Set on the rock five years after Newfoundland’s Ocean Ranger disaster, Stacy Gardner’sWorms for Sale is a moving and amusing story of a mother still reeling from loss after the Ocean Ranger disaster and dealing with a daughter wanting to leave her small newfoundland town for Toronto.
“The title came first,” Stacy told me about writing it. “And then the characters just started popping up.”
A colleague at Covenant House in Toronto, where Stacy worked, had told her about a recent CBC Radio Drama submission call for which we ultimately received four hundred submissions. Stacy submitted Worms for Sale. I selected Worms for Sale because it exhibited a fresh charm and a clear originality of voice that appealed to me. Stacy hadn’t expected anything to come of her submission, but felt fortunate to have been short-listed, then finally commissioned.
“All of it was just beautiful, an unexpected gift,” she said.
As Stacy got Worms for Sale in shape for production, with the support of script editor Bev Cooper, it didn’t take long to complete. But no sooner had we got the script finalized did I found myself locked out of the CBC, along with most of my colleagues in yet another labour dispute, the infamous 2005 lockout.
Back inside after two months of pounding the pavement, we decided to produce Stacy’s play in St. John’s Newfoundland, with the help of regional producer Glen Tilley. I had great admiration for Glen Tilley’s work (and his terrific moustache). He radiated Newfoundland charm and had produced the renowned satirical radio drama The Great Eastern (hosted by Paul Moth, aka Mack Furlong). Tilley was also responsible for influencing the build of their first proper radio drama studio in St. John’s, Studio F, which over the years hosted The Wonderful Grand Band, Great Big Sea, and more. It was in Studio F that we proposed to record Worms for Sale.
One day producer James Roy sidled up to my workstation. “You’d probably better get going on Worms for Sale,” he said. He didn’t explain why but it was clear that something was up.
Alarmed, I phoned Tilley to expedite dates and other arrangements. Stacy, excited about the impending recording, would be coming with us. I was looking forward to my first trip to Newfoundland, as well as the opportunity to direct another radio play.
And then it all came crashing down.
Before we could board the plane to Newfoundland, The Powers That Be cancelled most of the radio drama projects from our submission call that had not already been produced. That included our half-finished project Worms for Sale. I never learned exactly why, though no doubt it was a financial decision.
I was left wondering, if only I had moved the project along faster, booked the tickets to Newfoundland earlier … but probably it wouldn’t have mattered. I felt terrible for Stacy.
“It was just shitty,” she described the experience of having Worms for Sale cancelled. “Like being in love with someone and then breaking up unexpectedly.”
The decision was, of course, entirely the CBC’s prerogative. Still, it was embarrassing for me personally. We set all these writers up, only to pull the rug out from under them.
Stacy didn’t give up, though. “I stayed with the script,” she said. “I got a Toronto Arts grant for the script to adapt it into a stage play.”
In the summer of 2012, Stacy produced Worms for Sale for The Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, featuring actors Tajanna Penney, Jennifer Neales, William MacGregor, Deborah Perry, and Bruce Williamson. Janina Kowalski directed it.
“It was a seed,” Stacy said. “It didn’t grow in the original garden, so I took it and grew it in a different one.”
It ran for seven sold out nights at The Alumnae Theatre. I made sure I was there to see it. It was great on stage.
Radio is a tiny, white, battery-operated device I snuck into my bed at night at the age of eleven to hear static and people and music from distant lands.
It’s also a clock radio I got for Christmas when I was twelve.
It’s the shortwave radio my grandfather listened to after a hard day’s work in the fields. It’s the one that kept my father company in northern New Brunswick during the long cold winters of the forties. It’s the radio my parents kept on our kitchen counter when I was growing up, that played our local radio station before school, that played top forty music and told us the news and the weather and the ferry schedule and that regretted to make the following announcement (“in lieu of flowers a donation to a society of your choice would be appreciated”).
Radio is all the stations that ever broadcast my voice, or anyone’s voice, via radio waves that are now up to two hundred light years away from the Earth the last we checked, and that surely some alien race has heard by now (and who, I like to think, are busy crafting a polite response).
