Chapter Eight

One of my chums from high school had a modest collection of jazz records: Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa. . . We listened to them late into those weekend nights that Vic’s parents were away visiting friends. Our favorite band was Woody Herman’s Third Herd because it tended to be louder and more enthusiastic than most of the others.

One Saturday night we set Vic’s collection aside to listen to a jazz program he had found on the radio. I was intrigued when he mentioned that the program was on the newly established CBC station in Winnipeg. The Corporation had taken over the impressive studios of CKY, Winnipeg, in 1948 when the federal government of the day pressured Manitoba to divest itself of the two radio stations it owned under the aegis of the Manitoba Telephone System.

Another historical note:

Until just after World War II, the federal government had tolerated a provincial presence in the field of broadcasting. Alberta controlled an Edmonton radio station, CKUA, through Alberta Government Telephones; and Manitoba maintained two stations, also through its telephone system – one in Winnipeg and the other in Brandon.

What renewed Ottawa’s interest in squashing all three provincial stations was a distinct change in government in Saskatchewan and Quebec in the year 1944. Both new administrations quickly announced plans to establish provincial radio stations citing the Manitoba and Alberta precedents.

The federal government of the day was Liberal, and so was the provincial government of Manitoba. In the ’30s and ’40s, federal and provincial governments of the same political stripe tended to fraternize much more than they do today. It was easy for Ottawa to sweet-talk Manitoba out of the radio business, but Alberta – staunchly Social Credit – held out.

CKUA, the station Alberta defended, had been around for seven years before the CBC came on the scene; and, besides, unlike the two Manitoba stations, CKUA was non-commercial, and, as such, an orphan. Nobody wanted it – even its present owners – unless it could somehow get a commercial license. And Ottawa, which handed out broadcast licenses back then, blocked that possibility again and again. CKUA was to remain an orphan in one form or another until the century was almost out.

I had never heard of CKUA then, but I felt an attachment to those CKY studios the CBC had confiscated, and especially Studio A where the Good Deed Radio Club had held its meetings during what I considered to be my youth. But working in one of those studios? It never entered my mind.

Blame it on that late-night jazz program. Vic and I agreed it was all but unendurable, despite the presence of two CBC announcers with access to the city’s most extensive record library. To begin with, the pair talked far too much. And they seemed to trigger the worst in each other: fits of giggling and one egregious error after another. Vic and I were indignant: How could the CBC tolerate them? Even ‘after hours’?

I went home from Vic’s that night still fuming and determined to write the lofty CBC a nasty letter; I’d do it that same night while all of the announcers’ errors were still fresh in my mind. I worked on the letter into the early morning hours, sealed it in an envelope addressed to ‘The Manager, Radio Station CBW’, affixed a stamp, and went to bed.

The next morning I had second thoughts. Maybe the program wasn’t all that bad after all. But I’d gone to all the trouble of composing the letter, and finding the proper address and an envelope. I’d even put a stamp on the damned thing. The least I could do was mail it. That way I could tell Vic that I had.

Money worries – I hadn’t found a job to replace the one at the magazine – banished the letter from my thoughts for about a week. Then the reply came in a forbidding government envelope. It summoned me to the Manager’s office to “discuss your allegations in the presence of my Program Director.”

 

A few days later, the station manager’s secretary ushered me into the office of CBC Winnipeg’s station manager, where he and his Program Director were waiting. The manager sat at his desk while his second-in-command remained standing. Neither man was smiling. I recognized my letter spread out on the desk at the manager’s fingertips; he seemed to be trying not to actually touch it.

All I really remember of the conversation that ensued is its incredible climax: One of them asked me if I could do better than the two staff announcers I had scorned in my letter. Something made me say yes. And I got the job!

Was I asked to pass some sort of audition? I can’t remember. Some time must have elapsed between the interview and my first night as a replacement for the announcers I had maligned, but it remains a blur. And I have little recollection of the first few programs I hosted.

I was no Boy Wonder, that’s a certainty. First of all, at the age of twenty, I was no longer a boy; and I had squandered every chance my parents had given me to develop any musical ability. And though I named my replacement program “Collectors’ Corner,” I didn’t own even one record, or subscribe to any of the popular music magazines. If I was collecting anything at the time, it was unemployment insurance.

I had somehow convinced the CBC brass that there was any number of collectors ‘out there,’ each with a store of records we could cobble into a half-hour program once a week. I soon discovered that most prospective guests did little to protect their recordings from enough damage to render them unfit for CBC turntables. Fortunately, the station’s record library was extensive enough to include matching copies of almost anything brought to my program; we played those and set aside what the collector had brought, but it was always touch-and-go.

My guess is that “Collectors’ Corner” lasted 13 weeks, the standard length of a freelance contract. Not much of an introduction to broadcasting but enough to interest the victors of a knockdown battle that had been raging for months among Canada’s radio entrepreneurs. Lloyd Moffatt was coming to town to establish the city’s third private radio station and I was hired by his advance crew to write commercials.

It could have been said that I wasn’t that much farther ahead, even in distance: the new station was to be built a stone’s throw from CBC Winnipeg. And writing commercials was considered a lowly occupation in commercial radio, as my starting salary reflected. But it was a full-time job: my first in radio.

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