Where the news is always good
H-bombs and iron curtains, vice scandals and "viewing with alarm” never mar the scripts of Neighborly News, the CBC’s cross-country cracker barrel. And the welcome relief it brings listeners has won it a smash-hit rating
JACK HUMBLE, who farms near Auhurnton, Sask., went out into his yard one cold day last year to get a washtuh full of fresh snow. Suddenly a large buck came charging around the corner of the barn and made straight for him. Jack defended himself as best he could with the tub and then ran into the house. The enraged deer followed and took a stand on his hack step, as if daring him to come out. Jack phoned neighbor Jim Junk who came over and shot the animal. Who in heck said life on the farm is monotonous?” commented Jack.
1 hat yarn, taken from the Oxbow Herald, and thousands like it come close to being Canadians’ favorite radio fare. It was told over the air from Winnipeg one Sunday morning by Slim Greene on one of the CBC’s least costly and most listened to sustaining shows, Neighborly News.
Once a week the year round (Sunday morning at ten, except on the west coast where the show is aired Wednesday evening at six) four broadcasters in four regions—maritimes, central, prairie and west coast go on the air for fifteen minutes and in a nice folksy manner spin yarns they have clipped from about a thousand Canadian weekly newspapers.
These are the kind of stories neighbors tell each other in their back kitchens or sitting around the potbellied stove in the curling rink. Stories of ordinary people and the things ordinary people are interested in. Like the Langley Prairie, B.C., man who by mistake swallowed two plant pills each having the fertilizer value of one wheelbarrow of barnyard manure; or the hundredand-twelve-pound squash grown by John Miner, of Wolfville Ridge, N.S.; or the red fox that jumped onto the back of hunter Francis Reid at Maclean’s Mountain, Ont.; or the twenty-eight-year-old horse that wandered into the curling rink at Salvador, Sask., and died with its nose on the hog line.
Not exactly events of world-shattering importance but, in these days of bomb blasts and double dealing from behind iron curtains, as refreshing as a drive through the country in autumn. W. R. Junkin, of Winnipeg, said it. for thousands of listeners when he wrote the CBC: “After listening to murders, suicides, plane crashes, train wrecks, crises and disasters of all kinds on the news broadcasts it is refreshing to hear of Joe Koliski’s hen laying the smallest egg ever laid.”
The letter also points up the fact that, city people delight in this folksy fare almost, as much as their country cousins. A recent survey in Ontario indicated that when it’s on the air Neighborly News captures forty-eight percent of radio listeners whose sets are turned on at that time. In rural areas they had sixty-five percent of the audience and what stunned even the CBC —in cities of more than one hundred thousand population forty percent of all radios in use were bringing in the stuff.
These Four "Good Neighbors” Span the Country Each Week
Seventeen Hundred Sunday Shakes
These figures are admittedly flattering, for Neighborly News has no highpriced commercial competition during the hours in which it’s aired. But. when Don Fairbairn, who handles the Ontario and Quebec broadcast, read them he was sufficiently impressed to ask for a raise from his salary of fifty dollars a week. “After battling six months I finally got it,” says Fairbairn. “Five dollars a week!” For this he reads or pays to have read about, two hundred and twenty-five weekly newspapers, clips out. the human interest items, writes the script and reads it on the air.
Having the most papers to go through Fairbairn is the highest paid of the Neighborly News broadcasters. Jim Coulter, who compiles his broadcast from fifty to sixty Maritime weeklies, receives thirty-five dollars a week; Slim (Cyril Frederick) Greene collects forty-five a week on the [mairies with more than two hundred papers; and Les Way, who scans sixty-five B.C. papers, collects thirty a week.
None of these broadcasters makes a full-time job of Neighborly News, of course, and each finds the “grass-roots” contacts he makes tremendously stimulating.
There are other compensations. Although among the poorest.-paid broadcasters in the country each in his own region is a well-known personality. Farmers who wouldn’t walk across the street, to see Bob Hope will drive ten miles through a blizzard to shake the hand of Slim Greene if he happens to be in their town. When Don Fairbairn originated his show in Smiths Falls recently in honor of that town’s centennial more than seventeen hundred turned up at the hall on Sunday morning just, to see him and shake his hand.
