Chapter Thirty-seven

I had to work at getting an assistant to help me with Quebec AM, but the next boost to the program came right out of the blue.
It started with a phone call from a man who identified himself as an official of Quebecair, a now defunct airline that serviced many of the isolated communities along the Quebec Community Network. The stranger wouldn’t say what he had in mind, but we arranged to meet in a television studio one night where I was earning some of that precious overtime pay.
He turned out to be a pleasant fellow in his forties who began by telling me that his job with Quebecair frequently took him to several places along the Quebec Community Network. He had listened to Quebec AM on a number of occasions, and wondered if I had ever visited any of the places that could hear me. And when I told him I hadn’t, he said:
“I think we can arrange something.”
What he arranged brought my four children and me to Schefferville, Gagnon, Port Cartier, Sept Iles, Moisie, Chicoutimi, Gaspé and Murdochville. I hasten to explain that I didn’t drag all four kids with me to visit all of those localities: they went one at a time to several of those communities, and I visited a few on my own.
Toting my kids was part of an elaborate arrangement that flew in the face of several CBC regulations meant to keep employees at arm’s length of private companies. Quebecair and the Iron Ore Company of Canada, Alcan, Reynolds Metal and other firms got some publicity and goodwill brownie points out of the deal, the CBC got to show the flag where it otherwise wouldn’t have, and the kids and I got an education about the far-flung regions of Quebec.

Schefferville was a typical target. Quebecair flew me and my youngest daughter the 1,100 kilometers from Montreal to the remote mining town, the Iron Ore Company of Canada put us up in the town’s only hotel, and the Quebec AM listeners in that most-isolated of the communities along the QCN were ready with a well-planned itinerary. It included a visit to the combined reservation of the Naskapi and Montagnais people, a tour of IOCC’s mind-boggling open-pit mining operation, and visits to private homes where, in one of them, a family from India introduced Annie and me to our first full-course Indian meal.
Meeting my listeners face-to-face on these visits was, to say the least, instructional – and sometimes downright shocking. Misconceptions were ground into the dust along with sizeable chunks of my ego. I was to learn that most of my listeners had it all over me for education, worldliness and tolerance.
The Naskapi and Montagnais – two native groups widely separated in language, background and habits – had learned to live together in harmony. One of the North Shore families I met remembered the actress Margo Kidder as a child brought to their town by her engineer father. A schoolteacher criticized my choice of music and called for more heavy-metal rock.
A ‘housewife’ who held as many degrees in engineering as her husband took me to task for what I had said on the air about the saskatoon – not the city but the berry. I had called it ‘the poor man’s blueberry’ and declared that picking saskatoons, and then having to eat them preserved, blighted my childhood. She defended the berry with all the skill of a Horace Rumpole and sent me away wishing I had kept my childhood reminiscences to myself.

The people in Moisie took me out on the swift-flowing river of the same name and damned near drowned me. I had been led to the riverbank, still dressed in my best suit and tie, to be the official judge of a canoe race. My host owned the metal canoe we were to use; he offered me a lifejacket, which I almost refused. And once we were well offshore, a wave swamped the metal boat and had me bobbing in the chilly waters. I made my way to shore on my own and stood there, shivering and dripping, while my host returned to the race.
puddleThere was a small and very rustic fishing lodge a short walk from the shore and I squelched my way there in my soaked shoes, checking my pockets to make sure my money hadn’t floated away with my dignity.
I guess the canoe race was something of an occasion in Moisie because the lodge was crowded. Nobody paid much attention to me except two burly native guys sitting at the nearest table. One of them turned to me with a grin, took in my sodden state, and remarked:
“You look like you could have used an Indian guide.”
It was the lodge owner’s wife who came to my rescue, finding some dry clothes I could borrow, and tossing my ruined suit and my other belongings into a dryer.
Having failed to impress anyone at the lodge, I thought my narrow escape would at least attract some interest at dinner that night. But all the buzz was about the canoe race, who had won and lost, and how rough the river had been. I was left to myself to ponder how I could approach the CBC with some sort of claim for my ruined suit and shoes.

And then there was the putdown waiting for me at a gathering in Arvida. My host in that Alcan town took me to a hall where some function was underway that had nothing to do with Quebec AM. I had just come through the door when a drunk came weaving over to me from the thoroughly preoccupied crowd to ask:
“Are you that asshole on the radio?”
Sometime in the 1970s, CBC Montreal’s English-language radio lost Kay McIver. Her replacement, Andrew Simon, had us all nervous because in other places he had done his job, he had left a legacy of lasting resentment and bitterness.
Still, I was surprised when Simon’s secretary called me to his office. I thought the Quebec Community Network and Quebec AM might escape Simon’s attention simply because, like the rest of Montreal, he couldn’t hear us.
No introductions were necessary: I had worked with Simon before on both radio and TV. He came straight to the point: he was assigning a producer to Quebec AM, the program’s first since its revival. Simon’s choice for the job was Bob Brazil, by then the lone survivor of Montreal’s once thriving Outside Broadcasts department.
Bob was a one-time Mountie, well over six feet tall, a studious-looking pipe-smoker with a measured, mellow voice he had put to good use for Outside Broadcasts covering royal visits:

“Her Majesty is about to descend the gangplank which has been covered with a red carpet for the occasion. She is wearing a pale blue linen suit with a matching hat and gloves . . .”

