storyteller, broadcaster

Posts tagged ‘harvard broadcasting’

Back in River City, again ..

Roger Currie has been a broadcaster and writer for more than 40 years. Eleven of those years have been spent in Regina.

Most recently he hosted Talk of the Town on Access 7, but he has now moved to Winnipeg. It marked the end of his second Regina life which began in the summer of 2006.

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Homeward Bound was a popular song for Simon and Garfunkel back in the day.

It was a lament by a musician who was weary of life on the road, living out of a suitcase, undoubtedly autobiographical for Paul Simon in his early days.

It has really never been my story. As I near that golden age of 65, I look back on a life in which I have been fortunate to live in secure and familiar surroundings. I have been truly blessed to spend almost all of my life in two of Canada’s prairie cities, Regina and Winnipeg.

I was born in Winnipeg in 1947, a fairly typical boomer. My childhood and adolescence were filled with the usual amount of angst and frustration but looking back, those years were filled with so many blessings.

I was raised by two loving parents who could easily have been the models for Jim and Margaret Anderson in Father Knows Best or Ward and June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.

I can only remember being spanked once, and I deserved it. I was blessed with better than average intelligence but I tended to be a classic ‘underachiever’ in school.

Perhaps the greatest blessing came on June 1st 1970 when I became a broadcaster at CJOB in Winnipeg.

Within a couple of days it was as though a bright light was turned on, and a voice in my head said “You can do this, and you’ll probably be good at it. Don’t screw it up and you’ll have a rewarding career.” When I observe others of my generation who have struggled to find such a rewarding path, I am very thankful. So far, the radio career has lasted more than 40 years, and I cannot remember a single day that could remotely be described as boring.

The first seven years behind a microphone were spent at CJOB in Winnipeg, and that spoiled me in many ways. I worked for and with some wonderful people, many of whom I’m still blessed to describe as friends.

But Regina seems to have been destined to be part of my life even before I was born. My dad was Andy ‘Red’ Currie, who I’m fond of calling The Boy From Balgonie.

The first child of a Scottish immigrant banker and his wife, Andy was a gifted athlete, especially on the football field. In 1928, at the tender age of 17, he was one of five junior players who were recruited by Al Ritchie to bolster the ranks of the Regina Roughriders as they traveled east to suffer defeat in a Grey Cup game. The result was all too familiar in 1930, before Andy moved to Winnipeg and studied to become a teacher.

We first visited Regina in the mid-1950’s on a family motor trip across the prairies. We stayed at the Drake Hotel on Rose street. Dad visited with his old coach who was still a Roughrider legend, and even at the age of ten I somehow sensed that we were in a community where I would easily feel a sense of belonging.

Shortly thereafter Bud Grant retired as a player and became the 29 year old head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. A truly remarkable era of three down football began.

The Bombers were definitely my team as I reached puberty but whenever the Roughriders came to town I felt a certain sense of ‘connection’ because of dad’s history. That divided loyalty has become one of the quirks that define me, especially on Labour Day weekend.

My first Labour Day Classic was in 1962 when I was 15 and about to begin high school in Winnipeg. It was the last of the Bombers’ Grey Cup years under Bud Grant, and there was little doubt as to who would win. The Riders were a year away from acquiring Ron Lancaster and George Reed. They made a game of it for three quarters before Winnipeg pulled away with a 30-7 victory. The highlight of that family trip was staying at the Hotel. Reginans of a certain age have no need to ask ‘Which hotel?’

The Hotel Saskatchewan was opened by the dreaded CPR just before the stock market crash that ended the roaring twenties and ushered in the Great Depression. She remains the grand lady of Victoria Avenue, and my favourite hotel in the world. I say this because it was the first occasion when I had a hotel room all to myself, with my own bathroom and my own TV! The fact that I got to share the elevator that weekend with the likes of Kenny Ploen?

It didn’t ever get any better than that in the 50 years that have followed, except maybe when I got to work with Ken on football broadcasts.

It would be 15 years later that my first Regina life began. In February 1977 I was hired as news director at CKCK Radio.

The Sifton family were owners of CKCK Radio and Television as well as the Leader Post and the Star Phoenix. Fearing that government regulators might force him to break up that concentration, Michael Sifton sold Television to Fred Hill of Regina.

