Reminiscing with Swain

Veteran journalist looks back on nearly half-century in the news business

Bill Bowman
Published on December 8, 2010
Ed Swain

Carbonear — “In Carbonear, this is Ed Swain for ‘NTV Neeewwwsss.’”

It’s likely you’ve heard this distinctive signoff. But there is a lot you probably don’t know about the man behind the camera, who’s been the voice of NTV in Conception Bay North and Trinity South for a decade.

For starters, his real name is not Ed, or even Edward. He was baptized Everett Gerald Swain on Bell Island, where he was born July 28. But to his radio and TV audiences, he has been known as Ed for his 46-year career, and he’s the longest-serving active member of the media in this province, and is among a select group nationwide.

Why Ed? He acquired the name during his first media job.

“I went home to Bell Island on my two days off, and while there, the ice blocked The Tickle and I got stranded on the island,” Swain recalls.

His first media boss, then VOCM news director Noel Vinicombe, told Swain to do as many voice reports as possible from the island. At the end of his reports, he would sign off as “Everett Swain reporting...”

When he returned to the station, Vinicombe said he needed a new moniker. Everett was too long, and it sounded like a disease, he told Swain.

It’s been Ed ever since.


First interview

Swain has done countless interviews, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that he found himself in the spotlight, answering a reporter’s questions.

During a wide-ranging interview at his apartment in Carbonear, Swain spoke about his life and work, noting that he was bitten by the media bug at an early age.

As a boy, he sold the then Evening Telegram, Sunday Herald and the Daily News. After completing his route, he used to spread the newspapers on his bed and read the stories aloud, pretending he was on the radio.

“I got to brush shoulders with some of the giants of the industry of that era — people like Don Jamieson, John Nolan, Bob Lewis, Merve Russell, Jim Thoms, Bill Williamson and Noel Vinicombe of VOCM. They were great people to work for,” he recalls.

After graduating from high school in 1960, Swain moved to Gander and eventually got a job pumping gas for Bennett Motors. At night he took courses in typing and shorthand, skills that would later become invaluable as a the budding journalist.

When City Motors took over Bennett Motors, Swain became a manager. It was in Gander that he met Bill Williamson, VOCM’s operations manager. Williamson told Swain to look him up if he was ever in St. John’s.

Eventually, Swain moved to the capital city, taking a job with Import Motors on Elizabeth Avenue. But the broadcasting bug was still with him and he started calling Williamson at least once a month, inquiring about job opportunities.

His persistence eventually paid off, and Swain took a serious pay cut — from $65 weekly at Import Motors to $35 at VOCM — to get on the air. That was in 1964. In less than a year, his pay had increased to $50 a week.

“That was a lot of money back then,” he recalls, adding the pay is better now.

His first assignment was covering a visit by the president of the Canadian Students Union. He also covered Supreme Court trials, the House of Assembly and St. John’s council.

Much like today, there was a race to be “first with the news,” Swain says.

He later joined the migration to the mainland, and found himself in Sudbury, Ont., Canada’s nickel capital. He landed a gig with CKSO Radio and Television and was sent to cover a tragic accident that still haunts him.

“It was on Highway 17 West. An older gentleman driving a big Cadillac had a heart attack, lost control of his vehicle and struck a Volkswagen bus carrying a young family of seven. There were no survivors. I never want to see anything like that again,” Swain says.

He prefers to remember the more positive highlights of his career, like sitting down in Corner Brook in 1970 with Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Trudeau was one of four prime ministers Swain has interviewed, and he’s interviewed all nine Newfoundland premiers since Confederation.

He met and shook hands with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, but notes the highlight of his career was meeting Diana, Princess of Wales, during her 1983 visit to the province.

He recalls covering the infamous incident of the burning of the ballots in Sally’s Cove in the 1971 provincial election. The race between Tory Ed Maynard and Liberal Trevor Bennett was close enough to warrant a recount. But Olive Payne allegedly burned the ballots on election night.

Swain and Gerry Basha went to Sally’s Cove in hopes of getting an interview with Payne.

“We parked outside her house and I was rigged with a microphone under my sleeve and wire trailing behind me. However, it was all in view. A person answered the door and said she wasn’t home. But we did manage to get pictures of the house and the guy coming to the door.”

The Sally’s Cove story went national and is one of his best memories, Swain says.

He says one of the saddest aspects of his career was witnessing Joey Smallwood’s fading popularity. He recalls seeing Smallwood pacing the floor of a meeting hall in the early 1970s, with only about five people in the room.

In a desperate attempt to regain power, Smallwood had just founded the Liberal Reform Party. It would win only four seats in the 1974 election.


Technological revolution

Swain is well aware of how much technology has revolutionized the tools of his trade. In his early days on the job, computers were unheard of, never mind cellphones or other mobile communication devices.

In the ’60s, an electric typewriter was a novelty and reporters carried around clunky manual typewriters, Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorders with about 100 feet of cord, and set up clumsy stands with three microphones, known in the trade as moose antlers.

Now all Swain needs is a digital camera, mini recorder and a mike.

“I like to see the end result of my work on TV,” he says. “When you cover an event, write it up and then 100,000 viewers get to see the end results of what you’ve produced that day, it gives you a great feeling. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.”

Swain has spent most of his working life in the media, except for a few years in the late 1980s, when he was press secretary in three government departments. And there was a time in the 1970s when he helped Dr. A.T. (Gus) Rowe get elected as the first Tory MHA for Carbonear. Swain is from a family of lifelong Liberals, so the reaction — especially from his father — was predictably frosty when he went to work for Rowe.

But he still gets a charge out of his job and says he has no regrets.

“If I had it to do all over again, I would,” he says.

The Compass