You can never go back, they say, and that’s probably true. But — just for the heck of it — let’s crank up the old time machine and slip back half a century to ‘the decade that shaped a generation’ — the 1960s.
The sixties was a tumultuous time, a time of incredible societal change: dress, cars, world events and — how could we forget? — music and drugs.
It was a decade that changed everything.
The setting for this post is a small radio station in a small town in a small province in Eastern Canada.
It’s a story about the goings-on at that radio station in the 1960s when pop culture and rock music blossomed.
And it was a time when three young DJs — all destined to become news reporters, strange enough — blossomed as well.
“Most things are forgotten over time. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past are no longer in orbit around our minds. But still, no matter how much time passes, there are some things we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.” — Haruki Murakami, from Kafka on the Shore.
Murakami sums things up nicely. The award-winning writer does a good job of describing the memories I have of my first full-time radio job at CKMR, ‘790 on the dial’ in Newcastle, New Brunswick.
The 60’s gave us a whole new language with words like Nam, rock on, main squeeze, pinko, friggin, laid back, pot … and full of it. It was at radio stations across Canada, the U.S. — hell, the world — where announcers did their own thing … and had a blast.
Hang on. At this point, click the “record” cued up … and let ‘er roll. Thanks, Ms. Streisand for this cool number …
[To keep the iTunes Police happy, most songs in this post can be bought at iTunes for under a buck.]
I graduated from the Campbellton [New Brunswick] Composite High School in Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967. How long ago was that, you ask? Well. 1967 was the year the Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup!
It was a wonderful time to be young.
Back in ’67, I was 18 and working at four part-time jobs in Campbellton: Sports reporting at CKNB Radio and at The Graphic, compiling stats for the North Shore Hockey League … and public address announcing at Memorial Gardens, the local hockey arena.
Three jobs paid nothing, the other not much more. I was getting exposure, they told me. That was all well and good but I could die of exposure. I needed a full-time, paying job.
Rod Butcher, an announcer at CKNB, heard they were looking for a DJ at CKMR Radio in Newcastle, a pulp mill and port town in east-central New Brunswick, in a region known as the Miramichi. [pronounced: ‘meer-ma-she’]
Rod asked, “Why don’t you apply?” So, in late August 1967, I did just that, especially after hearing words of encouragement from my mother. “You’re not living at home forever …”
That’s the way it was back then. Eighteen meant you weren’t living at home. You were on your own and proud of it.
I soon got a phone call from CKMR’s manager, Bob Wallace. He wanted to meet. And so, on a Friday afternoon — 8 September 1967, to be exact — I traveled 115 miles by rail to Newcastle, grabbed a cab and headed straight to the radio station downtown, at 129 Castle Street.
CKMR, of course, was AM radio. In those days, only a handful of stations in Canada were on the FM band.
The station was on the top floor of a white, two-story cinder block building, above a small garage.
As they say in the biz, CKMR had a ‘good book.’ Because it was truly the voice of the Miramichi, the station had an audience that was solid and loyal.Another thing: CKMR was independent, like most stations at the time. It was owned by local businessman Warren Flett, who also had the local Ford dealership. After climbing a flight of stairs, I was met by receptionist Barb Lockerbie who escorted me to Wallace’s office in a far corner of the building.
Two large windows gave the station manager an excellent view of the main street.
THE INTERVIEW. THE JOB.
I plunked myself down in an old wooden chair in front of Wallace’s desk. For someone who’d been in the broadcast industry for a number of years, Wallace was … well … very formal. Stiff. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, although he wrung his hands like the nervous best man at a wedding reception.
We talked for half an hour, if that.
Wallace was proud of his operation, pointing out that the Canadian Radio Television Commission [the broadcast licensing cops in Canada] had given his station a licence for the maximum five-year period, whereas the station in Campbellton, where I’d been working part-time, had only been granted an operating licence for the minimum period of one year.
Bob Wallace was also CKMR’s accountant. That didn’t surprise me. What raised my eyebrows though was that he had not done any announcing. The gentleman was ex-Air Force.
Yesteryears may be buried deep, but I remember clear as day walking into a recording studio where I cut an audition tape. Using an old AEA Big Ribbon mike — a beautiful industry icon, even then — I did my best to read cold copy from the teletype machine. ‘Cold’ meaning I hadn’t read it over beforehand.
That’s often the best way to see how well someone can knock off a newscast.
HIRED … AND ON THE AIR.
About ten minutes later, Wallace slipped the reel onto an Ampex tape deck and my ramblings were soon coming through a wood-encased speaker suspended high in the studio.
The manager didn’t say much except that it was a ‘good read,’ although he did point out — stopping the tape to reinforce his point — that I had mispronounced ‘abutment.’ The strange word — well, strange to me at the time — appeared in a story about some poor soul who’d checked out when his car slammed into the end of a bridge.
It was while I was in the recording studio that I learned the job was mine. Just like that. Wallace asked when I could start and I said, “Yesterday.”
My salary would be $40 a week. And no, forty bucks wasn’t a lot of money back then.
But I finally had full-time work and I was a broadcaster, albeit very wet behind the ears.
The following Monday evening I was an actual DJ — on the air in Newcastle — nervous as all get out and trying my best not to show it.
I quickly discovered that being a disc jockey involved more than spinning records and announcing, “This is … and that was.”
Reading news was no piece of cake either. It was all live and every mistake stung. Three-second pauses seemed like 20 seconds of dead air.I was from the 1940s, the equipment from the 30s. On the far upper left of the photo is our log which we followed to insert commercials, public service announcements, news, weather breaks and network programming.
CKMR was a CBC-affiliate, which meant we carried some CBC programs.
Terry White, another announcer — younger than I, if you can believe that — was assigned to babysit the new on-air guy. But after half an hour or so, Terry left me alone in the studio and sat down on a big chair in the reception area where he began to flip through Billboard, a New York-based music industry weekly famous for charting the Top 100 hits.
When Terry got tired reading, he moved to a desk and phoned his ‘main squeeze.’
The evening shift ended at midnight … right after a five-minute news, weather and sports package. So, sign off at 00:05 — but sometimes at 00:15 … if I wanted to practice reading. That’s right. People would be stuck hearing bullshit news about fashion, soccer scores from Latvia, anything … all so I could improve my on-air delivery. Weird, I know.
