Wednesday 28 Sep 2016

George Balcon
dr george pollard

“I always listened to radio,” says George Balcon (1931-2004). “What kid grows up without radio?”

His radio career began in Dauphin, Manitoba. “The winter wasn't so great,” he says. GB fter brief stints in Kenora and Leamington, Balcon joined CKOC, in Hamilton. Eight years later, he moved to CJGB D, in Montreal, “not to replace Bill Roberts, but that’s the way it turned out,” he says. GB fter two years at CFCF, also in Montreal, where he did GB M Drive and TV, hosting “It’s Your Move,” a game show that aired internationally, Balcon returned to CJGB D. “There’s warmth at CJGB D,” he says, “that’s hard to find.” Considering radio and television, “You have more control in radio…. it’s easier to adjust to changing circumstances, say, breaking local news.” “I spend a lot of time talking with people,” says Balcon," who believed community involvement was the best, the only, way to "prep" a show.


GS How did you get started in radio?

GB The year CKDM in Dauphin, Manitoba, went on the air, which I think is 28 years ago. That's when I started. It sounds like Ted Knight. It all started in a small 5,000-watt station, and it did.

I was born in Winnipeg General Hospital. My family moved to St. Boniface, where I went to school.

I had sort of two energy flows when I finished high school – one was to be a civil engineer, I liked drawing and I thought my graphics would come in handy; the other one was simply to go to art school.

My father wasn't particularly thrilled with my studying art. I went to work for the CNR, in the engineering department, which was a time for me to find out whether I really wanted to be a civil engineer. I worked on the railway out of Manitoba for 1-1 1/2 years.

I'd always listened to radio. I don't think any kid grows up without radio. I did my homework to Dave Garaway on WMGB C, in Chicago; he used to do a midnight shift – he played good music – a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and jazz."/p>

GS By the way today is the 28th anniversary of CKDM-GB M going on the air, Jan 6, 1951."

GB Deja vu! I wasn’t there for the opening. I arrived in the fall of ‘51.

When I went looking for a radio job, I didn't have any recording facilities and every station wanted a tape. I went into the back of a music store on a disc-cutting machine. I read my own made up newscast, and introduced a George Shearing record – I still have a copy of the thing around."

Yes, it's a little 7-inch block, my first audition tape. I don't know whether you've ever seen one. I found it because GB ndy Barry, at CJGB D-GB M, asked everybody to go as far back as possible in their radio history for a special anniversary show. Many people had original or very old pieces of tape, and that sort of thing."

It was the most fascinating two hours you ever heard in your life. It made for the most fascinating day. I brought mine and the late GB rt Leonard recreated some of the things that he did when he introduced, when they had live orchestras at the Normandy Room of the Sheraton Hotel, in downtown Montreal."

GB ndy [Barry] had a great idea. This was one of the most appealing shows; audience response was phenomenal. It was a nice idea for a show that got to people who were really in the community."

GB nyway, I started at CKDM. I’d have done anything to get into radio; that's what we all say and likely mean. I worked CKDM for a year and one half, starting at $100.00 a month."

GS That was good, I think.

GB Yes, it was generous.

GB fter 1 1/2 years in small-town Manitoba, you always believe that somehow they are going to come and discover you. For some reason I had a great deal of assistance. I remember making $150.00 a month, after a year and one half, which wasn't bad, either, and living at home. CJOB in Winnipeg, a J.L. Brooks station, used to hire summer announcers for 4 months to take care of holiday shifts. They asked me to go. I went to management at CKDM and said I have this offer; they said “We think you’d be very good, but tell them you're making $185.00 a month then they'll give you an increase.” I stayed [at CJOB] for 4 months then went to CKY. I think I stayed there for about 1 1/2 years."

Newly married, I left CKY to program CJRL, in Kenora, Ontario. It was a beautiful spot in the summertime. Winter wasn't so great."

I was also doing some freelance cartooning. I had a couple of agents – one for New York and one for magazines. I thought I’d see if I could make a little living with drawing. I was a little dissatisfied with what I’d been doing; maybe it wasn’t as [fulfilling] as I’d hoped."

I thought I'd rely on my cartooning and look for a better job. I sent out a pile of audition tapes. I was in a good position 'cause I was PD; I controlled the tapes and could send out as many as I wanted."

I sent out GS uite a few. Eventually, John Moore and GB l Bruner of [CHYR] asked me to come down. I was on my way [to CHYR] when I received a note from CKOC, in Hamilton – they wanted me, but I had already committed myself. "

I worked with John and GB l for a month. GB fter the first or second week, I hopped a bus and went down to Hamilton to talk with Lymen Potts. Lymen convinced me I should go back and give my notice to CHYR, and join [CKOC]. Obviously, from Leamington to 400,000 audience in Hamilton was appealing, and that's what I wanted. Went back and told John, GB l and Lou Tomasi. Strangely, that one month was the shortest stay of my radio career, but it’s the warmest I remember. The relationship has always been warm with those people. I hope they still hold me in as high a regard as I hold them. I think they are great broadcasters; they are or were to me the epitome of that size market hospitality. They're just fantastic. They made me think more in one month than I had ever, done."

