life on the dial

Here in the mountains radio reception is an iffy proposition at best. On clear nights it sometimes seems like the world is at my fingers.

Here in the mountains radio reception is an iffy proposition at best.

On clear nights it sometimes seems like the world is at my fingers. Other times, when cloud descends or the snows of winter intervene, there’s nothing but static or silence across the band.

There’s magic in radio. That’s what I’ve rediscovered here. When there’s jazz in the background and the sun is going down and the entire western sky is a blazing orange, it’s sublime.

Or when the rain pelts down in sheets and Bach, say, bounces around in counterpoint, there’s a Baroque glee to things. Whether it’s country in the sunshine on the deck, or the sonorous roll of news readers in the hushed light of morning, radio charms me.

It always has.

I got my first radio job in 1979. I was living in Calgary after leaving the first journalism job I’d ever had in Saskatchewan. There wasn’t a lot of work available for a Grade 9 drop-out with less than a year’s experience, and I spent my time checking the classifieds and listening to the local radio stations.

I was attracted to the news stations. As a new journalist I was keen on gaining whatever experience I could and radio news was attractive to me. But I had no experience with it.

The few radio jobs I applied for rejected me outright. So I began to listen attentively to the news readers and taped their broadcasts. Later, I would transcribe the newscast in longhand and practice reading it just like the news reader had.

This went on for months. Eventually, I began to rewrite newspaper stories in what I’d gleaned was radio style and then voice them onto cassette. As I did that, I began to be able to envision myself as a broadcaster. I practiced diligently.

Every day I wrote copy and read it into the tape machine, working at developing a clean, crisp, professional delivery.

There was a radio station right around the corner from where I lived. At that time it was a satellite station for the CKO-All News Network. Back then, it was a novelty.

Radio station formats were not devoted to all news or all sports or all talk like they are today and the CKO network was struggling to find a footing on the dial and with audiences.

One morning after I’d taped, transcribed and read the 7 a.m. newscast, I got my courage up and walked around the corner. I presented myself to the station manager and declared that I was a broadcaster and news writer, and that I was there to do a better job of the newscast than the person whom I’d heard at home.

Today, I can only believe that it was good humour more than anything that led him to sit me at a microphone and tape my read.

Well, I did a capable job and I was hired as a weekend writer and reader. My job was to write capsule newscasts that they would slot into the network feed once every hour. For the first few weeks all I did was write. Because I had no actual on-air experience they were taking their time with me.

Then, one Saturday morning, the regular newscaster, Rick Castiglione, set me up to read the local weather. I had the headphones on and sat at the microphone with my copy in my hand, trembling, as he played a public service announcement after his newscast. As soon as the out cue played, I was to read the weather.

I did it admirably. I read it without a hitch and it was clean and crisp and professional, and would have marked an auspicious debut into the world of radio broadcasting if I’d remembered to turn the microphone on. There’d been nothing but a minute of dead air.

I was mortified. But Rick was gracious and helped me find the humour in it, and set me up for the weather again later. That time, I became a broadcaster.

It was thrilling. As a kid I had loved radio and slept with earphones on at night. Some of my favourite memories revolved around finding new and exciting music, or hearing important world-changing news for the first time, or historic baseball games I imagined seeing in my mind. Radio was a gateway and when I walked through it and became a radio person, I was jubilant.

It wasn’t long before I had an actual audition tape culled from clips of my on-air work. When an opening came up for a radio producer with Saskatchewan Native Communications, I moved to Regina in 1982.

We produced a newsmagazine program for CBC North and I wrote, read and produced it for three years. Then I hit the road.

My life on the dial led me to a major market stint on an FM station in Regina as a writer, newscaster and features reader, and then on to CBC in Calgary before settling in as program director and DJ for CFWE-FM in Lac La Biche, Alberta.

I’d come to love radio, and there was something in the immediacy of the spoken word that was more magical to me than the static feel of printed words.

Eventually I made the move to television and then back to newspapers and on into publishing in the mid 1990s. But the love of radio has stuck with me.

There’s comfort to be found in the sound of someone’s voice in the darkness, or in the feel of music, all languid and loose, filling the room along with morning sunshine. The boy in me is still willing to believe that there’s a “man-in-the-box.”

There are so many things that flesh out our world, that make us more by virtue of their presence. I have learned incredible things from a radio — and I still do.

On quiet nights, I still spin across the dial when the reception is clear, searching, always searching for something more, and special and magical. Most times, I find it.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.

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