Frank Flegel was news director of both radio and TV, and he chose to stay with TV. I was the cocky 29 year old who was hired to replace him at the radio station. By this time I was married and the father of a beautiful two year old daughter Kathleen. We bought a very nice bungalow on 29th Avenue for $42,000. Life was very good. We had wonderful neighbours, most of whom had a strong connection to farming.

At CKCK I was responsible for a staff of ten including local legends like Harold Hamilton.

Later that year I had the good fortune to hire Carl Worth out of Yorkton. Today he soldiers on as news director at what is now CTV Regina.

Even then, in 1977, there were signs that CKCK Radio, like the Roughriders, was facing a different and more challenging future. The cyberworld was more than 15 years away, but there were an increasing number of competitors on the radio dial particularly on the FM band. By 1981 it was becoming obvious to me that change was coming and it could be rough.

In the summer of 1981, as Charles and Diana were tying the knot at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I returned to work at CJOB in Winnipeg.

When I had left to go to Regina in 1977, CJOB program director John Cochrane had said to me “There will always be a job for you here if you need one.” Four years later I was pleasantly surprised to find that he really meant it. I returned as morning news anchor, and I also got into program hosting for the first time. Despite a fairly substantial drop in income, life was very good. Kathleen, who prefers Katie these days, was almost seven, the same age as my grandson Andrew is today.

This move did not represent a rejection of Regina as a place to live, despite the tendency of some of my Winnipeg friends to suggest that I had come to my senses and returned to where I belonged.

Like a lot of prairie people, Winnipeggers have long suffered from a tremendous inferiority complex. They find it necessary to look down on another community for some reason, and more often than not, that has been Regina. A few months before our return in 1981, we were at a New Year’s Eve party in Winnipeg. “How long have you been in Regina?” a woman asked. When I told her it was coming up to four years, she looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked “And you like it?”

In fact we loved living in Regina. Many Winnipeggers say their city is one of Canada’s best kept secrets. I have always felt way that about Regina. When I left Regina 31 years ago, it had yet to be overtaken by Saskatoon in terms of population. It was less than a third the size of Winnipeg. Yet the two cities are remarkably comparable when it comes to amenities and general quality of life.

As we headed east I proclaimed to anyone who cared to listen “If a good job opportunity were to present itself in Regina, I would return in a heartbeat.” It only took 25 years for such a job to come my way.

Those 25 years, between 1981 and 2006, were eventful to say the least.

Katie married a wonderful fellow named Campbell Grier in Winnipeg in 2002, and two years later I became a grandpa. I’m loving being Andrew’s Grandpa Roger.

The career path has not without its challenges.

By some measure I have come to realize that I am a person who has a problem with authority. It has made for an interesting career path.

In 1987 I left CJOB for the second time and became a local program host at CBC radio in Winnipeg. Four years later, in 1991, the CBC experience helped me to return for a third life at CJOB as host of one of the first all information morning shows on commercial radio in Canada. It lasted nine years and by some measures it was hugely successful.

Audience share refers to the percentage of available audience that is tuned to a radio station in any given time period. The morning drive or breakfast window has traditionally been the most valued by advertisers. Anything more than a ten share is considered better than average. In the listener survey that was taken in the Winnipeg market in the winter of 1993, the CJOB Morning Show recorded an amazing 36 share. However the joy was relatively shortlived, and the hours one must keep as a morning radio person take an undeniable toll. To this very day, my body seldom lets me sleep past 5am.

In May of 2000, second wife Linda and I moved out to Lake of the Woods, near Kenora Ontario. It was an ill-fated attempt at semi-retirement. I returned to Winnipeg in early 2003 and spent nine months as news director of COOL FM, the personal plaything of Izzie Asper.

Aside from his family and a fiercely competitive drive in the world of politics and business, Izzie’s grand passion was jazz. Under different circumstances, he might have been a truly gifted artist on the piano. His proudest possession was a grand piano that once belonged to George Gershwin.

In what turned out to be the last interview he ever gave in September 2003, Asper told me “Many of us enjoy splendid fantasy lives. In mine, I’m allowed the privilege of living out the life that Gershwin was denied when he died at 38.”

