I had always wanted to be a radio announcer, but there were two problems to be overcome: my lack of formal education, and I stuttered.
Shortly after starting work at the CPR I did two things to address the formal education problem: I bought a dictionary and a thesaurus, and I enrolled in a correspondence course in English from International Correspondence Schools. I always read extensively -- newspapers, magazines and books -- and I began the habit of writing down any word I didn’t know the meaning or pronunciation of, and at the first opportunity I’d look it up and make a note of its meaning and phonetic pronunciation, which I would review from time to time. I would also use the word in conversation as soon as I could.
When I’d saved enough money I bought a tape recorder and practised everything from reading newscasts to introducing records. I even “broadcast” some sporting events by watching TV with the sound off. I beat the stutter by taking the Dale Carnegie Course, which I ended up teaching for about twelve years. I also enrolled in a night course in Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson.
By the late fall of 1957 I felt I was ready to embark on a broadcasting career. As no Toronto radio station would even audition an inexperienced announcer, I began to answer ads for radio announcers in small towns in southern Ontario. I sent audition tapes to CFOR in Orillia, CFCO in Chatham, and a station in Delhi whose call letters I don’t remember, possibly because I never heard back from them. Borrowing my brother-in-law Eric’s car, I went for interviews at CFOR and CFCO.
The job in Orillia seemed to be more of a sales position than on-air, so at the end of that interview I told the chap who was interviewing me (I think his name was George Grabt) that I didn’t think I was interested. At CFCO in Chatham I was auditioned by the station owner, Jack Beardall, who offered me a job provided I could start by Monday, December 30th. I accepted, resigned from the CPR (much to the chagrin of Messrs. Thorpe, Henderson and Craig), told the McBrides (the family I was boarding with) I was moving out, and took the train to Chatham on Sunday, December 29th.
I don’t remember what the weekly salary was, but I do recall that I took a substantial cut from what I was making at the CPR. Mr. Beardall had arranged for me to board with a family who lived within walking distance of the radio station. The radio station was located on the second floor of a fairly decrepit building near the railway depot.
Instead of being excited about realizing a dream I’d had since childhood, I spent my first night in Chatham thinking about all I was leaving behind: a much better-paying job that I really liked; family; a girl friend; hockey, both as a spectator and a player; many friends; wonderful living accommodations with the McBrides; teaching the Dale Carnegie Course; and, the general excitement and choices of a big city. As a result, I went to work the next day with less than a perfect attitude. But given the way the week went it probably wouldn’t have mattered.
Things actually got off to a pretty good start. The staff seemed welcoming and the chap that I would be replacing spent the morning showing me the ropes. Then things started going south.
Either the station manager or Mr. Beardall, I don’t recall which, informed me that another new announcer would be starting the following week and I would have to share my room at the boarding house with him. The room was small and the thought of having to share it was intolerable (especially considering the spacious lodgings I left behind in Toronto). Then he told me I couldn’t use my real name (he thought names beginning with Mac didn’t sound good on air) and that I’d be known as Jay Lyman. Next I found out I would be working alone on New Year’s Eve and for the latter part of the morning of January 1st, which in and of itself wasn’t really a problem, but the way the shifts unfolded was.
The New Year’s Eve shift started out smoothly enough. Most of the programming consisted of picking up network content (the station had an arrangement with the CBC), playing a few commercial spots and announcing the station identification every fifteen minutes. However, I was going to have to read a brief newscast at 11:00 and then play music until sign-off at midnight. There was no national or international news of any importance on the teletype, and no local news whatsoever, so the eleven o’clock newscast was mercifully short. I then put a Pat Boone long-playing record on the turntable. The first cut on the album was his huge hit Bernadine, and, as I recall, there were five more cuts on that side. I calculated that the one side would last almost twenty minutes so I decided to take a break.
