Chapter Eighteen

Though I had lost contact with most of the people I had worked with at CKUA, Edmonton, I kept exchanging letters with Jack Hagerman. Jack was CKUA’s Chief Announcer for the short time I’d worked there in 1950. Over the years he had risen to be the station’s manager and he was looking for a Program Director. Was I interested?

Jack’s offer had me taking a good, hard look at my prospects at CKRC. The station appeared to have weathered the worst that the arrival of TV had wrought, but it was obvious that the medium itself was changing, and CKRC would have to change with it. Most of these changes wouldn’t affect the station’s newsroom but I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable with private radio in general.

The only local alternative appeared to be the CBC. I had impressed some key people at its Winnipeg station because of the Wolseley tree affair, but the CBC was such foreign territory. That’s why Jack’s offer was so tempting: it was less of a leap into the unknown. And CKUA remained resolutely non-commercial in 1958, a genuine rarity among private radio stations.

Another consideration: I was a footloose kid no longer. I had married in 1956 and had two daughters and a mortgage. My wife had never been to Edmonton and, like me; she had family and friends in Manitoba.

So far in my working life, CKRC had been my most permanent employer. The last thing I wanted to be was a drifter. When you consider that credit companies of the day listed the broadcaster as their second worst financial risk – probably one rung below a carnival roustabout – my work record was above average for the profession I had adopted. And though I had seen two employers wither on the vine, I had never been fired – not yet.

My salary at CKRC was only adequate and Jack couldn’t offer me much more. It was reasonable to assume that there were other candidates for the Program Director’s job. How long could he be expected to wait for my decision?

What settled the matter was a flying trip I made to Edmonton to see just what awaited me there if I took the job. I discovered that CKUA had been moved into an ideal location: still downtown but tucked away in the far corner of a government building. I was delighted to see that the station’s longtime Chief Engineer, Bill Pinko, was still there, and that he had put his stamp on the new facilities. In short, I couldn’t find anything in the station or its staff that I could begin to criticize.

I hurried back to Winnipeg to sell the move to my wife.

We left Winnipeg for Edmonton in the winter of 1958 in the latest of my orphan automobiles, a 1951 Henry J.

Henry J. Kaiser’s Henry J was a ‘family car’ for the impecunious. It was designed around a modified Jeep engine – just about the only thing to recommend it. Mine was the ‘low end’ model, meant to sell for about $1,000 in the U.S. Accordingly, it was stripped down to bare essentials: the rear windows didn’t roll down, it had no glove compartment, no armrests, no ‘flow through’ ventilation, no side mirrors, no windshield washers, no radio, and – worst of all – no trunk. The owner was expected to feed any luggage through the car’s two doors on to the platform created by lowering the back of the rear seat. Somehow we jammed our two girls, their toys, and all the luggage we would need for the three-day journey to Edmonton into that confined space. The rest of our possessions had gone on ahead of us in a moving van.

We got as far west as Brandon, Manitoba, before we found ourselves in a swirling prairie blizzard and pulled in to the nearest motel. The storm had passed by the next morning but it had left the roads snow-covered and slippery. Pressing on in a northwest direction, we reached Saskatoon the next night, and the approaches of Edmonton late the following afternoon. The temperature had dropped to the minus thirty range in Saskatoon, but we found Edmonton to be enjoying a thaw: water was running in the streets. We seized greedily on it as an omen.

That night, our first in Edmonton, it was raining. I sat by the motel window with my hand-held radio and tuned in to CKUA. Someone was playing soft jazz. When the tune came to an end, I got my first earful of the program’s host. What a boost! The man was just as good as anyone I’d left behind at CKRC, and he wasn’t playing junk, either.

I felt I was starting a new life.

* * * * *

Jack Hagerman had had a sign painted and attached to my office door.

“Pat McDougall, Program Director.”

It felt strange to have my own office, and to have conversations end abruptly when I walked into a room. I wasn’t a Manager but the next best thing.

It was my second crack at CKUA but there was nothing even vaguely familiar about the place. Of the people I had worked with that first time around, there were only three left: Jack, our Chief Engineer Bill Pinko and the sportscaster Art Ward.

