History: The Birth of Cross Country Checkup

by Andrew Simon - founding producer

The CBC Context

In the 1960s, the people's voice was not part of CBC network programming in the belief that, being uttered by people without recognized expertise, it would just confuse or mislead - rather than enlighten - the listener. The series which came closest to exposing such opinion was Citizens' Forum, a long-established weekly 45-minute program on the national (Trans-Canada) radio network and later also simulcast on television. Its first half-hour consisted of a panel discussion of experts on a current controversy, followed by an announcer's reading of a 15-minute distillation of opinions on the previous week's subject. In the pre-television days of the 1940s and 1950s, people were encouraged to invite over their neighbours to create a listening group, with one member acting as recording secretary. This person's synopsis of the group's post-broadcast discussion was mailed to a Provincial Secretary, who blended the content into a summary for that province. Ultimately, a National Secretary would distill these ten summaries into a national overview. Thus, an individual's opinion would go through no fewer than three editorial filters before it reached broadcast.


The Dawn of Phone-in Shows

Andrew Simon auditions an unidentified announcer

Andrew Simon auditions an unidentified announcer

In the early 1960s, many privately owned radio stations across the country launched so called "open line" programs, some with high-profile moderators. CBC programmers had a dilemma: our policy and practice of airing only the delicately balanced opinions of selected expert commentators was in conflict with a highly popular new radio style. Program Organizer Christina McDougall, resolved the problem by transforming the old Citizens' Forum format into a tape montage of opinions phoned in by listeners to CBC's local affiliates. Three weeks in advance of the broadcast, Ms. McDougall identified a national controversy, selected four geographically diverse affiliated stations and asked that their local open-line programs invite callers' views on the selected topic. Those four local programs were then edited down into one half-hour national version.


Inspiration for a New CBC Program

It was during one of these marathon tape-editing sessions that the idea occurred to me: given that we had overcome misgivings about airing the opinions of ordinary people, and given that the 7-second delay had been conceived, why don't we simply put on our own national open-line show? We could certainly do it to a higher standard, it would be much more topical being done live-to-air and would be literally fulfilling the key CBC mandate of bringing Canadians together.
My immediate boss Margaret Howes, the then-Supervisor of Current Affairs for Quebec Region, was not just supportive but outright enthusiastic - partly because I was proposing it as a Montreal origination and partly because she saw it as a format genuinely suited to the radio medium. She assisted in preparing the proposal, which was sent in early 1965 to senior network officers in Toronto. Many meetings and memos transpired in the coming months, culminating in approval for a one-time pilot program in May.

A Scheduling Nightmare

It was decided to air the pilot (and eventually the series) in a weekend slot so as to occur in the same type of listening time from coast to coast (i.e. not during working hours). Since an open-line program must obviously be aired live in all the then-7 time zones (listeners cannot phone in to a tape!), the program's scheduling presented major difficulties. The established CBC pattern of delaying network programs so that they are heard at approximately the same local time everywhere meant that a live-across-the-board program would pre-empt different programming in every region. Saturday was eliminated because of the 4+-hour Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Sunday was designated to be less problematic, since it already included the live-across-the-board broadcast of NHL hockey games.
By any standard, the program's broadcast pattern came from hell, sure to turn any producer's hair white! Checkup began at 6:30 pm Eastern Time, and ended at the variable start times of the NHL hockey broadcast. These times varied because the games involved Canadiens and Maple Leafs away games, in Boston, New York or Chicago. Boston started games at 7 pm local time, New York and Chicago at 7:30 pm, but Chicago being in the Central Time Zone, this meant 8:30 pm Eastern Time. On top of that, different regions carried different games: Ontario listeners always heard the Leafs games; Quebec listeners always heard the Canadiens games. Listeners in Atlantic and Western Canada alternated between the two teams.
Listeners had no predictability as to the length of the show. On some occasions, the entire country would hear the first half-hour but only Quebec Region would hear the remaining 90 minutes. In another variation, we would say good-bye to most of the country at 7 pm or 7:30 pm and continue for another 60 or 90 minutes to Ontario only. The permutations were endless.

The Pilot Program - May 16, 1965 at 6:30 pm Eastern Time

Simon_Crandall_Znaimer height=

l to r: Andrew Simon, Brad Crandall, Moses Znaimer

National Reflection

Facilities we now take for granted - such as direct-dial long distance or toll-free calling - did not exist back then, nor did then-monopoly-long-distance-carrier Bell Canada show any interest in an innovative use of its medium, fearing we might disrupt its network by encouraging thousands of operator-handled collect calls to one place at the same time. Our lead-time for settling this issue was limited, and we had no choice but to select five cities to receive calls only from their local telephone exchanges, namely Vancouver, Regina, Kingston, Montreal and Sydney. Thus, the closest we could get to a national reflection of opinion was from these five big and small cities in different regions of Canada. We made arrangements with the CBC stations at these locations (in Kingston it was an affiliate) to receive and feed the incoming calls to us at the CBC Montreal studio.

