Radio Story #6 – The Traffic Reporter

There was a time, in the early 60’s, when traffic reporting became the “new” rage.

All the major Toronto radio stations were doing aircraft traffic reporting. Some were using helicopters. Wow! Imagine. Helicopters!

Down the peninsula we watched with envy as Eddie Luther on CFRB waxed lyrically from high in the sky. (Eddie got to see the BIG blackout of 1965 from high in the sky, and he knew that it wasn’t an isolated situation. He was right .. that night the entire Eastern Seaboard went dark on the evening of November 9th, 1965.)

Boy … how we wished we could fly with the big boys.

One fine summer day, Jack Hill, program director, and the news director, Bill Holland, told me that I would be doing traffic reports on Friday evenings to report on activity from Burlington to Niagara Falls. I would telling people, twice an hour, what horrors and catastrophic events were happening on the Queen Elizabeth Way, our major highway link for tourists. My heart raced. The very thought that I would be “voice from the sky” telling mere mortals what awaited them on the miles of madness, that ribbon of sweating pavement. Heady stuff for a young guy.


I would be doing it in a Piper Cub! Nooooo.

My heart fell. How unromantic. Here I thought that I would be up there in my bubble-shelled Bell helicopter just like the “big” guys.

That’s OK, I could spin magic on the air and no one would ever know that we were barely airborne in an aging Piper Cub. Maybe it wasn’t that old, but it look ancient to me because, after all, helicopters were what real traffic reporters used.

Turns out my pilot on “Frantic Fridays” would be none other than an old high school chum. He was in air cadets in high school and, based on his mad-cap antics, we never expected Bill to survive the “rules and regs” never mind get off the ground. But, here he was. A lead pilot for the Air Service out of Mount Hope airport.

The airport wasn’t ready to be an international or jet airport at that stage, rather a wonderful flying club and private aircraft centre. Some cargo too, I guess. I was never really interested enough to find out what the airport did. I just wanted to get over the QEW highway and report.

Well, Bill was a great guy. Welcoming, easy going and always open directions for our next report. At that time, I was using our Motorola Portable Radio with hand “mike” and earphones .. and if the weather was inclement getting the signal back to the station was often difficult … we’d have to fly over our report area and then fly back to a location where we could make contact. When I think of it now, I smile. It was a bit of a “McGiver” solution to the situation. But hey, it worked.

To be honest, for the most part traffic reporting was boring. Every Friday it was the same stuff … slow traffic between Burlington and Hamilton. (The Skyway Bridge was supposed to make it really easy, that according to officials who opened the bridge in 1958. And, to be fair, it did make a difference but the process of paying tolls backed-up Friday traffic no matter what. They finally took the tolls away in 1973. Slow learners.)

Traffic by Highway 20 was slow, traffic out near Grimsby was slow, traffic passing St. Catherines was slow .. etc. Same thing week after week. I guess it started to get a little boring for Bill as well.

One Friday as we were flying off the Niagara Escarpment and high above Hamilton, Bill asked me if I’d ever flown upside down. In a panic, I told him that was not something I ever wanted to doooooooooooooooo!

Before the words got out of my mouth, wham, we were upside down. For a moment I thought I might have an accident, but then realizing that my lower extremities were above my head I knew that better not happen. I believe I started screaming and yelling at him. I can still hear him laughing (maniacal to my ears.) After what felt like 20 minutes he flipped the aircraft back again. I requested he return me to terra firma, immediately.
I was pretty ticked with him for a number of days.

A few weeks later we were off doing our reports, and it was all the same as usual. I’ve often thought that, in all honesty, you really don’t learn anything terribly useful from traffic reports. Most often they just remind you of the pickle your in and likely to stay in for a while.

I digress.

As we were concluding our reports that day, Bill asked me if I had heard about the light aircraft crash south of Mount Hope. I had heard the story and I remarked that it sounded like a very nasty crack up. Bill said, “they haven’t taken the wreckage away yet, let’s go have a look at it.” I should have said NO! But my mind said, what the heck, seeing the crash site from 1500 to 2000 feet would be no biggie.

As we flew south Bill came down lower and lower. I asked him what he was doing. He said because the crash was at the end of a farmer’s field near a small forest it would be hard to see from higher altitude. OK. Made sense. Down he came.