Radio is communicating with sound via radio waves, a type of electromagnetic radiation, but don’t worry because it’s non-ionizing radiation, meaning that it doesn’t turn atoms into ions, and it isn’t sufficiently powerful to cause the molecules in human cells to break apart and burn us and give us cancer. No, radio employs benign electromagnetic radiation, the friendly kind, the non-ionizing kind, the kind that our radios, televisions, and mobile phones (and microwaves) use in the comfort of our homes. Radio wields sound like a sorcerer, displacing invisible particles of air that tickle the diaphragms of microphones, converting energy into electrical currents that, amplified, become radio waves that antennas fling to receivers that transmute them back into electricity that vibrate speakers to create sound waves to journey once more through the air to our ears.
We know all this because Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell began figuring it out back in the 1870s, proving that electric and magnetic fields, properly choreographed, make excellent dance partners, performing sophisticated pas de deux in electromagnetic ballets.
We know it because German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who lived a tragically short life, a mere thirty-six years, made good use of his abbreviated time on this earth, applying Maxwell’s theories in 1886 to successfully transmit and receive radio waves for the first time in human history, though to what end, he could not say: “Nichts denke ich,” he replied, when asked what good it all was. (Translation: “Nothing, I guess.”)
In 1893, Nikolai Tesla demonstrated a wireless radio to the fine people of St. Louis, Missouri. Three years later Guglielmo Marconi patented wireless telegraphy technology. Four years after that, in 1900, Canadian Reginald Fessenden spoke over the radio for the first time, over a distance of fifty miles. The following year, not to be outdone, Marconi sent radio waves all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall in the United Kingdom to Signal Hill, overlooking St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the form of Morse Code. (That’s not why it’s called Signal Hill, though. It’s actually been called that since 1762, when Lt. Colonel William Amherst changed its name to “Signal Hill” from “The Lookout” after the role the hill played in signaling the forces under his command during the defeat of the French during the final battle of the Seven Years’ War.)
Six years after Marconi’s transatlantic Morse Code feat, Reginald Fessenden topped it by making the first ever two-way radio broadcast using the human voice across the Atlantic Ocean, from Boston to Scotland. Still, it was a while before radio really caught on. Darby Coates worked for the Canadian Marconi Company in 1920. He gave public demonstrations of radio and telephone radio equipment that had been built for troops in France for the First World War.
“People were skeptical,” he recalled later. “They could accept the idea of sound waves but couldn’t see how they could come through the walls of buildings.”
Coates went on to become the manager and announcer for the first publicly owned radio station in Canada, CKY, set up by the Government of Manitoba in 1923, and run by the Manitoba Telephone System. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was still a few years away.
Graham Spry was a journalist and Rhodes Scholar from St. Thomas, Ontario. He was also the national secretary of something called the Association of Canadian Clubs, which had been formed in 1897 by a journalist from Hamilton to “to foster interest in matters affecting the welfare of Canada.” In 1927, at twenty-seven years of age, Spry, in his capacity as Secretary of the aforementioned association, made a bold proposal. He suggested a Diamond Jubilee broadcast originating from Parliament Hill in Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s fiftieth anniversary. It would be broadcast from coast to coast using telegraph and telephone lines to hook up many of the fifty-seven private radio stations operating in Canada at that time.
Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King participated in the broadcast, which was a huge success. Impressed, King wrote, “On the morning and evening of July 1st all Canada became for the time being a single assemblage, swayed by a common emotion, within the sound of a single voice… Hitherto for most Canadians, Ottawa had seemed far off but henceforth all Canadians will stand within the sound of the carillon and within the hearing of the speakers of Parliament Hill.”
The bit about the carillon was made possible by the intrepid engineers who comprised the recording team, such as Jack Carlyle. In 1986, the CBC Radio show Ideas interviewed Jack for an episode celebrating the network’s own fiftieth anniversary:
“I remember going up in that tower and the clock struck, just when I got near the bells,” he recalled. “And of course, it was carbon mikes in those days, and you couldn’t put it on the ground and pick up the sound. So Charlie Findlay, the chief engineer, he climbed out among the gargoyles, you know, the gargoyles on the clock and the Peace Tower. He climbed up and sat out there for an hour with the microphone in his hand. He was never allowed to do it again, of course.”
By 1929 religions had discovered that independent radio stations were really handy for publicly bashing one another over the airwaves. Jehovah’s Witnesses were particularly fond of hammering Roman Catholics via their independent stations. The federal minister responsible for broadcasting revoked the Jehovah’s Witnesses broadcasting license, making religious censorship a hot button political issue.