Although the fepur Neighborly Newsers never get together to compare notes and, in most cases, have never even met, they possess a number of common qualities. Each has an unpolished homey radio voice and style; each has a good sense of humor in the Will Rogers’ tradition; each has a background of agriculture or small-town publishing; each is chuck to the ears with cracker-barrel philosophy; and each possesses a rugged individualism characteristic of the weekly editors whom he, in a sense, represents.
None of the broadcasters uses bad grammar or clutters up his sentences with “by cracky’s” but none sounds much like a radio announcer either. One listener wrote, “We get so sick and tired of these smooth syrupy-voiced announcers.” Another commented, “It’s just as though you were sitting here in our old rocking chair felling us about how the reeve bust his braces when he tried to pin the ribbon on the tall gelding at the horse show.”
Jim Coulter, the genial forty-four-year-old balding Irishman who does the program from Halifax, is a humorist, philosopher, poet and something of a rolling stone. Since coming to Canada from Dublin twenty-five years ago he has farmed on the [mairies, prospected in the north, mined in British Columbia and lived in each of the Maritime provinces. Now he does free-lance magazine and radio work out of his home in Milford Station, about halfway between Halifax and Truro.
Many of Coulter’s listeners have become members of his Tall - Tale Tellers Club. One Newfoundlander sent him a story about a woodsman who nicked the end off his nose and stuck it back on again with molasses. A Cape Bretoner topped this with the story of a local axeman who did the same thing but stuck the nose on upside down and drowned in the first rainstorm.
Sometimes stories that never appeared in a newspaper find their way into Jim’s script. Like the one about the little boy who wanted a hundred dollars so badly he wrote a letter to the Almighty asking for it. “The local postmaster sent the letter to Ottawa,” continues Jim. “Well, the Prime Minister thought it was kind of cute and sent the little fella five dollars. So when he got the five he sat down and wrote the Almighty another letter to thank him and wound up ‘. . . I noticed you sent your letter through Ottawa and Mr. Abbott as usual snagged his ninety-five percent as it went through.’ ”
Poetry is Coulter’s real love. He especially likes to uncover local poets and read their poems on his broadcast. Last spring S. Barlow Bird, whom Coulter has dubbed “the Bard of Freetown,” P.E.I., sent him this one:
We are the folks who love your jokes, your home news and your patter;
Your wedding notes and anecdotes . . yes all your friendly chatter.
But most of us kick up a fuss (and do not mean to bluff )
When we opine, “Your program’s fine but it’s not long enough.”
To which Coulter replied, in part . . .
Dear Mr. Bird: Your kindly word has made my glad eye glisten.
I must confess that my success is just that you folks listen.
I like to meet each week and greet you all with news and stories
Of this and that . . . from a two-faced cat to winter morning glories.
Many radios powered by carefully hoarded batteries on lonely coasts or deep in the Maritime bush are turned on for little else besides the national news, the hockey games and Jim Coulter. Fishermen listen to discover where the big ones are biting. If Jim mentions that an item from the Pictou Advocate tells how somebody caught a five-pound trout in McPherson’s Lake the place will be swarming with anglers the day after his broadcast.
Coulter more than the others is fascinated by the freaks in the news. Every broadcast carries several items like the two-faced kitten (four eyes, two noses and two tongues) owned by Sanford Mitten, of Cole’s Island, or the apple grown by Robert Bird, of Londonderry Station, that measured thirteen inches around, or the moose that chased Laurence Sarson, of Pugwash, up the road on his motorcycle.
At the other side of the country tall, blond, wavy-haired Les Way is just as affectionately known to British Columbia listeners as well as to a good number in the adjoining American states. Way, who was born in New Westminster, B.C., forty years ago, has been an apple picker, promotion man for a gymnasium, amateur wrestler and weight lifter in his day. For twelve years he worked on weekly newspapers and as editor of the Powell River News won two consecutive first awards for the best weekly in its class in Canada. Now he is a partner in the public relations firm, L. C. Way and Associates, in Vancouver, and publisher of a trade paper called the Weekly Editor.