Now we were about 500 feet off the ground and there in front of us was a stand of trees and then the tall hydro towers running at right angles to us. Bill said … “take it easy, we’re just going to nip under these hydro lines.” Zooooom. Under the lines we went and now we were flying at about 100 feet off the ground heading for the crash site at the far end of the field.

Aw geez.

“Bill,” I pleaded, “Please get us out of here! This is nuts!” Bill said, “yeh, will do, we’ll just go over the crash site … look down, now.”

Zeeeerooom! The aircraft passed over the site and then immediately nosed to the sky, to avoid the forest that the downed aircraft had crashed into. Zeeeerooom!
We left a few ruffled leaves as we tilted to the sky and headed back to the airport.
I was a little wobbly in the legs when we got back.

Bill was a good pilot, perhaps a great pilot but he forgot the one rule of flying (it’s very much a rule of car driving,) if your passenger is not comfortable, feeling safe and relaxed, you’re not flying/driving properly. That was one of my dad’s “driver training” lessons.

At the end of the summer we concluded our traffic reports and I was quite delighted to give up my wings. It had been a source of constant panic each time we went up. All through the week I’d be wondering what was Bill going to do this time? Anyway, Bill went on to be a successful flight trainer, I got a DJ shift, left the news department, and another chapter in my radio career came to a close.

Radio Story #5: The Prime Minister was not amused.

Early on during my stint at CKOC I was primarily in the news room.  I did some DJ work on weekends but there were no openings for a permanent on air shift.  One of my assignments in those early months was to interview the prime minister, who would be visiting Hamilton, regarding an announcement he would be making.  The Prime Minister was John Diefenbaker.  It was an exclusive opportunity. th4

The invitation to interview the PM was brought to the station manager, Bill Cranston, by a close acquaintance of his, the Right Honourable Ellen Fairclough.

Ellen was a well respected member of parliament, representing Hamilton West and she was the first woman to become a member of cabinet as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and later as Postmaster General.  She was a woman of power with a commanding presence that was nicely tempered by the kindness that she often exhibited.

I was very intimidated at the thought of meeting Ms. Fairclough, never mind the PM.th3

I was to meet the PM in a suite at the Royal Connaught Hotel in downtown Hamilton.  It was still THE place to stay in those days.

The Royal Connaught Hotel is a 13-storey building s built by Harry Frost of Buffalo, New York in 1914 .

When it was complete the building cost $1,000,000, a huge sum in those day.  It’s interesting how the hotel got its name … through a contest. Alfie Richards, a  school student, won the $10 gold piece prize by suggesting the name Connaught after Canada’s Governor General, Prince Arthur William Patrick Albert, 1st Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. In 1914 the Duke of Connaught laid the cornerstone, and granted hotel36Layer1permission to add “Royal” to the name of the hotel.  What a swell guy.

The hotel opened in 1916 with tours for the general public, an opening reception, and a lavish banquet and dance. hotel5Layer1

Even CKOC called it home for a period of time.  In 1927, CKOC  was finding its  accommodations in the nearby Lister Building unsatisfactory and the radio station moved into the 11th floor of the Hotel. The transmitter power was raised from 50 to 100 watts. Big for its time, but almost humorous by today’s standards.

Back to the story.

I was told to get my butt up to the hotel and go with Ralphie Binns, an engineer, who would look after the tape recorder while I was talking to the PM.  The appointment was for 2 pm so that we could get it on the air for the 4 pm news.th7

Away we went, on this warm summer day, uptown to the hotel.  We parked the car and went up to the 11th floor of the hotel.  The old elevator shook and quaked as we ascended.  I was glad to have the time to gather my thoughts and try to calm my nerves.  This was a big deal for a 20 year old.

When we arrived at the room, it turned out to be a suite.  A very impressive, stately looking  sitting room with two rooms off that main room.  We were met by an assistant to the PM who introduced us to Ellen Fairclough.  Ellen reminded us that this was an exclusive opportunity for the station and that we should be very direct with the PM so as not to take too much of his time.th2.jpg

Out of one of the bedrooms came John George Diefenbaker, the 13th prime minister of Canada.  Jowls a swinging, he entered the room talking to others in attendance, totally ignoring us.  That, in itself, was very unnerving.  We didn’t exist until he indicated we did.  After he got some business of the day out of the way, he turned his steely gaze to Ralphie and yours truly.  With a smile, obviously taking notice of our state of awe, he asked us who we were and inquired if “this” would take long.  No I said, it would only take a few minutes.

