I was pleased to get an e-mail last week from a friend informing me that CBC Radio is celebrating its 40 year anniversary in Northern Ontario. I am happy to say I was a small part of that, having spent a few years as an associate producer and producer of the morning program, Morning North. Then, many years later, after my stint with CTV, I was invited back to CBC as a contract producer and editor.
But let me get to the heart of the story about one of the best days we ever enjoyed with live radio. It didn’t start out very pleasantly.
It was September 7, 1990. It was the morning after the Ontario Election when a huge upset had taken place. Bob Rae had defeated Liberal premier David Peterson. Now you have to understand that elections are big things in the news business. Whoever gets elected sets the game for your city, your province or your country for the next few years.
Okay so in the days leading up to our election results broadcast I have to say we were stunned to learn that CBC Toronto had been given approval to cover the province. This was ignoring CBC Thunder Bay, CBC Windsor, CBC Sudbury and CBC Ottawa.
This meant our morning show would be pre-empted in favour of giving the Toronto crew the broadcast from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Of course, the journalists in the smaller stations such as ours were livid. We protested, but without any backing from management, we got nowhere.
Only CBC Ottawa was able to complain loud enough to get back the right to cover its own territory. Not us. We would be allowed roughly five minutes each hour to insert news from our region.
That morning we all arrived for work well before 6 a.m. Of course we were excited at the news of the political upset. But that was soon tempered by the fact we pretty well had to sit on our hands and listen to Toronto. We were told to be ready in case Toronto gave us the right to switch back to our own station. Fat chance that would happen. There was clearly a line between broadcasters and the bureaucrats.
So there we were; myself, host Peter Williams, newsroom staffers Bill Catalano and Sherry Drysdale, noon show host and producer Benita Hart and our technician and operator Kenny Kauffeldt.
We sat in the front office with the big window overlooking Mackenzie Street and griped and moaned about not being able to do our own broadcast.
Little did we expect how bad it would be. Just as the 6 a.m. World Report news package ended, CBC Toronto came online with a quick wrap of the election upset the night before. Part of the coverage including breaking away to a live report from London, Ontario the hometown of defeated premier Peterson.
Imagine our surprise when the poor reporter described he was broadcasting live from a local arena in London where the Liberals had been expected to celebrate Peterson’s victory. The reporter said there was no one else there. Just him. Well Duhhhh! It was so embarassing to listen to this.
So the hour progressed. At 6:30 we did our own regional news wrap and then a brief insert on the local election results.
I remember clearly as we sat there around 6:45 a.m. griping how bad the Toronto broadcast was. Sherry said something like I wish we could just do our own show. Kenny said, “we can”.
I looked at him with surprise. He looked back at me and said anytime you want to switch back to local just tell me and we can go to a local broadcast. I thought, well they keep telling us to be “risk takers”. So let’s see how this works.
I quickly looked at the faces around the room and asked, do you think we could pull off a good local show?
The response was immediate. Of course, and then they began jumping in with names, phone numbers and story lines and interviews. It was exciting as hell. I looked at the clock, knowing we had about 20 minutes before going live.
One of the reporters was already on the line to Nickel Belt MPP Floyd Laughren to get Bob Rae’s private phone number.
So things were in motion. We pulled together a bunch of live interviews, including an exclusive with the new Premier BEFORE CBC Toronto got him on live. We had live chats with all the newly elected candidates. We didn’t look back. It was a great program. For the next two hours we did seat-of-the-pants live radio and it worked.
Just before 9 a.m. our host Peter was wrapping up the show with final comments. Kenny was rolling the music to mark the end of the show. The boss came into the studio with a big smile commenting on how good the show sounded.
“When did Toronto give you the okay to cut away to local?” he asked.
“They didn’t,” I replied.
His face dropped. He was horrified.
I knew my ass was in trouble, but I have to say, it was so worth it. It was the best day.