Way (he gets letters addressed to Wey, Weigh, Wade, Wayne, Waite) often invites weekly editors and other listeners to appear with him on the show. “It is my conviction that the big city doesn’t appreciate the interdependence of city and country,” he said recently. “Neighborly News gives me a chance to have my say on this point.” He feels also that many city folks are ex-small towners and it’s up lo him to keep them posted on what’s going on at home.
Way describes his show as a “fireside type of broadcast.” He makes a few flubs that are as funny as those he picks out of the papers. Recently in his “fiftieth anniversary and over” section he referred to a couple who had “enjoyed fifty years of wild (instead of wedded) life together.” Another time he started rural telephone lines humming when he announced that an Okanagan woman had won the Canadian apple-packing contest by packing twenty-one hundred boxes (instead of apples) in half an hour.
Way always ends his broadcast with a Nitecap Yarn and he hopes someday to publish a book of these. One of his fivorites concerns the Powell River jeweler who keeps a showcase of wedding rings and right beside it a rack of shotguns.
The Two-IIundred-Pound Voice
Although he uses a lot of believe-itor-not stuff, Way shies off from the higgest-vegetable type of story. “Let me announce a huge turnip on the air and my phone starts to ring with people who have a turnip two ounces bigger,” he says. “And so it goes with pumpkins, hollyhocks, apples and sunflowers. And once in a while someone sends me a whole crate of strawberries or peaches, to support his statement.”
Neighborly News has a special appeal to older people and each of the broadcasters has an Over-90 Club on which he reads the names of all the people mentioned in the papers who have passed their ninetieth birthday.
Fairbairn, whose broadcasts to Ontario and Quebec reach more people than those of the other three combined, spends a considerable portion of his show on this club. Two of his more famous members have been the late Sir Allen Aylesworth, who was Minister of Labor in the Laurier government of 1905, and T. L. Moffat, who at ninety is still chairman of the board of the stove company that bears his name.
Fairbairn gets a kick out of meeting his listeners but he gets a little tired hearing them say, “Gosh, from listenin’ to you I pictured you about six foot four and weighing two hundred pounds.” Actually Don, who has dark hair and mustache and stands about five foot seven and weighs barely a hundred and forty pounds, looks more like an office executive than a heavyhanded son of the soil. But he was born on a farm and if it weren’t that everything from cow hair to bromegrass pollen gives him hay fever he would have been a farmer. Instead he became a CBC farm broadcaster, a position he left some years ago to go into the public-relations and free-lance broadcasting field.
Fairbairn goes in strong for stories like the one about the councilman in Chesley, Ont., who came out of a hot council meeting on what to do about traffic violators, leaped into his own car and backed smack into the car behind him.
He also likes to pick up funny typ°graphieal flubs like the one in the Oakville Trafalgar Journal advertising a house with an 18 by 24 loving room.
Like the other Neighborly Newsers, Fairbairn’s relations with the weekly editors are of the best. During the railway strike when the papers couldn’t be sent in the usual way the editors clipped Neighborly News type items themselves and sent them to Fairbairn by airplane, bus, truck and boat. Some even jumped in their cars and delivered them personally.
Last April when a meteor was seen in the sky the Dunlap Observatory near Toronto asked Fairbairn to help discover where it had landed. He broadcast the request and received hundreds of replies from such widely scattered points as Gould, Que., and Cedarville, Mich. The astronomers ultimately found that the meteor landed in Georgian Bay.
Fairbairn is in great demand as a judge for local beauty contests, hogcalling competitions, old-time fiddling and the like. He even was called in to judge a plaid-shirt contest in Brampton, Ont.
The popularity of Neighborly News has been put to the test at least a couple of times and has emerged the winner by a country mile. In the spring of 1950 the Aurora Banner voiced a very gentle criticism that perhaps Neighborly News contained too many trivial items and not enough important news. Fairbairn read the criticism over the air without comment. The response was quick and definite. Dozens of letters arrived from Ontario, Quebec and New York State saying, “Keep the program as it is. Let the people who want to learn about wars and bombs read it in their papers.” Several newspapers wrote editorials in Don’s defense and when it was all over Fairbairn and Neighborly News were stronger than ever.
