Chapter Thirty-six

Within five years of Expo ’67, the CBC went through changes to both television and radio that amounted to a volcanic shakeup in Montreal: I know they certainly shook me.

The most noticeable of the changes didn’t come as a surprise to the CBC’s Montreal staff: our new building, a 24-story tower on the edge of the city’s Gay Village, was finally taking shape. La Maison de Radio-Canada was to gather into one building the twenty or more venues the CBC had been renting all over Montreal to produce French and English television and radio programs, send short-wave broadcasts overseas in a dozen languages, and service the far North and other neglected audiences.
It stands to reason that all that activity had created any number of empires – and the empire-builders that go with them – on both the French and English sides of CBC broadcasting. And now, as the 1960s staggered to an end, several of these empires were to be united with a series of shotgun weddings.
The first to affect me amalgamated the early evening TV news package with Seven on Six, a public affairs program that had immediately followed it on the air. The unquestioned star of Seven on Six was the journalist Peter Desbarats, a lean, brooding presence who wore sideburns and motorcycle boots with his three-piece suit and tie. The sideburns and boots weren’t just for effect: his impressive ‘hog’ was usually parked somewhere near the studio.
The combined show was to be called Hourglass and spread over the entire suppertime period: from the stroke of six until seven-thirty, weaving the News and Public Affairs functions into one entity. The gaggle of producers involved decided that the fledgling program needed an overall host, and I was it.
I didn’t ‘quit my day job.’ For the best part of a year I tried to be the host of CBM Magazine on radio AND the first person the viewer saw when Hourglass appeared on Montreal TV screens. It meant I could be heard or seen on CBC radio or television from just after ten in the morning until 7:30 at night. Talk about overexposure!
Though most of the functions on Hourglass were well defined: news reader, sportscaster, weatherman, etc., it was never clear what that ‘overall host’ of Hourglass was supposed to do, other than link the program’s various segments: news, sports, weather, etc.

The announce office assigned me to the show’s daily story meetings where I was soon made to feel like a character on the most popular TV program at the time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Remember Ted Baxter, the bubble-headed announcer?
Still, I wasn’t about to complain. For something like a year, my take-home pay was marvelous, thanks to the announcers’ union and a CBC perk called the “merit contract.” The union demanded that the CBC shell out time-and-a-half pay for work past the supper hour. And management, quite on its own, felt obliged to recognize how much I was in demand. My Merit Contract added another thousand dollars or more a year to my earnings.
‘Pat McDougall, Adaptation’ was still in operation. Any spare time I could find went into the writing of radio and TV jingles and film and slide show scripts. More money in the bank. But by now you have detected the unmistakable smell of melting wax from the candle I was burning at both ends.
Another radical change – this one in radio – provided the final nudge to my house of cards.
The configuration of CBC radio put into force in the fall of 1971 is still in place: two distinct entities, now identified as Radio One and Radio Two. Roughly speaking, Radio One was to broadcast in the AM band and concentrate on talk, and Radio Two in the FM band, which is better suited to music. But the two were bound to overlap.
The split had a drastic effect on local programming. CBM Magazine was to disappear, its time slot usurped by a program produced in Toronto: the one that morphed into Morningside and introduced Peter Gzowski to us all.
Virtually all of the CBC’s budget for local programming was to be poured into three shows that would invade territory dominated by private radio: early mornings, noontime, and the driving-home hours. In Montreal, these new CBC programs began with the titles: Daybreak, Radio Noon and Sounds Unlikely.
The revamped CBC Radio was to hit the airwaves on Monday, September 27, 1971. For the CBC’s English audience in Montreal, that was the day CBM Magazine disappeared, and a raft of new programs, including the three local shows just mentioned, debuted.
As the deadline approached, it became increasingly obvious where all the emphasis – and the money – were to go. Management looked beyond its staff for both the producer and host of Daybreak. James Quigg was lured away from print journalism to produce the new morning show, and another outsider, Michael Enright – later to blossom into an outspoken interviewer on programs like As It Happens and The Sunday Edition – was hired as his host.
Daybreak was to be fitted out with all the expensive bells and whistles of its commercial competitors: traffic reports, a separate weather forecaster, et cetera plus a few the CBC added for “substance”: freelance commentators discussing finance, local theatre, films, etc. We’re talking big bucks here.

Meanwhile, I was busy shifting all my eggs into the wrong basket. I asked to be replaced as the host of Hourglass so I could devote all my time to the doomed CBM Magazine.
What made me do it? I know I was disappointed in my role on Hourglass and worn out by those long hours. And I must have thought I was a cinch to land a hosting job with one or the other of those three new local programs.
But before I knew it, Daybreak was a lock for Michael Enright; Radio Noon went to Norman Keil, and Sounds Unlikely, the ‘driving home’ show, to Jim Coward and Michael Whelan. I was left out in the cold, but so was poor, forgotten Quebec A.M. – and that’s another story.

