The show always started the same way. At the top of the clock – 7 p.m. on Wednesday – there was a jazz fanfare, a flourish of trumpets and saxes and a drum roll, as the title flashed across the screen. The audience in the studio began whistling and applauding, just as the CBC voice-over announcer, Larry Langley, introduced the show.
“From Edmonton,” he called out enthusiastically, “It’s Tommy Banks Live!”
Just off-stage, out of the range of cameras and microphones, the two writers of the weekly show – Colin MacLean and I – used to stand, joining the audience’s applause in anticipation of the next hour of live-to-air television. Inevitably, as Tommy entered the studio to acknowledge the studio audience’s applause, either Colin or I anticipating the start of another show would lean to the other and say rhetorically, “Does TV get any better than this?”
It’s the sort of thing I do mindlessly. Pull up next to the pumps. Pop the gas tank cover lever next to my driver’s seat. Walk around to the pump. Pick up the nozzle. Press the self-serve request for gas. And fill my gas tank. Then, just as mindlessly, I walk into the gas bar booth to pay for my gas. Only this time, when I entered the booth, I was almost bowled over by the music blaring inside.
“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run,” an unmistakable voice was singing from the booth speakers.
And I nodded my head so the booth attendant would realize I heartily approved. And then I asked him why that music, why that loud?
“Because this month is Canada’s 150th,” he said with a pinch of patriotism. “And after all, it IS the greatest Canadian song ever.”
My back was to the wall. Eleventh hour. Up against it. All those clichés applied. My Grade 8 history essay – on the causes and effects of the War of 1812 – was due Monday morning. It was Sunday night and the essay was done in every way but one. I pleaded with Dad to help me, not to compose the essay, but to type it for me. And he did, but not without an important provision.
“This is the last time,” he said. “From now on, you’re on your own. You’ve got to type it yourself!”
I nodded, not really understanding what had just happened. All I cared about was that my history paper would be delivered in class, on time and looking spotlessly professional. Why? Because my dad was a professional writer and he would never submit anything short of perfect.
About a month ago, a CBC television reporter from Nova Scotia emailed me with a request. Being sufficiently old-fashioned about these things, I decided to phone him to offer a verbal (rather than texted) answer. He said he and a camera operator had just returned from an assignment in downtown Halifax. He said they had just shot video of the demolition of the Discovery Centre. I didn’t immediately get it.
“You’d more likely remember it as the Zellers store,” Dave Irish said. “It’s a building with much history. … I’m hoping to speak to you about Ms. (Ronnie) Egan saving it.”
I remember the fear most of all. I was supposed to be the picture of calm. I was supposed to deliver Plato-like wisdom in bite-sized pieces. It was my first actual moment in front of a classroom. Then, I remember the faces. In fact, the make-believe students were professors, the dean of the college and, as I recall, a few graduate students. I stepped from behind the lectern and all my notes, looked up and addressed the class.
“Good morning,” I said, keeping the fear as deep down inside as I possibly could. “And here’s what I’ll be teaching you this semester…”
That was the fall of 1999, when I led my very first class, teaching the art and craft of news reporting.
I remember the moment, yes, as if it were yesterday. Those of us who were Edmonton Oilers fans back then will always remember. It was early in the third period in Game 7 of the Smyth Division final between arch Alberta rivals – the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – in the 1985-86 season. And I remember stalwart CBC TV play-by-play announcer Don Whitman’s call vividly. His surprise and shock spoke for us all.
“Grant Fuhr clears, behind his own net,” he described rather calmly. But then, reacting to Oilers’ defenceman Steve Smith taking the puck, looking up ice and attempting a pass, Whitman continued, “They scored! Oh! Steve Smith, attempting to clear the puck out of his own zone, put it in his own net.”
I’ve been asked the question a lot over the years. It’s an issue some of friends feel compelled to put to me whenever it comes up. And I feel compelled to respond. But friends and peers have asked it of me repeatedly these past months, in particular, this past week.
“What’s with all this rottenness at the CBC?” people ask.