Our broadcast day always ended with the same musical piece. Do you know what that was? Hint: It’s one of the most recognizable tunes in Canada. You can hear it near the end of this post … hidden in a 55-second audio clip.
A STRANGER FROM MONTREAL
Many interesting people drop into radio stations, usually during the day and usually for interviews.
One snowy winter evening I got a surprise visit from an old-timer I figured to be in his mid to late 80s. He stood at the top of the stairs, hunched over, gently tapping on the door. I let him in.
We shook hands and exchanged names.
The man was from Montreal and he wanted to see our operation. I said to myself, what the hell … it’s not like he’s going to run off with a 50-pound tape-deck.
It was the oddest thing: The old fellow sat alone in the recording studio — in darkness — listening to the on-air broadcast coming through a large speaker. I could barely make out his outline.
An hour later, the man stood up and walked over to say good-bye and to give thanks for letting him in.
I asked what brought him to Newcastle and he said he was in the Maritimes visiting as many radio stations as he could. He then revealed something that floored me — in the early 1920s he was Canada’s first broadcaster, working out of XWA Radio in Montreal.
First broadcaster??? Wow! This was like having Alexander Graham Bell drop by for coffee.
I watched him walk down the steep stairs, slowly, one step at a time. When he reached the bottom he turned and waved good-bye, then disappeared into the snowy night. Never saw him again.
XWA later changed its call letters to CFCF [“Canada’s First, Canada’s First”]. The station went off the air in 2010. The bean-counters at Corus Entertainment pulled the plug on the country’s oldest radio station, citing it was losing money [or not making enough money].
It wasn’t easy being a teen, naive and living in a strange town. I didn’t know a soul in Newcastle and I was shy to boot.
I started coming out of my shell after I met our morning show host, Rick Shalala. Rick was a friendly, outgoing sort who was eight years older than me.
His name is pronounced: ‘Rick.’ Okay, that’s lame. ‘Sha-lahl-la’ then.
Turns out, Rick was from Campbellton as well. I knew his kid brother, Raymond. Played indoor soccer with him.
Rick was a pilot and, like Bob Wallace, former Air Force. He’d gone from being in the air to on the air.
The man had on-air style I would describe as “homey.” Hearing Rick Shalala on the radio was like listening to a trusted neighbour leaning on the fence and going on about this and that. The man wasn’t polished like the Big City Guys but, God, he was real. For that reason, people were drawn to him and loved him.
One time I was with Rick when he was working our country program. He read a commercial, then — without any introduction — cut straight into a “foot-stomping” fiddle number. We would later say that the tune kicked ass. Rick cranked up the studio speaker until the dust danced off it, then flicked on his mike and announced: “… Drive ‘er Francis!!” He then glanced my way and with a glint in his eye, remarked, “That’ll get ’em …”
It sure did. At that moment, thousands of listeners had just cranked up their radios full blast. Good for Rick, I thought, he’s bringing joy to a lot of people. And he’s having fun as well. They say that’s what radio is all about.
Who was Francis?? For nearly half a century I wondered about that. Turns out, there really was a Francis. He was a mentally-challenged boy who helped out at the small airstrip at the village of Blackville, about 30 miles southwest of Newcastle. The lad worked extremely hard, just giving it … causing people to shout, “Drive ‘er Francis!”
By putting it to air, time and time again, Rick Shalala gave a special needs person special recognition. I saw a lot of that in Newcastle — people pushing humanity in the right direction. It wasn’t hard to like the place and the people who lived there.
The phrase soon became synonymous with fiddle tunes. Listeners would call the station and ask, “When are you going to play a ‘Drive ‘er Francis’?”
Let’s break to hear some CKMR ‘promos’ … recorded by country singers Hank Snow and Doc Williams [Grand Ole Opry, Wheeling, West Virginia, USA]. The clip runs about two minutes.
In my eyes, Rick was worldly and yes, a bit of a rebel, but more important, he was an original. Rick was a mover and shaker who lived life full-throttle. The man also stood up for things. More than anything, that made an impression on me.
I never told anyone but Rick Shalala was my hero.Rick was also reliable — unlike a certain morning man at CKMR who didn’t always show up for work on time. When a station has no overnight staff and the morning announcer is late, that’s trouble for listeners who rely on clock radios to get them up. And yes, there were clock radios back then … they just weren’t digital.
One morning announcer would sometimes show up an HOUR late. That’s when our audience would experience a slight of hand. When the jock finally signed on — at 6:30 am — he would announce it was six o’clock and he’d continue to fudge the time until, by 7:30 or so, he’d be right on.
P.T. Barnum would have been proud.
In winter, morning announcers in New Brunswick usually had their own demons to deal with. Their vehicles had to plow through deep snow to get to work. Even if the weather was nice, they sometimes had to try several times to get a stubborn transmitter to sign on. Or, they discovered that the paper on the teletype printer had started to bunch up — at 2 a.m. That meant no news, weather, and sports. And no ‘Today in History.’
Rick occasionally arrived at work with the teletype paper screwed up. The machine was still clanging away but the paper was jammed. Yet, in 30 minutes Rick was reading a newscast, complete with weather and the sports scores. How’d he do it? I’ll tell you how. He put on an LP [that’s a ‘long playing’ record, for the young folk], sprinted down the street to a restaurant where he grabbed a copy of the Moncton Daily Times, ran back to the station, caught his breath — and read the news straight out of the newspaper, with some quick editing along the way.
No one was the wiser. A lot of radio back then was smoke and mirrors. In that respect, not much has changed.
Rick Shalala died from heart failure in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on Wednesday, 28 June 2017.
MUSIC FROM THE 60s
It was our engineer who decided which songs made our playlist.
Blair Trevors, who got around with the help of a wooden cane, was also our Music Director. The man manned the Pearly Gates at our record library … though I don’t think Blair spent a lot of time reading Billboard, the music industry Bible.
I use the Pearly Gates analogy because Blair went to church. We young jocks didn’t — except if we were dating a hot religious gal and wanted to make an impression.
Blair spent hours sitting on a chair beside an old turntable where he took our new records for a spin.