The station’s premises were strange in both senses of the word: there was nothing there to remind me of the CKUA of 1950, and I had never seen offices and studios laid out in that fashion. It was as though the station’s owners were trying to hide CKUA from sight, which, as it developed, was quite possible.

I can’t remember anything on the outside of the Alberta Block, a provincial government building, to tell you that it housed a radio station. There must have been some indication to that effect in the building’s foyer, but once you had taken the elevator to the fourth floor, you had to ask the operator which of several unmarked doors would bring you closer to the studios.

The one he indicated opened on to a flight of stairs. Climbing them got you at last to CKUA’s reception area, but there was still not much on that floor to indicate you were in a radio station: the familiar sound-lock doors and double-glass windows didn’t appear until you mounted yet another flight of stairs.

In case I have planted the notion that CKUA rivaled CKRC in square footage, I should mention that the total area it occupied was only a fraction of CKRC’s – or of anywhere else I had worked in radio, for that matter. In that respect, this new CKUA resembled the sort of radio station they build today: compact, with a severely integrated working environment.

This economy reflected more than Bill Pinko’s careful planning: it demonstrated the Jack Hagerman touch. Jack would go to any lengths to pry funds from the station’s notoriously indifferent owners if it meant sustaining the station’s unique sound, but – on the other hand – he inspired all of us to save money wherever and whenever we could.

The station’s engineers hand-built intricate gadgets to replace – and often improve on – what wore out. And every announcer took a hand in production, uncovering hitherto unknown sources of free music. That ‘unique sound’ had always attracted the city’s amateur performers; the best of them were already being heard on one CKUA program or another when I reappeared on the scene. It would have inspired any budding Program Director to improve on it; and I think I did, picking up on what was already in place.

Free recorded music: I discovered there was a wealth of it being offered by various governments, most of it devoid of any restrictions. The French Broadcasting System produced high quality vinyl recordings of its finest soloists and orchestras with commentary in excellent English. The British Office of Information provided BBC recordings of performances not covered by commercial labels, as well as spoken word material featuring leading British actors and comedians such as Peter Ustinov and Joyce Grenfell.

A little research and careful correspondence uncovered another, truly astonishing source of classical music. A non-profit organization in New York was collecting recordings made by the major European broadcasting systems at all the major music festivals held around Europe. At no cost to us it agreed to ship CKUA carton after carton of seven-inch tapes of unmatched quality, featuring the best of European orchestral and solo talent.

This New York organization even paid the shipping and mailing charges involved. We were prepared to return the hundreds of tapes at our expense when I received a letter that truly astounded me. For some reason – possibly to keep damaged tapes out of their system – the organization didn’t want the tapes returned. They were CKUA’s to keep!

The license held by the station restricted it to non-commercial broadcasting, but CKUA did have one steady source of income that had nothing to do with the provincial government. As soon as viable recording equipment became available to radio stations, CKUA found a use for it. Many of the programs it produced in the late ’40s and early ’50s – particularly original radio plays for use in Alberta schools – had to be recorded for later broadcast. At first CKUA used equipment that etched the programs on to acetate-covered discs. Then, with the advent of professional tape recorders, the station quickly gained a reputation for producing Edmonton’s most professional tape recordings.

After all that talk of CKUA’s non-commercial status, I was surprised to find – on my return to the station in 1958 – that a thriving commercial enterprise was in full-time operation in the back reaches of the station, run by a studio engineer, Dan Key.

And that’s where all those rejected New York tapes ended up, to be re-used in the production of commercial recordings. Once Dan had recorded someone’s church choir or figure skating music over what was originally there, who was to know the tape wasn’t brand new? It was certainly sold as such, tacked on to the cost of recording. Hey! We had to make money any way we could.

2 Responses to “Chapter Eighteen”

  1. Alec Bollini Says:

    I thought this the best chapter so far – lively, interesting and above all a
    ride in a Henry J!

  2. Gerry Guetre Says:

    I agree with Alec – I was wondering what led you to CKUA. At the time, I thought you were just trying to get as far away from the in-laws as possible.

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