Ralphie had already set up the tape recorder.  Now, when I say tape recorder, you’re probably thinking of some really cool portable device that a radio station might have in those days.  Uh Uh.  Believe it or not, the tape recorder was a wind-up model, that had a big crank handle on one side.  It was a pretty ugly, unimpressive piece of technology, if I can call it that. th6 Be that as it may, Ralphie was all set, I had the approved questions to ask the PM and the PM was anxious to get it over with.

The interview went fine, and I was very pleased with my own performance.  I’m sure the PM and Ellen Fairclough had met many who were far more experienced and professional but they were kind enough to be warm and generous in their comments.  We thanked the PM for his time and started for the door.  JohnDiefenbaker interviewEllen said that she and the PM would be listening for the 4 PM news.


Wow.  I left the hotel feeling quite elated that I had actually interviewed the prime minister of Canada and met Ellen Fairclough.  I was in a new league of radio reporters.  I was on my way.  Wow.

We got back to the station and in the production studio our GM, Bill Cranston, our program director, Jack Hill and the production engineer John Paro were waiting for us.  Ralphie handed over the portable recorder and John Paro removed the reel-to-reel tape, moving it over the his big studio recorder for editing.

I waited with great anticipation.  In moments I would hear the results of my handiwork.  John set the machine and play and the brown 1/4″ tape started to move through the playback heads.  Here it comes.  Here it comes.  Seconds went by, then more seconds.  oh no

Nothing.  No.  Nothing.  The entire tape was blank.  Ralphie had forgotten to push the record button.  For about a minute there was a terrible frost in the air.

Bill Cranston broke the suspense by exploding with “and what the hell am I supposed to say the Ellen and the PM when they don’t hear the report at 4 PM.  That we have incompetents on staff?”  Hey, that’s not fair, I said inside my head, I did my part … shoot Ralphie.  After some considerable time constructing a story that might sound plausible, Bill went back to his office to call Ellen and tell them that they needn’t listen at 4 pm.

I was not in a new league of radio reporters, and I definitely was not on my way.  I felt lucky to retain my job, escaping the wrath of Bill Cranston.  I was still employed.  Ralphie was not so lucky.  He was sent on his way to find his career at some other radio station.  It was not Ralphie’s first transgression but it was certainly his best.  I can only hope that Ralphie had a great career and that, now in his retirement, he has a very funny story to tell his grandchildren about the time the PM of Canada was not amused!bio8_d.jpg

Radio story #4: The “Hawk”

Ronnie-Hawkins1Before we get to Ronnie Hawkins and the summer’s night concert at the Alexandra I should set the stage. The Alexandra was a roller rink on the edge of Hamilton’s downtown. It opened on Christmas Day 1906. It was a popular entertainment spot that featured skating, dancing, big band music and some great rock n’ roll concerts. The roller rink is no more. It closed down in April 1964 and was torn down soon thereafter and replaced with an office complex called the Undermount.

You can’t be too surprised that the Alex was torn down … it was a fire hazard waiting for a match. It was basically a wood structure and inside you were held captive by the high walls that enclosed it. At one end of the rink there was a stage and this where many an artist entertained weekend audiences.

I can remember, as a young teenager, taking the bus with friends down to the Alex. We were all roller skaters. old roller skates We’d been doing it since we were in public school. We skated to school, we skated the streets in the evenings and we had lots of skinned parts on our body to prove our dedication. The Alex was special .. you rented boot skates with hardwood wheels … wow, what an experience. skates copy We felt so grown up, in the downtown, with the music playing and holding hands with our current female friend. Sweet times. roller rink ticket

I’d been at the station about a year and, at just 20 years of age, I was at the centre of the rock n’ roll excitement … and at times, just a little overtaken by it all. Ronnie Hawkins was coming to town to do a concert at the Alex and the station said that the promoter had asked if I would be the Emcee. It was a paying gig and it was Ronnie Hawkins – of course I would do it. I loved those guys.ronnie hawkins 3

It was a hot summer’s eve and inside the Alex it was getting steamy as the throng of teenagers arrived. The wooden floor and wooden walls held the heat adding to the energy of this highly anticipated event. No breeze, no air conditioning just a thick humidity that was quickly losing it’s oxygen as the crowd grew. It was going to be a sold out night and when everyone started dancing the place would be just thrumming (is that a word?) with energy.