When Izzie died less than a month later, many elements of the Canwest empire began to crumble fairly quickly, including COOL FM.

From then until June of 2006, when my second Regina life began at Harvard Broadcasting, I lived the splendid life of a freelancer. Much of it involved writing including my first book.

MTC 50, released in the fall of 2007, chronicles the first 50 years of the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. It was Canada’s first regional theatre, founded by the legendary John Hirsch. It was also a story that I lived and I was able to write a lot of it from memory.

My mother, Thelma Currie, could have been a professional actress. She instilled in me an abiding love for the world of performing and drama. From the age of 12 I was taken to MTC, watching the likes of Len Cariou ( Blue Bloods ) perform under Hirsch’s direction. Over the next half century I was blessed to see more than half the plays that were presented there.

I have always said that when all else fails, you can always go to the movies. In the first decade of the new millennium, I got to serve as a film classifier in both Ontario and Manitoba. I also got work in front of the cameras.

I worked as an extra or background performer on a number of feature films that were shot in Winnipeg. Most prominent among them was Capote in 2004.

In the summer of 2008, a career highlight was an actual speaking part on Corner Gas.

I had eleven wonderful words in an episode called American Resolution which was part of the show’s final season.

Now it appears that if Brett and the rest of the Corner Gas gang are ever to resurface in a reunion movie, it won’t happen in Saskatchewan, thanks to Brad Wall’s decision to kill the tax credit. So much for the Saskatchewan advantage that Wall is fond of talking about.

I have very mixed feelings about the state of the mainstream media as I move from Saskatchewan to Manitoba and try to reinvent myself once more. In June 2011, what may well have been my last regular gig on radio came to an abrupt end when Harvard Broadcasting asked me to turn in my playbook and not to slam the door on my way out of the building. I worked very hard for them for five years and did everything anyone could ask for, and then some. My situation is by no means unique, and I did not shed any tears.

The digital era has caused a profound revolution in the way all media operate in Canada and elsewhere. Most of the business models are broken, and almost no one seems to know how to rebuild them. Saskatchewan has always been somewhat different than the rest of Canada when it comes to media. Until very recently, the national brands like Bell, Rogers and Shaw have not been players in this province. The radio world has been dominated by Harvard and Rawlco and that is not likely to change in the short term.

Postmedia are now the owners of the Leader Post and the Star Phoenix with digital first as their mantra. All of sudden they’re facing a surpising challenge from give-aways in street boxes with names like Metro and Verb.

Television as have known it would seem to have an even more uncertain future. The PVR is just about the greatest toy ever invented for couch potatoes like me. How then does the medium survive with everyone zapping through commercials?

I enjoyed my most recent stop as Regina’s oldest rookie TV host on Talk of the Town. But I seriously wonder about the longterm future for Access Communications. They are an amazing organization whose very existence is a uniquely Saskatchewan solution. Only in Regina could you have a crown versus a Co-op in the battle for the TV audience. Can that continue for very long in the face of giants like Shaw and Bell who are determined to dominate the landscape more and more?

As someone who is still somewhat proud to describe himself as a journalist I feel compelled to echo the lament of others of my generation about what has happened to the craft. I love the new technology, and I’m excited about what lies ahead, but I hope the digital world will find new and better ways to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable as Mother Jones and others have described the purpose of good journalism.

A little over thirty years ago I felt privileged to live and work in Regina as the School of Journalism at the University was being born. The determination and vision of people like the late Lloyd Barber put this community in the forefront of media consciousness. I don’t get that same feeling today, and that’s unfortunate.

Rabbi Jeremy Parnes of Beth Jacob Synagogue summed it up well in a recent conversation I had with him. We were reflecting on the visit to Regina by Edwin Black, the author of IBM and the Holocaust.

The Rabbi was energized and invigorated by the message he took away from Black’s story, about a pioneering industrial giant who put commerce ahead of humanity with tragic consequences.

He said “Our young people especially must learn to ask more questions. They must learn that there’s so much more than return on investment involved in being a caring member of any community”.

Saskatchewan is enjoying a fabulous ‘return on investment’ these days. Let us please not forget the caring.

I promise all my wonderful friends in Regina that I will not be a stranger. I will visit more often than on Labour Day weekend.

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