Quebec A.M. is still around. It’s an English-language radio program that isn’t heard anywhere near Quebec’s largest concentration of Anglais. It was created just after Expo ’67 to serve those English-speaking people living outside Montreal in Quebec communities where French is predominant. Most get their English CBC programs from a low-power relay transmitter (LPRT) installed in or near their town. An LPRT’s range is usually just enough to cover the community it serves. The only one I ever saw was a black box attached to the top of a telephone pole.
When I was associated with Quebec A.M. its largest audience was in Quebec City; and the rest scattered far and wide across the province: Gaspé and Murdochville on the Gaspé peninsula, Sept Iles, Baie Comeau, Port Cartier, Moisie and Harrington Harbor along the North Shore, Gagnon and Schefferville to the north. There was another cluster of LPRTs in Quebec’s northwest: Rouyn-Noranda, and Val D’Or being the most populous, and there were several LPRTs in the Eastern Townships.

Many of these LPRTs had been in Quebec for some time when Ken Withers, then Program Director of English Radio in the CBC’s Quebec region, gathered them under his command. Until Ken took an interest, all of these LPRTs got their programs from CBC regions outside of Quebec. This angered Withers: he reasoned that their listeners deserved a service that tried to keep them informed about developments in their own province.
It was Bob MacGregor who gave the string of LPRT towns a name: The Quebec Community Network, or the QCN, for short. Withers had charged Bob MacGregor with producing a separate morning program for the new network. Before long what we’ll call Phase One of Quebec AM had a host, a combined secretary and music selector, a sportscaster, and a number of contributors from the various communities it serviced.
I had absolutely nothing to do with Phase One. What I knew of Quebec AM and the QCN then I had learned from its host, Gordon Redding, a CBC staff announcer. But Gord must have noticed that my eyes glazed over when he began to enthuse about broadcasting to the boonies. Then came that fateful day September 24, 1971 when, for all intents and purposes, Quebec AM died.

The Friday before CBC Radio’s big changeover, I was moping around the Announcers’ quarters, wondering how everything could have slipped away from me, when I got a summons to the Program Director’s office. By 1971 Ken Withers had moved on and was replaced by a veteran CBC broadcaster and producer, Catherine ‘Kay’ MacIver.
As I made my way to her office, I thought I was in for some mothering over my fall from grace: Kay was that kind of person. But that wasn’t what she had in mind.
“Pat, there’s been a bad mistake made,” she told me, “but I think we can still fix it.” She showed me the announcement Gordon Redding had read at the conclusion of that morning’s Quebec AM:

“This program will no longer be heard as of today. Tune in Monday morning for the new morning show, Daybreak . . .”

Everyone associated with the original Quebec AM had fled the scene. Bob MacGregor left the CBC well before the program’s collapse to publish a magazine on car racing; Gordon Redding had been snapped up by Daybreak to perform one of the new functions the show was to feature; the sportscaster and secretary/music selector had made other arrangements.
Despite her position of authority, Kay had only heard of Quebec AM’s scuttling that morning, and she had been trying all day to right what she considered an inexcusable wrong. But it was all uphill: Gordon Redding wasn’t the only announcer seconded to the new local shows, and most of the others had settled into permanent slots on TV. Because I had so successfully cut the ground out from under my feet, I was the only announcer around with nothing much to do.
Kay was determined to revive Quebec AM. She apologized for how little I had been left to work with to do the job, but promised to find me more – as soon as the dust created by the big changes had settled a little. Meanwhile, I was it: I would have to assume all the functions Quebec AM’s scattered cast had performed: the most pressing of which was to pick three hours of music to play on my first program.
Aside from apologizing to my listeners, there was very little else I could say to them that first morning. Like most English-speaking Montrealers, I knew next to nothing about the rest of Quebec. Music would have to fill the gap. I headed for the record library and began snatching LPs from its shelves with little thought to what would be suitable.
That first program under my command – and far too many after it – must have been a bewildering mess.