I could feel my nervous energy starting to build. I was all decked out in my bright blue station jacket, white shirt and formal bow tie … wow, I felt like a pretty slick dude. There were a few hello’s as I pushed through the crowd, a few nice glances from some of the young ladies, and squinted eyes from their dates. Yeh, typical Saturday night. ronnie hawkins 2I climbed the wooden stairs and went to what they called backstage. It was really a storage area of some sort, that doubled as a place where acts could relax before going on. I made my introduction to Ronnie and the members of the band. They were pleasant towards me but I could tell that my station outfit relegated me to “outsider” status with this band of jolly rogues. Despite their thin assessment of me it was all very polite and, we agreed, it was going to be a hot night. After a brief back and forth it was time to do some rock n roll.

The stage at the Alexandra was not the biggest in the city but it was big enough for bands and rock groups to put on some great shows. Tonight would be no different. I went out on stage, introduced myself, made some not-so-memorable comments and received a good round of cheers and applause mixed in with a few hoots. All in all it felt like a good start. As I introduced Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks the volume level went off the scale. The crowd went wild. Ronnie-Hawkins2 I started to worry that the nails might come out of the walls and the whole place would fall on our heads. Ronnie and the band took over the stage and for the next hour they just sent everyone into a dancing, cheering frenzy. Meanwhile, the temperature kept rising. It was probably more than 80F in the old Alex and getting hotter. Inside my station jacket hell had taken hold and my shirt was stuck to my body, adding to the rush of perspiration down my legs. Even my socks were soaked.

It came time for the blessed break and we all went back to the little room behind the stage. Ronnie and the band sat down on some wooden chairs, pulling them into a horseshoe. Quick as a bunny, out came a 26’er of scotch. Each of the guys took a shot. They talked about the first set, what was good, the cute girls, the heat, the next set .. and on, for about 15 minutes. I was the outsider in the group, keeping an eye on the time and, though I was offered a shot, I was drinking water. Once the break time finished I asked the Ronnie if I could introduce the second half.
“Hell no boy! We’re not done our break”. This was directed at me as a new round of shots was being poured out for the group. I could hear the murmur of the audience, anticipating the start of the second set. What was I going to do? Ronnie gave me the direction, “Just go out and entertain them for a bit.”

I’d never done improv or stand up. I was pretty fair at adlibbing but I never expected to go out in front of a crowd and, on the spur of the moment, be entertaining or, at the very least, interesting.

I strolled onto the stage, enjoying the enthusiastic welcome of this mass of teenagers. I knew it wasn’t for me. It was for the start of the show. I felt a little awkward knowing what I knew. I did the expected things a young jock does. You know. “Is everyone having a great time” That’s such a lovely slowball pitch. Everyone can hit that. The crowd responds. “You all look so fabulous tonight and you dance like you’re on American Bandstand” Another nice pitch. It get the expected yeas and cheers. From here on in it is very uphill. I don’t know what I said or did but I managed to do some bits that had them laughing and applauding for almost 15 minutes. It was really a case of “do it” or “you die”. By the last quip or two the crowd was no longer amused. Not even slightly. They were there for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, not this perspired d.j. with fear in his eyes. As I quickly exited the stage, I promised them Ronnie was coming. The crowd was in its own frenzy, chanting “we want Ronnie”, over and over and over.
ronnie hawkins 1
Backstage the party was going just fine. It was obvious that another shot or two had been shared. I said to Ronnie “OK guys, it’s time to hit the stage”. One of the band members said, “but the bottle isn’t empty yet and we ain’t goin’ on until it’s done.” In a very squeeky voice I shrieked “if you don’t get out on that stage right now, they are going to kill me!” I remember those words so precisely all these years later. They were uttered not so much out of fear as they were out of frustration.

In that moment Ronnie Hawkins stood up and, with a good humoured smile and laughing voice, said to the Hawks “Come on guys, let’s go save this boy’s life.”

I went out on stage, with the crowd watching closely, and they could sense that they were going to be granted what they had been chanting for for the last five minutes. I introduced Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and the band and I were rewarded with a deafening cheer. The band jumped in and blew the house down ’till pretty well all the oxygen in the old Alex was pretty well spent, and I was left with another memorable moment to look back on all these years later with my own good humoured smile.
Ronnie hawkins 4

Radio Story #3: The Bomb!

