Stories

The Early Days of News Gathering & Reporting

by Gary McLaren former News Director CKCO-TV

My broadcasting career has always been in news and public affairs … starting in 1954 with radio news in Hamilton …then in 1957 I moved to CKCO-TV- CH. 13 in Kitchener… Television was then still in its infancy… and our news department in 1957 – compared with television news operations today – was PRIMITIVE to say the least.

We had four in the news department… Al Hodge & myself and 2 photographers….with Tom Rafferty and Reg Sellner in sports plus Ron Hill a jack of all trades for an entire on-air staff of five. Everything put on the air locally was LIVE…video tape hadn’t even been dreamed of. If a goof was made, you corrected it and moved on. Sometimes you didn’t know you had uttered a blooper …like the time I was reading a news story about an airplane and called it a CATALINA FLYING BLOAT.

Or the guy doing a voice over commercial for Weston’s. Their slogan was – “For the best in bread… get Weston’s. He said – “For the breast in bed… get Weston’s”. He didn’t even know he had goofed up.

At Channel 13 we had newscasts from 6-6.30 seven days a week, plus the late night news.  Our national and international news came in on teletypes -large electric typewriters- on rolls of paper… CP – AP – BLIP – we simply tore off the stories we wanted. Local stories we got from what we could cover in the way of meetings… city councils- plus police and fire checks and since there were only two of us, we couldn’t get out very much to cover local happenings,  so we scalped the local newspaper.

We also had what was called ‘WIRE PHOTOS”.. -A machine which used heat sensitive rolls of paper. .. to record B&W pictures … the same as the newspapers used… but we just stapled them onto a bulletin type board and shot them with a studio camera at the appropriate time in stories.

Our 2 photographers used mostly silent B&W Bolex & Bell & Howell wind up cameras that held 100 ft. of 16 MM film-about 2 and a half minutes worth.

Occasionally a photog – sent out to an accident or a fire would get excited and start shooting.. .without checking to see that he had film in the camera.

Also had sound cameras made by Auricon that were large, heavy, and needed electricity to run-hence portability was very limited.  Photogs carried tape measures because they had to measure the distance between the subject and the camera to be in focus because those early cameras didn’t have thru the lens viewing. They held 5 or 10 minute rolls of film..some held up to half hour rolls.

The sound was recorded on the edge of the 16 MM film.   It was optical sound-variable area or variable density where you could actually see the sound track on the edge of the film. Later-we got film with a magnetic stripe along the edge.. which produced better quality sound.

Initially our film was processed once a day at 4 PM in John Columbo’s lab on Pandora Ave. in Kitchener, just in time for our 6 pm newscast.   Anything that happened and was filmed after 4 pm, couldn’t be seen until the 6 pm news the next day.

Contrast that with today where we enjoy live, on the scene reports from satellite feeds, or trucks that connect with microwave systems, and light, portable video tape cameras that can go anywhere and what they shoot can be played back immediately. There are cell phones to keep in touch with people and Blackberries for computer and internet links and messaging.  Tape recorders are the size of your hand.

Initially we didn’t even have 2-way radios in our news cruisers.  When they went out contact was lost until they returned. The first tape recorder I used was a wire recorder – no tape. It weighed about 15 pounds and had a running time of about three minutes and ate batteries at horrendous rates. I think it was a WWII leftover. Our national & international newsfilm stories were sent to us by overnight CNR express train.  We picked them up at the station in the morning for use that day-and for our film morgue. Today such feeds come in via microwave and satellite links or on computer lines.

In the evenings.. .when major accidents or fires happened-we went out and took polaroid pictures ourselves, But often they were brought in to us by the owner of the company that had the police towing contract who, at the time was Emils Auto Body & Towing on King Street E. near what then was the Hiway Market. We’d staple the Polaroids onto sma!l cards called BALOPS. .. which went into a machine and could be transmitted on air.