The thing I remember most about Blair was that he would ask about my father, Byers, a former soldier. He wanted to know where he had served during World War Two and all that. Can’t remember now, but I believe Blair may have been in the war himself.The vinyl arrived straight from the record companies. If Blair thought a record was a keeper, he’d put a small label on it indicating a genre code and a number. The rejects — psychedelic music and hard rock, for example — were immediately tossed in a small, metal garbage can. The groove yard.
It was in that garbage can where I found a 45rpm record called ‘Incense and Peppermint’ by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, a ‘bubblegum’ pop group from California. I recognized the song from Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. I said to Blair, “Why the hell would you throw this out? … it’s a hit.” “No,” he shot back, “… that’s not music, that’s garbage!!”
I held onto the record and we started to play it. ‘Incense and Peppermint’ climbed to #1 in Canada and the United States.
You can hear that song — plus a few other tunes in this short [1:12] collage from The Sixties …
Don’t sit there listening to the music and staring at the screen. Keep scrolling! …
LEARNING THE ROPES
I continued to play DJ, alternating between afternoons and evenings. I was becoming less nervous and feeling more at home.
There were a few ‘oh shit’ moments, like the time I was in studio and rolled back in my chair, only to hear it crunch a stack of brittle 78rpm records, smashing them all to hell. I scooped up the pieces, put them in a paper bag and — around one o’clock in the morning, after I got off work — discreetly tossed the bag into a garbage bin on the way home to my boarding house, about half a mile away.
Another thing about vinyl records is that they’d sometimes skip or worse, get stuck in a groove and play the same refrain over and over and over. That’s why we could never leave the studio, except for bathroom breaks — which were always over and done with as fast as possible.
If you were on your way back from the can and heard the sound of a record skipping, you bolted to the studio.
We quickly got to know which records had long playing times. Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ was one of the best. It ran 4 minutes and 15 seconds, nearly twice as long as most records.
Old jocks must have some of the strongest necks in the world because of the workout they got everyday in studio, heads twirling, trying to read a label as the record spun round and round. What’s the name of this damn song again? Who’s singing it? … What’s the time on this?
My first experience with a remote [an out-of-station broadcast] happened shortly after I joined CKMR. It was on a weekend, which is when most remotes happen. We were set up in a hockey arena where the local Pontiac GMC dealer was strutting his stuff: the new models for 1968!
I was up on the stage and operating the equipment — essentially quarterbacking things — spinning records and throwing the switch now and then to an announcer who was down on the floor interviewing sales staff and happy customers who just bought new wheels. Easy enough. What could go wrong?
Plenty. Part-time announcer Terry White walked up to a man who’d just bought a new car. The proud owner was sitting behind the wheel of a shiny Pontiac when Terry asked — this is live, mind you — “Could you tell me something about this fine car …?” The customer looked at him and said, “Well I hope it’s better than the lemon you sold me last year!”
Folks, that is real radio.
Enter Character #3 in this story: Paul McLaughlin of Fredericton. 730 Hansen Street, Fredericton. Now isn’t that the strangest thing? Was only to Paul’s home once, but I never forgot the address.
When I joined CKMR, Paul was on medical leave after being injured in a car crash. When I finally got to meet him, he asked, “Do I walk with a limp?” “No,” I replied. “Damn,” he said, “because if I did, I’d get more money from an injury settlement.” So I said, “You poor bastard. You can barely walk …”
Paul and I became close friends and we chummed around. He had a car and that meant we could travel here and there. In Sixties lingo, he had wheels.
Paul was a bit shorter than me, prompting Barb Lockerbie, our receptionist, to nickname us “long and short broadcasting.” And even though Paul was shorter, I looked up to him. He just knew more and had a gentle way about him.
“HI BOB …”
It didn’t take long for the juicy company secrets to come out. The one that got me was that I actually got in the business because of sex. I kid you not. I’d replaced the evening announcer — whose initials just might be KOV, maybe not.
Here’s the story:
The young man was with his girlfriend at the station one evening. Remember, this is on the second floor of a building downtown, and the door is locked. No one’s coming. And by that, I mean through the station doors.
Let’s jump the details of foreplay and get to the action: the young woman is sitting on the corner of the receptionist’s desk … her panties are off — and so are the trousers of Mr. Announcer. The logistics then: she’s sitting, he’s standing. The two are blissfully in motion when they suddenly hear the sharp click of the main door opening, to their right, about 15 feet away. Oh oh. Company.
In walked the station manager. Bob Wallace was the absolute wrong guy at the absolute wrong time.
It was a sticky situation, but Mr. Station Manager handled it as best as anyone could. As he passed behind the DJ [who didn’t miss a stroke], Mr. Evening Announcer glanced over his shoulder and calmly said, “Hi Bob …”
The jock lost both his job and his girlfriend that night. So much for “Make love, not war.” I mean, it’s not like the poor guy missed a station break.
It’s time for another musical trip down Memory Lane … only this time, a longer collage of hits from 1968, starting with ‘Born To Be Wild’ by Los Angeles-based Steppenwolf and ending with a full version of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ by the legendary Dion DiMucci of the Bronx. The clip runs 08:41.
Sex seems to be a common theme with Memory Lane stories, and so in keeping with a time-honoured tradition, here’s another ditty: one warm summer evening in 1968, I was walking down a quiet, tree-lined street overlooking the Miramichi River when three men approached.
They looked a bit lost, or at least in search of something.
The guys appeared to be from out of town. Indeed, they were from out of the country.
From what I could pick up from their broken English, they were off a Greek merchant ship moored in the harbour. The leader curled his index finger over his thumb to make a small opening, then proceeded to poke his finger through the hole. Aha. The boys were looking for a whorehouse.
I pointed the men to a house at the end of the street, the home of a certain boss and his society-lady wife. The frisky trio made their way up the street.
This was going to be interesting, and so I stood in the shadows and took everything in. This was better than a skit out of the TV series, Happy Days. The leader walked up a couple of steps to a side door and rang the doorbell. His buds stood back on the sidewalk, hands in their pockets. Warming up.
The door opened … and there stood the woman, holding the door open and looking both pontifical and puzzled. When the leader went back to using sign language, my smile graduated to muffled laughter. Then it dawned on me that I might get caught, so I got the hell out of there.
I never did find out what happened, whether the three were told to beat it — or if the old gal made a few bucks. I try not to delve into people’s financial affairs.
