Chapter Nineteen

With all the foreign material we were broadcasting, it became a challenge to match it with Canadian content, as required by the terms of our license. Jack came up with a small budget for increased local programming, and that’s how I got to meet most of the people I remember from my second go-round at CKUA.

To tell you about the first batch of them, I have to make mention of the reclusive Edmonton guitar-maker, Frank Gay. I began to hear of him not long after I returned to the station.

“Pat, there’s this guy working out of a garage deep in the suburbs. He’s made guitars for famous people like Hank Snow and Carlos Montoya, and he plays guitar pretty well himself if you ask him to.”

My curiosity soon got the better of me and I phoned Gay’s home. The voice that answered was so high-pitched I assumed it was a woman’s. But when I asked to speak to Frank Gay, the voice said:
“That’s me. What can I do for you?”
I wasn’t at all sure, but I got his permission to visit him that same afternoon.
“I’ll be out back,” he told me. “I work in the garage.”
So it was true.

It could have sheltered two large cars, but Gay had filled the garage with work benches, lathes, forms and presses; and festooned the walls with guitars and other like instruments in various states of construction and repair, several within easy reach of where he sat. It was obvious that he made such instruments, just as I’d been told, but could he play?
“Sure,” he said. “What would you like to hear?”
I didn’t know whether I had been asked to request a specific piece of music or a style of playing. I chose the latter.
“Do you play jazz?”
He nodded and plucked one of the guitars from the wall. “Here’s something Django Reinhart used to do,” he announced, and he launched into a stunning imitation of the French Gypsy master.
“How about a little bluegrass?” Gay asked. He went to the wall again to select another instrument and, after a few adjustments, ripped off some credible Chet Atkins.
“Classical?” This time he hesitated in his selection, finally bringing an older guitar from higher on the wall. Now I was listening to Laurindo Almeida without Sally Terry.
“Well, what d’ya think?” he fluted.
I swallowed hard. “I – I was hoping you’d agree to do a program for us. For CKUA. About fifteen minutes a week.”
“Alone?” He shook his head. “I dunno. Maybe if I could have guests, eh? A different one each week. I know some pretty talented people.”

And he did. While “Frank Gay, Guitar” was a weekly series on CKUA, Frank never failed to supplement his own eclectic offerings with someone you weren’t likely to hear anywhere else on the radio dial. One week it was George Riga, the activist playwright who wrote a play that was still the talk of Canadian TV: “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.” He gave us an original reading. On another program, Frank teamed up with Lenny Breau who was to become an icon for a generation of Jazz guitar soloists. Breau was best known then as a country-and-western artist, like his father who performed as “Lone Pine.” The day Breau dropped by my office to pick up his cheque, he was in full cowboy regalia. With his pencil-line moustache and sideburns he looked like ‘Lash’ Larue.

Interview programs counted as Canadian content, so I instituted one I called “Interesting People.” It was to be based on the principle that almost anyone had a story to tell. We hoped to unearth a procession of Edmontonians with wild tales, but we soon had trouble even keeping the series going. To fill the gaps, we used spoken word items sent to us by the British Office of Information – those gems by Joyce Grenfell and Peter Ustinov – and commercial recordings made by Orson Welles, the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Eileen May, and by Shelly Berman and Mort Sahl.
One day a local service club brought Myron Cohen to Edmonton to headline a fund-raiser. Cohen’s humorous Yiddish-tinged stories had been a popular feature on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for years. The local service club agreed to bring the humorist to our studios for an interview if we agreed to broadcast it before the fund-raiser took place.

I greeted Cohen as soon as he arrived at CKUA and explained the rationale of “Interesting People,” adding my opinion that his stories fitted the concept to a ‘t’. He must have agreed because when we got him in front of a microphone, out they poured, story after story, leaving the interviewer too convulsed with laughter to intervene. We got all of the stories on tape, and doled them out sparingly over half a dozen programs. “Interesting People” almost became “The Myron Cohen Show.”

If Jack Hagerman had set a target date for our efforts in 1959 it would have been March 9, 1960. That was the day the station was to boost its power from an ineffectual 1,000 to an incredible 10,000 watts.
We had every reason to believe that the increased power would give our little station a more valid reason to exist. CKUA was still “owned and operated by Alberta Government Telephones” in 1959. The government entity had paid the considerable cost of the new transmitter so that our broadcast signal could at last reach those parts of Alberta that paid for our operation with their telephone bills but could only occasionally hear us.
The weak signal was even a problem a few blocks from our studios where cars entering a particular tunnel suddenly lost us until they emerged on the other side. Decades of being the weakling among the city’s radio stations had helped reduce CKUA’s audience to a dedicated few. Now was our chance to tell the world that we had finally found our voice.

The trouble was: we had no money for advertising except for the laughable pittance Jack could scrounge from reluctant government agencies. The answer was ‘trade-off’ advertising, something I had seen done to some effect at CKRC, Winnipeg.
It meant finding people who had enough interest in being mentioned on the air to publicize the fact as best they could. It worked well with the public library: we put a librarian on the air talking about its latest acquisitions. The library, in turn, accepted several hundred bookmarks we had printed that told readers when and where they could hear the librarian – and, not incidentally, drew attention to our coming boost in power.
A local weekly newspaper was included in a review of Alberta’s weeklies we began to broadcast. It, in turn, ran a free ad publicizing the new program and, of course, making mention of our soon-to-be- improved broadcast signal.

But our most effective ‘trade-off’ brought a noted U.S. comedian on side. Stan Freburg had done well for Capitol Records with a series of satirical sketches. Of these, the best known was “St. George and the Dragonet” which poked fun at the seminal TV cop show “Dragnet.”

One of Freberg’s satires that didn’t get much air play was the one he labeled “Green Chri$tma$$”. It attacked the advertising industry for commercializing the feast. For obvious rea$on$ the other Edmonton radio station’s gave “Green Chri$tma$$” a mi$$, but CKUA wore out several copies of the disc with the approach of every Christmas season. Freberg got wind of the situation and sent CKUA a warm thank you note.

I saw an opening for a little free publicity. I wrote a tight little script that began:

“They plugged my “Green Chri$tma$$”, now let me plug them for a minute . . .”

. . .and went on to publicize CKUA’s power increase.

Then I wrote a careful letter to Freberg explaining that our meager budget didn’t allow us to properly advertise our power increase. Could he read my script on to the enclosed cassette and return it to us? We would then, I told him, copy the cassette on to a telephone answering machine and find some way to invite people to “Phone Stan.”
My hands were trembling when I bundled the script and begging letter into an envelope with a blank cassette and shipped it off. Then came the waiting, but Freberg came through.
We loaded an answering machine with his recording and got ready to buy a small ad in the next day’s newspaper that would announce: “Phone Stan Freberg at…” (and provide a phone number).

As it turned out, we didn’t need the ad: word of our Stan Freberg coup had spread through the station and friends began phoning friends. In a matter of hours, the answering machine was never allowed a moment’s peace. And within a week, it had recorded nearly 5,000 calls, and a second machine had to be added to accommodate the pressure.

The calls kept pouring in until the lines were jammed. The phone company had to close them down and disconnect both machines, but not before they had chalked up an astounding 21,129 calls in less than two weeks!

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