You had to be versatile in those days. .. in addition to doing the news …we filled in on sports and weather forecasts, and the live and voice over commercials. For a time there was a scheme in effect which paid us small sums to do station breaks (which we hated to do because they interrupted our work ) and other Voice Over commercials on those breaks. One month, Ron Hill did so many of them that he earned more that month that the Program Manager and that ended the scheme, much to Ron’s dismay.

Weathercasts

Today there are satellite images showing continents, countries, regions and the clouds, rain, hurricanes and other weather happenings. Computer programs display the jet stream, symbols and information pop on and off the screen- making the weather so understandable.

Years ago, we had painted maps on plywood, or on Plexiglas where you wrote on them with chalk, and magic markers to show rain, snow, clouds and so forth. You couldn’t get much lower tech than that. Everybody had a crack at doing the weather… it was something every new announcer was first stuck with.

I recall once having the bright idea o create a car-train crash.  Nobody was ever able to get one on film as it happened. My idea was to get an old car from a wrecking yard,  haul it to the level crossing just west of Kitchener, out what was then called the Snake Road, position two photogs at different spots and shove the wreck onto the tracks in front of a CNR freight train and film the smash-up. Then some one wondered if we could get into trouble so we checked with a lawyer who nearly had a fit and said we could be liable to any damage done to the train engine and tracks, the clean-up and what if the train was derailed …. etc & etc… So we quickly and wisely abandoned the idea.

Those early days of TV were also a lot of fun. People didn’t seem to be so serious. We pulled stunts and jokes on each other. For example …we applied our own make-up in a little room up in a corner of the main studio. While Al Hodge was putting his makeup on one day, we lifted the top two pages of his newscast script, which he had laid on the desk, and stapled around the sides and bottom of the remaining pages.  When he sat down at the desk and the camera light came on, he read the first two pages, laid them aside and was faced with the stapled down script. He hardly missed a beat, read the next page and clawed it off the pile and continued like that for the entire 10 minute newscast. Needless to say, he was less than amused.

We once crawled along the floor to the weather-caster and tied his shoelaces together so he could barely move, or the camera would dolly in on the sportcaster, for a close-up. Then we’d pull his desk away, leaving him having to hold his script and read it and then at the end,  the camera would pull back showing him sitting alone in the middle of the studio. Once this gambit showed Tom Raffert wearing the shorts and slippers he had on when he came in to do the late night sports.

And then there was the night when Tuffy Truesdale, an animal trainer, brought his wrestling bear into the studio to promote an upcoming show. Tom Rafferty did a stand up interview with Tuffy,  the bear sitting down beside him, when the bear hooked one paw around Raff’s legs and flipped him flat on the floor and started dragging him across the studio.   Tuffy leaped on the back of the bear,  Rafferty still holding the mike – was yelling. One cameraman toward whom the bear was heading,  abandoned his camera and left the studio while the other kept his camera on the action but backed into a corner. The control room director finally went to black,  but the audio guy was much slower in cutting off the mike… so we heard the muffled yelling and scuffling for a few more seconds.  Tuffy finally got the bear away from Rafferty – the switchboard lit up entirely – order was restored – the program was completed.

And there was the time an announcer was doing one of those LIVE commercials for BUDDS Stores.. which was featuring imported scotch tweed-jackets. The announcer blithely urged people to get down to Budds for their imported scotch and rye. He was unaware of what he had said.  But Nat Budd had more than a few people come into his store asking for his imported scotch and Rye.

To begin with. .. many merchants and business-people were leery of advertising on Television. Since no way then existed of recording their on-air commercial.. they had to be watching when it aired… and it seemed to go by so quickly..many couldn’t bring themselves to believe that such a brief mention could bring them customers. They were used to newspaper ads that they could hold in their hands and read and re-read. Actually..goofs such as the Budds commercial proved to sponsors that people were actually watching their commercial messages.