OTHER PRANKS …
Go to any established radio station, chat it up with an ‘old-timer’ and you’ll likely hear a few cool stories about pranks — some of them outrageous — usually pulled by the DJs. The rock jocks were always the goofiest.
Perhaps pranks are common in other industries, I don’t know. Do lawyers spray foam on cop cars? Wait. Some lawyers [future judges, remember] get tanked up at Christmas parties and put their bare asses on photocopy machines, so maybe DJs aren’t out of place after all …
Another observation is that times have changed and life is more serious today. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it isn’t.
A common prank at CKMR was to set a news reader’s copy on fire — while LIVE on air, no less. This was done for a laugh, plus to see the announcer’s reaction. It certainly demonstrated how well they could ad lib. More often than not — so things weren’t a complete disaster — a second cast was handed the newsreader.
The prank gave a whole new meaning to a smoke-filled room. And no, there were no smoke alarms back then. And yes, staffed regularly smoked in the building. Ashtrays were everywhere.
Another gag was to turn off the studio lights while someone was reading a live commercial or doing the news. The key was for the announcer not to panic but to hold the copy up to the VU monitor, unscrew it quickly … and continue reading, thanks to the light emitted from the small bulb.
It’s amazing how fast one can react when thousands are listening.Just about every old radio station had staff that practiced Frisbee-throwing with old 78rpm records. We did that at CKMR too, pitching the records as hard as we could, watching them drift across the street and smash on the roofs of businesses. Just as well none of us became music directors.
One dull winter evening Paul and I grabbed a pile of 78s, tossed them on the floor in the library and stomped them to pieces — for the sole purpose of recording a cool sound effect to play on air. A sound effect is known in the biz by its initials: SFX. The idea was to play this peculiar SFX between records, just to get people wondering, what the hell is that? Maybe the boss would say, “Hey, guys, great sound effects …”
But what to do with the smashed vinyl? I mean, we couldn’t just dump it in the garbage bin at the station. Paul had an idea: throw the broken records off the Centennial Bridge, near what was then called Chatham. At around three in the morning, Paul stopped his Mustang in the middle of the road and at the highest point on the bridge, we heaved a heavy box of busted vinyl over the side. The box crashed on the snow and ice, making a loud thud, never to be seen again.
Or so we thought. A few years later I was working at Radio 5AU in Port Augusta, South Australia when an envelope arrived from newsman Paul McLaughlin, then working for another station in the Maritimes. Enclosed was a short newspaper story about fishermen in the Miramichi landing an unusual catch — a box of broken records. People were told it was a “real mystery,” and they bought it hook, line and sinker.
Every radio station has a straight guy, perhaps more so today than in the old days. Jerry Miller, who did the women’s show [now called mid-morning], was a good guy. He didn’t take part in any shenanigans.Susan, Jerry’s girlfriend, gave me a lift once and as her small car made its way through the streets of Newcastle, I noticed a well-worn photograph of Paul McLaughlin tucked in on the dash, right beside the radio. And so I asked her about it. She explained that she had pictures of all the announcers, and when they did their shows she placed their photo on the dash. That was creative and classy.
Jerry and Susan married and moved to Moncton, New Brunswick.
Rick was a pilot — and a good one. When he worked for CKMR he flew out of a dirt runway nearby, sometimes taking Paul and I up for short trips. That was exciting with some great ‘wow’ moments. I had never flown before.
Here’s a photo I snapped over Newcastle …Here’s a shot of Chatham, a few miles east …
MORE GOOFY STUFF
Small towns aren’t always exciting with many things to do. More often than not, a bored Paul Mclaughlin would drop by the station in the evening when I was working, and he’d hang out.
During a CBC broadcast of an orchestra performing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we came up with an idea: why not play along? We’d done some goofy things, but never anything like playing along with a full orchestra. I mean, have you? We walked into the recording studio where there was an old piano — the one the religious folk used during their broadcasts — and we tossed a microphone down into it.
We then “played along” with the CBC broadcast. Since we didn’t know one key from the other, it sounded like hell. No matter. We had a great time “tickling the ivory.”
We figured no one was listening because, let’s face it, who listens to that stuff? Keep in mind, we were still teenagers. Okay, ‘youthfully-challenged’ then.
The CBC announcer, who had a great voice and delivery which put us to shame, then introduced the upcoming piece — but not before we switched on a different mike and joined in, snorting, sniffling … and laughing. It was again something straight out of Happy Days.
Meanwhile, down the road in Chatham, where Rick Shalala had an apartment, the landlady rushed to his unit and banged frantically on the door. “Come hear this!” she exclaimed. “You work over there, you tell me what’s going on!” Rick listened to the radio, but he had to steady himself because he was laughing so hard. He knew what was happening.
Around this time, Bob Wallace was tagged with a moniker, courtesy of disgruntled staff: “Runny Buns.”
Once we were off the air, Paul and I would sometimes practice reporting and ad-libbing, doing our own ‘After Midnight Show’ in the main studio. I mean, it didn’t really matter what we said because, after all, our transmitter was shut down. We were no longer on the air. Trouble was, the transmitter failed to click off one night … but the show went ahead anyway.
The highlight of the pirate broadcast was when we identified the station as “S.H.I.T. Radio, the brown spot on your dial.” And for the first time, the people of the Miramichi heard a traffic report. Except it was out of town, not local. The Vietnam War was in full swing and we announced there was heavy traffic moving south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We figured, what the hell … who’s up at this hour?
Turns out, some people were up at that hour. It was a warm summer night and they couldn’t sleep. It got worse. ‘Some’ became ‘many.’ People began phoning their friends to tell them to turn on their radios. One who heard the broadcast was the Mayor of Newcastle, a good friend of the station manager. The Commander of the Air Base heard it as well. He was also buds with our boss.
Next morning Paul and I were summoned to a meeting in Wallace’s office. We apologized profusely. It was our turn to wring our hands. In our defence, we said the station needed transmitter equipment that was reliable.
I also pointed out some news that didn’t go to air, such as the local politician who got hammered at a party, stumbled to his car parked out on the street … then pulled out a vibrator, proclaiming, “Look at this!'” Getting caught with a vibrator could be a tad embarrassing, with jokes about the ‘buzz’ at the New Brunswick Legislature and all. We wouldn’t want people to know what their elected officials were really up to.
