How Florida gets good news on our bad weather

Airports packed with snarling travelers, kids getting lost returning from school break with Daytona Granny, wretched road conditions, weird politics getting weirder – isn’t the news just great?

Don’t you want to hear more of it – if, that is, you’re in Florida right now and it’s 30C (92F) in the shade and you’re listening to the big band nostalgia sound of WGUL (96.1FM) from New Port Richey?

Of course, if you must get up by 8:30 a.m., you can get your Canadian news hit after some men-with-big-hats country music on WOKC (AM 1570) from over Lake Okeechobee way.

Besides offering immediate access to all the heavenly tacky pink flamingo lawn ornaments you can haul back up highway I-95, a mid winters Florida break also offers the happy Canuck daily information about those very elements that drove the snowbird to the Sunshine State in the first place.

And it’s all via a 30-station network offering Canada Calling, heard almost everywhere in the state except South Miami, where Spanish, not English or French, is increasingly the language of choice.

Prior Smith, the voice of Canada Calling’s 5.5 minute daily news package – its producer, owner and chief typist as well – is well aware of the basis of his success.

It’s that daily hit of Canada-in-your-teeth, of back-home misery in all its endless wintry fury. It’s snow patch news, last night’s hockey and the weather – the worse the better.

Smith doesn’t have much trouble getting into the great white mood. All he was to do is look out at each bleak early morning outside the windows of his log home on Clear Lake, near Peterborough, to get the feel of it.

Yet you sense he kind of likes it like that, doing a sunny Florida show from pre-dawn Ontario before sending it electronically to Florida, where it’s uplinked to a satellite system for state-wide distribution.

At 52, he’s a workaholic by nature who builds log homes as a hobby. This 5:30 a.m. get-up is sort of a test. It keeps him tough. It keeps his mind away from Florida fun.

Because Florida, he says right off, is “strictly business”.

“In 20 years I’ve never taken a day off in Florida,” he says. “I can’t recall the last time I’ve walked a beach.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t set foot in Florida – that would pushing the gods of hubris too far. Commuting between Toronto and Florida at a furious rate, he’ll broadcast a number of live “remotes” from various Florida festivals, jetting back to Pearson International to be ready for each day’s newscast.

“The original network was put on air on Jan. 1, 1954, by Dave Price,” he says. “He was getting on and ran into ill health in the early ’70s. That’s when I first heard the newscast. I’d been at CFRB since 1969 and had been sent to cover a couple of stories and I tuned in one of the broadcasts.

“To me, the radio business had passed the show by. So I decided to compete against it.”

Then as now, sports was the factor motivating Price to go into radio. In the 1940’s, fans of the Leafs and Canadiens had even more of a reason to want the scores as there was a good chance that then, unlike now, their teams might be on the winning side.

“Price had called it Canada Calling. I called mine The Canadian News. But about four or five years ago, I began to re-introduce (Price’s) original name.

“I found it got to the point that I couldn’t do Canada Calling and work at CFRB. Florida was starting to eat me alive. So I started to phase myself out of CFRB.”

Smith pounds out two different newscasts on one of three aging Underwoods he uses, despite a studio filled with the latest electronic gizmos. One newscast is tailored for Arizona, which sees Canucks heading down from the West.

“You have to take into account that this is foreign broadcasting in a foreign land. You have to measure that every day because I have a vast American audience by default. So I’ll try to equate a Canadian story to something an American audience will understand. When the Eaton’s bankruptcy story happened, I would say something like, “In the States, this would be like the J.C. Penney chain filing for bankruptcy.”

Not all news is created equal and Smith reasons that the majority of his audience isn’t the stereotype “75 years old, teetering a walker” but in fact, a younger, baby boomer audience.

“Only about 10 per cent of the audience is senior,” he says. “All you have to do is get on a plane and walk up and down the aisle. What you see are middle- aged couples with kids who are, in many cases, staying with grandma and grandpa. So much of the basic broadcast is for middle-aged people with the teenagers.”

Peter Goddard – Toronto Star