The 7-second Delay

To maintain editorial control, we needed to delay the calls by a few seconds (we chose 7 seconds) to allow the producer to cut illegal, unfair or distasteful content. There being no off-the-shelf component available for this purpose, our technician, Jean-Guy Filiatrault, came up with the solution: he put one Ampex tape deck by the right wall of the control room, another deck by the left wall, with the first machine recording the entire program 7 seconds ahead of airtime, and the second machine playing it back to air. It took exactly 7 seconds for a point on the tape to travel from the first (recording) machine to the second (playback) machine. Before each week's broadcast, Jean-Guy prepared a precisely measured tape loop, as well as a couple of spares which were miraculously never needed. We also had to devise what "sound" to send out during any such deliberate editorial interruption. It was a loop containing some beeps. Happily we never had to use these facilities, but their existence complied with the then and present CRTC regulation and CBC policy of not relinquishing editorial control.

The Moderator/Host

Casting this function presented a huge challenge. Besides a high level of journalistic and radio presentation skills, the ideal candidate had to be well informed on Canadian affairs, have a good grounding in the social and political realities of Canada's regions, possess a friendly, informal style to attract calls from a wide cross-section of listeners, and had to be available every Sunday in Montreal. Candidates with actual open-line hosting experience were available only from private stations that carried such programs but these hosts were expected and encouraged to be opinionated and argumentative, and had familiarity with only their local area. After several interviews and auditions, we selected Brad Crandall, an American who had done this type of work at a Toronto (non-affiliated) station for a few years and was thus conversant in Canadian affairs. An unavoidable complication was that Brad had to be flown from New York to Montreal every Sunday. What with flight irregularities and weather emergencies, there were a few close calls. (Brad's only incorrigible bad habit was to address callers by their first names, then customary in the U.S. but not so in Canada.) Of course a lot of coaching was required to eliminate his instinctive local-station-style time references, given that we were broadcasting across 7 time zones (the Yukon Territory, now part of the Pacific Time Zone, then had its own time). Avoiding references to day-parts, such as "Good afternoon," was also problematic, given we aired mid-evening in the East and mid-afternoon in the West.

The Topic

The topic that dominated public and political discussion in the spring of 1965 was the report of the Hall Royal Commission, from which was born Canada's present public health insurance scheme. It was a natural for a show dedicated to providing a forum for Canadians to discuss the most debatable subject of the week. We were lucky to have as our studio guest Dr. Victor Goldbloom, then-president of the Canadian Medical Association.

The Title

Inspired by the topic, we thought the word Checkup would be good. To this we wanted to add an element suggesting this was different from existing phone-in shows in being national, thus Cross Country Checkup. When the program returned in the fall on a weekly basis, we just could not think of a better title; we thus convinced ourselves that the same title would work even when the topic was not related to medicine.

The Announcer

This role was designed as a contrast to the host/moderator role. We wanted an announcer whose delivery was energetic and clear, since this person explained the new concept, how to call in, openings, closings, as well as the announcements bidding farewell to various regions, identifying the studio guest and presenting the host/moderator. For the pilot, we chose CBC Montreal announcer Bob Cadman, and when the weekly series began on November 24 of the same year, the announcer role was taken over by his colleague Jim Shrumm.

The Researcher

This was a half-time function, carried out in the first season by journalist Elizabeth Gray, later to become host of As It Happens.

The Associate Producer

Some weeks after the series was launched, the need often arose to have a studio guest in a CBC Toronto studio. A then-new Current Affairs producer took an interest in Checkup and asked to be assigned on these occasions. Eventually, Moses Znaimer, later the founder of Toronto's City-TV, became the show's associate producer. He also travelled to Montreal to replace me in the studio when I was unavailable due to other assignments.

The Screeners

Two university students were hired and trained as screeners, their function being to answer the calls in the control room. In order to be especially inviting to statements of opinion, rather than questions of information, the screeners would ask callers specifically "What point would you like to make?" They then asked them to turn off their home radios to avoid feedback (which also would have been 7 seconds out of sync with the live show), assuring them they would hear program on the phone while on hold. The screeners prepared index cards showing the caller's location and a maximum-4-word summary of their "point." These were placed on the console in front of the producer, who chose their sequence to assure editorial and geographic variety.

Reaction

The pilot program was favourably reviewed in several newspapers across the country. In the late summer, CBC brass scheduled it as a weekly Sunday feature. It began October 24, 1965 at 6:30 pm Eastern Time with all callers across the country phoning collect to a single Montreal phone number. Later, Bill Armstrong, then-Vice President of CBC English Radio, declared publicly that a national topical open-line show was, like newscasts, an essential element of a CBC radio schedule.

A.S. 2007-11-04