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September 25, 2015 2:26 am  #1

A radio story

Writing a book about a career is a hell of a job when you have to look over what you've done and what you've been a part of.  Sometimes completely by accident I happened to be the right boy, in the right place, at the wrong time.
I found this story particularly disturbing in hindsight. I hope you enjoy.

1975 and it's hip to be English (on the radio) in Quebec City
I loathe talking about my first marriage.  Kimberly hated “Mark Elliot” passionately for reasons I never understood.  Why does a person marry an ambitious wannabe celebrity then get angry when they succeed?
It's hard for most to understand that I loved her and wanted to make the marriage work, when today I am happily married to my gay partner Jarrett.  I've been gay ever since I can remember. 
Sexuality is fluid and my sexual preference had never been secured.  I had affairs with men and women ever since being sexually abused as a child.  In my teens I was gay, but that never stopped me from falling for women.  I dated anyone who attracted me.  There were no inhibitions.
Kim and I met in Quebec City in 1974 while she was still in high school.
I was “Rick Shannon”, the name of the moment chosen because it was difficult to say “Nils Johanson” in French.
It was 5:00 in the morning and I was 50 miles south of Quebec City driving madly on a terrible highway. 
They don’t make terrible highways anywhere quite like the ones in Quebec.  If you voted for the wrong party in the election, your highway would turn into a gravel road until you voted for the right politician.
Quebec politics have always been so obviously corrupt it's almost endearing!
Politics and untimely deaths in a pothole aside, here was Tommy Edwards crooning “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game” at 5 am on WAKR Akron - Echoing in like AM radio stations do in the pre-dawn darkness of my forlorn Quebec byway.  5 am was too early in the day for me to understand French, so I'd tune to whatever came fading in and out on the AM dial.
I pulled the car to the side of the road.  Maybe that was the loneliest moment of my life.
My first child, baby Kirsten was in Kimberly’s belly, not to be born for another 7 months.  Kim was on the run from her family who were trying to make her get an abortion to keep her away from me. 
Why would an 18 year old girl with her whole life ahead of her want to get pregnant and run away with a crazy boy working in radio?  Couldn’t she see this was going to be a disaster?
Kim was asleep at her sister’s house way out here in the backwoods near the American border.   I was on my way to work at a rinky-dink radio station soon to go off the air – Only right now I was on my way in to sign it on…
Nothing like finding out your girlfriend is pregnant, and you’re about to lose your job.
C’est la vie” they say in Quebec.  That’s life, and this is mine.
I started the car again and trundled through the back roads to the radio station parking lot.  Just enough time to get a cup of coffee and sign on for the 6 am news.  I was a deejay.  This job I was about to lose was fun because it was about the only way an English speaking kid from Toronto could live and work in the heart of French Canada
I was a radio gypsy. 
A kid in his early 20's working as a rock deejay always has one bag packed, because you never knew where you are moving to next.  My second stop on the tour was here in Quebec City, Quebec.  
When I got here my French was so bad the cab driver asked me to write down the address I was going to because he couldn’t understand what I was saying.
I lived with the Tremblays, a French Canadian family who spoke 2 words of English: “Hello” and “okay”. 
My French consisted of a lot of pointing and asking “What’s that?”;  a set of non-verbal charades which grew over time to a language of “Frenglish” or “Franglais” which I never quite mastered.  The masculine and feminine words in French were always jumbled into a chucker like “My girlfriend.  He’s a really nice guy.
Madame Tremblay kept her hand over her mouth to hide her laughter as I mangled the language.  She was being polite. 
Just the same, my language skills rescued dozens of American tourists whose cars had inconveniently broken down in a place where no one could understand what they said.  I got a lot of dinners from thankful people who were rescued when I pulled in for gas.
I was not the brightest boy in the world.  I had been the kid in French class who sat in the back of the room doing something else to get away from the boredom of actually listening to my teacher.  My grade 10 final mark was 35 out of 100.  Most likely because I showed up for class, because nothing else had stuck.
Yes, there were lots of tourists and English was spoken freely all summer long.  I arrived in the last week of August only to find out that all the French people no longer spoke English after Labor Day in Quebec City. 
I hadn't thought about this in High School.
I was in radio.  I had always wanted to be in radio.  I wanted to be on the radio!  This was what I'd wanted from the time I was 5 years old.
My next door neighbor in Toronto Mrs. Gray asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up?  And I said: I want to be on the radio!  She looked puzzled with that answer telling me “No.  You can't want to do something like that because boys from around here don't grow up to be on the radio.”  She told me that I should want “to be a mailman like your daddy.  Or be a fireman or a bus driver.”  “Boys from Weston don't grow up to be on the radio or the TV.
  I put my foot down and glared her in the eyes!  “I'm going to be on the radio...You watch and see!
  We laughed about it years later when I had made it come true.
Here I was aged 21 starting my first big job in radio.  I was going to be the morning man on the English language radio station in Quebec City.  (The only English language radio station in Quebec City)
CFOM was the lone English voice in a world that spoke French.
It had never been terribly popular.
