My old radio station, CKNW is in a lot of trouble. Its ratings have fallen to the point where they are ridiculous. They are losing their online people, which is natural as time goes by, without any obvious replacements. There was a time when NW always had a farm team, as often as not employed by other radio stations. This no longer is the case.
I am occasionally asked why I care since they fired me under such humiliating circumstances 11 years ago.
The answer to that is simple. I still feel a strong loyalty to the CKNW I knew and the worked for before Corus Entertainment took over. In the NW that I knew, pride was the operative word. All that any of us wanted to do was to make the station better and to increase the listenership because we merited it. There were outstanding performers, all of whom were different, and all of whom marched to their own drummer. We were a band of eccentrics.
When I got started in Radio, Jack Webster advised me to approach every program as if I were going to be fired that day. His rationale, and it was a good one, was that if you ever let management get on top of you, even once, you were lost. That having happened, you no longer had the individuality that made you important to how the station made itself so popular. Individuals with hugely different opinions and approaches abounded.
My line was the talk show and I felt that I was the inheritor of the mantle of Jack Webster, Pat Burns, Gary Bannerman and others who had established independence, strong opinions, and fearlessness. That was a heavy mantle to wear and I never stop thinking about it.
Even though there were such individualists involved – one thinks particularly of sports with Al Davidson, Neil McRae, J. P. McConnell and so on – and it is obvious that none of us were particularly close to one another. Each of us, however, had an immense pride in what we were doing and the CKNW we worked for. CKNW was where everyone in the business wanted to work. It was the New York Yankees or Montréal Canadiens of the radio world.
In those days, the station was owned by Frank Griffiths. He was always Mr. Griffiths as far as I was concerned. He had men like Ted Smith and Ron Bremner running affairs and broadcasters knew that is long as people like that were in charge, they were safe. One of the first things then president of CKNW Ted Smith told me, as I got started, was that CKNW stood behind its broadcasters. I have to say that in 19 years including the two years with Corus that remained true.
I had several times when I was close to being fired. On the one particular occasion, I called Brian Burke, then general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, an “asshole” who would get into “the asshole hall of fame” without any waiting period whatsoever. Given the relationship between NW and the Canucks, that was my closest call.
There were other times that were almost as serious.
What is most memorable, however, is that all of these things blew over in 24 hours. That was because management, like the people broadcasting, all knew that we had one objective – make and keep CKNW number one.
It is because of this experience that I have never lost my love, admiration for, and mental affiliation with the NW I once knew. There are scores of people, first class people, so many other people in so many other parts of CKNW I have not mentioned who were superlative.
One of the unhappiest moments after Corus arrived was when they summarily fired 25 people many, many of whom had worked for NW for years. One realizes that new owners want to sweep things clean, but in an organization so dedicated to community as well as excellence, any change of staff surely ought to be done with considerable care.
In my latter days at CKNW, the station used to have about 16 – 18% of the listening audience. I often had, personally, over 20%. If we had ever had something like 7%, which NW now has, I think we would’ve committed collective suicide!
The shameful numbers now cannot be explained away by the Internet or other kinds of competition because the percentage reflects the number of people who were listening to radio when the BBM survey was taken. What CKNW has become is appalling to all of us who worked there during the days when pride was such an important word.
I only write this because people have asked me what I think. In truth, it is really none of my business how Corus chooses to run its radio station. Perhaps I represent a view that is too old – the public today might want pablum radio.
It only becomes my business when the traditions that I have so respected have been tossed into the ashcan. Then it is really a matter of nostalgia and only of interest to older people.
I have been asked from time to time whether I would ever return to radio.
I have to laugh because I am now 82 years of age and not in particularly good health. The question Indicates that most people don’t know what hard work it is to be a broadcaster for three hours a day on your own. It is one thing to play music or simply pushbuttons to move from one particular feature to another – it is quite another to go on air by yourself and carry the show for the three hours. The stresses and strains are remarkable which is why doing what I did had so much time off. When it came to contract time, more time off was always more important than money in the points that my agent would raise.
If I had my druthers, CKNW would go back to being a community station doing hard talk. Because there is so much political correctness in the world today makes it all the more important that there be outspoken people in the community unafraid to say what’s on their mind. No one, including oppositions, hold governments feet to the fire anymore. There is no question but that we did that.
I think the die was cast when I was fired and the station and instead of putting John McComb, a very capable and outspoken broadcaster, in my place, chose Bill Good. Likeable though he is, Bill hasn’t got an argumentative or controversial bone in his body. The morning talk show suffered very badly under him and would very difficult now to restore.
Whether or not CKNW wants to change and try to go back to what it once was remains to be seen. Such a move would be difficult. They would have to want to do this and there is no indication of that.
All things, however, are possible with the right leadership.
And, who knows, miracles have been known to happen.