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CKEY Radio Memories

CKEY Newsradio

Newsradio History by Paul F. Taylor


In the winter of 1968, while I was freelancing on Parliament Hill, it was clear to me that given the emergence of CNCP Broadband technology and a large number of private radio stations across Canada without a distinctive national/international news service, there seemed to be a real opportunity to fill that void. Prior to the creation of CNCP Broadband it would have taken deep corporate pockets to sustain a nationwide 3.5 kc or 5.0 kc dedicated link between bureaux and the client stations. CNCP Broadband allowed users to incur costs according to minutes and hours of actual usage.

The totality of English radio news services at that time consisted of BN Voice (Canadian Press), Standard Broadcast News (SBN), CBC Radio News and something with the unlikely name of the Canadian Contemporary News Service (CCNS) whose major supporter was CHUM. None of the above could claim any kind of link to CBS Radio News of New York, by anyone's estimation a very impressive operation which I saw as an essential ingredient. ABC Radio and NBC Radio were spoken for in Canada by BN Voice and SBN. BN Voice also had links to UPI Radio.

I set about to write a business plan or rationale arguing the wisdom of creating a national radio news service that would, at the outset, cover national politics from Parliament Hill and the rest of the world through CBS Radio News. It would have as its anchor station CKEY 590 Toronto and CFCF Radio in Montreal. (When it was eventually launched on that basis, we called it the biggest two station network in Canada!). I took my plan along with my naďve enthusiasm to Doug Trowell at CKEY. I had no idea where the start-up capital or operating cash flow would come from while the search was launched for more customers. I took it to Trowell because in the previous two or three years of doing freelance work for CKEY I had developed a great respect for his commitment to news and to spoken word programming in general. As it turned out, he had much more to contribute to this kind of radio as we saw in the ensuing years as he spearheaded the growth and expansion of news at CKEY to turn it into one of the truly great radio stations of its time.

Trowell received my idea and supporting arguments graciously, even enthusiastically, but said his hands were tied because the Canadian rights to CBS Radio News were held by the radio airtime sales house known as Stephens & Towndrow, headed by none other than Alan Slaight. However, Trowell undertook to take the idea to Slaight with whom he had a working relationship because S&T represented CKEY. And there sat the idea. At some point in the Spring or early summer I received a call from Alan Slaight who said he was coming to Ottawa and asked if I would give him a guided tour of the facilities on and off Parliament Hill that would come into play if he decided to proceed. I had a pretty good idea what his decision would be when he sat me down at the end of the tour and told me he had been doing his homework about me and that if he decided to go ahead I would not be appointed to run it – “not in a month of Sundays Taylor because you are a trouble maker, but you're pretty good at what you do”. I knew then that he had been talking to Geoff Stirling who was a major S&T client and a member of the S&T Board. I had had a major confrontation with Stirling in 1965 at the end of which Stirling had vowed to make sure I never worked again in Canadian radio. I told Slaight I didn't need to be the boss, I just wanted to be part of the team.

In August, I was hired by CKEY to stand in for Joe Morgan while he was on holiday. I would do his afternoon “news and commentary”. That assignment spanned Labour Day weekend and while I was toiling away on the 25th Floor in early September I received a call from Slaight commanding my presence at his office later that week.

At 11am on the appointed day, I arrived at Stephens & Towndrow and was shown into a board room where there was no one present. In due course, in walks a chap I really didn't know, but had heard about as a CHUM operative. W.Tayler (Hap) Parnaby introduced himself and the dynamic duo later dubbed “Tayler and Taylor” was born! Seconds later, Slaight walks in and places two documents on the board room table across from each other, commanding Hap and me to sit down and read and sign. And thus was born what later came to be known as Newsradio!

Hap got to that signing session via a different route, “Alan Slaight called me one afternoon when I was doing afternoon newscasts at CHUM. His reason was wrapped up in the corporate machinations of Canadian private radio at a time when the CRTC was being formed and CHUM was cutting its strings with Stephens and Towndrow, by then owned by CBS, RadioMutuel and Maclean Hunter. Alan simply said, ‘I want you to run CBS Radio in Canada’".

After the signing, the first thing Hap did was to invite me to his house to meet his family, have dinner and talk about how we should proceed. I recall that my own contribution to that discussion was based on my own six or seven years of experience in Ottawa. I was troubled by the way all the media in the Parliamentary Press Gallery were feeding from each others’ pockets. Any semblance of true competition was absent. This state of affairs was driven by the fact that covering Parliament Hill is a logistical nightmare – important events are taking place in as many as five different buildings and many of them simultaneously. No one could possibly cover everything so the various Bureau Chiefs would make deals – you cover that committee and I’ll cover the cabinet meeting and we’ll share afterwards. I told Hap I thought it would best serve our interests as a fledgling operation to admit to our client stations that we could not be all things to all newsrooms and that we would make the best news judgements possible given the extent of our resources. Hap and I agreed completely on that modus operandi and we even took it one step further – wherever possible we would strive to “break” original stories which ultimately we did quite often, much to the pleasure of our client stations.