There were only about 14,000 English people in Quebec City out of a population around 500,000.  Likewise,  in a world of 50,000 watt  AM radio stations CFOM cranked out a measly 250 watts on a transmitter that may have been built by Marconi sometime around 1910.  “On a clear day you can hear it across the street” was closer to the truth.  But, it wasn't the truth at all.
The engineer who built it put the transmitter in a swamp.  The perfect place for AM radio with lots of “ground conductivity” as the technical types later explained.  Also, that swamp was at the lowest point in town.  Quebec City is built in the mountains.  Or, more concisely: It's built in a valley between a lot of mountainous terrain. We were broadcasting up at the city,  Those 250 watts went a long way!
CFOM was an affiliate of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation but privately owned and was an unintentionally not-for-profit business.  It was a commercial radio station but with so few potential English listeners it couldn't hope to ever make a profit.
CBC Radio is non-commercial, so the radio station only had limited opportunities to sell commercials.
In 1972 a visionary programmer named Dave Atkinson took over management.  He decided to do exactly what no one had anticipated, that is keeping the station solidly English but minimizing the CBC content to news and features.  He gave up most of Sunday to long-form CBC programming but everything else was English language rock and dance music.
The station became “CFOM – Mon Nouveau CHUM! (My new best friend!) and it was a hit!
I was the morning man as “Rick Shannon” and got paid $110 per week, the same as everybody else on staff.  It was a thrill when the newly successful station raised my pay to $135 per week!
What a life!  We were English and beloved in Quebec City!
Small children stopped playing road hockey when they saw me and sang the jingles “C-F-O-M” in English.  This was too good to be true!
Sadly, it was too good.
The Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is the regulatory body for radio and television in Canada.  What happened next is a uniquely Canadian story.
CBC Radio did not operate an English network affiliate in Quebec City.  It was the only provincial capital where English radio did not own a station.
CFOM had been operated by a successful English language businessman named Norman Lucas for many money losing years.  “The Goodwill Broadcasters of Quebec City” who owned CFOM was Mr. Lucas.  His other business was building Hydro Towers, the huge transmission lines of the electrical utility Hydro Quebec.
What Mr. Lucas could not understand was when the CRTC ordered him to stop playing music and carry non-commercial CBC programming on his newly profitable radio station.
He chose to shut the radio station down if he had to follow this ruling.  So, he did.
“Lucas took the station off the air at 5 p.m. on August 8, 1975. Earlier, Lucas said that the various Canadian broadcast regulators had given CFOM a mandate to serve Quebec City's anglophones, while all but forcing it to be a CBC affiliate by refusing to let the CBC open its own station there.”
The staff were completely dumbfounded when we were told the news.  A cable came in from CKGM Radio in Montreal for the staff that read : “Okay, so you didn't win the JUNO Award.  So what?  Good Luck to All!” (The JUNO Awards honor Canadian performances.  It was named after Pierre Juneau the CRTC Chairman who made the law that 30% of all music on Canadian radio stations had to be Canadian.  We got the JUNO SLAP!)
Our last couple of weeks on the air seem like a crazy dream now.  We said goodbye and our listeners cried!
Terrorism was a hot topic then as it is now.  Then it was not long after the FLQ crisis (Front de Liberation de Quebec) and bombings.  I got my first big newspaper quote in French in Le Soleil de Quebec: “If a terrorist wants to blow up anything English in Quebec City this is the last place they'd bomb!
It wasn't the terrorists, it was the Trudeau government.  Or in our case, the same thing.
My landlord hadn't seemed to notice that the apartment was furnished when I rented it, so I packed up all the furniture into a U-Haul trailer and hitched it to my car.
After it had been closed by the government I hadn't wanted to, but out of curiosity I turned on the radio to hear what was going on at a time where I would normally have been working.  It was a radio documentary about the “Life of the Arctic Char”.
How wonderfully Canadian!  A radio documentary about the life of a fish.
I turned the radio off in disgust.
On the way out of town I thought about Kim and the baby that was on the way.  Here I was heading back home to Toronto with nothing to come back to.  Going someplace, I just didn't know where it was yet.  Scared, but trying to hold it back...Which didn't work.
Hundreds of miles away the radio twanged with the Eagles, “One of these Nights” and it was too much.  I pulled off the road and cried.
Life is like that, isn't it?  You fight to win.  Then you win, and somebody takes it away from you.


Last edited by Mark Elliot (September 25, 2015 1:49 pm)


September 25, 2015 8:45 am  #2

Re: A radio story

Interesting story Mark. But just one correction for the record. WGAR is in Cleveland not Akron. So you were either listening to that 50K powerhouse or WAKR, which IS in the city you named. Both were Top 40 stations at the time.


September 25, 2015 1:18 pm  #3

Re: A radio story

The original am powerhouse was in Akron
Remember this was 1975.  Just before Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois were elected with their separatist agenda.  Being English in Quebec PQ and being popular was unheard of.
(Being a REAL radio geek I had to correct which station I was actually listening to.  If I could I'd ask for a QSL...)

Last edited by Mark Elliot (September 26, 2015 6:47 pm)

     Thread Starter

September 26, 2015 6:27 pm  #4

Re: A radio story

p.s. For the many who've asked what happened to my baby daughter? She's grown up beautifully!

     Thread Starter