One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
In July, 1988, CBC Radio acquired a twenty-three year old with a lot of growing up yet to do. I wasn’t completely green, though. I’d been in broadcasting since the age of fourteen. At that age I’d begun volunteering at the local cable affiliate, Cable 5, in Summerside, PEI.
I loved working at Cable 5. I learned to operate the cameras and the big clunky Video Tape Recorders (VTRs) and I was especially fond of “switching” the shows on the cool looking switcher. My friends and I produced our own shows and worked on other peoples’ shows, often about music. At the same time I also worked at Three Oaks High School’s brand new and exceptionally well-run radio station under the leadership of teacher Ralph Carruthers, who launched at least two careers in broadcasting that I know of, and probably more.
That was all volunteer, though. I needed a part time job that actually paid money. So I got a job at MacDonald’s. I hated it there. The managers, only a little older than me, were always yelling and screaming at the rest of us, especially me, it seemed. I’d curse them angrily under my breath. Luckily, after one month they fired me.
“It’s not for everyone,” the franchise manager told me, not unkindly.
She meant that it wasn’t for immature fifteen-year olds who couldn’t be bothered to memorize what went on a Big Mac.
Getting fired from MacDonald’s was one of the happiest days of my life.
Had I not been fired from MacDonald’s I might never have got my first real job in radio. One cold November afternoon I cruised down Water Street in an Oldsmobile with my friend Justin Hickey at the wheels and two other pals, the four of us probably listening to classic Genesis. We passed Summerside’s local radio station, a 250 watt day-timer with the call letters CJRW, located at 1240 AM on the dial. I’d grown up listening to CJRW.
“Stop the car!” I shouted to Justin.
I jumped out, crossed the street, and entered CJRW’s front door. I climbed up a flight of stairs to CJRW’s reception area, walls festooned with plaques attesting to the station’s long history of community activity. Elton John was playing on a set of speakers: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the first time I’d ever heard that song. I’ve loved it ever since.
A lady greeted me at the reception desk (possibly Rose Anne Gaudet), super friendly (maybe she knew my mother).
“I’d like to apply for a job,” I told her.
She furnished me with an application. I filled it out as best I could. A man took me to a studio booth and gave me several sheets of thin yellow paper with dot matrix type. News, weather and sports. I recorded an audition tape on the spot. A month later, at home, the phone rang.
“Joe, this is Lowell Huestis, calling from CJRW radio.”
I recognized Lowell’s voice immediately. He was the first famous person I’d ever spoken to. Famous on PEI, anyway. “I’d like to offer you a job as a disc jockey. When can you start?”
I could barely believe my good fortune. Lowell and CJRW hired me to host two shifts each week. I had a six-hour long country music show on Friday nights and a rock show on Saturday nights. I hated country music. I grew to like it in time. Well, some of it. I worked at CJRW all through High School. I would have done it for free. I almost did do it for free: I earned $3.35 per hour, minimum wage at the time.
I darned near didn’t show up for my first shift (I was still the same kid who couldn’t memorize hamburger ingredients). I got confused about which week I was supposed to start. One of my fellow disc jockeys was Peter Arsenault (he went by Peter Scott on air). Peter happened to drive down High Street—my street—in his gold Pontiac Firebird Trans Am shortly before the start of my shift. Spotting me, he pulled up beside me and rolled down the window.
“You do realize you start tonight, don’t you?”
“Get in the damned car!”
He drove me to the station and put me on the air before a big silver console with rotary pots and two huge turntables. I learned how to cue up 7” 45 single records so they’d start an instant after introducing them (about one quarter turn back from where the needle hit the first sound). We played IDs and promos on cartridges (called “carts”). There was a quarter inch tape machine that looked rather daunting. For my first few shifts I got the guy who worked before me to cue it up. His name was Jim Murray and like me he’d go on to work for the CBC (they’d call him James Murray there).
I got nervous before every shift, but I was never nervous on air. I loved every second of it. I got to choose my own music. I played other peoples’ requests. Once, I sneezed on air. I learned not to do that. Once, introducing a record, I choked on a potato chip. I learned not to do that. I had two laughing fits on air—I never learned not to do that (I was a giddy teen-ager).
With a mere 250 watts, CJRW didn’t have a very strong signal, but it seemed to reach a lot of people. I grew close to my audience. I got calls from all over western PEI as well as Cap Pele, in New Brunswick, across the Northumberland Strait. They’d call to make requests. They’d call to say hi. They’d call week after week. They’d tell me I knew them but wouldn’t tell me who they were. Once, calling a friend during a show, I accidentally called the wrong number. A girl answered the phone. “Hey, you’re the guy on the radio!”
We had a good chat.
The name of the Friday night country show was The Ranch Party. I always opened it with Bobbie Nelson’s Down Yonder from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The station didn’t own that record; my father did. I always brought in a lot of my own stuff. I mixed the country up with folk music from time to time. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers were favourites. I used to play this one song by them. One night after I played it a Ranch Party regular called up, an older Acadian woman.
“That song you just played?” she said. “You must never play it again.”
“It’s too sad.”
She wasn’t wrong:
Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead?
Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry
And always remember the longer you live
The sooner you’ll bloody well die.
I had always gotten a kick out of it. Young and fully alive, it didn’t apply to me. I could see how it might be considered a little morbid, though. I respected my listeners. I never played it again.
Another night, during the Saturday night rock show, a girl called up, not someone I knew.
“I love you!” she said, before hanging up.
I laughed. I was always getting calls like that. It was just some kid in town having fun, probably hanging out with a bunch of other kids. For a few short years me and my fellow disc jockeys John Burke and Peter Scott and Mike Surette and all the rest of them supplied the soundtrack of these kids lives, and we all had fun together, so much more fun than grilling hamburgers.