‘Fisheries Broadcast’ celebrates milestone

Contest will allow winner to sing their way into a new dory

Published on March 5, 2011
John Furlong is the current host of CBC Radio’s “Fisheries Broadcast.” The Broadcast begins its 60th year with its show on Monday. — Photo by Tiffany J. Cuthburt/Special to The Telegram

It’s seen as the voice of the province’s fishermen, a part of the very culture that defines us, and a benchmark for the fishing industry.

Not much has changed over the 60 years CBC Radio’s “Fisheries Broadcast” has been on the air, yet everything is different.

Next week, “The Broadcast,” as it’s come to be known, — the longest continuously-running CBC current affairs radio program, and one of the oldest in North America — turns 60, and will mark the anniversary with a week of special programming, starting Monday.

After it began in 1951 as a 15-minute broadcast, the program quickly became popular, particularly for things like marine weather forecasts and other survival information, since it was the only means of getting these details. It wasn’t long before the 15-minute program turned into a 30-minute one, which — apart from a brief period in the 1970s — it remains today.

These days, the broadcast also provides information, stories and insights about the industry, the people working in it, and the communities that depend on it to survive, and takes calls from listeners who want to ask questions of guest experts or share their stories or points of view.

Through the ups and significant downs the industry has faced over the past 60 years, there has never been a shortage of stories, even when there was a shortage of fish, said Jim Wellman, retired CBC broadcaster, who hosted the program between 1982 and 1997.

“The fishery is such that there’s always something big going on,” Wellman, who’s now the managing editor of Navigator magazine, said. Wellman wrote a book about his experience hosting the show, called “The Broadcast,” when he retired.

When he took over the hosting gig, the province was in the throes of a large restructuring of the deep sea sector.

“There were four or five large companies that had deep sea trawlers,” he said.

“In 1977, Canada got what we commonly refer to as extended jurisdiction — the 200-mile limit. These companies sort of took a gold rush kind of mentality, thinking they had total control over the 90-plus per cent of the entire stock. They borrowed tons of money and expanded their operations, bought new ships and modified their plans and so on, with the idea that they were going to have a lot more fish to process in the future.

“Five years later, a lot of these loans were coming up for renewal, and interest rates in 1982 were about 20 per cent. You can imagine if you bought a house and in five years time you’ve got to pay three, four or five times more a month than you had; that’s where they found themselves. The governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia rolled the ashes of all the dead companies together and created what we used to refer to as the two super companies: one was Fisheries Products International, based in Newfoundland, and other other was Northern Sea Products, based in Nova Scotia. That process was a fascinating thing to see.”

The collapse of the northern cod stocks and the subsequent moratorium in July 1992 was a “disaster of biblical proportions,” Wellman recalled, since thousands of fishermen and plant workers were out of work overnight. While he couldn’t recall one specific interview that touched him more than any other, the stories he heard at the time are ones he won’t forget.

“It was just the bigger picture of people being thrown out of work,” he said.

“They were told by the politicians and authorities of the day that this was going to be a short-lived thing — a couple of years and we’d be back to the glory days. It’s hard to understand why they did that, except perhaps to try and dampen the reality of it all, because if they had told people, ‘Look, it’s going to be a generation or two before we see any kind of rebuilding,’ there could have been riots or God only knows what else.”

The fallout from that time period still provides “The Broadcast” with related stories today, Wellman said. Case in point: the province’s recent rejection of an independent report on the fishing industry, calling for more than a 50 per cent reduction in the number of inshore fishing enterprises (more than 70 per cent on the west coast, northeast coast and in Labrador), and the closure of 30 per cent of crab and shrimp plants.

“When people’s lives are put on the line, when people are anxious about something, they don’t mind talking, because it’s all about survival,” Wellman explained.

“The broadcast provides a forum for them to talk about it; to debate the issue and what’s needed, and to get on with business.”

Though radio audiences aren’t what they used to be, thanks to technological changes, “The Broadcast” maintains as high ratings as it always has, and is just as relevant today as ever, Welland said.

Current “Fisheries Broadcast” host John Furlong agrees. Furlong has hosted the show for the past five years.

“It might be even more relevant now than it ever was,” Furlong said. “People tend to congregate around their radios and their telephones in times of crisis, and I certainly hear more from people these days when things are not going well, in terms of expressions of hope, expressions of desperation and expression of ideas.

“The fishery is going through probably the biggest change it’s ever gone through, notwithstanding the moratorium, and change is always hard. People in the fishery and people in rural Newfoundland are going through incredible change, and that’s difficult.”

Furlong also credits the show’s longevity to its interactive nature. Listeners could call in and share their opinions long before the word “interactive” was invented, he said, and its these stories, based on real-life

experiences, that make people want to tune in.

That’s not to say there haven’t ever been disagreements with the audience. Two years ago, Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ union president Earle McCurdy wrote the CBC ombudsman, accusing Furlong of bias, distortion, and being anti-union and taking issue with the “buddy-up” and “combining” programs. Both programs allow one fishing vessel to catch the quota of two fishing enterprises, with the former referring to the under 40-foot fleet and the latter referring to vessels of more than 40 feet.

Many fisherman have adopted the program as their own, and are sometimes reluctant to have other points of view featured, Wellman said.

“Even after 60 years, you get some people saying, say if John has a seal hunt protester on, for example, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that, it’s our program,’” he said.

As part of the week’s on-air celebrations, Furlong will dip into the CBC archives, featuring stories from the past, and will talk to prominent Newfoundlanders and Labradorians about what “The Broadcast” means to them.

Listeners will have a chance to call in and explain why they choose to tune in, and a contest will see one listener win a traditional Newfoundland dory, after performing their own version of the show’s theme song, whether it be by humming, whistling, or playing it on the spoons.