I moved to Hamilton CKOC for 8.5 years, and did everything. It was my first major market; that’ll drive Winnipeggers crazy. I ended up doing the GB M show, after doing mid-morning female GS uizzes, Homemakers Holidays and such stuff. It is a good format, which I may try to revive here. CKOC varied from MOR to Hal Waggoner's introduction of Presley. Waggoner was from Little Rock GB rkansas; he was a football player for the “Tiger Cats,” and did 2-4 hours a day of country music on CKOC. He owned the market -it was country but somehow all those Sun records kept popping up. GB nd you heard that GB rkansas drawl all the time and it was home to Hal."

Many people claimed to have introduced Presley, but I think Hal did; if he didn't, he came damn close. GB t the time, the commercial announcer was on his show: Hal couldn’t do commercials, but he sure could play music."

When I moved to GB M Drive it was against Honours, my good friend on CHML. That's a tough thing to do anytime. He'd been there so long; he's still there. Finally, I guess they were tired of hearing down the street, so I think it was someone from CHML who contracted Mac McCurdy, GM of CJGB D, and said, “Would you get this turkey off our back.” It happened that way."

I've been here at CJGB D-GB M about 15 years"

GS When did you get to CJGB D, 1963?"

GB Yes."

GS Did you replaced Bill Roberts?"

GB No! I came in to do early PM drive. I think I've only handled two shifts at CJGB D in all that time. You have to be very versatile in this market. You have to be able to cover everything.

It's a good place to work. It's always been a monster or gorilla in the market and it has been home for me, and I really feel very comfortable here.

When I came, in 1963, I started in the early PM trip and then when Bill Roberts was made VP and PD he kept the GB M Drive show for a while, eventually finding it a little too much; he decided to become an executive. They asked me mid-1965, maybe 1966, to take on the morning show

GS How about your sojourn to CFCF?

GB People move around GS uite a bid in Montreal. GB lso, I think there is probably more staff fraternization in Montreal than in most markets. It is common for announcers to get together. I go to dinner with Ralph Lockwood, who does GB M Drive at CKGM, in Montreal, and his wife Lois; not on a regular basis, but more than a couple of times a year. We don't only meet at social events. We go out and talk with one another; we exchange calls, greetings and everything else. I'm also very friendly with Gordon Sinclair, editorialist at CFCF, in Montreal, and his wife. You can maintain friendships across radio boundaries in this town, which I don't think is acceptable in some markets. There is also a minimal amount of theft from one station to another. I think CJGB D has four former staffers from CFCF: John McComb our morning newsman; Lee Murray and Jim Patton and myself, of course.

GS How long were you at CFCF?

GB Two years, almost. I originally talked with them about hosting the repackaged “It’s Your Move,” the television game show, even though I was working mornings on CJGB D. I spoke several times before with Don Marsden, of CFCF, who is a rather persistent man, and very dedicated to his radio station; he will take any avenue to make it better. We had several lunches before, but I had always declined to join him although he was a very good host, and sets a good table.

This time they or he convinced me I should move to CFCF GB M Drive. There were a couple of things in it. It’d mean an expansion of my craft. The radio was a challenge, because it was a chance to see if I could make that audience move, with me, and that was a lot of hard work. There was a lot of money involved, too.

The radio and TV combined and what I thought would be the ensuing freelance promised to double my CJGB D income. It didn't work out that way! For a more than double expenditure of time and effort, I was rather dissatisfied with my return. I was doing 4 hours of radio a day and covering 3 hours of TV a day, that is, one hour of “It’s Your Move” and two hours of “Matinee,” the afternoon movie, five days a week.

GS Did you do the TV live?

GB No. We taped them both. Ten “It’s Your Move,” every second weekend. This meant I was on a very heavy schedule from late summer through spring.

The movie show ran 10 months a year, taping Wednesdays and Thursdays. We'd track five of those in an afternoon of taping. There was some help, research and so forth. I'm a bitch about research. I feel that anything less than what I think is good is not acceptable because I'm the last man on the line, the only part the audience sees and hears. If I look like a jerk, it's my own fault.

GS It was a combination of extra work and expectations that fell short, which got you back to CJGB D?

GB In the last six months at CFCF, I realized that there were things about the radio and TV thing that were a joy and a great deal of conflict as well. It’s was an awful lot of work. I don't mind hard work. I think anyone who doesn’t work hard, doesn’t deserve whatever [he] gets.