I didn’t leave Kay McIver’s office completely empty-handed: She had turned over the program’s files, and they included a list of the contacts Bob MacGregor’s crew had made in most of the towns along the QCN. What I needed most to revive Quebec AM was detailed information about my listeners. I thought it best to begin with a few general assumptions:
In most places Quebec AM was heard, people listened to it simply because we spoke English; they didn’t come to us with any particular affection for the CBC or its programs. In fact, most of them had come from larger centers such as Montreal where they had depended on private radio to get them going in the morning. I sensed that the closest I could get to that private radio sound was with the music we played. I decided to anchor it as much as possible to what was popular in the U.S. and Canada and keep it coming until I had something worthwhile to say.
When it came to information, I felt we could serve my listeners well enough with International and Canadian news because Quebec AM carried all of the national newscasts heard on the other CBC stations across the country, but coverage of Sports was another matter.
The teletype machines provided reasonable access to weather and road reports for most of our listening area, but I had to find out which weather regions covered which of our QCN locations most accurately, and which roads our listeners traveled most. So many questions and so few answers. What I needed was a survey. I began to work on one as soon as each broadcast was over, and after about a month, I had something I could mail to the people on that list of contacts left over from Phase One of the program. I included a personal letter with each survey urging the contact to discuss the questions with family and friends. It was an appeal I repeated several times a morning on every program.
Here are some of the questions the survey asked:

Which provincial highway do you use most?
– Is your community serviced by an airline? Which one, and where do the important flights originate?
– Is there a bus service to your community? Which company?
– Do you follow a particular baseball or hockey team? Which one, and do you have a favorite player? Someone from your community or nearby?
– Do you get TV? If so, which network? What’s your favorite TV show?
– Are you able to buy an English-language newspaper? Which one? When does it reach your community? Same day? Next day?

The replies began to trickle in. I followed up each response with a phone call. Soon I had enough information to make the weather and road reports more relevant, and clipping from the Montreal newspapers more productive.
For instance, respondents from the Rouyn-Noranda area told me that a local team played in an Ontario hockey league. Overnight scores and game summaries from that league were published in the morning editions of Montreal newspapers, which didn’t arrive in Noranda and Val D’Or till sometime in the afternoon. I ‘scalped’ them every morning for my program. Reading the Montreal papers – French and English – became part of my preparations for each show. I was usually still trying to translate something from Journal de Montreal minutes before sign-on.
I was learning but I still made a lot of mistakes. And I was fair game for all the jokers out there who had used my survey to have a little fun with me: for more than a month, I read road reports for a highway that ended well short of the town in question.
By that first winter on Quebec AM, things began to turn around. First of all, Kay McIver scrabbled together enough money to replace one of the freelancers we had lost when the program had been cancelled. As a result I must have become the first CBC announcer in history to hire an assistant by placing an ad in the newspaper, circumventing the Corporation’s hidebound hiring apparatus. Mind you, the ad made no mention of the CBC and listed my home phone number for replies. Several applicants balked at the hours, but Edwin Copps, a young student at Montreal’s Concordia University found them ideal. Ed took over the bulk of the research and found other tasks that soon made him indispensable to Quebec AM.

I was beginning to get a ‘feel’ for the program, which might not have pleased some of my supervisors. But they weren’t listening, right? As I mentioned, Quebec AM wasn’t heard in Montreal.
Most of our listeners lived far enough north to make for unbelievable winter temperatures. The weather bureau sent us one particular bulletin every morning that was so grim I decided to make light of it. It was a list of ‘overnight lows’ that included most of the places tuned to Quebec AM:

Chapais -30C
Chibougamau -34C
Rouyn-Noranda -27C
Gagnon -31C
Sept Iles -24C
Etc.

Our studio was furnished with an old-fashioned gooseneck lamp with a metal shade you could twist to direct the light in all directions. I found that if I removed the bulb and twisted the shade to face up, it made a quite resonant bowl. With the addition of two 25-cent pieces, it gave me the raw materials for “The Brass Monkey Memorial Award,” a regular feature of every Quebec AM during the worst of the winter months. I would read through that list of overnight lows with the upturned light shade positioned just under the microphone, and my outstretched hand holding the two coins.

“So the Brass Monkey Memorial Award goes this morning to –”

And I would release the two coins, one at a time.

Clunk! Clunk!

“Chibougamau!”

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3 Responses to “Chapter Thirty-six”

  1. Alec Bollini Says:

    Excellent chapter… the boonie network piece was fascinating.

  2. Glenn Patterson Says:

    P.s. I’d love to chat more about this if you thought you might have additional insights to share. Take care.

    • debunko Says:

      Hi, Glenn . . .
      I’d like to help with your project. May I suggest that you prepare a list of questions that have already come to mind. It’s possible that a few of the people I worked with back then are still around: a shocking number of them have now died and I turned 88 last July. Meanwhile I’ll re-read Chapter Thirty-Six.
      By the way: I wrote some of “Ramblings” while living in Ottawa but I’m now back in Montreal and living with my wife in what we used to call an “old folks’ home”.
      All the best . . .
      Pat

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