Chapter Thirty-nine

FAST FORWARD:

On a visit to Quebec City in November 2004, I stumbled on the latest incarnation of the Quebec Community Network: a slick storefront operation in a prime area of the city. I couldn’t resist dropping in to do some intense bragging, and – as soon as I identified myself as a former host of its morning show – I was enticed into the studio to do a recorded interview.

“It’s wonderful that you turned up,” I was told by a bubbly young announcer, “because Quebec AM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.”

Twenty-fifth! By my reckoning, the program had been around for at least thirty-five years by 2004. What the storefront Quebec AM was celebrating was the 25th anniversary of the program’s move to Quebec City.

A particularly memorable occasion for me because my empire-building Program Director used it to pull Quebec AM out from under me and hand it to a new host.

All of which should have had me seething, except for two factors:

The new host was a natural: Dennis Trudeau went on to sparkle on other CBC shows, including a superlative run as the host of the CBC’s network radio phone-in, Cross-Country Checkup.

Being bumped off Quebec AM ended seven years of early mornings. No more hauling myself out of bed every weekday just after four in the morning; no more trying to fall asleep that night at a time when many people are settling down to watch prime-time TV.

Or so I thought. Stay tuned.

Not much later, a hosting job came open on Radio Noon. I auditioned for it and lost out to Gordon Redding, the talented staff announcer then working exclusively for the CBC’s short-wave service, Radio-Canada International. However, one of the CBC’s more ludicrous strictures barred Gordon from moving from RCI to Radio Noon and, as the producer’s second choice, I got the hosting job instead.

The first hour of Radio Noon was a consumer program, but the second hour was to be an innovation for the show: a phone-in. As a form of radio, the phone-in was very low on my personal list, but it proved to be much more fun to do than to listen to.

As so many phone-in hosts have amply demonstrated, the role is intoxicating: a few programs in and you are likely to become a snarling egotist.

“Yeah? Well that’s your opinion, buddy and it’s not worth much. Let’s get to another call. You’re on the air with yours truly, Rip Snarlington. Speak up, babe, we can’t hear you.”

I avoided that route and it must have been a wise decision because the ratings for the new phone-in segment rose to unheard-of levels for English-language programming by the CBC in Montreal. At one time, that part of Radio Noon had more listeners than anything else on the air in English. According to some, my ego was keeping pace with the ratings.

I made my first appearance as host of Radio Noon in 1978; lost job in 1981; then regained it in 1985, and stayed with the show until I retired in 1987. All that off-and-on hosting of CBC programs soon took on a sardonic aspect.

Each time I was eased out of Radio Noon, it was to accommodate someone thought to be a younger, fresher personality. The fate of each of my successors was to be either feast or famine: some were so good they were snapped up by a more prestigious show; others were so transparently bad they were shuffled off into radio limbo. Either way the producer found himself scrambling for a last-minute replacement. Time to recycle good old reliable but dull Pat McDougall. Now where was it we shelved him? Quick! Dust him off, and, presto! A new-old host for Radio Noon.

One particular shelf was so obviously punitive – so indicative of the Program Director’s disdain – it attracted the attention of the Supervisor of Producers who occupied the rung just below Program Director on the CBC management ladder. Her interest rather surprised me because she had never taken note of my discomfort before: quite the contrary. I might have been excused for thinking her eye was on that management ladder and not on me. At any rate, I got called to her office.

“Is it true they’ve got you signing on at six in the morning, and reading the news from four to six in the afternoon?” she wanted to know.

“That’s right,” I confirmed. “I do the traffic reports on the morning show until 9 a.m., then come back at four to read the suppertime newscasts.”

Twelve hours!” she shrieked. “That’s – that’s outrageous! Inhuman! They can’t do that!”

“They can and they do.”

“Well, I’m going to get it changed,” she huffed indignantly. “We have our weekly meeting tomorrow and – “

“And you’ll leave things as they are, if you don’t mind,” I told her firmly.

I then explained why – in part.

All those years on early morning radio had left me able to sleep quite soundly in the afternoon. In fact, I sometimes slept better in the afternoon than at night. I had found a comfortable couch in a room just off the Announcers’ Lounge where I could close the door, douse the light, and zonk out. If I set my handy alarm clock, I could get in a solid two hours sleep in there before arising, refreshed, to tackle those late afternoon newscasts. The arrangement suited me just fine. I didn’t tell the Supervising Producer of four more advantages built into the split shift:

1. Working six a.m. to nine a.m. and four p.m. to six kept me away from the Program Director and other executives: they didn’t show up till nine and usually found some excuse to leave the building before four.

2. I was still doing freelance work. Nine to four was the best time to service my clients.

3. I liked reading newscasts.

4. The union contract dictated that the CBC pay me a sizeable chunk of overtime for each of those twelve hour shifts!

There was one noontime when flaking out in that darkened room proved troublesome. Two young secretaries sought out the room next door to my hidey-hole as a place to eat their brown bag lunches and gab about their love lives. They probably thought my room was empty because they couldn’t see any light coming from under the door.

Every word they spoke came through to me quite clearly. I recognized both voices and even knew most of the men whose attentions they were describing in such detail.

Lord! Did I get an earful! Falling asleep was impossible, and there was no other way out of the room. I was trapped in there until they finally finished what they had brought to eat and went back to work.

Neither young woman looked the same to me after that.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Towards the end of my broadcasting career, I was called upon to prepare a ‘religious item’ once a week. I think I know why. Religion had become something of a quaint anomaly in Quebec by then. At CBC Montreal, anyone known to be a regular churchgoer was assumed to be a religious fanatic, and – on those terms – I had led at least one of my workmates to consider me a candidate for fast-track canonization.

