A portrait of the longtime CBC broadcaster Bill McNeil. His work on the programs Assignment and Voice of the Pioneer made him a household name for more than 40 years.
You can listen to the program right here.
Here's a story from one of his old friends, Kenneth Bagnell:
Early one evening, in the spring of 1950, in the coal town of Glace Bay on Cape Breton Island, my father came home with news he could hardly wait to break.
"A young fellow I know in the pit," he said, "just got a job on the
CBC." The news impressed everyone in Glace Bay. It wasn't just the prestige and glamour of becoming a CBC announcer; it was because somebody had escaped the pit, where the work was dirty and dangerous. The man, then in his early twenties, was Bill McNeil.
McNeil had grown up in Cape Breton and it took eight years of trying for him to finally land that job in radio. He failed audition after audition but he never gave up. One of the stumbling blocks was the fact that he had a Cape Breton accent. Once he muted the accent, he got the job and started at CBC Radio in Sydney in 1950.
It didn't take long before McNeill's resonant voice and quiet manner made him a beloved voice across the network with programs like Assignment, Voice of the Pioneer and Fresh Air.
Rewind has a selection of clips today that showcase the range of interviews McNeil conducted over more than 40 years here, followed by a feature piece where he talks about his craft.
The first one is from 1954 when McNeil was working as a reporter, finding human interest stories in news events. That fall Hurricane Hazel had hit Toronto hard, with high winds and lashing rains. Eighty one people were killed and thousands left homeless. Bill McNeil told just one of their stories.
The year was 1957 and computers were all the rage as people discovered they could be used not just for businesses, but for all sorts of personal things- like setting up a blind date.
If toothpaste looks like a delectable peppermint stick, will children brush their teeth more often? That's what the American inventor Leo Marraffino hoped when he put the first stripes into toothpaste. The next piece was from 1959.
From toothpaste to cigarettes. In 1961, tobacco was big business in Canada. But people were starting to worry about its effects on health. On his program Assignment, Bill McNeil, a lifelong smoker himself, asked John Fitzgerald, an expert on tobacco, about the link between tobacco and cancer.
In 1964, the Surgeon General in the United States, Luther Terry, released a report that showed there was a direct causal link between smoking and lung cancer. As he remembered later, the report "hit the country like a bombshell. It was front page news and a lead story on every radio and television station in the United States and many abroad."
One of Bill McNeil's passions was oral history. In the 1960s he was the principal host of the current affairs program Assignment. He spent his summers driving across the country in a trailer looking for interesting people he could talk to. McNeil particularly enjoyed talking to old people. The clip from 1965 where he interviews Mrs. Macdonald, a 108-year-old woman from Cape Breton.
Of course as the host of a program like Assignment, Bill also got to talk to more famous people. In 1965, he interviewed Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS evening news. He had covered all sorts of stories from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Apollo 11 and 13 space missions to the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal and the Iran hostage crisis.
In 1964 McNeil talked to Jean Vanier, son of the governor general, who was talking about a radically new way of caring for mentally disabled people. Please keep in mind that language has changed since this first aired nearly 50 years ago.
As the idea spread internationally, L'Arche houses started to open around the world. By 2007 there were more than 130 L'Arche communities in over 30 countries around the world, in such diverse locations as France, Australia, Uganda, Haiti and India. Canada's first L'Arche house opened in 1969.
Jean Vanier has received countless awards and honours for his work over the years, including being named a Companion of the Order of Canada and being inducted into France's Legion of Honour.
It was May 1966, and the famous songwriter Irving Berlin, composer of such hit songs as White Christmas, Puttin' on the Ritz and Cheek to Cheek was in Toronto. So of course Bill McNeil had to talk to him.
J. Frank Willis was another CBC veteran, a little older than Bill McNeil. Willis had made a name for himself in his coverage of the Moose River Mine disaster in 1936. When he died suddenly in 1969, McNeil presented a moving tribute.
In 1970, the country was talking about quotas for Canadian content in music. And we were also embracing a new star- Anne Murray.
In 1971, another young Canadian up and comer- this time Karen Kain.
The final piece today is from an odd little show that aired in 1970 and 1971 called Your Two Bucks Worth. The premise was that it would introduce listeners to the inner workings of CBC. The name came from the fact that in 1970, it took about two dollars per Canadian per year to pay for CBC Radio. Interviewing Bill was Warren Davis.
The program Assignment stayed on the air until October 1971, when it was replaced by As It Happens. As for Bill, he went on to host Fresh Air, the early morning weekend show in Ontario and Quebec. Voice of the Pioneer became part of that program. When Bill McNeil retired in 1992, Voice of the Pioneer retired as well. As well as appearing on air, McNeil, a true storyteller, published six books which chronicled the lives of Canadians who lived through the homesteading, gold rush and World War eras. He died of kidney failure in 2003.