1960 saw CKOC, like many radio stations, move to the popular music/news format. Television had killed old time radio by taking away the dramas, quiz shows and soap operas. CKOC became a Hit Parade Station and “OC The Busy Bee” was born. I joined the station in 1962 to become a small part of the station’s Rock ‘n Roll era.
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I loved summer. Sunny days with ice cream clouds and steamy, humid nights were just made for rock ‘n roll. There was a special magic to the music of summer. (in the picture to the left I’m seated on the ground enjoying a Dairy Queen Block Party with the other OC guys) The tempo and the tone changed when summer rolled around. We DJ’s, suffered through the winter and early spring just waiting for the first arrivals of promo discs and the summer music that would once again propel us through the greatest season of the year. Heat Wave, Under the Boardwalk, California Girls, Wipeout, Let’s Twist Again, Green Onions and on and on and on … each year a new collection of memorable hits.

CKOC was located at 73 Garfield Ave South in the east end of Hamilton. It was a 2-storey building originally built by Bell Telephone to house the Garfield Exchange. Over the years the building had also served as offices for the steel company and as a school for the blind.

I was on the 6 to midnight shift in 1963 and ’64. It runs in my mind that this particular event happened in 1964. It was one of those fine evenings, you know the type, the pavement was still hot from the day, the shadows were getting longer and there was a sense of ease as the quiet of the evening started to permeate the neighbourhoods of Hamilton. Meanwhile, in the studio, we were pumping out great songs from our “sensational sixty”, the play list of the best songs of the moment.
ckoc images from album_0001
I was in my first hour, six to seven pm. There were still a few people around the station, finishing up for the day. This was not unusual, considering that we lived and breathed radio. Acolytes of the medium. The studio was a large room on the second floor of the building, probably about twenty by twenty and from my perch in main control I had two announce booths in front of me, another “news” booth behind me, a door that led to the hall, with a small window, to my right, and racks of equipment to my left. My window on the world was limited, but through that tiny door window I could see people as they walked by the door.

This particular evening I became aware of quite a bit of activity in the hall. Even when I was on the air I could tell, from my peripheral vision, that there was more traffic than normal for seven forty-five in the evening. While one of the songs was playing I poked my head out into the hall to see what was going on. A policeman was in the hall! What?!
cndn cop
I asked, “what’s going on officer?”

He came back to the studio door and then stepped into main control. His body language suggested he wanted a private conversation. I thought we’d been raided, or someone was arrested, which, in those days, wouldn’t have surprised me in the least. The policeman was a big man, about six three. He was in full uniform and had his cap at a serious angle. I was impressed, and a touch anxious, at the size of the revolver strapped to his hip.

His first few words would stun me.

“Sir, I don’t want you to be afraid or unduly concerned, but there has been a bomb threat.”

I was immediately and duly concerned. “Whaaat? What on earth”, I exclaimed.

“Well sir, the caller said they had placed a bomb in the building and it is due to go off at seven p.m.”
7pm copy
My eyes snapped to the large clock on the front wall. It was 6.50 p.m.

“Don’t worry about it, we’re pretty sure it’s a hoax, so, please, just continue on with what you are doing.”

With that confidence building comment having been shared, he left the studio. I could barely believe it. Carry on with what you are doing. Right. Easy for him to say. He left the room and went someplace safe I’m sure.

I went on the air and with my mind in a bit of a blur, and keeping one eye on the clock, I announced the next tune. The clock approached 6.55 p.m. I knew I would have time for one more song before we went up to detonation time. End of song, some words were uttered, I thought of saying goodbye to everyone “If I die, know I love you all!” As the next song came on, I became aware of the fact that in the last seven minutes I hadn’t seen anyone in the hall and the policeman hadn’t come back to see if I was hyperventallating. I was.
While my final song was on, not knowing if would be my final, final song, I went out into the hall. Empty. No one there. I called out. No answer. I went to the window to look down to Garfield Avenue to see if anyone was there. They were ALL there. people with colour copy The firemen, the ambulance, CKOC staffers, neighbours and even my nice policeman and his friends in blue were there too. And they were all looking up at ME. No one waved or said “good luck.” They just stared, as if they were waiting for me to become nanoparticles when the magical hour rolled around.
I went back into the studio, sat down at the console and watched as the clock ticked the seconds off. That last half minute of time seemed to take a lifetime. When the clock hit seven p.m. and nothing happend, I finally exhaled. I’m not sure why I was holding my breath. Perhaps I was just enjoying my last breath to the fullest.

At 7.02 p.m. the policeman came back into the studio and proudly announced, it was a hoax. “I told you.” I wanted to tell him he was a chickenshit for not keeping me company in those final moments. I didn’t. He had the big gun.