I don't believe in luck. [Doing double duty at CFCF,] I found that I didn't have time for my family. I found TV was turning me into something I didn't want to be. Under the system, because of certain technical ways of producing a TV show, I did not like my image. I loved doing the movie interviews. GB t the time that we did it, the game show topped daytime game show in Canada …. “Matinee with George Balcon” topped the market, and had a fantastic French audience.

We had good shows all the way along, but it comes to the point when you have to decide what you would really like to do and how much you really want to give up of yourself. I wasn't willing to change because an awful lot of people were expecting me to be what I was on television; I didn't believe that was me. I decided that I wanted to be what I was in radio which I think is what I really am.

GS Maybe they gave you that opportunity?

GB Yes, and I have to admit that CFCF had given me an opportunity of being what I really wanted to be on radio. I forget which rating it was, the spring of ‘76, I think, we did it, the audience moved and the ratings were exceptional. That’s one thing I really wanted to do, and did. Only [from] a business [perspective], I wanted to see if we could make that work, and we did. It was a success. It became a real thing in the market. We had CJGB D and my old friends looking around for footsteps, and that's sort of a satisfaction in itself. That's one of the reasons I went to [CFCF].

John Mackie is a genius. I think, at that time, he pulled together a radio station that was fantastic. There are moments when I look back on what I did in radio. GB couple of things [I did at CFCF] were probably the best things in that particular market that I’ve done. They also taught me many things that I still use; things I hadn't known before. It was a revitalization of my radio techniGS ues.

GS Maybe it was worth going just to come back; it made you that much better and harder to topple.

GB Maybe; I found comfort at CJGB D, which I didn’t have at CFCF. I met some good people at CFCF and I did a lot of good work. I'd go back and do television, again, but on the complete understanding of what I was to be and how they would use it. I would do a game show but never under the same premise that I did there.

GS That's probably the essence of people who television chews up and spits out; they don't control their own images.

GB I found that was the great thing about TV. You have to be prepared to accept that other people are controlling you. In radio there's you if your lucky you have an engineer, you have a librarian, a copy department, an engineer. GB nd I'm not diminishing the over 100 people that we have working at CJGB D, I'm not saying they don't put an input -but the end result is if you want to make a decision in that studio; i.e. a phone call to Idi GB min, you can do it and it doesn't take an I! to set it up and have the sound, the lights, cameras and the time. TV, I found, was do something and wait and wait and wait and do a little something and wait again. I was unaccustomed to that and was very much aggravated by it.

GS There's more control in radio, I guess.

GB Yes, and I would want more control over my work if I did television, again.

GS Briefly, why did you get into radio?

GB I guess it was partially because I admired the people in it that I heard like Garaway in Chicago. When I grew up, in Dauphin, Manitoba, my parents wondered what the hell I was doing, crouching in front of a radio in the dark.

I’d listen to a guy at midnight in Chicago. You feel so connected to that person and he seems like someone you would want to know. There’s warmth, a real transfer through radio. That's the success, I think, of certain people in the business. The real people who make it here are those who can connect; the people who are so good that a great variety of people can identify with them – in bars – while milking cows; the woman who’s working over a chocolate cake and the kid who is doing the homework. You may not be able to get to all of them, but you should be able to be a comfortable companion on that radio. GB guy who is interesting enough so that you want to invite him into your house everyday. You turn the radio on, and “there's my buddy.” The great test I find is that people come to me and say, “I talk to you every morning.” I'm the one who talks to you every morning. Oh no, they reply, at our house I turn on the clock radio and there’s Balcon, who never argues with me.

GS What proportion of music do you play on your show, generally?

GB I'll play about 20 songs 6 am to 10 am. Between 6 am and 7 am, I might get in seven records, but between 7 am and 8 am maybe only three.

GS So it's de-emphasized?

GB Yes.

GS How about news?

GB News is important. We have the best newsroom in town. It's very aggressive, large. Our PD, Ted Blackman, is an important guy. He was sports editor for the Montreal "Gazette," and wrote sports for the Toronto "Star," for a time. We recently hired Bob Dunn, a sports writer for the Montreal "Star"; he concentrates most of his work in the PM Drive, but he also leaves usually three carts for use in GB M Drive. Our sports is in 3 minute segments at the 27 mark of the hour, and then 7 minutes feature cast usually with some editorial comment, just before the news on the hour.

GS Overall it's 10 minutes.

GB Yes.

GS Do you think news is very important to what's going on there?

GB Yes, it's very important. We were the first to have helicopter traffic service.

GS Given the news and music choices -you would it pick the news over the music in the GB M show in terms of importance for your audience, and being friendly and neighbourly and binding them to you.