With this in mind, along with warm memories of the Diamond Jubilee national broadcast, Prime Minister King asked John Aird to set up a Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting. And you might think, of course! That makes complete sense. It’s Canada. That’s what we do. We set up Royal Commissions to figure out this sort of thing. But the Aird Commission was actually the first ever public consultation of its kind in this country; we only started doing cultural governance this way after the Aird Commission.
A banker by trade, Aird set up his commission with Augustin Frigon, an electrical engineer, and Charles Bowman, editor of the Ottawa Citizen. They were asked whether a public broadcasting entity should be a private enterprise with a government subsidy, a federally owned and operated system, or provincially owned and operated. The Aird Commission delivered a nine-page report to King. In it, they shared King’s concerns about religious radio. They were also worried about US radio stations gobbling up radio frequencies before Canadians could get their paws on them. And like King, they were especially interested in the ability of a national radio broadcasting network to foster Canadian unity. They recommended a federally owned and operated national public broadcasting system. This at a time when fewer than forty percent of Canadians outside Toronto and Montreal could hear any Canadian radio station at all.
Six weeks after the Aird Commission delivered its report, the stock market crashed, plunging the world into the Great Depression. The creation of a national radio network became less of a priority for Prime Minister King. On July 28, 1930, he was booted out of office. Richard Bedford Bennett, known as R. B. Bennett, replaced him. Bennett led a majority Conservative government, one not interested in the Aird Commission’s recommendations, at least not right away.
In 1930, Graham Spry and fellow broadcasting pioneer Alan Plaunt created the Canadian Radio League. Its goal? Pressure Bennett’s government into implementing the Aird Commission’s recommendations. Spry believed that “Radio broadcasting is no more a business than the public school system, the religious organization or the varied literary, musical and scientific endeavours of the Canadian people. It is a public service.”
In 1932, Bennett’s government formed the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, at least partially because of the Canadian Radio League’s efforts. (Bennett’s government also created the Bank of Canada and helped Canada fend off the worst of the depression. Bennett himself claimed to have given away 2.3 million of his own dollars to families in need during the depression.)
In May 1933 the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) began broadcasting nationally an hour a day. This grew over time. So did the network. Eventually the CRBC came to consist of eight network-owned and operated stations and fourteen privately owned stations operating as network affiliates.
Unlike its modern-day incarnation, though, the CRBC did not operate at arm’s length from the government. Before the October 14th, 1935 federal election, the CRBC broadcast a series of fifteen-minute soap operas that the opposition Liberals were pretty sure were making fun of their boss, William Lyon MacKenzie King.
On October 14th, 1935, the Liberals trounced the Conservatives. On November 2nd, 1936, King’s government reorganized the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission as a Crown Corporation, perhaps in part to address concerns over this perceived lack of impartiality. The CRBC became the CBC, or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which promptly got on with the business of making “…the home not merely a billboard, but a theatre, a concert hall, a club, a public meeting, a school, a university,” in the words of Graham Spry.
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.
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.
Certain projects that I worked on generated “take aways.” Lines that were too good just to forget about. The project might have been good or lousy, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the quality of the take-away. Some take-aways were crude and cannot be repeated in polite company. Others were crude and can perhaps be repeated in polite company. Others were just funny… at least to me.
For instance, I once worked on a radio play called “Heart of a Dog” in which a character kept muttering (in a Russian accent) “arsefessor” (don’t ask me why) to refer to another character who was a professor. For years afterward I would hear my colleagues muttering from time to time, “Arsefessor!” (Hey, I never said these take-aways were in any way socially beneficial.) The thing is, after you’ve worked on one of these plays for a month or two (or three), certain words and lines got burned into your brain.
Another take-away came from an adaptation of the play Trojan Women. The play called for one character to summon the warriors to the ship by calling out, “To the ships!”
So one of our sound effects engineers — I’ll call him Pat — was called upon to utter these immortal words, as all the actors had left by the time the crew realized that this line hadn’t been recorded. Pat was a brilliant sound effects foley artist but a quiet, unassuming man. So when called upon to cry out “To the ships!” he said it as if commenting on the weather, not as if summoning an army to battle as the script called for.
On the second take Pat generated enough enthusiasm to make the line sound like he was asking for someone to pass him a jar of peanut butter.
The third take sounded like a question: “To the ships?”
Each take fell woefully short of the necessary vigour, but became increasingly hilarious for the crew in the control room. And the line, “To the ships!” became the rallying cry of the CBC Radio Drama department.