I first encountered CKOC as a 20 year old working a summer job in Toronto. Back then the powerhouse Toronto rock station was CHUM, but CHUM used to switch to a talk format in the evenings with the redoubtable Larry Solway. So it meant a bit of dial surfing to find another rock station—and one only had to dial a little past CHUM’s 1050 to get to 1150 CKOC, where the quality of the DJ’s and the music was comparable to CHUM.
Later when I was into my own radio career in London, we viewed the Hamilton market as a step up. In those days the only way you could get a raise in radio was to move to a larger market. As a top 40 station CKOC In the Fall 1980n BBM rating survey, set an all-time record for audience reach by a Hamilton-Burlington station at 724,300 listeners a week. The spring 2015 BBM showed that number had dropped to 37,000, roughly 5% of its peak audience in its heyday.
When I first came to Hamilton to work at CHCH a year later, AM rock radio was still in its heyday, but the change was already on its way. By the mid 80’s hit music had migrated to FM, mainly because rock aficionados wanted the superior sound fidelity that FM offered. Monaural AM was fine for Phil Spector’s muddy mixes, but it didn’t work as well with ELO and Procul Harum. FM quickly became king, and AM stations had to scramble to find a niche. CHML, for instance migrated to a news talk format. CHAM—formerly a top 40 station went country. After fighting the good fight during the 1980’s CKOC ended up as an oldies station in 1992.
Over the years audiences continued to dwindle for CKOC, in part because of the success of its sister station K-Light, which has a more flexible music format that has greater audience appeal and is far and away the most listened station in the Hamilton market. I always thought that the oldies format would have done better if the stations had sampled all of the thousands of great oldies, instead of the tight formats and repetitive offerings they aired. How many times can you listen to the Grass Roots Midnight Confession? And so the audience erosion continued. The sign that even more change was in the air came as CKOC dismantled its newsroom. Radio stalwarts Brent Sleightholm and Doug Cameron were cut and now bolster the newsroom of CKPC in Brantford. Long-time news director Robin Foley also left along with morning newsman John Crawford. Former traffic reporter Shelly Marriage now does weather for CHCH. You knew it was all coming to the end when Rockin’ Ray Michaels was released after an almost 30 year run.
Last month’s announcement that CKOC was moving to an all sports market is another chapter in AM radio searching for a new niche. Former AM stations CHUM and CKEY (remember them?) are thriving as all sports outlets. With the broadcast rights to a rejuvenated Tiger Cat team, with a brand new stadium, the new sports outlet may well find a permanent place on the Hamilton radio scene. 30 years ago people thought TSN television was a crazy idea. How could you find enough sports news to fill a 24 hour schedule? Time has answered that question. Old time radio fans will mourn the loss of a one time radio powerhouse, but the reality is that in radio one must adapt or die.