NOT A LIVING WAGE
There was a drug scene in Newcastle, though I suppose every place had that, except perhaps Tehran or Salt Lake City. CKMR had a unique plan to make sure its announcers didn’t do drugs — at least not anything beyond smoking pot, which was usually supplied by somebody else. We simply couldn’t afford drugs.
The pay was so bad that we announcers once took out an ad in the local newspaper looking for part-time work. That’s when the novelty of being on air soon had worn off, and reality had set in.
It got so bad that Marjorie Atkinson, the mother of a girl I was dating [Susan], would regularly make pies for the “boys” at the station. We so looked forward to those delicious pies.
Another girl — and be darned if I can remember her name, but she dated Paul for a while — worked part-time as a cashier at a grocery store, and she deliberately keyed in the wrong prices for us. This was before the days of electronic scanners, mind you. A $25 grocery order was reduced to something like $5. That we could afford.
As time marched on, we became less enchanted with on-air work and more disgruntled with our pay. Bob Wallace said he was open to suggestions, but he wasn’t always. When we put in overtime claims, he claimed the work wasn’t necessary. But when we failed to do certain tasks, he’d say we weren’t doing our jobs.
While we stopped short of forming a union, we did protest in our own, naively polite way … such as putting a bottomless suggestion box directly above the garbage can in the main studio.
A good thing about CKMR was that we had a good Christmas bonus: one week’s pay. We sure looked forward to that. Wallace would call us to his office, one by one, and hand us the cheque. [For American readers, that is ‘check.’] Not until some time later did we realize the bonuses weren’t really bonuses after all, but part of our holiday pay. Because we were in broadcasting, we were entitled to three weeks’ paid holiday. We got two weeks’ holiday; the “Christmas bonus” was the third week.
Compared to scams like the Canada Pension Plan, it was no big deal, but still …
Rick Shalala was the best off financially and fair enough, I suppose since he had a family to support. He used his powers of persuasion to sell cars on the side. In fact, I bought two used cars from him. They served me well.
In the late 1960s, Rick Shalala had become a household name in the Miramichi area. He was — dare I say — “famous.”
When you work radio, people think they ‘know’ you, and I guess there’s something to that. As Rick put it one day, “If you hear someone on the air for four hours a day, you get to know them.”
A GREAT PLACE TO ‘HANG OUT’
For young folk with nothing better to do to, the station was a cool place to hang out at night. One evening, four or five guys, including Paul, showed up. Someone came up with the Einstein idea that I could get more bass in my voice when reading news, if I put a metal waste-paper basket over my head.
I was in favour of a better sound … and I fell for it — hook, line, and sinker. “Byron, why don’t you sit on the couch near the entrance …” they said, ” … string a mike to the control room and read your news,” they said, “– with the waste paper basket over your head?” It seemed like a grand idea at the time, and so I agreed.
It was a trap. Once I got comfortable on the couch and started the newscast, the guys — armed with elastic bands — began to fire paper clips at the metal basket. Some missed, striking me instead. Those stung. The ones that hit the mark made a pinging sound. It sounded like I was reporting from a war zone.
It wasn’t as if I could call them jerks, or something worse because everything was live and the mike had no off-switch. They would not have heard me anyway because of all the laughter. A few stumbled getting off their shots, they were laughing so hard.
The shenanigans ended abruptly when someone spotted a car pulling up out front. Bob Wallace was coming to the rescue. I scrambled back into studio and closed the door, reading news all the while, moving from one story to the other. I settled in behind the controls as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, the young terrorists were now busy pouring through newspapers and trade magazines.
Once the news was done and I got back to playing music, Wallace opened the studio door and remarked, “We have to do something about that mike. It sounded terrible … but it seems okay now.”
MY FIRST CAR
My family never owned a car and so I knew nothing about them. They were strange objects owned by others. When Rick delivered my first car [a 1961 French Simca], I looked at the floorboard and asked, “Why does it have two brake pedals?” His response: “One pedal is the clutch.”
I spent the next few weeks driving around Newcastle, usually alone, learning how to parallel park and to use those two pedals properly. Paul also took me for the odd driving lesson, which made it legal.
Paul also showed me how to clean and wax a car, a passion I retain to this day. I have more electric polishers, scratch removers, and waxes than all the neighbours in my cul-de-sac combined, including a man who does professional bodywork.
Within a month, I had my driving license and, feeling like a Nascar driver at slow speed, drove back to Campbellton proud as punch to show off my wheels to family and friends. I drove out of town listening to CKMR. The radio was cranked high.
The Town of Newcastle had its own police force and I thought the officers did a good job. Then again, given Newcastle had street names like ‘Pleasant’, is anyone surprised?
New recruits often got stuck with walking the beat at night, which meant going from one downtown business to another, pushing on doors to make sure they were locked.
One officer often made the walk up our stairs and visited. That’s how we got to know Ambury Newman, a young man built like a football lineman.
On cold nights, Ambury would sit in the big leather chair outside the main studio and warm up. As the number of visits increased, the officer became more relaxed. It wasn’t long before he asked if we would play one of his favourite tunes. No problem. As the days grew into weeks, Ambury’s request list grew longer.
We then showed him how to find the songs himself. Ambury had gone from relaxing in a chair to going through index cards in our music library and pulling his favourite vinyl. “I found more,” he’d say, opening the studio door to hand us some 45s he liked.
Paul once slapped on Ambury’s police hat, catching his reflection in the glimmer of the studio window, I guess to see what he would look like had he chosen a different career.
The weeks morphed into months and Ambury Newman was soon a regular at CKMR, at least in the evenings. We showed him how to get the turntables spinning and how to use the control panel. He soon became proficient at operating the equipment.
The test came one warm summer night when Paul and I drove to another part of town to grab some milkshakes. We kept the radio tuned to 790 to see how Ambury was doing. He was doing just fine, although when we returned — with a burger and a shake — he confessed he’d been a tad nervous.
Ambury would sometimes park his police cruiser outside our station, his eyes peeled for bozos and bimbos who blew a stop sign half a block away. If he caught someone, he’d flick on his overheads and peel off like a bat out of hell. One evening we spotted his cruiser hiding in the dark and broadcast that police were monitoring a certain intersection in downtown Newcastle. The word was out, and Ambury’s cruiser stayed put that night. He listened to his tunes without interruption.
