An entertaining memoir about
the golden age of local media
I have a stack of books at my beside table that keeps getting higher, no matter how I chip away at it. Im making progress, however, and just recently finished reading Yesterdays News (DRC Publishing), a memoir by Nix Wadden of life in the golden days of Newfoundland media.
Waddens book spans events that happened in the 1950s and 60s, so he was ahead of my time (though only slightly). However, I recognize many of the names and was fascinated to read personality glimpses of people like Edsel Bonnell, Harry Brown, Ray Simmons, Sylvia Wigh, Don Jamieson, Omar Blondahl, and others, many at the dawn of their careers.
It surprises me that many of the younger generation know little or nothing of that exciting era, so perhaps this memoir will help to shed a little light on some dramatic moments in Newfoundland's history, Wadden said, in an email exchange. And there a few fun stories in it as well.
The many personal anecdotes in this book are entertaining, but there is more than that in Yesterdays News. Its also an important firsthand account of an era that is not well documented. The media back then was a humble enterprise that spent precious little time talking about itself; most print stories didnt even have bylines and there was no discussion about the story behind the story (with the notable exception of Ray Guy).
Waddens book is especially important because of his diverse experience with local media in print, radio and TV. He worked at Harveys News Bulletin, The Daily News, VOCM and CJON and had a front-row seat to important moments in Newfoundland history, including Confederation with Canada, the IWA loggers strike, the misadventures of the Smallwood government, and more.
Wadden was the first full-time news reporter with VOCM News, which for many years contracted out its news programming to Harveys News Bulletin. Wadden offers entertaining back stories about the rivalry between VOCM and CJON Radio. VOCM, for example, started its hourly newscast at five minutes to the hour, to beat the competition to the punch and be first with the news (a tactic that NTV deploys today, by starting its newscast slightly earlier than CBC).
Wadden was a contributor to the Newfoundland Weekly, which he described as an alternative newspaper designed to compete, albeit on a small scale, with major dailies, proving that some things in this city never change. Heres an excerpt from a Town Crier column Wadden wrote for the paper:
Is this town big enough to have two weekly papers? This question greeted the advent of The Newfoundland Weekly last December (1957) and is still being debated over morning coffee at McMurdos. Many are surprised to see the Weekly has lasted so long. Why has it? We suggest the answer lies in the present journalistic situation in Newfoundland. The people need another voice!
Do you know the The Telegrams editorials are practically all written by the same person who writes its daily column: Harold Horwood? Did you know The Daily News editorials are all written by the same person who writes its daily column: Albert Perlin? Everyone knows The Sunday Herald is owned and operated by CJON, although its editorials and the bulk of its story material are written by editor Arch Sullivan
The book is rife with anecdotes like this, featuring people and media outlets I recognize, but from an era I didnt witness. For example, I liked his candid description of reporter Bob Moss, someone Ive never met but whose name I remember from the Gander Beacon:
As time went on, I learned to reassess my judgment about Bob Moss whom, through my initial dealings with him, I had caustically dismissed as the rolling Moss who gathers no news. This was an unkind, and highly politically incorrect, reference to his ambling gait due, if I recall correctly, to a onetime leg injury. Bob, in fact, developed later into a highly effective news digger, sniffing out news stories that others couldnt see. He became a constant burr in the side of unwary politicians and business leaders who mistook his outharbour manner of speaking for lack of intelligence. He had no fear of the high and mighty, and doggedly pursued the substance of a story with admirable passion and conviction.
Now thats my kind of reporter.
There are humourous recollections, too. Wadden writes of one story from 1958, involving an anonymous local businessman, who got carried away during New Years celebrations. The man was well into his cups, riding a horse and sleigh, when he decided to check out the action at the Old Mill on Brookfield Road. However, thinking that his horse needed warmth as well or possibly a drink he led the animal, sleigh and all, right inside the club, resulting in a disturbance that ended in fisticuffs.
There is more, so much more, to recommend this book, especially if you have an interest in local media. And there is a story you will NOT find in the book, which is presented below, exclusively for readers of this blog. Wadden mentioned that he had worked at CJON with both my father, Ken, and uncle, Howie. So I asked if he might come up with a brief recollection about one of them, for inclusion in this entry. He choose to write about Howie.
The Howie I Knew My first image of Howie Meeker, when memory lures me back to those early years at CJON, is of a far from svelte 30-something guy doing strenuous exercise in a make shift studio close by our newsroom. For a one time hockey great with the mighty Maple Leafs, he was not in the best of shape, little wedges of excess fat showing through a rumpled gym suit. Puffing and grunting like a TV wrestler, he manfully described all the twists and turns he performed for the benefit of would be phys ed devotees raptly watching from their cozy living rooms. Camera coverage was elementary - maybe strictly remote for all I know - but enough basic instruction got through to keep the Howie Meeker fitness show on the air for a few seasons. The lessons worked, for Howie, anyway, as muscles firmed up and energy levels revived the hot pace he seemed to set for himself, whatever tasks he undertook. His versatility was a wonder to behold, as within the decade or two when he lived in Newfoundland, he was willing to tackle anything. One of his first ventures in St. John's was the launching of a sporting goods store on Harvey Road. People still remember his great success in introducing the Jolly Jumper to let kids have fun in harness while their mothers got a welcome break from hands on supervision. Later on he branched out into building bowling alleys, a line of work hearkening back to his youthful success as a five pin bowling champion. His primary role in his Newfoundland debut was as a hockey coach, taking over the reins of the Guards hockey club, eager to topple the vaunted St. Bon's teams, which had dominated the local hockey scene for decades. His NHL-gained expertise had immediate impact, developing Guards squads as solid contenders, mainly by focusing on aggressive body contact. The change in tactics aroused more than its share of controversy, but despite concerns about brawn over brain techniques, Howie earned widespread respect among the hockey fraternity. Interestingly enough, he evolved in later years into a highly successful hockey school organizer, passionately advocating the training of younger players in basic hockey skills rather than purely physical play. One of his hockey skills work books, which years later I joined a long lineup to get him to autograph, became a player's bible for my son. As a sports broadcaster at CJON, Howie was characteristically outspoken, but focused his commentaries on play making skills and faux pas, and showed himself as always fair minded. He had a particular knack for spotting and graphically describing key plays and make or break strategies of the opposing teams. Whether on the job or off, he loved a good argument without getting into personalities. As a result, he won many friends and admirers, building a reputation that propelled him eventually into the big time of CBC hockey commentator. Throughout his career, his outstanding trait has been his enthusiasm, the sheer joy which he expressed in any situation in which he found himself. That, at least, is how he stands out in my memory. A contentious and competitive individual whose career I have followed with much interest - and someone I liked very much.
One other note. Wadden has a niece who also became quite active in media: Marie Wadden has enjoyed a distinguished career as both a journalist with CBC and an author.
For another review of Waddens book, check the Writers Alliance web site.