The change to Quebec AM was in line with Simon’s reputation: it was welcomed by no one involved. I didn’t want it because I had organized the program to operate without a producer; and Simon made it plain that Bob had accepted the job under duress, and only after a bizarre bargain had been struck concerning transportation.
Bob lived in Dollard des Ormeaux, a western suburb of Greater Montreal some 40 kilometers from the new CBC building. He point-blank refused to submit his aging car to a daily 80-kilometer drive winter and summer, claiming it would be the vehicle’s ruin in short order.
Public transportation from Dollard des Ormeaux didn’t begin early enough to get Bob to the CBC in time for the program, so Simon agreed to let Bob make the daily trip to work by taxi at the Corporation’s expense. I became part of the deal: Bob’s taxi ride would include a stop near my apartment so that I could climb aboard and share in the CBC’s largesse.
It made for a cloak-and-dagger scene on the corner of Queen Mary Road and Décarie every weekday just after four a.m. as I emerged from the shadows of a shop doorway to hustle into the front seat of a car that then sped away. I sat in front because every square inch of the back seat was claimed by the sprawling presence of Bob Brazil, fast asleep. There was a muttered exchange of greetings with the driver and then we regained Montreal’s freeway system in silence for the rest of the drive to work.

Bob Brazil’s painstaking, cautious style made for many improvements to Quebec AM. While I babbled away in the studio from six to nine a.m., Bob sat in the control room, smoking his pipe and reading the Montreal newspapers we had collected on our way to work. Just one of his assets was a working knowledge of French: the least reference to any of our communities in Journal de Montréal or La Presse was seized on for translation. He brought a typewriter into the control room every morning to prepare the translations – as many of six per program – that he passed on to me to be read on the air.
During and after the show, Bob and Ed Copps worked the phones to follow up on the best of these stories, using the contacts my survey had uncovered. Talking to someone where a story was unfolding – often directly on the air – added drama and immediacy to Quebec AM.
Until I worked with Bob Brazil I don’t think I fully understood what a radio producer could do. I tell people to this day that Bob engineered a segment of Quebec A.M. that I consider to have been the best individual piece of radio I have ever encountered. Please let me describe it:

One of our QCN communities, Murdochville, was a copper-mining town in Quebec’s Gaspé region that certainly had to scratch for its English-language entertainment. It had no access to English-language television until some of its citizens broke the law and ‘bootlegged’ a signal from a town over the border in New Brunswick. What they had sucked in from the other town was then re-broadcast from a tower on a transmitter just powerful enough to cover Murdochville. If Canada’s broadcasting authority knew of the practice, it turned a blind eye rather than face the bad publicity. (You can picture the headline: “Broadcast Moguls Zap Small Town’s Only TV.”)
Murdochville’s filched signal provided the town with “The Edge of Night.” The popular soap opera gained a solid audience in the little Gaspé town until one day the stolen signal brought the worst possible news: the station was to change its affiliation from the CBC that carried “The Edge of Night” to ATV, that didn’t. Bob Brazil had to handle the many phone calls from Murdochville listeners protesting the change. They continued long after it came into effect.

One of the complainants told Bob she had found her own solution: a neighbor of hers – we’ll call her Mrs. Deepthroat – had moved from Murdochville to suburban Montreal where, of course, she had access to “The Edge of Night.” The complainant told Bob she phoned her former neighbor every day to learn what had happened to all her favorite characters – and hang the expense!
Bob took careful note of Mrs. Deepthroat’s phone number and phoned her that same day. Using his most seductive radio voice, he sweet-talked her into becoming an overnight radio star: he would phone her every weekday morning from the control room and put her on the air – live – with me. That way, all of Murdochville could share the dirt from the previous day’s “The Edge of Night.”
We hadn’t broadcast more than a week of such conversations to our Quebec AM listeners before they had become the program’s highlight, not just in Murdochville but all along the Quebec Community Network. My part was easy: all I had to do was feed Mrs. Deepthroat the gentlest nudge and she would unfold every twist and turn of that most typical of soap operas. I’ll try to provide an example from memory:

ME: Good morning, Judy.
MRS. DEEPTHROAT: Good morning, Pat. How are you?
ME: Fine. Are you ready to tell us about yesterday’s Edge of Night?”
MRS. D: Well, I’ll try.
ME: Where would you like to start?
MRS. D: Do you remember Crystal and Rick?
ME: Right! She’s carrying Marshall’s child.
MRS. D: Well, they’re back together again: her and Rick.
ME: Come on!
MRS. D: I swear to God.
ME: But they had that awful fight just the day before, about the baby!
MRS. D: I know, but they made up yesterday, see, when she told him it was his baby after all.
ME: But didn’t she –?
MRS. D: . . . sleep with Marshall. Yeah, but that was after. She told Rick it was after. So he forgave her, like.
ME: But wasn’t he –? Wasn’t Rick –?
MRS. D: – seeing Melanie. I know.
ME: The one Rick suspects –
MRS. D: – of murdering Scott, Rick’s brother, at Tracy’s wedding reception.

And so on. Now that’s entertainment.

We learned later that Murdochville residents had a fallback if, for any reason, they missed that segment of Quebec AM. They just dropped by the town’s only barber shop later in the day. The enterprising barber had a tape machine. He recorded my conversation with Mrs. D every morning so that he could play it back on request to people stopping by. And if he got to give them a haircut or a shampoo while they listened, well, that was okay.


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