Another time, during a hot summer day, we grabbed our large fire extinguisher, opened a side window on the teletype room and sprayed foam over the back of Ambury’s police car. He didn’t notice a thing.
We laughed hard as the officer pulled away with the rear end of his cruiser covered in white foam. Not long after, an upset Ambre phoned the radio station, “I know it was you!” he charged. And we said, “Hey, did you hear about that freak snowstorm?”
Towards the end of the 1960s, Ambury’s father died and Paul and I got him a sympathy card. The stranger who had arrived at our station to warm up warmed up to us. We became good friends.
MUSIC REQUESTS BY LETTER ONLY
For the life of me, I’ve never understood why CKMR decreed that requests for songs could only be in writing. Duh. But that is what management ordered: if anyone wanted to hear a song, they could not phone the station … they had to write a letter.
That was a pain in the butt for listeners who wanted to hear a song played right away, even later that evening. It was also a pain for us because we had to deal with angry listeners.
However, the silver lining in that thundercloud is that we got to meet members of the opposite sex who made their way to the radio station to hand-deliver their notes.
WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE …
… apparently isn’t good for the gander. No one likes double standards and we announcers slowly became ticked over the manager opening the door of the main studio — with a 45 record and a forced smile — asking if we’d “slip this in.” We always did. But we resented it because it was really an illicit telephone request from the Commander of the Air Base at Chatham.
The solution was to fake a phone call when Bob Wallace was sitting at the receptionist’s desk one evening, going through his books. I snuck into a darkened studio and phoned our main number. Rick Shalala, sitting within earshot of our manager, ‘happened’ to be there to take the call.
Here’s what the boss overheard Rick say … “Good evening. CKMR.” [pause] “No, I’m sorry, sir, we can’t take requests by phone.” [pause] “Sorry, sir but those are our directives … [pause] … if you want to hear a song, you’ll have to drop off or mail a letter with your request.” [pause] “Sorry, sir, those are our regulations and there are no exceptions.” [pause] ” … I don’t care if you’re the Base Commander …”
At that point, Bob Wallace rushed to the phone his morning announcer was holding. Rick could not contain his laughter. Neither could I. But Wallace could.
NEWS AT CKMR
We didn’t have a newsroom, nor a full-time reporter or news reader. Dan Leeman did our major cast at noon. But all announcers read news as part of their shifts, which meant a trip to the noisy teletype room to pull our copy: regional, national and international news. The source for our wire service was Broadcast News [simply known as BN], now called The Canadian Press. I thought those guys did a good job.
We also wrote news stories, although I have to admit there wasn’t a lot of original reporting. When there was, we submitted these stories to the BN Bureau in Halifax. And for that, we were paid one dollar a story. I kid you not. And no, $1 wasn’t a lot of money back then.
The two international news stories that stood out in 1968 illustrated the turbulence of The Sixties: the assassinations of Martin Luther King in Memphis and Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. The deaths of these two men — complete strangers to us, of course — had quite an impact at our station.
DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING, HE SAID
Two local deaths in 1968, both from traffic accidents, sure had repercussions for me. The first involved a man whose station wagon had missed a turn in the country, plunging into a fairly steep ditch. The accident happened late in the evening. When I got off the air at midnight, I scooted over to the scene.
The man had been transporting a large juke box. When his car hit the ditch, his heavy cargo shot forward with such force that he was killed instantly.
When I got there, the body had been removed and a single policeman was directing traffic. I asked if I could check things out. “Sure,” he said, “but don’t touch anything.”
I grabbed my flashlight and scampered down into the ditch. The window on the front passenger door was down, and so I leaned inside to get a better look. It was a mess. The steering wheel was bent to one side and the dash was smashed. There was fresh blood everywhere; it glistened when I shone my light on it. I could not believe what I was seeing.
It occurred to me that I had been on air when the man died. Could it be my voice was the last he heard? Strange to think about that, I know, but I did. My curiosity got the better of me and I reached in to see if the radio had been on. No click. The radio was on when he died. I then aimed the flashlight at the dial, and sure enough, the tiny red diagonal bar was at 790.
Before I could get out, something dropped from the headliner and landed on my neck. I reached back and pulled it off. It was a clump of wet tissue paper. At least that’s what it looked like, and felt like.
But when I shone my light on it, I realized it wasn’t tissue paper after all … but a chunk of human flesh. I tossed it on the ground and got the hell out of there.
The second incident happened at the local police station. There had been another fatal crash, and I dropped around to the cop shop just after midnight with the hope of getting some information. An officer, who was manning the counter, knew of me. He was a trusting sort.
A man, the “lone occupant in the vehicle”, had died in a head-on. I wanted to know how old he was. The officer wasn’t sure what it was and so he walked over to a desk and got the dead man’s wallet. Both he and I began going through this gentleman’s wallet. There was his driver’s license which had his date of birth, address, and all that … but what got me were pictures of the man and his family. Christ, he had a wife and some small kids. That was bothersome. It was a ‘hit-home’ moment.
At that point, his family was home sound asleep, oblivious to the horrific news. That would soon change. The officer was about to make a call.
Our story ran in the morning — without the man’s name — just his age and hometown, time of the accident, and so on.
I’ve long forgotten the victim’s name, but not that family picture. That’s another thing I can’t delete from my hard drive. I went to bed that night thinking that cops have shitty jobs.
It also gave me an insight into how traumatized police officers, ambulance workers and soldiers must be at times, given the crap they have to handle. I suspect what they deal with in a month or two would be far more horrific than what I would see in a career.
END OF THE ROAD, END OF AN ERA
When 1969 rolled around, Bob Wallace was getting fed up with us announcers, and the feeling was pretty well mutual. Myself, Rick and Paul all left CKMR. We reloaded, as they say today. I joined CFOM Radio in Quebec City, Quebec as a mid-morning man DJ, of all things, and Rick and Paul joined newsrooms of two competing radio stations in Saint John, New Brunswick.
Eventually, we would all end up reporting news, although never in the same newsroom.
Paul recalls a time when he and Rick were both called out to a crash site, with their news cruisers pulling to a stop within seconds of each another.Rick went on to spend time in Morocco, North Africa and Spain … and God knows where else. He also ran a nightclub in his hometown of Campbellton. Plus, he flew aircraft to keep the people of New Brunswick safe from forest fires and its forests safe from bud worms.