As I mentioned, the station was on the second floor. There was a stairway leading up to a flat section of roof where, believe it or not, you had to go to read the outside temperature, check a can-like receptacle for rain or snowfall amounts, and a little spinning thing that recorded wind speed. It was a beautiful clear, crisp night and, feeling sorry for myself, I decided to go up on the roof and finish a cigar butt that I’d been harbouring. I figured I had fifteen minutes before having to come back down. While up there I thought more about whether I’d done the right thing in coming to Chatham. I decided I could move out of the boarding house and find accommodation on my own, which would solve that part of the problem. I also decided to give the job a little more time. I came back down to the station feeling a lot better than when I had left it fifteen minutes before; but the feeling didn’t last long.
The first thing I noticed was that the telephone switchboard was lit up like the Christmas tree in the lobby. Every line was flashing. My first thought was that there’d been some kind of disaster, such as a plane crash. I ran to the news area to check the teletype machine which, if there was a big story, should have had an alarm ringing. There was no bell dinging. When I spooled through the copy coming out of the machine, none of the margins had big red dots, which was another method of flagging important news. By now I‘d concluded it had to be a local disaster of some sort. I checked my watch and decided I’d better go into the studio and get the next record cued up before answering one of the phone lines.
As soon as I opened the studio door I knew it was indeed a local disaster, and that local disaster was man-made – by me. What had been going out over the air for the last sixteen or seventeen minutes was Pat Boone singing the single word “Bernadine” over and over. The needle had stuck in one of the grooves of the record. I moved the needle on a couple of grooves and went out to the switchboard. I cancelled all the ringing lines except one, which was a private line from Mr. Beardall’s home.
Although he was not pleased, he told me that he expected inexperienced staff to make mistakes but couldn’t understand how it took me so long to discover this one. I told him I’d been up on the roof having a cigar. He then informed me I’d be fined five dollars and to never go up on the roof again for any reason other than to gather weather information. I got through the rest of the evening with no further problems and was back at work the following day at 10:30 am to take over from whoever had signed on the station that morning. I checked the log and noted that the 11:00 am slot was “motivational music,” which I assumed would be a pick-up from the CBC because no “motivational” records were listed on the play list nor stacked beside the turntables.
At 10:45 there was a loud knock on the downstairs door. I’d been told earlier that drunks and derelicts often wandered over from the train station and would hammer on the downstairs door if it was locked. In cold or inclement weather, when the door wasn’t locked during normal business hours, they liked to shelter inside at the foot of the stairs. I assumed this was what was happening. As the clock moved inexorably toward 11:00 the knocking became more frequent and violent. I decided that after I patched into the CBC I would go down and shoo away whoever was hammering on the door.
I watched the clock hit 11:00 on the nose and pushed the button to bring in the CBC, but nothing but silence came over the air. There was always a record cued up for such circumstances so I started it. After waiting a few seconds to see if the CBC was going to come in, and concluding it was not, I went down to see what the commotion was at the front door. The commotion was being caused by the local Salvation Army band, freezing in the cold and wondering why I didn’t let them in to start their live concert at eleven o’clock. I eventually got them on the air about 11:20.Although there was no telephone call from Mr. Beardall, I was pretty certain that, at best, my take-home pay would take another hit in the morning.
I was due to be relieved by mid-afternoon. By early afternoon I’d decided that I wasn’t prepared to “pay the dues” required to become a radio announcer, so the next couple of hours were my last hours at CFCO. I called the railway and found out there was a train to Toronto in a couple of hours. I then called Mrs. McBride and discovered my room was still available. I wrote a short letter of resignation to Mr. Beardall and left it on his desk.
Before midnight that night I was back in my cosy room at 36 St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto, looking forward to sleeping in and having a nice breakfast. Incredible as it may sound, I was boarding with a family that had a cook and a maid. But that’s going to be another column sometime later.
Although this marked the end of my short career as a full-time radio announcer, it certainly wasn’t the end of my broadcast activity as I eventually made over 5,000 radio broadcasts and over 300 TV appearances.
Next week: I choose accounting.