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Markham Street Films presents
Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8 (2004)

"The Big 8 changed the way people listened to radio, during one of the most turbulent eras in 20th-century history."
- narrator (Michael McNamara)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: March 09, 2006

Stars: Alice Cooper, Joe Donovan, Mark Dailey, Lee Marshall, Charlie O'Brien, Big Jim Edwards, Ron Foster, Ted Richards, Bob Lusk, Les Garland, Grant Hudson, Tom Shannon, Johnny Williams, Art Vuolo Jr., Dave Marsh, Dick Smyth, Walt Love, Ed Buterbaugh, Bill Hennes, Russ Jenkins, Fred Sorrell, Pat Holiday, Isaiah McKinnon, Pat St. John, Scott Miller, Bill Gable, Keith Radford, Rosalie Trombley, Joe Summers, Kelvyn Ventour, Armon Boladian, Mitch Ryder, Wayne Kramer, Jack Richardson, Tony Orlando, Joe Evans, Bert Serre, Randall Carlisle, Martha Reeves, Rob Bowman, Jo-Jo Shutty, Stan Klees, Walt Grealis, George Pollard, Edsel Ford
Director: Michael McNamara

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language)
Run Time: 01h:10m:18s
Release Date: March 07, 2006
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+BB+ B+

DVD Review

As a wee lad on the south side of Chicago, I discovered the joy of AM radio in the late 1960s, listening with robotic faithfulness to 50,000 watt broadcast giants WCFL and WLS. The regular rotation of Top 40 music, sing-songy call letter jingles and the boisterous reverby schtick of the jocks were all part of the same glorious package, a combo platter of indelible pop culture that fell away as FM radio established its stronghold by the mid-1970s.

The all-seeing/all-knowing influence and power of one of these 50,000 watt behemoths, this one situated in Windsor, Ontario—just spitting distance across the river from Detroit—is the subject of this 72-minute documentary from director Michael McNamara, who also serves as narrator. And if McNamara is right in the message of his doc, it would seem that a station like Windsor's CKLW—know affectionately as "The Big 8"—did more to shape and form the body of not just popular music, but the entire format of AM radio at the time. It was loud, fast and most of all, a veritable hit-maker.

McNamara warmly covers the station's rich history (including the inevitable collapse, thanks to some questionable Canadian broadcast regulations that effectively killed it as a viable competitor). But it is the magic of the 1960s-1970s era where it all came together. He employs a mix of period music and archival clips—made impressive by the amount of vintage footage of the CKLW staff at work—in conjunction with modern-day interviews with the air staff, programmers, engineers, and even input from artists as diverse as Alice Cooper, Martha Reeves, The MC5's Wayne Kramer, Tony Orlando, and Mitch Ryder, all of whom pay homage to the might of CKLW.

It's the microcosm of the golden days of that era where McNamara settles for the core of the doc, from the tabloid-style news broadcasts full of campy alliteration to the various personalities that manned the airwaves, following the carefully crafted format of the "hot clock." We get the story of Rosalie Trombley, the girl with the golden ear who picked the music the station played, and how she became one of the most powerful women in radio; Bob Seger even wrote the hit song Rosalie ("You've got the tower, you've got the power") for her, though Trombley demanded CKLW never play it. The eventual downward spiral of the station, under the repressive weight of new Canadian regulations, is a sad footnote, but like music itself, it almost seems like a proper evolutionary change.

You'll really have to judge for yourself if hearing AM radio DJ's reflecting back on the glory days will appeal to you as much as it did me. Sure, there is an undeniable nerd factor here, but I'd wager that if you grew up listening to the magnetic draw of crackly AM radio anywhere during that time, McNamara's doc will rekindle something long ago and not so faraway. The presentation is brisk and lively, peppered with great music and stories about the good old days of Top 40 radio.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The archival footage is understandably iffy here and there, but that's to be expected. The new interview segments sport pleasant colors, though it seems lighting levels are a little inconsistent in spots, dependent on condition. But that's a small nitpick, really. The print is clean, and devoid of any major blemishes (aside from those related to the archival footage, that is).

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo, and while it doesn't deliver any dramatic flourishes, it is a surprisingly punchy, rich mix that works well with the material. Interview segments all sound clean and hiss-free, but the frequent music—either snippets of oldies or the new soundtrack material from Kurt Swinghammer of Ginger Snaps II fame—comes across with very bright tones.


Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Meet The Sumdees, Shrines and Homemade Holy Places, The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati
8 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Galleries
Extras Review: Small but nice packaging accents from Markham Street Films on this release, with little things like the disc label resembling a 45 single adding to the nostalgic appeal. A glossy insert has a couple of pages of behind-the-scenes info that folds out into a mini-poster of the cover art.

Extras consist of eight deleted scenes, running nearly an hour, viewable separately or via the Play All option. Some run just over a minute, while one goes for over 15 minutes. There's a nice 11-minute piece on Paul Drew, the so-called "architect" of the Big 8's sound, as well as additional footage of the 2002 staff reunion.

There's bios of the filmmakers, as well as an extensive set of photo galleries divvied into smaller sections with names like And the Hits Just Keep on Comin' or Hit Line Requests, some of which are shown over a bed of CKLW jingles.

The disc is cut into 17 chapters.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Maybe it's just my own broadcast nerdiness coming through, but Michael McNamara's look back at the rise and eventual fall of a 50,000 watt AM powerhouse really captures that hard-to-define magic that came out of all those tiny transistor radios back in the day, as the kids say. The iPod generation probably can't relate, but if you grew up living and dying for the tinny coolness of Top 40 radio, this is a fun trip.



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