We had no trouble getting politicians to talk to us and show their faces on air. We had in our studios people like Lester Pearson, Paul Martin SR. Tommy Douglas, John `Robarts..Bill Davis, Bob Stanfield..and many local MP’s and MPP’s.. . and the local mayors and councillors. I recall the time that a candidate in a provincial election from Guelph was in the studio delivering his message-which he was reading from our first tele-prompter…which consisted of a roll of paper on which – on a very large typewriter – the man’s remarks had been typed. The paper on the prompter was rolled around by a rheostat and electric motor operated by the cameraman. On this occasion.. it malfunctioned.. moved very slowly, much slower then the candidate was reading.. .so the candidate motioned frantically with his hand and arm for the prompter to be speeded up..all this visible on air-the candidate got all mixed up in his remarks-the appearance was a disaster… he was furious… and in the end he lost his election bid.

Saturday afternoons we used to have live professional wrestling in the studio..Whipper Billy Watson, Yukon Eric, Sweet Daddy Siki, Lord Athol Layton, the Kalmikoff Brothers, Fritz Von Erich and others. Everything was staged and scrripted..they all knew each other and travelled together. Most were ex american football players..Fritz Von Erich had been a lineman at Southern Methodist University.  At one time… our station custodian… Fred Macavoy… kept a cat in the studios. .. he liked cats. It so happened that Frank Selke Sr.- the noted hockey man- was in our studio for a live interview. He and the sportsguy were sitting on a chesterfield. In the middle of the interview. . the cat jumped up onto the back of the couch-and slowly walked along the back between the 2 men-and stopped in the middle. Macavoy who knew Selke, saw this… and walked right into the set behind the chesterfield … picked up the cat.. leaned over toward Selke and said “Hey – Hey”..then walked out the other side of the set. Selke just grinned..and the interview continued as planned.

Canadian Bandstand

For a few years after the wrestling ended, we had a show called “Canadian Bandstand”… a live in-studio dance party for teens and young people. Wally Crouter from CFRB in Toronto did it for the first year, I did the second  and it continued for a few years after that,  modelled after Dick Clarks “American Bandstand” in the U.S. We played records, the kids danced… and whenever we could, we got live performers in the studio – the Everly Brothers, Robert Goulet, Conway Twitty were among the singers who came in and lip synched to a record.

Election Broadcasts

Our election coverage 40 odd years ago was basic – VERY BASIC. We simply wrote the vote totals on pads of paper fastened to the studio wall beside the name of the candidates. The vote results we got from the chief returning officers… or the city clerks office in the case of municipal elections. Results then often weren’t complete until 10 or 11 o’clock at night or even later. We later added photos of the candidates, and put scrutineers in polling stations to get vote totals which they then called in to us and we totalled them up. That approach disrupted the vote counting routine, which the KW Record had operated for city hall. and resulted – I think – in that city taking over it’s entire municipal election results system.

As you know …Today … by means of computer programs and projections. .. we are told the probable outcome of federal and provincial elections sometimes almost within minutes of the polls closing. The contrast -for someone like me who worked in the early systems. .. is stupendous.

So Called Live On Site Q & A Reports

We have all seen the TV anchorpersons talking in a question and answer format to a reporter out in the field.. Iraq … New Orleans, Afghanistan.. .and so forth. It looks like there is a live present-time audio/video link between the 2 people. It’s not always what it seems. Sometimes there is indeed a direct satellite or microwave link and the interview/report is happening as you see it.

BUT, oftentimes the reporters answers have been given earlier… perhaps several hours earlier.. . in response to questions they have received over the satellite or microwave hook-up. .. or even via the phone.  When the tape containing the reporters answers is played back on a newscast… the pauses between his answers have been closely timed out to the second. The anchorperson then asks the already asked questions and times the length to match the gaps in the reporters tape so that the reporters answers appears to be a direct response to the anchorpersons questions. The control room director gave the anchorperson- via their headset… the countdown for each gap. Usually it works pretty well but. .. sometimes the timing is off and you’ll note that the anchor’s questions end several seconds before the reporter answers.

Working in TV in those early days was a bit of an adventure. Systems, procedures, routines were still very much in the developing stage.. .we tried and tested various ways of doing things. .. if they worked – we kept on using them.’ Those approaches that didn’t work …we abandoned.