Paul puts it this way: “Rick is a character who has lived many lives. He deserves a movie.”Of their time in Saint John, Paul recalls, “Rick was working down the street at CHSJ Radio & TV and they wanted him to go on camera. He called looking for a dress shirt and accessories. Ok! Next thing I hear he has left town — with my clothes.”
“Jump forward two or three years … Rick is back in Saint John, and so am I. We get together. He says, “Sorry about your clothes,” and gives me an awesome pair of beaded mukluks. So we are square. He picked them up while hard rock mining in Thompson, Manitoba.”“I still have them,” Paul notes, ” … actually use them in cold weather on dry snow. They are still awesome.”
The radio station antics continued in the 1970s, for sure, but not to the same degree. Don’t know what happened, either we — or the industry — grew up, or both.
Rick later joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where he did television news, some of it outstanding. That didn’t surprise me, not in the least. This man could get anyone to talk, and when some friends in Nova Scotia told me about a hair-raising-on-the-back-of-your-neck TV interview with an old miner who had survived a deadly coal mine disaster, I figured the reporter had to be Rick Shalala.
It was. Shalala was one of the founding members of the Centre For Investigative Journalism, later to be called the Canadian Association of Journalists [CAJ].
Paul went from one radio station to another, always working in the Maritimes, and doing news. He ended his long and distinguished career as a television reporter for Global News in Saint John, New Brunswick.
Of the three, I was the least talented jock. Even so, I went on to do more DJ work in British Columbia before working radio and television in Australia. After I returned to Canada, I did further DJ work in Alberta before becoming a newsman with the CBC, often chasing Native and crime stories. After that, I went back to private radio where I did more reporting, most of it crime-related.
That’s how I got to interview a man, originally from Fredericton, who had worked in downtown Newcastle for what would later become NB Power. When we first met he said, “I remember your name from the radio station in Newcastle.” That was Karl Toft, probably Canada’s most notorious pedophile. Toft hasn’t offended in nearly 30 years.
Another member of our audience back then was serial killer and arsonist Allan Legere.
Rick, Paul and I met at Shediac, outside Moncton, in 1992, when this picture was taken.We stayed connected, usually with phone calls and Christmas cards.
“I’ve heard that hard work never killed anyone,” Ronald Reagan once joked, “… but I say why take the chance?”
Rick talked about this days at the CBC, also known as ‘Mother Corp.’ “Christ, the CBC workers were lazy,” he revealed at one of our get-togethers. Yup to that. Some did great work, but yeah others were sure lazy.
Over a beer or two or three, Rick went on to describe a typical CBC worker. “They wore a tweed jacket,” he said, and running his forefinger above his lips, “… and they had a tiny moustache. And the men,” he said, “looked the same.”
To be fair, Rick also credits the CBC with giving him the chance to do his job. I’m not sure that private industry would have given him as much freedom.Paul, Rick and I last got together in the fall of 2013. Freshly retired, Paul made the trip from Saint John to visit Rick and me at Rick’s place in Atholville, just west of Campbellton.
Rick hadn’t changed. He was still smoking and he still had some great one-liners.
60’s EXPRESSIONS WE DON’T HEAR ANYMORE …
Far out … bummer … gotta split … lay it on me … it’s a gas … gimmie some skin … can you dig it? … old lady … hang loose … and it’s a gas.
IF WE COULD DO IT ALL AGAIN, WOULD WE?
Don’t think so. For starters, CKMR Radio no longer exists. It changed its call letters to CFAN, jumped to a new frequency and morphed into a station called The River, 99.3 FM.
65TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
It’s said that God gave us memories so we could have roses in December. The roses were blooming in Miramichi on Friday, 4th of April 2014 when CFAN-FM [99.3 THE RIVER] — broadcast a 65th Anniversary Special to commemorate CKMR, CFAN-AM AND CFAN-FM.
The special broadcast day began with two former CFAN announcers, Darren MacDonald of Miramichi and Jeannie MacDonald-McGillvery of Moncton joining regular morning show host Michelle Roy for reflections, music and plenty of laughter.
Former announcer Ev Gray joined John O’Shea on The River’s afternoon show.Paul McLaughlin, Barb Lockerbie, the author and others were interviewed previously in studio about their time at CKMR. Dan Leeman was interviewed by phone.
CFAN’s weekday drive-home host, Tim Osmond, also interviewed the author about his true-crime book, ‘The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail.’
As part of their 65th Anniversary celebrations, CFAN-FM held an Open House on Tuesday, 8th April 2014. In spite of poor weather, about 170 people showed up.
Newcastle and Chatham aren’t even around today, at least not by their old names. The two towns — along with the villages of Chatham Head, Nelson and Douglastown — have amalgamated. In 1995, the community took on a new name: Miramichi.
For a while, the call letters CKMR did resurface — but in Western Canada … in Melville [east of Regina], Saskatchewan where the station broadcast at 89.1 on the FM band. However it went off the air, or in broadcast-speak, it went “dark.” Darn bean-counters again.
RICK SHALALA died in Fredericton from heart failure on 28 June 2017. He had just turned 76.
I’d seen Rick off and on over the years, the last times at his apartment in Atholville, just west of Campbellton.
I recall one particular visit, in late October 2013. I picked Rick up in my rental for a short trip to a doughnut shop in Campbellton [heck, let’s give them a free plug: Tim Hortons] where we traded jokes, reminisced about our days at CKMR and our time with people like Paul, Barb, and Dan.
We then drove to a hill overlooking Atholville, pulled off on a rutted trail best suited for old dirt bikes with new shocks. “Christ,” Rick blurted, “Watch it! We’re gonna get stuck!” “Rick,” I said, glancing his way as the car lurched back and forth, like a drunk sailor in rough seas, “Aren’t you the guy who believed in getting off the beaten path?”
Not to worry. The muscle car thought it was a 4X4 and it handled the ruts just fine. We eventually made our way to a safe track that cut through an open field. I turned off the engine and told Rick he was in for a surprise. I popped the trunk, and there was the Phantom — a remote-control quadcopter with an HD video camera.