So, it came to pass that in December 1968 we started building a network center/parliamentary bureau in the National Press Building on Wellington Street, directly across from The Hill. But it was destined to be an operation that was technically innovative. Hap tells it like this: our development of the HAZEL hard copy system stemmed from our recognition that affiliated newsrooms found it cumbersome transcribing leads; by supplying hard copy we would give them a distinct advantage over the BN product because our print speed would be much faster and we would be able to provide more than just leads to taped reports, we could include Bulletins and stand alone copy stories. The problem was how. While CBS had ideas of using a Xerox telecopier system, (the early fax machines), I stumbled across the Hazeltine CRT with all of 4K memory and new fangled 300 baud modems which produced signals that could be transmitted on the Broadband system. Problem: Using both voice and data on the same circuit violated CN-CP and Bell tariffs at the time. In the end, we just ignored the regulations.

Then, in December ‘72/January ’73 the decision was made to move the network center from Ottawa to Toronto, something Hap was deeply involved in; CHUM had made a deal to buy CFCF in Montreal which included an agreement to CANCEL Newsradio at CFCF and subscribe to Contemporary (CCNS). The late Bert Cannings, CF's News Director, wanted no part of the deal and suggested to me we not go too far away. Nonetheless, for the short time we were without CFCF, we had a problem. We were short their revenue. Solution, move Newsradio HQ to Toronto, utilize a wonderful control room for which, without an FM license, EY had no use, share my cost by becoming News Director too .. and drive on. We got a vastly more efficient technical operation, better access to the efforts of EY news, the daily interests of Doug Trowell and Stu Brandy (which helped with the corporate side of things), engineering help from Bill Onn and his people and we improved the service. When the CBC abandoned its back up Telco network lines (3.5 KC), for example, we were quickly able to set aside Broadband for fixed cost lines and prey to god the weird idea of using satellite would someday allow us to get broadcast quality circuits (8KC) which would allow true network operations.

So Hap, how big was Newsradio? At its peak, I think we had topped out at about 45 stations between Victoria, BC and St. John's, Nfld. The great debate in that numbers game was about counting affiliates or stations. Did one broadcaster owning an AM and an FM station served by one newsroom constitute 2 stations or one affiliate? Contemporary Canadian News System (CCNS) inflated their numbers counting two. We stuck with counting affiliate broadcasting organizations, one contract per market adding a small premium to the billing for the FM station, simply because it was impractical to try to limit our product to one station or the other.

Then, along came the development of the Newsradio Network, which meant the supplying of hourly newscasts to the affiliated stations, along with other programming features. This innovation allowed Newsradio to augment its revenues by selling commercial spots inside the newscasts.

So, what was the value to Maclean Hunter (MH) of owning Newsradio and paying its bills? Over to Hap: Were we ever close to breaking even? NO. Had the idea of forming the NEWSRADIO NETWORK not been scuttled by whom-ever, ad revenue from network sales might have been considerable. Alas, it was not to be. I think MH figured owning a network might stand in its way to acquiring more stations. In any event, I suspect the expense of Newsradio, successfully positioned to the CRTC as the MH corporate contribution to the Canadian Broadcasting system, might have cost a million plus over the years. But in the process, the Newsradio idea was central to the acquisition by Maclean Hunter of CHNS-Halifax, CKOY-Ottawa and one or two new FM stations in the West, including Calgary, as I recall.

This is a generalized account of the creation and management of Newsradio during the period it was part of Maclean Hunter and also part of my life. One of the most pivotal moments in Canadian radio arrived with the CRTC decision to grant an all-news licence to what became known as CKO. This was a major blow to Maclean Hunter, 590CKEY and Newsradio, which had collectively been making all the moves in that direction. That decision signalled the beginning of the end of the dream to mount a credible private sector all-news operation in Canada, mainly because the nature and form of the CRTC decision that went in favour of CKO. It saddled them with a logistical and cost structure requiring the creation of eleven radio stations across Canada from day one; the Maclean Hunter dream was to develop all-news radio from the center outward gradually.

The final word goes to Hap; you can see there is a large story to be told about the NEWSRADIO bid to become a national alternative to BN-CP, even a private effort to rival CBC Radio. With a break or two, I think we'd have made it.