… and at 7.15 p.m. the hits just kept on rollin!IMG_0055

Radio Story #2: John Phillip Sousa

Perched on the edge of Georgian Bay, the wind frequently blows very cold into the town of Midland. That was my first impression when I started my “radio career” at CKMP. I arrived in late September and I had no idea that I was facing the longest and loneliest winter of my young life. The wind had an edge to it the day I drove into town and, it seems to me now, winter arrived not too long after.
Midland in the early 60’s was a much different place than it is today. As a young man coming in from the city I soon discovered it was a self-contained social circle that didn’t offer much opportunity for including “newbies”, and it was particularly difficult for a guy just leaving his teens. Thus it was that the people of the radio station and a handful of their associates became the centre of my life away from home.

The people at the radio station were a unique cast of characters. I’ve changed their names partly because it’s the right thing to do and partly because I can’t remember a couple of names.

There was Ray, the radio salesman. He was just what you’d expect, out glad handing and making contacts, and living a pretty fast life for a small community.

John was the owner’s son-in-law and he was program director and news director and a bit of a jerk (putting it kindly.) He was a Ryerson grad and knew everything, and nothing.

His wife, Arlene was the station secretary, commercial scheduler and “do anything” gal. She was a really nice person.

The station owner, who I didn’t see very often, had a big office at the back of the business area of the station and I was never quite sure what he did. He seemed like a relatively nice guy and it became apparent that he had more that one business interest in the community. His wife, I found out, was the power behind the scenes. She controlled the books, made sure people paid their bills and, generally, was the silent voice behind many of the decisions affecting the station.
The on-air staff was a strange brew. There was me, the new guy, who was relegated to the morning show because no one else wanted to get up at that hour. I was from the city, arrived in an MG-TD (drafty damn thing), and was hoping to make and save money for tuition to the National Theatre school in Montreal and to a career in the theatre. Ta da. Great Plan.
Following me was Marla, and she did a show for the kids and she was very good at it. I had a bit of a crush on Marla. She had a fresh scrubbed, apple pie countenance and was just a naturally sweet person. Marla had a regular job but was able to take the hour off to do her show.

Following Marla was Bill Brahma. Some folks may remember Bill from his lifestyle pieces on Global Television going back a number of years. In Midland Bill did a live “piano” show. Each day Bill would play an hour of music, prefaced by his deep throated, mellifluous invitation, “It’s time to listen to Music.” And with that opening he would launch into an hour of old favourites played on the grand piano. Bill was much loved by the ladies for his gentlemanly style and impeccable manners. Behind the scenes Bill hit the sauce just a bit too much on occasion and there were days when we wondered if he would surface for his show.

Gil did the afternoon shift. Gil was a young guy, couple of years older than me, who had already had and lost two jobs in radio. He was always on the make whether it was with girls or with a deal to be had. He was, in a word, flashy. He kinda came in and out of my social life for the year that I was in Midland. He left before I did. To this day I don’t know if it was his decision or if he was booted out for undisclosed misdemeanors.

The evening guy, my roommate in the basement apartment, Mac Rymal gave me lessons in life that shattered my conservative upbringing. Despite the fact that he made me welcome when I first arrived I came to the belief that it is a bit like the devil, full of smiles, welcoming you to his special brand of hell. You’ll understand, a little bit, if I tell you that it was thanks to Mac that I ended up being chased by a crazed ex-con husband, brandishing a claw hammer, down Bay Street in Midland because he mistook me for Mac. All of that may be a story for another day.

We were a tiny staff in a tiny station located above a shoe store, across the road from the Chinese Laundry (the owner was taken away by the Mounties for smuggling Chinese immigrants into Canada. Yet another story.) When the holiday season rolled around we were waist deep in snow and I contend that it was the house parties that kept everyone from going nuts. We were all trying to get a bit of time off over the holidays. I worked six days a week (for $35 a week) and wanted to have at least one day back home with the family. We helped each other out by putting in dual shifts over Christmas and New Years. Mac and I had New Years Eve off. Ray, the sales guy, was sitting in on New Year’s Eve and would be spinning music to take everyone up to midnight.
Vintage Photos from New Year’s Eves Past (11)
I was delighted. Mac said, “We’re going to the best bash of the year and get ready to hang on”. As it turned out, I did hang on. Barely. I didn’t know anyone except Mac and a couple of others. The “best bash of the year” was so wild and out of control that I felt that I’d landed on another planet. I still believe one or two marriages were put at risk after that evening of incredible debauchery.

