DETROIT -- The drive-time deejays at radio station CBEF-AM in Windsor, Ontario, crack jokes, discuss the Detroit Tigers and spin a variety of pop, rock, folk and oldies records.
But they refuse to play Madonna, New Kids on the Block, M.C. Hammer, Paula Abdul or Janet Jackson. Forget the Beatles, the Stones, Sinatra, Aretha, Dylan, Elvis or anything from Motown.
As wildly popular as those artists might be, they possess one fatal flaw that forever will keep them from the CBEF playlist: They do not sing in French, and CBEF, at 540 on the dial, broadcasts only in the mellifluous language of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Cartier and Guy Lafleur.
"We have one rigid policy in music: no English," program director Mina Grossman says with a smile.
Sticking with such French recording stars as Gilles Vigneault, Edith Butler and Michel Rivard is just one of the ways CBEF does battle each day against English, which in a cultural sense is considered Public Enemy No. 1 for the station's audience of 40,000 French Canadians scattered in and around Windsor.
At a time of increasing political turbulence in bilingual Canada over the rights and aspirations of its French citizens, CBEF forms the front line of linguistic defense in southwestern Ontario. And believing that the best defense is a strong offense, CBEF's 25 employees are militant about their station's mandate to promote the French language.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, CBEF is playing an increasingly important role in their lives, say Windsor-area French Canadians, who speak of the station with a passion rarely heard when Detroiters talk about the commercial outlets located on this side of the border.
Marie Bezaire, 62, whose family emigrated from France, via Quebec, to the farmlands outside Windsor in the 1780s, recalls vividly CBEF's first moment in 1970.
It was just after dawn. Her husband was milking a cow. She was trimming a raspberry patch on the family farm, waiting with a transistor radio for the station's initial sign-on.
"They greeted every parish, village and township in the area where there were French-speaking people," Bezaire says. "It startled me. I just dropped the shears. I more or less trembled. I was so emotional, and I would say satisfied, that finally now we can hear in our own language what's going on. It really opened a new world for people in this area."
In two decades, CBEF has established itself as perhaps the most unusual of the Detroit area's 51 major radio stations. That it is the only local station broadcasting 24 hours a day in a language other than English is only a partial explanation.
Part of the federal government's Radio Canada network which stretches from Newfoundland to British Columbia, CBEF offers a degree of sophistication and a range of programming that surpasses even a station as intelligent and varied as Detroit's listener-supported WDET-FM.
On CBEF, a listener over the past few days could have heard reports on pig farming, the arctic economy, documentary films, the music and times of King Henry IV and the latest books from France. There is a nightly call-in show for kids; plenty of jazz, classical, South American, African and Asian types of music; and abundant updates on the hitters, pitchers and teams in "La Ligue Americaine de Baseball." In the winter, CBEF carries every game played by the Montreal Canadiens hockey team.
"I find it very interesting, a tremendous plus, a marvelous thing," says regular listener Charles Beaudet of the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, a Quebec native who immigrated to the United States as a youth during the Depression. He is one of an estimated 30,000 native French speakers on the Detroit side of the border who form an additional audience for CBEF.
"It's very, very much different from anything we have here. There is a different perception of politics and the international scene. It has an approach that is more Gallic as against Anglo-Saxon. ... I love the programs from Europe and Africa," Beaudet says.
But it is the local programming that is CBEF's chief reason for existence, 6 1/2 hours each day when the station "reflects the community to itself," according to Grossman.
In addition to its news and music, CBEF carries considerable information on local events such as walkathons, garden tours and bowling leagues. Detroit Red Wings coach Jacques Demers calls in for a weekly chat. The station sponsors local talent shows for French singers and allows students to produce their own productions which the station broadcasts several times a year.
Twice in the past two months, CBEF has brought to Windsor French-Canadian recording artists who are major stars throughout the French-speaking world. The singers praised their enthusiastic audiences for keeping the language alive.
Lisette Leboeuf, 32, who grew up in nearby St. Joachim, serves as CBEF's community news reporter.
"People say, 'A walkathon? So what?' I say it's important, it's crucial. People hear about it in French and they can relate."
As the first Europeans in Canada, the French -- following the English conquest -- were allowed to maintain their language and were subsequently guaranteed equal access to government services in French. But preserving French has been an epic struggle, especially for French Canadians outside Quebec. The rate of assimilation into the predominant English culture is high.
Like Marie Bezaire, many of CBEF's listeners trace their roots to the 18th century, when both sides of the Detroit River were ruled by the king of France.
"It's almost unbelievable that there are still people speaking French here after all these years when they have been squeezed by an English-speaking province in an English-speaking country that is next to a huge English-speaking country," says CBEF news reporter Bernard Drainville, who, like most of the CBEF on-air staff, is a native of Quebec.
The arrival of the radio station gave French speakers tangible evidence that their language is a living tool for them to use, listeners say.
When Pierre Cote was working in a bookstore after arriving in Windsor from Quebec in 1973, he recalls CBEF serving as his "umbilical cord to the French culture, my roots."
Now the station's public relations director, he appreciates even more CBEF's role in fighting the incursion of English.
"Assimilation is like carbon monoxide," Cote says. "You don't smell it. You don't see it. But suddenly, you've lost your language."
There has been opposition to bilingualism by the English ever since the Official Languages Act went into effect in 1969, and it has grown in recent months as the nation has been torn over the Meech Lake constitutional debate that centers on granting special legal guarantees to Quebec, where the French majority is seeking to maintain the province's distinct nature.
In Ontario, various cities, including Sault Ste. Marie, have declared themselves unilingually English, arguing that providing services to the French minorities is not worth the costs.
In the CBEF listening area, the town of Essex outside of Windsor passed such a law. Reporter Drainville found himself covering a story in which English Canadians were saying of the French, "Their middle name is 'demand,' " and "I don't like anyone pushing anything down my throat."
Drainville says living in Ontario for several years has toughened him to such comments, though he and others say such open hostility is uncommon.
"Most English-speaking people are in favor of the bilingual nature of the country, or indifferent. But the bigots are rare," he says.
Leboeuf recalls growing up in the farmland outside Windsor in the 1970s. Though her grade school and Catholic church were French, her high school was English, and some kids referred to the French as "frogs."
"You don't hear that kind of talk anymore," Leboeuf says. With the national policy of bilingualism, "over a period of time, it kind of made them realize how important French is."
Since the debut of CBEF in 1970, the French in Windsor can now watch TV in French (though virtually none of the programming is local), send their kids to two French high schools and gather at an impressive community center that was purchased this year.
In the 16 years that Francine Letourneau has lived in Windsor, she has noticed the French becoming more aware of their identity and assertive in their rights.
"They are aware that their language is not something that you take for granted," says Letourneau, principal of one of Windsor's six French-language grade schools.
She, like others, credits the music, news, talk and even the walkathon information that she has heard on CBEF for helping to raise the French community's consciousness. Letourneau wakes up to French each morning. She says, "I wouldn't think of turning on the radio in English."