Those early days at CKCO-TV may have been pretty simple and low tech… but we were largely breaking new ground and providing a new information and entertainment service to mid-western Ontario. At the same time creating the need for ever improved and advanced technology that has led to the sophisticated television we all watch today.

And… it was a stimulating and generally pleasant way to make a living. I look back on 42 years in radio and television with very few regrets and many happy memories.

Addendum

 by Larry McIntyre, February 2011

Gary in his memoir is, if anything, far too modest in his assessment of his competence and achievements as News Director. Having worked with him through my thirteen years with the Big Bright Thirteen, let me submit this evaluation.

First, Gary took over where Al Hodge left off directing a news operation that was as rapidly expanding as it was rapidly evolving, in a market that was equally rapidly expanding and evolving. Hodge, with management’s support, had left CKCO in 1958 to found CKKW as Kitchener-Waterloo’s second AM radio station. Hodge died suddenly two years later, precipitating CKCO’s acquisition of CKKW.

Coming out of the 50s, the morning sign-on pushed back to 6:30 am, the News department had already expanded to a three man, three-shift, Monday-Friday with one weekend-in-three operation, a two man Sports Department, producing a daily sixty minutes of early, mid-day, early evening and late night news, sports and weather, and a weekly half-hour Newsmagazine.

In the 60s, with CKKW brought into the company in 1962, the switch from CBC to CTV affiliation in 1964, and in 1967 the launch of CFCA, the News department was coming into its own as a much more sophisticated plus-minus twenty man operation producing a television half-hour at mid-day, an hour at six, another late evening half hour following on the CTV National News; five minutes AM radio news on the hour, headlines on the half-hour; a lesser frequency of more in depth FM radio news; with a weekly half-hour prime time Regional Affairs magazine for CKCO, a half-hour FM magazine for CFCA, the annual TV news Yearender, and several featured television news specials through the year. The logistics of all of this expanded production was Gary’s responsibility.

Long distance was now Direct Dial, with WATS, and direct Toronto numbers, and, largely Gary’s doing, there was an expanded network of ‘stringers’ throughout Southern Ontario and Queen’s Park. There was an automated BN service for radio ‘voicers’ and ‘actualities’, telephone recording for local ‘beeper’s, that as needed crossed over into television with appropriate visuals. Local film processing had been brought ‘in house’, eliminating the 4.00 pm cut off at John Columbo’s film lab, adding evening film stories to the late night news. By the late 60s there was a daily national feed videotaped from co-operating TV stations, – the wirephoto service was on its way out, – and, taxied in daily from the Weather Office at Toronto International, the evening TV weather now featured a paste-up satellite photo, the leading edge of the electronic revolution of the 70s to come. Scheduling remained a constant headache, inherently one man short, one shift too many, even before considering special requests for time off and annual vacations. And men only, there were “no skirts in the newsroom” until the 70s. In the early 60s, there was a move to bring into being the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada as a stand-alone offshoot of the US RTNDA. Gary was one of its prime movers, in collaboration with, as I remember, Bert Cannings of Montreal, later Hamilton; Dave Rogers and Charlie Edwards of Broadcast News; Don Johnston, Al Van Alstine and Jim Marino, Hamilton, St Catherines and Niagara news directors; Bruce Hogle of Edmonton; Karl Sepkowski of Sault Ste Marie; Dave Knapp and Max Keeping in Ottawa.

At one point late in the 60s, I calculated, to date, – municipal, federal, provincial – as a News Department we had done thirty elections. In the pre-electronic years, ‘doing an election’ meant going live from Studio B as Election Central, all hands on deck from General Manager to Comptroller to Program Director to office staff to cafeteria staff; on air from eight o’clock when the polls closed, with instant commentary as the reporters in the field phoned in results from their Returning Offices for tabulation and posting; as the night rolled through, greeting drop-in winners and losers , setting them up to make their victory and concession speeches on TV; or alternatively, dispatching sound-on-film cameramen, processing, head-and-tailing the film to get the speeches to air; wrapping up, finally, after a break for other news, at midnight or later.

