Rosalie Trombley Didn’t Just Listen to the Top 40, She Shaped It

For most of the first century of radio’s life, the only position open to women was “listener.”

Rosalie Trombley, who died last week at the age of 82, was one of the relative handful of women whose career underscored the lunkheaded ignorance of that attitude.

Trombley wasn’t a deejay. She probably couldn’t have gotten on the air if she wanted to. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s she programmed the music at CKLW (800 AM), a station anchored just over the Canadian border in Windsor, Ontario.

CKLW was the northern version of Mexican border radio, blasting a 50,000-watt signal that made it one of the most influential rock ’n’ roll stations in America, starting in its front yard with Detroit and blanketing the Upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Nebraska.

“The Big 8” rode the last wave of AM radio’s rock ’n’ roll dominance, before the rise of FM and the fragmentation of music ended the era when 20 or 30 percent of a city or town, and a much higher percentage of its young folks, would listen to the same radio station.

CKLW was a top-40 station and like the best ones it had a few of its own signatures — which, under Rosalie Trombley, included an aggressive mix of white and black artists. Listeners could hear KISS, Alice Cooper, Elton John and the white rock of the day back to back with the O’Jays, Parliament Funkadelic or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which CKLW was one of the first stations to play.

That blend, which got CKLW labeled “the blackest white station in America,” wasn’t an accident. Like Dan Ingram in New York, Trombley was listening to black stations for records she could lift.

She also promoted Canadian artists, particularly after the Canadian government decreed in 1971 that any Canada-licensed station had to play at least 30% home-based music. Trombley addressed this challenge by finding or spotlighting Canadian artists with cross-border appeal, like the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.

The importance of AM radio for pop artists in that era can’t be overstated. With no Internet and FM still not the dominant force it would become, AM is what introduced artists and sold records. Airplay on a station with a blowtorch signal like CKLW could turn a disappearing record into a hit.

A young Bob Seger, who grew up in Detroit and knew CKLW well, was so frustrated about the station not playing his early records that in 1973 he wrote “Rosalie,” one of the few songs about a radio programmer.

“She’s quite the mediator,” Seger began, signaling a mix of respect and frustration. “A smoother operator you will never see / She’ll see you later / And no one dares disobey her openly.

”From Chattanooga, to good old Bogalusa / You can hear them fine / She makes her choices / And then you best be smilin’ when it’s choosin’ time . . . .She’s got the power, got the tower / Rosalie, Rosalie, Rosalie.”

CKLW never played “Rosalie,” but it did pick up other Seger songs and helped him bust out of Detroit into the rest of America. When Trombley died, Seger released a statement saying “Rosalie was an icon, a trailblazer and our friend. . . . We were so fortunate to have her support, especially on many of our early records.”

Trombley was often called “the girl with the golden ears.” One oft-told tale says she persuaded Elton John to release “Bennie and the Jets” as a single, feeling its funky beat would grab both black and white audiences.

Trombley began her CKLW career in 1963 at a place where they did allow women, operating the switchboard. She moved up to the music library and in 1968 was promoted to music director.

She held that position until 1984, by which time AM radio was considered a dinosaur and CKLW was sold to new owners who fired Trombley and most of the staff. She worked at other stations until she retired, never getting full credit for her achievements in a business that from the beginning was convinced men sold its product.

For decades it was an article of faith in radio that “listeners want to hear a man’s voice” everywhere except at the switchboard. Many popular music stations, right into the top-40 era, not only hired all male hosts, but would almost never play two records in a row by female artists, convinced this would drive listeners away.

Small wonder there were also few women behind the scenes, though a relative handful did break through: Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg in Detroit or Bertha Porter, program director for years at WDRC in Hartford.

Women slowly started making it to the air in the late 1960s, mostly on the new, more experimental FM stations. Even then, said long-time New York and satellite radio host Meg Griffin, “It was the classic story. Work twice as hard for half the money.”

In “Rosalie,” Seger called Trombley “everybody’s favorite little record girl,” a phrase that may have inadvertently captured an uncomfortably widespread attitude in the music and radio industries.

In some ways, Rosalie Trombley’s most impressive achievement may have been winning their r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”