In his time, the man reported on the Mau Mau uprising in Africa, race riots in the southern U.S., and a near nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. He interviewed popes, presidents and just plain people. In the middle of times of upheaval and change – the 1960s – he met and reported on Che Guevara, James Meredith, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Finally, in 1978, he won the battle for the most coveted seat in broadcasting – the host’s chair at “The National” at CBC TV – and stayed there a decade. But Knowlton Nash was perhaps most drawn to reporting on a war in his very own backyard.
“Nowhere in the world has the battle over the kind of broadcasting we hear and see been fought with more ferocity than in Canada,” he told one my journalism classes in October 2001.
I have been proud to use as textbooks some of Knowlton Nash’s published writings about broadcasting, including “The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC” and “The Swashbucklers: The Story of Canada’s Battling Broadcasters.” Indeed, in 2001 he addressed my students at Centennial College about his research and writing of history versus his work on air.
“Writing books about broadcasting,” he told us, “is more challenging, more demanding (but) more satisfying.”
Knowlton Nash started writing his own newspaper at age 10, sold stories about collegiate football to the Globe and Mail as a teenager, thrived as a Washington correspondent, and then shaped the flagship nightly newscast at CBC TV through one of its most critical times – the 1980s. Under his guidance as anchor and senior correspondent, Nash helped to move the broadcast from 11 to 10 p.m. each night. And in so doing, he earned the trust and adoration of the Canadian public; often his viewers referred to Nash as “Uncle Knowlty.” Then, in retirement he turned to documenting Canada’s broadcasting roots – the birth of both private and public radio. He had completed nearly a dozen books when he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease last weekend at age 86.
As a fellow broadcaster I watched his more than smooth delivery from behind those over-sized glasses each night at 10. I admired his command of the historical context of the times, seeming to have at his fingertips every milestone relevant to the day’s news. I applauded his calm demeanor, though all the world seemed half-crazed and running in circles.
I think Knowlton Nash’s even greater contribution to the airwaves came after his celebrity on The National, when he wrote about the earliest days of broadcasting, when he said for example, “radio became the poor man’s theatre… a God-send during the Depression.” In his book about the CBC, he worshipped the two co-founders of the Canadian Radio League – Alan Plaunt and Graham Spry – attempting to move the Depression-era governments of Mackenzie King and R. B. Bennett to create a public broadcasting network, while the private-enterprise radio station owners of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters lobbied to prevent it.
“The idealists (Plaunt and Spry) wanted to use the airwaves primarily to educate and … strengthen Canadian unity,” Nash explained to my students, “while the Swashbucklers (private radio interests) wanted primarily to provide entertainment that was popular and most of all profitable.”
Knowlton captured the essence of those cut-throat battles both on and off the air. He showed us how the CAB called public broadcasting “international conspiracy… communistic and promoted by intellectual snobs.” But equally critical of the public interests, he showed that they plotted to “strong-arm the federal government” into establishing a public radio system in Canada. Typical of Knowlton Nash’s sense of balance and fairness in the telling of a story, he said, “I hasten to say that the Swashbucklers were not all avaricious philistines … nor were the idealists all ivory tower dreamers.”
In the end of his analysis of the birth of broadcasting in Canada, Knowlton Nash recognized – like so much else in this country – there had to be a great Canadian compromise. He said that Canadian broadcast pioneers forced a “demassification” of media in Canada and “a tornado of change” that allowed a blend of both private and public cultures in order for Canada’s listeners’ needs to be met.
After Knowlton Nash delivered his broadcast history talk to my students, back in 2001, I asked him privately if he’d have preferred to broadcast in those pioneer years. He smiled at the notion, but then recognized that his career had been the best any broadcaster could ask for. Just what you’d expect a trustworthy TV anchor to say.
I stopped at one of my favourite art-supply shops in the city, the other day. Out of habit, I passed the cashier, said hello and walked directly to the aisle with the portfolios. They’re those bound folders that contain those see-through plastic sheaths for photos, clippings or other important papers you want to display. Anyway, like old Mother Hubbard, when I got there the shelf was bare. I asked what had happened.
“Oh, they’ve been discontinued,” the sales clerk said.