It took weeks of planning and preparation. It meant, to begin, compiling names of candidates for mayors and councils in the thirteen cities, wardens in the sixteen counties, the reeves in how many towns, and MLAs and MPs in the forever-changing federal and provincial ridings within our A, B and C contours, with a grasp of the issues confronting each. Then the detail of the broadcast itself: the lists of names forwarded to the Art Department for typesetting and printing to showcards to be stapled to the studio wall for the on-air presentation; assigning reporters, to Returning Offices, recruiting freelancers as needed; ordering telephones, overseeing their installation; organizing the studio, briefing the who’s who, right down to ensuring the inventory of pens, paper and magic markers. Gary was the mastermind, pulling it all together, at the same time maintaining the day-to-day newsroom operation. Times thirty, a phenomenal achievement.

As News Director, Gary was an effective editorialist, in the early 60s, as part of a Sunday night weekender, commenting on municipal and regional affairs. In one commentary, Gary lit into the Kitchener-Waterloo Labour Council roasting them for having done nothing to commemorate Labour Day. Stung, the Council did not let the holiday go past the next year, and for many years after without a parade and Victoria Park picnic.

As a reporter, Gary not only had a ‘nose for news’, he knew how to work a phone. Anyone working in or around the newsroom in his years as News Director will recall, emanating from his corner office, his vehement ’there’s something going on .. dammit, I know there’s something going on’, punctuated by the sound of a telephone dial, snatches of conversation with voices at the other end, then more vehemence and more dialing, and finally, typing. The singular example, probably, is the day Gary broke the story of the City of Kitchener’s successful but secret wooing of Budd Automotive to Kitchener. Gary, I recall, was on the phone doing his usual phone checks around City Hall, first one secretary, then a second, and a third, all responding, “sorry, so-and-so is ‘not in’, ‘away from the office’”; then, the red flag, ‘he’s away right now with (the two previous called parties)’. Gary put the phone down, asking himself out loud, ‘why would so-and-so-and-so be away together’; then more dialing, more Q-and-A, more dialing, and ultimately his sublime moment of persistence, when he reached the three just as they were coming through the door to their hotel room in Pittsburgh. “Did you get them?” Gary asked. I cannot remember whether he included their `how the hell did you know?` in his story.

I also speak from personal experience. One summer I was spending a week of my vacation as a leader at a Scout Camp on the Moon River in the Muskokas. Gary talked the Bala OPP into driving in with the message to get in touch with him – he just wanted to make sure I would be back at work when expected. Another summer, I had driven to Manitoba, for all intents and purposes out of touch at a remote forestry station with friends working a tobacco-growing experiment near the US border, ‘go south through Pembina to Iles-des-Chenes, head east to La Broquerie, then when the road disappears, keep going, we’re in Sandilands in the housetrailer’. Gary reached me on a ring-down through the Government of Manitoba switchboard in Winnipeg. Another summer, I had hopped in my car with no particular destination in mind, telling my landlord in Guelph I would be in touch when I got to where I was going. But before I had gotten back to them, Gary had reached me at friends in Chicago.

On air – well, a long time ago, in a discussion relative to CKCO co-workers, my mother remarked, “Of all the CKCO announcers, I think I like Gary McLaren best.” “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I protested. “Well, you know what I mean,” she said. Not then, nor even now, I am not sure what she meant.

And now as then, the identification factor. We were the Scan Clan – McLaren, McDonald, McIntyre and, later, to give him his due, Ed Doyle – but after four decades it is Gary who has come to personify CKCO News of that era. Frequently, meeting someone of our generation, I and whoever it is will get caught up in the ‘recognition game’, the obvious memory-crunching on their part to put name and face together. Then the click. “CKCO. News. Gary McLaren, right!?”

Gary. Larry. McLaren. McIntyre. I tell myself it is because there really is a similarity to our names. Yeah, sure …