“Watch this,” I said, as the battery-powered craft rose slowly in the air, doing a smooth 360-degree circle. “Hang on, Mr. Pilot,” I continued, and I gave the Phantom full throttle, rocketing it hundreds of feet in the air until it became a dot. “Holy shit!” Rick shouted, craning his neck and shading his eyes as he scanned the heavens, “I gotta get one of those …”We had a lot of fun, I guess nearly as much fun as working at CKMR in The Sixties. But the roles were now reversed: I was the pilot and Rick was the one going ‘wow.’
Within a day or so, Paul drove from Saint John — at the other end of the province — and we three grey-haired broadcasters reunited at Rick’s apartment. Rick was still chain-smoking, still had some good one-liners and Paul and I did what we usually did when in the man’s company. We listened and laughed — as though we’d just pulled another one over on our manager.
PAUL MCLAUGHLIN retired from Global Television where he’d been a reporter for years. He is one of the Maritimes’ best-known journalists. Bob Wallace would have been proud.The others:
DAN LEEMAN, in his early 90s, is living in Ottawa, Ontario and following politics with great interest. I last saw our news reader about 25 years ago when I was with CBC Radio. I dropped into CFAN [CKMR’s new call letters] in Newcastle; the station had relocated to a Sears building downtown. Dan, still the calm, soft-spoken gentleman, later got in touch for information on classical music, of all things.
BARB LOCKERBIE, now in her 70s, is back in the Miramichi, after living in Fredericton for a spell. She and Jim have a number of grandchildren, with the oldest in his early 20s. Barb is now a Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant.
JERRY MILLER died in Moncton, New Brunswick in 1993. Jerry worked as a technician at ATV in Moncton.
BLAIR TREVORS died in 1975, the same year my father, Byers, passed way. More than a decade had slipped by before I learned that Blair had gone. I got in touch with his widow and sent her a small donation. She wrote back to say the money would be used to buy a Bible for Blair’s church. Thank God it wasn’t an 8-Track by the Strawberry Alarm Clock. I liked Blair. He was more than an ‘okay’ guy.
ROD BUTCHER was killed in a car crash near Sackville, New Brunswick on 25 August, 1998. His 10-year-old daughter, who went on to become a school teacher, walked away from the wreckage without a scratch.
DOC WILLIAMS died in 2011 and Hank Snow in 1999. Hank and I had worked at the same radio station in Campbellton, although years apart. My father had played in a band with Hank before the Nova Scotia native became famous. In 1975, with my father dying from cancer, Hank sent him a nice letter. And what does this have to do with CKMR, you ask? Dick all. It’s just a tidbit about the music industry not being as cold-hearted as some would like us to believe.
AMBURY NEWMAN was promoted to sergeant with the Police Department in Newcastle. I went around to the cop shop in the mid-80s. Ambury stood at the counter and with a squint in his eye that suggested he was somewhat cautious, said, “So, what’s up Byron?” I could have made a smart-ass comment that all his cruisers were covered in foam, but I didn’t. We just shook hands and made small talk.
Ambury died on 3 January 2008. My memories of him aren’t of a senior officer in a police uniform, but a young man spinning 45s and jiving at a small radio station in New Brunswick. Rest in peace, friend. You could have been a DJ.
TERRY WHITE — the teen who did a live drop-in report for a car dealership in the fall of 1967 — worked at CBC Radio in Regina. Lenora Sturge, a Communications Officer at CBC Regina, says Terry left the CBC about 1993.
MARJORIE ATKINSON — the woman who looked after the CKMR ‘boys’ with her delicious homemade pies — died on 29 February 2016. She was 92. For years, I dropped by Marjorie’s house in Chatham Head — and in the last year or so of her life, at a nursing home in Miramichi — and over tea and biscuits, we’d talk about the old days.
As for BOB WALLACE … I was back in Newcastle in June 2010, doing research for my book on U.S. fugitive Richard Lee McNair … “The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail”. Some background to this: In 2007 McNair, a convicted killer, spent his second last night of freedom in Newcastle, sleeping in his stolen van in a hotel parking lot and scoping out the GMC Checkpoint dealership for a possible break-in.
When I drove around to the site to take some photos, an inquisitive fellow about my age approached and asked what I was up to. The conversation got around to me having worked at CKMR many years ago. Turns out, he did as well. Who knows? Maybe half the town worked there. “You know,” he said, “Bob Wallace is still around … but the poor man is not in good shape. He may not have long to go …”
I wanted to tell him to pass on to our former station manager my best wishes (as in “Hi Bob”), but I figured that might kill him off. In any case, the gentleman we nearly drove crazy at times — was gone within weeks. Bob Wallace was 91.
Rest in Peace, Bob. Thanks for the job in radio … and for all the great memories. It was, as we would say back then, “a gas.”
You, too, were more than “an okay guy.”
Until I meet my bridge abutment, Peace, Dude.In 2013 Paul wrote, “I didn’t keep in touch with Bob, now I wish I had …” Truth is, the two men ended up spending a lot of time together — in the living room at the Wallace household. Bob was sitting in his easy chair … and Paul was on the television. For many years Paul did TV news.
That would have brought immense pride to the man who not only helped set up CKMR, but give so many announcers and reporters their first, memorable start in the media.
The following recording — made by Paul McLaughlin in 1968 — runs 55 seconds …
Special thanks to Paul McLaughlin for the cool audio tapes and photos. Paul held onto them. Guess he knew that one day they’d be special.
And thanks again to Paul … and to Rick, Barb — the entire crew at CKMR — all the recording artists, some of them long passed now — and a certain orchestra in Western Canada — for many, many great memories.
And a special thanks to our wonderful listeners. That includes a middle-aged woman who spotted my name tag in Northern Saskatchewan in the early 1990s. “I’m from the Miramichi,” she revealed. I told her I had worked in Newcastle in the Sixties, without mentioning the radio station. Then she said: “… Hey, are you the one who played music for us? “Afraid so,” I replied. And with a huge grin she said, “Thank you!”
You’re most welcome, young lady.
One final confession: In spite of company policy, Paul, Rick and I frequently took music requests over the phone. We did that because our listeners shone way more than military brass.
That bit about you can never go back? Well. Let me throw this at you: L.M. Montgomery in ‘The Story Girl’ says, “Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.”