Radio recollections at Summerside and Area Historical Society’s history circle

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on March 8, 2014

Retired CJRW broadcasters Lowell Huestis, left, John Perry and Roger Ahern have well over 100 years of combined radio time between them. They and other retired staff from this Summerside station were at a recent Summerside and Area Historical Society history circle.

©GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY

For many people on Prince Edward Island in the middle of the 20th century, the first thing they heard in the morning and the last thing they heard at night was the radio.

And for loyal listeners in Prince County, the voices of some of those longtime radio personalities still tweak auditory memories.

“Even to this day, with the older people, when I go to Sobeys and say something to someone, right away (they say), ‘CJRW!’” laughs John Perry, who reminisced at a recent Summerside and Area Historical Society history circle at Eptek Art and Culture Centre in Summerside.

Along with former radio broadcasters Lowell Huestis, Roger Ahern and other retired radio staff, this informal reunion gave the appreciative audience an overview and an inside look at what was going on behind the scenes in the heyday of this popular radio era.

“In reality, any of us who grew up in this community has the great fond memories and extreme gratitude for what radio in Summerside has provided us in our community. That was the glue that held everything together,” says event emcee George Dalton, who is past president of the historical society.

“And it was not just Summerside, it was a Prince County radio. It was a community voice. What it gave us was a tremendous support, whether it be charities, sports, politics, the whole menu really.”

The dulcet voice of Lowell Huestis started reaching out to local radio audiences on a part-time basis in 1946 with the Holman’s CHGS radio station that was in the R.T. Holman building in downtown Summerside.

“I worked in the store and did part-time when (the DJ) wanted to go to lunch. I would have to leave my job (in the wallpaper department), go in and play the records,” says this longtime radio broadcaster, who was there in the last days of that radio station, which signed off for the final time on Nov. 17, 1948 after 21 years on the air. That very night, CJRW officially began broadcasting with former CHGS employees Huestis and the late Bob Schurman on board. Both played key roles at the station for years to come.

“The thing with Lowell is that his voice is synonymous with radio . . . ,” says Ahern, who at one time shared an office with Huestis at CJRW.

“And radio was the community, it’s like TV is today . . . . I know our coverage for a little station of 250 watts (was small) — and when the wind was blowing we’d get farther west, if it was coming the other way we didn’t get up to the Miscouche swamp — but we believed that we were ‘the station.’ Even though CFCY was a big station (in Charlottetown), they couldn’t come in our territory,” he adds, laughing.

In those days, catchy titles for programs were the in thing.

“We had radio personalities, like Mike in the Morning. Mike (Surette) used to have a girlfriend named Linda, so he used to play all the Linda songs . . . So every morning we’d be hearing (certain) songs (and we’d know) that’s Mike’s girlfriend this week,” Ahern grins.

“We had the power in radio (at that time), we had the opportunity.”

Sports coverage was a key element to the station, but there were some challenges for certain on-the-spot scenarios.

“You felt a sense of pride because we did cover baseball, we did cover curling. In fact, we did 12 curling rounds of the first Scotties Tournament in Charlottetown. Do you know what it’s like describing curling on the radio? You’re sitting there (saying) ‘It leaves the hack. They’ve sweetened it. Oh it looks good. It’s going down,’ ” Ahern laughs. “But the point was people were listening. They wanted to know what was happening.”

Perry remembers that there was nothing like a good old-fashioned P.E.I. storm to boost the listening audience numbers to maximum heights.

“Often times you’d get caught in a storm and there were many times the staff at CJRW spent the night at the radio station next to the radiator. That was the only heat in the building that was worthwhile . . . , ” he adds.

“And there were a few occasions where someone from the night staff ended up working half the next day before someone could get in, brought them some food and that.”

Ahern remembers one storm was so bad and lasted so long that the station set up a system by which people storm-stayed at home could call in to share messages with their loved ones who were in the Prince County Hospital.

“That was unbelievable. I think we did that for three days solid. They put radios in in the rooms so the patients could hear the personal messages. When you think of that, that's unheard of, but we could do that," he says.

 “The thing about it was that we were so small that we somehow thought we could do anything that we wanted and there would be no repercussions,” Perry adds.

“Also, the other radio stations were . . . quite large and they were run by so-called experts so they weren’t as flexible as we were because we could adjust to things.”

The nearby Canadian Forces Base Summerside also played a role in the radio station’s history, including the fact that the station staff could tap into its onsite military weather station for up-to-the-minute broadcasts.

The base also provided an unexpected musical exposure.

“Miltary personnel would travel to Europe and back, so we were very fortunate we got exposed to music most Canadians didn’t know about because they used to smuggle in records from Germany, England, France and all the places they were at and they’d bring them into the radio station,” Perry remembers. “I know this is not in history, but we always felt that we were the first people in North America to play the Beatles because we actually had an RPM recording in German Sie Liebt Dich, which is She Loves You in German. They released that before the English. And we were playing that, even though we didn’t know what it said.”

The station also had an international flavour as well, with English or bilingual weekly programming coming in from the Netherlands, France and Germany.

“Also in the early days we committed to the francophone people who were living in our area who had no way to get their voice heard on radio because there was no French radio for them unless they went to Moncton,” Perry says.

“So we used to do a half-hour show once a week for the young Acadians who would play their music and talk in English and in French . . . . We did a lot of things in those early days that sort of went against the grain, but it turned out for the better, I think, because it gave our audience a different perspective on life that perhaps they wouldn’t have if we’d obeyed all the rules that we were supposed to.”

One golden radio rule, of course, was never, ever have a dead air moment. Ahern blames his particular on-air faux pas on his addiction to Dixie Lee fried chicken and its franchise that was located next to the CJRW station.

“I had four-and-a-half-minutes (between songs) so I called down, ordered my meal. I (typically) did the night shift so automatically whenever I went out, I always locked the door. So I went down, got my meal and I came around the corner and went, ‘Uh oh!’ ” he remembers when faced with that locked door.

“I know there’s a minute left and this is in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. I’m trying to figure out what to do, this car goes by, the guy rolls the window down and yells, ‘Roger, your record is over!’ You could hear the needle (scratching at the end of the record).”

Although there were many stories shared at this recent history circle, it only just scratched the surface of the extensive history and the importance of Summerside’s radio stations in the days before television was commonplace in people’s homes.

“I really believe that if we didn’t have radio in those days it would have been a lost world because it kept you in connection,” Ahern says. “And I think (the reason) we had so many dedicated listeners was because they felt part of the family and the people who worked at the station felt the same way.”