The evening wore on. It was about 11 p.m. when Mac got a phone call, I think it may have been Gil, telling us to listen to the station “you won’t believe what’s going on!” We turned on the radio. At first we thought we had the wrong radio station because what we heard was a big military band of some sort playing march music. Weird? We listened some more. The track came to a resounding finish and then, over that quiet spot between cuts on the John Phillip Sousa march album came a voice … “March You Bastards!” And so they did. Another band selection began. Da de la dah dah dah… and away they went. Sure enough at the end of the cut, Ray’s slurred, belligerent voice prefaced the next cut on the album … “March You Bastards!
Mac and I jumped in his car and sped down to the station. All the way there we were treated to more rousing march music. You actually got the feeling that if Ray hadn’t been there to yell at the band between cuts the Coldstream Guards might not have gone to the next selection.

We got to the station, unlocked the door and then climbed the staircase to our second level offices and studios. We went down the short hallway to the studio door, looked through the control room glass, and there he was. Ray, with a bottle of Scotch, a glass partly full, and a piss-on-the-world look in his eye. It told us everything we need to know. We went to the control room door and it wouldn’t open. It was locked. Actually, it was more than locked. It was nailed shut. It became obvious that, with malice and forethought, Ray had put a couple of spikes through the door into the frame.
The look on our faces must have been priceless. We yelled at Ray, we went into the other studio facing him and tried to get his attention. He was having none of it. In for a penny, in for a pound. We noted that he had a stack of about nine or ten albums. it appeared that there was a lot more marching still to take place. I tried putting my shoulder into the door but it wouldn’t budge. There was no use in asking Mac to try because he had skinny shoulders. Think. Think. Mac ran down the hall, leaving me to gaze at the horror that was going out over the airwaves, in celebration of the approaching new year’s hour.
Mac came back brandishing a fire axe. I had forgotten all about that weapon. It was part of our safety equipment in case we had a fire in the stairwell to the street level and had to chop our way through the floor, and to safety I guess? Whatever. We knew it’s purpose in this situation. Mac started to chop at the door. We thought if we could chop through in and around the door handle and nails in the door jam we could separate the rest of it and silence Ray, by force if necessary.
The end of the cut came, we stopped chopping while Ray uttered his, now famous, invective. Ta da da da da, de dum dum dum. Mac and I started to laugh. We realized how ridiculous it was that we would stop chopping while Ray continued his rant. We chopped with vigor, through about two more cuts on the album, and we finally got through the door. Time 11.50 p.m. We had saved new years. Yaaah!! Mac helped the now sobbing Ray from the studio and gave him a ride home. I took to the airwaves, and without admitting anything bizaar had just taken place, I played music to midnight and helped a few astonished listeners welcome in 1963. Best of all, I didn’t have to go back to the party.

Ray left the employ of the radio station on New Year’s Day.

Every time I hear marching music it brings a smile to my face. March you Bastards!

Radio Story #1: Wacky Willy

The past week or so I got thinking about all the years I spent in radio, and then in talking with Lloyd Robertson, I realized there were a lot of funny, weird and scary stories that came out of all those years. I was interviewing Lloyd for Canoe Fm, and he agreed with me that the vintage tv show “WKRP in Cincinatti”, while very funny in itself, was really a perfect profile of what it was like to be in radio in the 50’s, 60’s and maybe the 70’s.

Today radio is mainly a collection of big businesses owning multiple radio stations across the country. In the 50’s and 60’s a good many of them were owned by individuals operating in their local communities. With the local ownership came a collection of very diverse personalities … the fast talking, flamboyant jocks, the hard driving sales guys, good lookin’ ladies in the offices, news guys who were very serious on the air and crazy men off the air, and management (they were the suits.) It was a pulsating environment that consumed all those who chose to enter.

Mike as a young pup, on the air at 'OC  the Busy Bee
Mike as a young pup, on the air at ‘OC the Busy Bee

I’ll start by sharing with you the story of Wacky Willy. He was the midnight to 6am guy. Willy is not his real name, but for my own safety I choose that name because it rhymes with Wacky. And he was wacko. Willy was of average height, a little on the gaunt side, with a shock of reddish hair and, what I’ll call, the all-night pallor. The boy could have used a little sun. Wacky did mostly the weekend nights and sitting in now and again for the regular guy who, by the way, came to us from Ford, working at the assembly plant before he stumbled into all-night radio.

