Chapter Twenty-eight

By 1964, the CBC had expanded in all directions until it had established a broadcasting presence almost anywhere in Canada. A sure stop for any CBXT employee with a few minutes to spare was the cork bulletin board affixed to the wall of one of the building’s more-traveled hallways. Here could be found the stuff of dreams: ‘postings’ describing job openings in CBC establishments nationwide.

Want a crack at the big time? There was an occasional posting for Toronto. Lured by the far north? A small CBC station in Inuvik often needed personnel. Want to get away from prairie winters? There might be a posting for Vancouver of Victoria. Hungering for a plateful of salt cod and blue potatoes? Here’s one for Halifax.
As with the brass of any large corporation, CBC management made its first attempt to fill an important or sought-after position using personal contacts or the grapevine, but CBC employees were repeatedly assured that any job availability worth filling had to be ‘posted’ first.
One such posting caught my eye in the Spring of 1964: CBC Montreal’s English operations wanted two ‘general announcers.’ I kept returning to the bulletin board to read through the qualifications once again, until I could satisfy myself that I could match them – more or less.
I had to face some bald facts:
FACT ONE: I had never been a ‘general announcer’ anywhere I had worked, except during that first year at CKUA, when a better description of my function would have been ‘announce-operator-in-training.’ CKY employed me as a ‘continuity writer,’ a scribbler of commercials; the same function I performed at CFRN-TV. CKRC and CBC Edmonton had hired me as a newsman, and CKUA as Program Director.
Asking around, I found that a CBC ‘general announcer’ was expected to tackle anything the Corporation wanted read on either radio or TV: news, weather, sports, quiz programs, dramas, introductions to music programs of every description. All I could see were functions where I considered myself weak, or totally unfamiliar due to lack of interest or pure ignorance.
FACT TWO: Montreal was about to host a major world’s fair; the buzz about Expo ’67 was everywhere. A transfer to Montreal had become a prize. That posting would attract applications by the score from CBC stations in every part of the country.

The next blow to my aspirations came when I told Jim Shrum about my application, and the popular CBXT announcer replied: “You, too? I’ve had my application in for weeks.” As far as I was concerned, Jim had everything needed to win one of the coveted vacancies: he was a fine announcer – energetic and imaginative – and one of the most congenial men I had ever met. How could he miss?
He didn’t. Not long after Jim told me about his application, another CBXT announcer appeared in the newsroom to collect the radio newscast I had prepared for him. “Did you hear the news about Jim?” he asked me. “He’s going to Montreal. He got one of those announcer jobs they posted.” With considerable effort I masked my disappointment and said: “That’s great! Good for old Jim! We’ll miss him.”
That’s what I told the announcer. What I told myself was: ‘Well, old fellow, you gave it your best shot. But the chances of CBC Montreal taking two guys from the same region are next to nil, and you know it.’

My only consolation was the fact that my wife wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about moving to Montreal as I was. There would have been all that packing to do, and we now had four children and a cat to consider. And aside from two announcers I’d met in Winnipeg, neither of us knew anyone in Montreal.
Then, with Jim Shrum packed up and ready to go, I got incredible news: Montreal had indeed done the improbable and filled both of their announcer vacancies from the same region! I had been granted one of the announcer jobs, and – a huge bonus – Jim Shrum was to be shipped off to Montreal before me.
It was one thing not to have done any CBC announcing before, and quite another not to have done any announcing at CBC Montreal. As I was to soon learn, an announcer at CBC Montreal was expected to work for several CBC Services seldom heard of in the west.
Montreal was headquarters for the International Service (later renamed Radio Canada International) that used short wave to send broadcasts in a dozen languages to every part of the world. CBC Montreal was also the originating point for the Northern Service that tried to fill the broadcast needs of Canada’s far north. And separate newscasts were destined for the Low Power Relay Transmitters (LPRTs) established in Quebec’s smaller and often quite remote towns. All this in addition to CBC facilities you would expect to find in a Canadian city of any size: a TV station, and AM and FM radio.
Servicing all of these disparate broadcasting functions called for more studios and offices than the CBC could crowd into its main building in Montreal – a converted hotel in the heart of town. Consequently, CBC facilities popped up in the oddest places: an abandoned movie theatre, a junior college, what had been a hotel lounge . . .
These offspring studios and offices could be several miles from the Dorchester avenue ‘mother house.’ Parking could be generous or non-existent, the nearest restaurant an overpriced bistro or a greasy spoon. It was quite bewildering to a new arrival.
That’s why I took such comfort from the fact that Jim Shrum had preceded me to CBC Montreal. Jim became my guru. He began my education with those offspring studios and how to find them. “You take taxis there and back,” he told me, “and make sure to get a receipt for each trip.” He showed me how to fill out the CBC form that had to be submitted with the receipt for a refund, and found me a supply of blanks. Jim had only been in Montreal a few weeks but he was already being asked to take part in a number of radio and TV shows. Where he found the time for me, I’ll never know.
As for the studios located inside the ‘motherhouse’, they were all to be found on the old hotel’s first two floors. Every chance he got, Jim would whisk me off on another tour of studios and offices to show me where the various programs were prepared and done, and to introduce me to the key producers.
His advice proved invaluable. He indicated which programs needed special attention, and steered me away from the few announcers who were bent on fobbing off cumbersome duties on the new guy. But for every such rotten apple there were several announcers who were established enough – secure enough – to be above pettiness and guile. One of these ‘old boys’ got me my first break on television, and another took an interest in where my family was to be housed.

Not that those first few years at CBC Montreal were idyllic. I came to my new job expecting the worst and, when it came to shifts, I got it. At first it was a steady diet of nights and even overnights. I can remember one shift that only started about eight at night and ended six hours later. The six hours were punctuated with long periods of inactivity where just staying awake was a genuine problem. One remedy was to leave the building and walk the streets, but I soon discovered that even downtown Montreal had little to offer at two in the morning.
I was issued a ‘time card’ for every day I worked that indicated what studios I was to work in and when I was expected there. Weeks passed when all these cards indicated was ‘booth duty’: sitting in a studio and identifying the station on the hour. “940 on your radio dial, CBM, Montreal”. Or “You are listening to the International Service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the nineteen meter band . . . ”

One day I collected my assignment cards for the coming week and found one that I decided was a mistake. It read:

City hall. All day. Interview mayor.

My supervisor assured me it was no error. A CBC film crew had come into town from Toronto and they needed someone – anyone – to ask Mayor Jean Drapeau a series of questions. It was all arranged: all I had to do was show up at City Hall. It was the first of three meetings I was to have with Mayor Drapeau over the years, each one more intense than the last.

One-on-one, Jean Drapeau could work a special magic. He began by swinging the spotlight away from himself – not easy to do that first time I met him. Montreal’s City Hall is imposing enough but the Mayor’s office is the icing on the cake: I defy anyone to remain unimpressed by its massive furniture, high ceiling, recessed windows with heavy drapes, etc. Two padded chairs had been set up to one side of the mayor’s desk for the interview. As soon as we were seated, Drapeau asked me almost shyly if I was new to Montreal. When I confessed I had only just arrived, he leaned forward, his face shining with interest.
“How do you like it? How do you like Montreal?” he wanted to know.
And while I enthused over a few of the city’s more impressive landmarks, he folded his hands over his stomach and nodded like a proud father. Meanwhile, the camera crew busied itself with the preparations: setting up lights and reflectors, fitting us with lapel microphones, testing one, two, three . . .
The interview was nothing special. I asked the mayor questions from a prepared list while a sound camera purred nearby. It was over all too soon, and I was out in the street, hailing a cab.


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