Technically, I belonged to St. Patrick’s parish in downtown Montreal but I found the historic old place too big and too Irish. There was a less pretentious Catholic church closer to home, and as soon as the pastor there saw that I was attending a particular Mass regularly, he asked me to help take up the collection. That made me an usher.

Just before Mass one summer day, I noticed some sort of disturbance in the centre aisle. Investigating, I found that a man in his thirties was going from pew to pew, taking up a collection of his own, panhandling. As the nearest usher, it fell to me to discourage him.

My policeman father had taught me an arm hold known as ‘the police come-along’. Properly applied, it exerts enough pressure and pain to your victim’s arm to erase any thought of resistance. I had never used it in earnest on anyone until then but it seemed to fit the situation.

I took him by surprise, got his arm in Dad’s hold, and turned him towards the church’s front door, left open to a sunny Sunday morning. So far, so good.

“You don’t want to do this, son,” I muttered in my prisoner’s ear, close enough to smell the liquor on his breath. “Let’s go outside.” Grunting with pain, he complied.

We had reached the front steps of the church when a frightening consideration came to mind: what happens when I let go? The fellow was half my age, and the arm I had trapped in mine appeared quite muscular. What’s more, he’d been drinking. But instead of lashing out the moment I released him, the panhandler sank to his knees, wrapped his arms around my legs, and looked up at me with tears in his eyes.

“Forgive me, Father!” he begged brokenly. “I’ve had a few, and I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Now, Notre-Dame-de-La-Salette Church is on a busy Montreal street, and several passers-by had stopped to witness the touching spectacle: a miscreant on his knees pleading for forgiveness from someone he called ‘father’ – obviously a beggar1priest caught without his Roman collar. Unfortunately, one of those passers-by was a fellow worker at the CBC, who no doubt described the scene to my Program Director. Hence, I reasoned, the invitation to prepare regular religious items for the station.

I agreed to the assignment without argument because I had a particular idea in mind that I felt would produce something at least as entertaining as it was religious. It called for more effort than usual, but it would be worth it. My plan was to:

1. Requisition a CBC tape machine and microphone. 2. Think of a question that was both topical and vaguely religious.

3. Do a series of street interviews posing the question.

4. Edit the recorded interviews into a neat three-minute package.

5. Take the tape machine, microphone, and three-minute package to a cleric– a different one each week.

6. Get the cleric to listen to the interviews.

7. Record his comments on them.

8. Prepare the required religious item from a combination of the street interviews and the cleric’s reaction.

What I got from all this, after a lot of editing, was five to ten minutes of exceptional radio. In my view, it worked as well as it did because it flew in the face of the prevailing church configuration: Instead of the congregation sitting in uneasy silence while a cleric looks down at them, literally, and expounds at leisure; my cleric was required to sit still and listen to what the ‘congregation’ I’d assembled had to say.

Here are some of the questions I used for the street interviews:

— Is there a Devil?

— Are there still saints today?

— Do you ever ‘turn the other cheek’?

— Do you believe in an ‘out-of-body’ experience?

All of them elicited thoughtful replies – both in the street and later, in the cleric’s study.

Top marks go to the one about ‘out-of-body’ experiences. It took a little more explaining than the others, but once it was understood that I meant the popular concept of the spirit escaping someone’s newly-expired body to hover nearby – the tunnel with a luminous lady at its far end, etc. – the answers came readily enough.

Four teenage boys at a lunch counter not only believed such an experience could occur, they agreed among themselves that it would be “cool” to be dead and yet still there somehow.

Contrast that reaction with what a paramedic told me. “Absolutely not!” he snorted. “When you’re dead, you’re dead, believe me.”

And when I played my street interviews for a Reconstructionist rabbi, he was shocked and angry.

“No wonder we have so many teenage suicides,” he lamented. “Listen to them! Those kids think it’s fun to die.”

Beginning in the mid-1980’s, the CBC began to cut its permanent staff in earnest. There had been half-hearted attempts in the past, but this time the pressure was really on.

A sign that management meant business came with the formation of “redundancy committees” in all the regions. These were groups of lower-ranking executives charged with deciding who got the chop and who stayed. The English announcer was an attractive target: several of us were perilously close to retirement age as it was.

Another way to cut permanent staff was to turn to an outsider whenever a hosting job became vacant. The “contract employee” quickly came to the fore. Radio Noon was split into two sections, with a freelancer assigned to the phone-in portion of the show. I was left with the ‘consumer’ part of the program, which had by then become a dreary procession of cookbook authors and people – all too often a professional – flogging new manifestations of toothpaste and baby food. I began to sense that Radio Noon was to be my swan song, and, looking around, there didn’t appear to be much else for a staff announcer to do.

When I had come to Montreal from Edmonton in 1965, English-language radio and TV was alive and well at the CBC. CBMT – the CBC’s English TV station in Montreal – churned out an average of twenty or more hours of programming every week. Several of its productions became familiar across Canada: the children’s program “Chez Hélène”, for instance, and the cooking shows hosted by Madame Benoit.

But it was local programming that made up most of CBMT’s schedule in its heyday: a daily ‘magazine’ program at noontime; a hefty suppertime package of news, sports, weather and public affairs; a weekly program for teen-agers, another for the college crowd, and still another for travelers. There was a drama series; sports specials of all kinds, including one presented live from a bowling alley; and any number of one-shot musical productions featuring local talent. By the mid-1980s, they had all disappeared except the suppertime package – and there were by then persistent rumors that it, too, would be slashed.

There was only one member of that redundancy committee I considered approachable. I cornered him in his office and said something like:

“Hey! Look at me – I’m redundant. Redundant as hell!”

I wasn’t nearly that cocky when the time came to actually sign my job away. I’ll bet my signatures on the various documents the Corporation pushed my way reflect my agitated state of mind better than any lie detector.

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