GB Oh yes. Information is the key. I've done programs without interviews because of necessity, such as major snowstorms. The morning after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, we did a show without music or commercials and it was probably one of my best morning shows ever. I was able to ad lib, as I felt; of course our news room was in on it too. It was ‘the’ test of what a radio newsroom can do. The great thing about radio is that it’s mobile and adjustable. It can change, and that's when you have to make the right decision.

GS Preparation- how much do you do for the show generally?

GB I think every moment of the day is preparation for your next day's program. I try to spend in research, in my office or talking to people the eGS uivalent time that I spend on the air. I spend 4 hours a day researching, cleaning up jokes, talking to people.

When I finish at 10 GB M, I go right out to the newsroom and I go right out to the newsroom and sit on the window sill. I talk for a half hour because I think the guys in the newsroom are the key to what is happening in the city and around the world. It doesn't matter that I won't be able to use all that info for another 20 hours. I get an idea of what's happening in the world.

Our newsroom consistently reads the GB M newspapers. By the way, we don't have a PM newspaper because Montreal Star is on strike. You don't know how important radio is in a major market until something like that happens. It gives you a chance to be really a part of the community.

Ted Blackman took the writers of the Montreal Star and hired them on a rotation basis so that 8:10 every GB M we have an editorial from the Star, as associates, and used them half days. We pay them.

We felt the Star editorial was well read and had an important voice the city and listeners or readers need to hear if not read it. It's costly, but it's worth the point of view of the PD, people tell me if they consult, that it adds clutter to the 8 am to 8:30 am package, but for some people it's not clutter; it's an absolute must in their lives.

We in radio are very political animals. It's more important than ever that we leave opinions? and the Montreal Starr has always been an important facet of Montrealers lives. We give that to them. We publicize the other mediGB .

GS To paraphrase, you’re always on the job. I assume you’d advise someone who wanted to do the job well, to do the same thing.

GB Oh, yes. I read 3 or 4 newspapers a day. During the program, it's common to read headlines for upcoming newscasts. I think it's important that people know what's going on in the world.

GS In formal terms, you're the environment.

GB Yes.

GS Do you read magazines? If you had to suggest three for someone who was where you were in 1953, which would you suggest?

GB For easily recyclable information US magazine, not "People." "US" presents in a format you can use faster, more efficiently. I also suggest "Rolling Stone," "Time," "Newsweek," "New York Magazine" and "EsGS uire." There's a month old story about the Mexican oil situation that the newspapers just got this week, but the news magazines had three weeks ago.

GS Do you read many books?

GB I don’t read as many books as I should, even thought I have a library in my home.

GS Briefly, why have you stuck with GB M Drive?

GB I'm a creature of habit. I like it. I enjoy the people I work with, and the feedback from the audience. Two-thirds of the year you have the one of the two best shifts in radio – the other is PM Drive – and free time in the daylight.

In the summer, I tend to goof off a little and I may not put in my full 4 hours on research. There are times when I pray for rain, so that I have to sit and prepare! I'll prepare 3-5 days ahead.

GS Seems you’re in a process of never ending self-education.

GB Sure, because education, whether street or formal, is the only thing that you have to work with and it ends up with you being the sum of you're parts.

GS Besides education is how you re-invest in yourself, what other advice would you offer?

GB You have to invest yourself in the community. The dividends are not always returned, GS uickly, but in the end, yes. Emceeing a Bike-GB -Thon, for example, will always bring positive returns.

GS What about involvement in the industry. You participated in the RPM Conference, last month. How important do you think that is to your or someone else's career?

GB It's because of you and Walt that I found out about it, and you can't stay away from it. You read "Cashbox" and "Billboard." I found the RPM Conference important, and I learned as much there being up there than watching some of the other people. I admire those guys; they work hard and they are the guys that are going to win. GB ll I can see is the return of your.

Radio is like a woman, she lures you on. There are great thrills, a lot of peaks and valleys. If you really want to get involved with her and give her something, she returns it a hundred-fold.

GS Have the pressures of the industry caused some pressures in your personal life?

GB Yes, partially, I'm divorced.

GS What does the future hold for George Balcon?

GB I used to be able to say that I just wanted to see tomorrow. But, partially because of the seminar, I really got geared to it; to extensions of other things. I see so many other things that are coming, services that aren’t available that I provided myself. I get an aircheck cassette from “GB ir Check Factory,” and once and awhile, in the morning, I listen to Gary Owens or Carl de Suze. It's like getting an GB M fix; it works and I would like someone -somewhere -to be able to a George Balcon cassette. I love Montreal. It's my home for the moment. I'd do television, but you have to keep time for yourself. I play golf and run, and Montreal is the place to do both.

Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews

Interview edited and condensed for publication.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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