Although all the broadcasters sound like rugged old pioneers, Slim Greene, of Winnipeg, is the only one over sixty. Greene, who stands six feet four and is built like a bean pole, came to this country from England at nineteen and still retains a trace of his London accent. Besides his broadcasting he operates his own public-relations consultant business in downtown Winnipeg.
He likes to pass on a good story— like the one told by Walter Ashfield in the Grenfell Sun about the man who got his cards mixed and put the one that should have gone to a business associate in with the flowers he sent to his mother-in-law’s funeral. It read, “Good luck in your new location.”
E. A. Wier, ex-CBC commercial manager gets credit for originating the idea for Neighborly News back in 1939. Along with the CBC’s chief news editor, Dan McArthur, he met with weekly editors George James, of the Bowmanville Canadian Statesman, Frank McIntyre, of the Dundalk Herald, C. V. Charters, of the Brampton Conservator, and others. They decided that the Canadian Weekly Newspapers Association and the CBC should work together to produce a Sunday-morning show that wouldn’t interfere with church attendance.
Looking around for a man with just the right over-t he-back-fence manner they fixed on Andy Clarke who for sixteen years had been news editor of the Toronto Globe. Although Clarke had never worked on a weekly paper in his thirty years in the newspaper business he was a great spinner of yarns and in his front-page column The Southeast Corner had always showed affection for iLems about turnips I that looked like Sir John A. Macdonald. Besides, Clarke was already known to I radio listeners through his nightly news broadcast from the Globe newsroom— reputed to be the first of its kind in North America.
Clarke was handed over to Reid Forsee, whose deep voice and reassuring manner have eased hundreds of preachers, professors, policemen and gardeners into the intricacies of network broadcasting. According to Forsee, Andy was a pretty rough broadcaster at first. “If he felt like clearing his throat he cleared it. He rattled his papers. Stumped by a foreign name he’d take a couple of runs at it and then spell it.” Forsee’s job was to polish up the Clarke style without rubbing off any of the cracker-barrel stuffthat made him so popular.
From the time Clarke made his first Neighborly News broadcast on Jan. 7, 1940, until he died in May 1948 he was the favorite broadcaster of hundreds of thousands of listeners in Ontario, Quebec and neighboring states. When he began originating some of his broadcasts in local communities, people lined up by the thousands just to shake his hand. They called him the Mayor of Little Places.
Clarke set a tone for the program that has been maintained ever since. Almost immediately broadcasters were established in the other three regions. These men became as well known in their home territories as Clarke was in the central provinces.
On the west coast the first man was che late Earle (Good Evening) Kelly, famous for his closing salutations to “the ships at sea, the men in the lighthouses . . .” The first prairie broadcaster was R. D. Colquette, who was soon being called Ardee by nearly everybody. His stories—like the one about the prairie fog so thick that a farmer shingled his barn fourteen feet above the roof until the fog lifted and let him down—were repeated all over the prairies.
Ralph Marvin, then a farm commentator in Halifax, started the Maritime version on Oct. 6, 1940. He worked without pay and often brought his wife to the studio on Saturday to help read and clip stories. Like the others Marvin was an immediate success. When he left for Montreal the show was handled temporarily by several broadcasters until Jim Coulter took it over.
During the war Andy Clarke did a seven-minute Neighborly News broadcast for troops overseas. Today Fairbairn takes stories from his own and the other three scripts for a ten-minute broadcast to the Canadian servicemen abroad.
Neighborly News will probably go on for as long as people like to listen to fish stories and hunting stories and yarns about their neighbors, which is a pretty long time. It is what radio people call a natural. There is an unending supply of free human-interest stories to work with and there will always be good storytellers to string them together into a broadcast.
As Neighborly News listeners are continually saying in their letters, “It’s nice to hear news that’s friendly and fun for a change.”
Neighborly News is an antidote for the bellyache of the times. ★