Wacky didn’t see many people in the station due to the fact that he usually didn’t slither in until about 11.45 p.m. At the time I was doing 6 to midnight … yeh, I was the Jumpin’ Jay, flinging out the hits for rock n’ roll fans all evening long. I got to see Wacky a couple of nights a week and, believe me, his rather macabre presence made me glad it wasn’t more often.wacky

This particular summer evening I was in the newsroom checking the teletype machines. It must have been pretty warm because the fire escape door was open to let a little air into the second floor. Wacky sauntered in and muttered his greeting. “How’er you doin?”

He wandered over to the news director’s desk and began looking through one of the drawers. Hey, I knew that was a no no. The news director was a very serious guy and he was one who cracked a mean whip. He would take a dim view of Wacky nosing into his desk. Wacky was looking for a candy bar or some other sustenance to launch him into his night shift.

“Hey Wacky, I wouldn’t do that. Jim will have your neck.”

That’s all I said. Nothing else. Nothing threatening. Nothing to take offense at.

In nothing more than a nanosecond, Wacky whipped around to face me. And there, in Wacky’s hand, was the shiniest, most fearsome looking silver handgun and it was pointed in my direction. It was the first time I’d ever seen a Smith and Wesson snub nose 35. Snub nose 35 I know it was a 35 because I looked it up later. I figured that if I was going to have nightmares I should know what caused them.

I held my hands in front of me, palms up, in some sort of supplication. “Hey man, put that thing away, it’s no big deal.”

Wacky put the gun back under his Hawaiian print summer shirt and then, like a ferret on the run, he disappeared into the main studio. I stood there, in some sort of shock, replaying what had just gone on. Once the blood returned to my feet and my bladder relaxed I got the hell outta there.

The next day I got a couple of my station buddies together. John was a hyper active news reporter and Dave was one of the young announcers. We all started at the station about the same time and we kinda buddy-ed up in a loose type of friendship. John always wore a white shirt and a suit that looked like his dad handed it down. It was about one size too big. But it gave him that Jimmy Olsen look mixed in with a beach boys shock of hair. Dave was a cool guy. He was easy going and gave the appearance that someone operating his marionette strings had cut one string. What an odd collection we made. In case you’re wondering, I usually wore a T-shirt with pale blue jeans and white buck shoes. The Pat Boone look.

After I recounted my tale of horror to the guys, we talked about what I should do. Should I tell management, call the cops, or get a gun of my own. If I told management Wacky might come looking for me. If I called the cops they’d probably not find the gun and Wacky would definitely come looking for me. I couldn’t get my own gun ’cause it didn’t fit my image and, more importantly, I had no idea about how to go about securing a “piece”.

It was was easy-going Dave who came up with the big idea. It was wonderfully audacious.

The plan was pretty simple. I did an air check of Wacky on one of his shifts. I did it at home with a tape recorder. There was no way was I going anywhere near that nut job if I could help it. I spent some time duplicating the air check. I think we ended up with about a dozen tapes. We had spent time making a list of radio stations that were the same profile as ours but, most importantly, that were thousands of kilometers away from Hamilton. We put together a mailing for each station containing an air check tape and Wacky’s contact information. Perfect. It was worth the cost of postage to think that we might be able to get rid of the whacko gun-totin’ D.J.

A few weeks went by and nothing. Wacky was still there. We began to suspect that perhaps other people knew that Wacky was whacko.

One day, Wacky walked in to the newsroom area and proclaimed to all the he was leaving. He got a job at a radio station in Bermuda. Bermuda He admitted that he had no idea how they came to peg him for the job, but perhaps one of their execs had picked him late at night, ’cause after all we know how radio signals can “bounce” on warm summer night. He was off, he was leaving, he and his gun would be no more.

Our biggest delight came from the fact that in Bermuda, at that time, you had to sign a two year contract and put up the money for your airfare back home. It was known that a lot of guys went stir crazy in less than a year and the station didn’t want people going through like a turnstile, so you had to commit to two years. Not a bad incarceration when you think about it. We didn’t care. We were just glad to be rid of Wacky and his snub nose 35.

Once Wacky left I felt much more secure late at night knowing that his evil presence and his precious 35 weren’t lurking behind a door or office partition.

Hope he got a nice tan.

Meanwhile, the music played on. dancing 60's

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