked out the city’s TV and FM sites. Two were very easy to find – religious CHJX (99.9) and university/community CHRW (94.9) both operate from atop a downtown skyscraper a few blocks from the library. After looking up at those, off we went to the edges of town, starting with the CBC tower on the western edge of the city, off Byron Baseline Road.
The lineup of signals on this tower has changed over the years: Radio One (CBCL 93.5) is here, of course, as are the lower-powered signals of Radio Two (CBBL 100.5) and Radio-Canada (CJBC-4-FM 99.3). One private station, Bell’s CIQM (97.5 Virgin Radio) leases space here. And there’s TV as well, though not from the CBC: when the digital transition hit, the CBC shut down CBLN (Channel 40) in English and CBLFT-9 (Channel 53) in French. That left relay transmitters for TVOntario, Rogers’ OMNI.TV and independent CHCH from Hamilton to continue to operate from here.
The big local TV station in town is CFPL-TV (Channel 10), which has operated since 1953 from studio and tower facilities south of downtown on Communications Road, a hilltop site reached by driving through a residential neighborhood off Highview Avenue.
The TV station goes by “CTV Two” these days, with no local callsign or channel identification, and we imagine this big building is probably somewhat empty inside, especially since sister Bell stations CIQM, CJBK (1290) and CJBX (92.7) aren’t even here, instead remaining at their longtime studios on Wellington Road.
Another FM station, Rogers’ “Jack” CHST (102.3), does have studio and transmitter facilities here. CFPL’s longtime FM sister station “FM96” (CFPL-FM 95.9) has its transmitter here as well, though that station is now owned by Corus and operates from studios downtown. Another Corus move-in, CFHK (103.1 Fresh Radio), also has its transmitter here these days, too. It’s still licensed to St. Thomas, a half-hour to the south, but has long operated as a London station.
The Blackburn family that used to own the CFPL stations and the London Free Press returned to local radio in 2011 with CKLO (98.1 Free FM), a new station broadcasting from a directional antenna next to a farm on Old Victoria Road just south of the 401, southeast of London. (The tower stands upright – that’s just a bit of lens distortion making it look bowed in the middle, below what appears to be a SIRA panel antenna.)
Drive east from here, paralleling the 401, and you quickly come to two more FM sites that more or less round out London’s FM sites: Bell’s CJBX (92.7) has operated since its debut in 1980 from a tower site off Cromarty Drive, dominating the country radio market here as “BX93.”
And if you hop on the 401 eastbound for a few exits, the next town you’ll come to, 18 km to the east, is Ingersoll. Exit at highway 19 southbound and you’ll quickly see the tower that belongs to the two FM stations from Tillsonburg, another 15 km or so to the south. CKOT-FM (101.3) built this tower a couple of decades ago to bring its beautiful music to more of southwest Ontario – it comes in just fine in London, and as far east as Kitchener-Waterloo, too – and it was joined more recently by smaller sister station CJDL (107.3), the FM replacement for the old CKOT (1510), which was the last daytime-only AM in Canada before it fell silent.
Thanks to the staff of CBC London for the tours!
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Next week: From Woodstock to Toronto, May 2017