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Flower power's hour

Winnipeg's first free-form radio show created big waves

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The Top 40 format was created in the early 1950s based on the notion that listeners wanted to hear their favourite songs over and over. By the mid '60s, AM radio across North America was formatted on the Top 40 model, which was fuelled by 45-r.p.m. singles. However, as album-oriented rock became increasingly popular in the latter '60s, there was no place for this music to be aired. The rarely used FM radio band offered higher fidelity but was seen as a home for classical music or public broadcasting.

Winnipeg radio in the '60s was still very much an AM-radio, Top-40 format. Then, in 1968, came Now Flower, 92.1 CKY-FM's experiment with a free-form 'anything goes' rock format. Despite being on the air for only three years, the program was revolutionary for its time and had a major impact on local radio.

Now Flower was the brainchild of CKY radio operator Jan Thorsteinson. "I asked Herb Britton, program director at CKY-FM, if I could program music for Saturday morning from 7 to 10," recalls Thorsteinson. "At that time, the station was a middle-of-the-road format, Mantovani and all that elevator music. I was surprised when he agreed." Thorsteinson put his own stamp on the time slot. "I started off just playing music for my own entertainment. There was no model I was following. I didn't have a clue what was going on at other FM stations. I just figured, if I'm going to be sitting around playing music, I might as well play music I like. There were lots of albums that never got airplay on the AM station, so we had plenty to choose from."

What began as a one-off Saturday-morning diversion soon evolved into a phenomenon broadcasting all weekend and 4 p.m. to midnight on weekdays. "I discovered that there were other people that wanted to hear this stuff, too," says Thorsteinson. "Herb gave us a great deal of latitude. CKY just figured there was an audience for this album-oriented music and went with it." Each episode of Now Flower would sign off with Quicksilver Messenger Service's version of Happy Trails.

"Now Flower was where you got to hear album cuts and longer tracks, like the full version of the Doors' Light My Fire or Iron Butterfly's In A Gadda Da Vida," notes broadcaster Tom Milroy. "It was the beginning of FM in Winnipeg and we hadn't heard anything like it."

As John Junson recalls, "I always tried taping the show on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. One of my Now Flower tapes had tracks from the first Led Zeppelin album, something by B.B. King and Gyspy Solitaire by Fraser & DeBolt. Just this amazing eclectic mix." Adds Thorsteinson, "There was a nice openness to the concept that allowed us to play just about anything."

"We used to get a lot of letters from listeners of an intensity that was quite unexpected for me about how people were affected by this music," said Thorsteinson. "The only negative response I remember was someone complaining about the drum solo in In A Gadda Da Vida. Herb took that seriously and banned all songs with drum solos after that. But that didn't stop us. So he took a knife and scratched out the drum solo sections of particular songs on the vinyl."

An air of counterculture irreverence permeated Now Flower. As Thorsteinson remembers, "I would introduce the news with 'The news, not to be mistaken for the truth.' I could only take so many playings of In A Gadda Da Vida but people kept requesting it. So one night I played it at 78 r.p.m. just to get it over with and there were no complaints." Thorsteinson occasionally did remote broadcasts from Opus 69 Records on Kennedy Street or from the Eaton's menswear department. "I walked in to set up the equipment and the department manager looked at me and said, 'I think we better get you a suit.' So they gave me this suit with bell bottoms to wear. On one Eaton's remote, I had taken acid the night before, so it was quite a strange experience. It became a long morning. I couldn't remember what I'd just played."

Now Flower drew its share of oddball listeners. "One night, a young guy called in insisting to be put on the air. Quite an intelligent kid but a bit odd. So I relented and put him on and there was dead silence for a couple of minutes. Nothing. Finally I put on a record and while it played I asked him what happened. He replied, 'Oh I put the phone in the fridge.' I guess it was a conceptual art piece or something."

Other Now Flower hosts included Dennis James, Bill Gray and Harold "Gersh" Gershuny, who handled the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. slot. "Now Flower was definitely Jan's baby in tone and practice," notes Gershuny. "He was laid-back, easy to talk to, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of music. I was just a Jewish kid working out his neuroses on air. I loved the sound of my own voice and occasionally I would have to rein myself in. I recall getting into a half-hour discussion with another gentleman live on air about the origin of the word f--k. A friend of mine had come off the road hitchhiking for a couple of months so I put him on to talk about his experiences."

The plug was finally pulled in 1971 after a new station manager took a dim view of the on-air antics. "It was announced that it was going to be our last broadcast," chuckles Thorsteinson, "so the station management sent Michael Gillespie down to the transmitter station with strict instructions that if we did anything too radical, to shut off the transmitter. The grand finale was that I put a tape loop on and let it run, creating this reverb of noise." It would be left to Reid Dickie at CFRW-FM to pick up the mantel a year or so later. "Now Flower broke the ground by creating an audience and a taste for free-form radio in Winnipeg," acknowledges Dickie.

"Up to that point, my world was pop music," recalls veteran radio host Howard Mandshein, "and then I heard Now Flower. It felt like I was being invited into this mysterious new world -- the music, the announcers, the sound -- and I loved it. I was seduced by it and it changed my world and influenced my future career path. Now Flower defined a generation in Winnipeg. It was magical."

"It was pretty obvious we were doing something groundbreaking at the time," Gershuny surmises. "Nobody was doing anything like it, this free-form format. Doing whatever we wanted with minimum supervision was certainly unique. We didn't know we were being influential because it was just fun."

Join John Einarson Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon for My Generation on UMFM. 101.5.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2014 A8

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