WHEN KING GEORGE VI and Queen Elizabeth toured Canada in 1939, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then barely three years old, covered the visit with 91 broadcasts. Everything went smoothly until the last day when an announcer was heard describing the royal couple’s departure.
“The Queen I think I told you, is wearing powder-blue,” he said. “And now as she moves away and juts her bow out into the sun… we can make out a great deal of her green boot topping.” He forgot to mention he was talking about the royal yacht.
One small slip in 91 broadcasts can be forgiven, but it shows how confusing radio can be when details are left unexplained. It’s a lesson the CBC should have kept in mind 50 years later as it prepared to cover the September 1990 Ontario election.
On election night, people turning on their radios expected to hear the familiar voices of CBC Radio. Instead, they heard a television announcer asking them to watch their screens for election details. The CBC was simulcasting its television coverage on the radio. Bill Armstrong, CBC’s director for the province of Ontario, says the decision to broadcast identical programs was made so radio could concentrate its resources on an Ontario-wide wrap-up the next morning. “It was an experiment,” he said. “It was an attempt to see if we could better use resources which are continuously being limited. Instead of mounting two full broadcasts, we thought we’d use the radio resources better when the radio audience was there.” He estimates the radio audience to be 10 to 15 times larger in the morning. The experiment got mixed reviews from CBC listeners. In Toronto, senior editor Doug Kirkaldy took several calls from listeners who phoned to complain about the simulcast. “Some people thought it was atrocious that CBC Radio, which they trusted, had given in to television,” he said. “Somebody phoned up and said, ‘You know I have a cheap transistor radio in the kitchen, and I looked there and I didn’t see any screen, but my husband has a very expensive stereo system in the den, and I went in there and on that very expensive radio there was no screen either.'” Michele Devaul used to be a producer for CBC Radio in Thunder Bay. Now a regular CBC listener, she had mixed feelings about the broadcast. “I missed the old days with the more extended coverage locally,” she said. “We used to pride ourselves on really being up to the minute.”
But despite missing the immediacy of radio, Devaul felt the network coverage was more sophisticated than could have been provided locally. “As far as efficiency is concerned, it was much better,” she said. “I think it gave the listener more than we could have done with our resources. By 8:30 in the evening I knew the NDP was going to form a government, and that’s what I wanted to know. As a listener and a journalist, I thought it worked well.”
On election night, CBC Radio Queen’s Park reporter Donna McElligott was in Toronto preparing to co-host the next morning’s election wrap-up. She knows the simulcast was an attempt to use CBC resources more effectively, and she can see radio and television working together in the future. But she doesn’t think a simulcast is the right way. “Radio news has a very different way of covering things,” she said. “You can’t see charts or numbers or expressions on people’s faces. Radio reporters know how to convey these things.” Radio listeners did miss many subtleties that were obvious to 1V viewers. They couldn’t see the signs that gave the names of candidates elected across the province. They couldn’t see the crowds of cheering, waving and crying people at NDP headquarters in Toronto or the stark contrast when the coverage switched to the headquarters of then Premier David Peterson, who was losing his seat.
Although the television announcers did an excellent job of presenting the facts, they were not able to supply the detail needed to make good radio. For radio to be good, it must be clear. And that means not leaving your audience searching their radios for hidden screens.