Radio broadcaster keeps Canadian snowbirds dialed in

When Prior Smith tells his radio audience the news of the day, the big story isn’t likely to involve the war in Iraq, the recovery of New Orleans or even the latest gossip from Hollywood.

After all, there’s hockey to discuss!

For nearly three decades, Smith, a veteran broadcaster based in rural Ontario, has provided the latest word from up north for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who winter in Florida and other warm-weather states.

He calls the 5 1/2 -minute segment Canada Calling. Others call it an invaluable link to home.

“I’ve never missed a day in 29 years,” says Smith, an unimposing, bespectacled 61-year-old who seems most at ease in front of a microphone.

Canada Calling, which is heard on about 20 stations spread across three states (Florida, Texas and Arizona), predates Smith. (The show airs at 8:50 a.m. Monday through Friday on WBZT-AM 1290 in Palm Beach County and WSTU-AM 1450 on the Treasure Coast; WBZT also carries it at 7 a.m. on weekends.)

The segment, which airs daily from November to April, started 52 years ago as the brainchild of Dave Price, a Canadian sportscaster who came down South to cover baseball spring training in Florida. When Price went searching for news about the Stanley Cup, hockey’s equivalent to the World Series, he couldn’t find it in the local papers or the national U.S. media.

“With that, the light bulb went on,” says Smith, who took over the program after briefly trying to compete against it with another news-from-home segment.

A reassuring perspective

Now, a half-century later, vacationing Canadians can get their news through the Internet or by buying one of the Canadian papers on local newsstands or supermarkets.

But if they go that route, they can’t get Prior Smith.

“I think it’s a comfort zone…. Hearing him sounds like a piece of home,” says Walter Sokolowski, a part-time Palm City resident who heads the Canadian Club of the Treasure Coast.

Not that the smooth-voiced Smith sounds so overtly Canadian, at least to American ears. But it’s obvious that he understands the Canadian psyche — or more specifically, the mind-set of the 2.1 million Canadians who come to Florida each year.

We may laugh at their penchant for wearing skimpy bathing suits or adding “eh?” to the ends of sentences. But Smith embraces them for all their glory, eccentric or otherwise.

Which is why he fills his segments with the sort of newsy nuggets that barely register with an American audience but mean everything to a homesick Canadian.

He’ll talk about the roller-coaster ride of the Toronto Stock Exchange. Or about the conditions in Muskoka, a popular summer retreat that gets snowed under during the winter. Or, yes, about anything and everything connected to hockey, which is as much a national obsession as football and baseball are in America.

On a recent broadcast, he led with news about a National Hockey League gambling scandal, “the prime subject of discussion on talk radio back home all week.” He followed with a weather update, noting, “The deep freeze has set in in Winnipeg.”

The idea, Smith says, is not so much to provide a news summary — that would be too predictable — but to offer a bit of reassuring perspective that life in Canada continues as usual.

“The whole thing was designed to eliminate that phone call to home, saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ “

Not that Smith can’t serve up hard news. During the period leading up to national elections in January, when Conservative leader Stephen Harper was voted in as prime minister, ending 12 years of Liberal rule, Smith provided detailed updates on the campaign. One Canadian newspaper cited his key role as “the lone voice… for a crucial bloc of voters: Canada’s snowbirds.”

“I led the newscast with it every day for eight weeks,” says Smith, showing a rare hint of pride.

However he chooses to package and present the news, the formula must be working. He has no difficulty in finding advertisers, from Walt Disney World to Alamo Rent A Car to Publix. (Like many independent broadcasters, Smith provides his segment free to radio stations, earning his pay from ad dollars.)

And if, for some reason, his show fails to air — through no fault of his own, he’s quick to note — stations can expect plenty of angry calls from listeners.

WBZT Sales Manager Ken Harris is almost at a loss to explain Smith’s popularity.

“I won’t say it’s a cult, but there’s a very loyal following,” says Harris, who noted that, when the station hosted a live event with Smith connected to the opening of a Canadian-owned bank in South Florida, “the line was halfway around the block to see Prior.”

Smith does make frequent appearances in Florida, traveling everywhere from the Florida State Fair in Tampa to Walt Disney World to the annual Fort Lauderdale holiday boat parade. More than anything, the trips give him a better understanding of his listeners; he even frequents the same restaurants they do.

They also help him uncover any “migratory” patterns among the snowbird set, since once-popular destinations (the Hallandale Beach/Hollywood area) inevitably lose favor to emerging ones (Panama City Beach).

Hot spots — no pun intended — include Redington Beach, Zephyrhills, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach and Boca Raton. The Clearwater/Dunedin area also remains popular because it’s home to the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring-training site.

The bottom line: Smith has a finely tuned radar when it comes to Canadians. “I can tell you condo by condo where they’re at,” he says.

But the process of putting together the show varies little, whether Smith is sitting in the studio of his lakeside log home in Canada or working from a makeshift space at the Florida State Fairgrounds, as he was a couple of weekends ago.

He gathers news from the obvious sources, including the Internet, radio and print media. (“I read five Canadian newspapers a day,” he says.) But he tries to put a little spin on it when he writes the copy.

When he spoke about the recent hockey gambling scandal, he couldn’t resist adding that “the strange part about this story is that gambling is everywhere around hockey,” noting that the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs has a sponsorship deal with an Internet poker site.

When it comes to going on air, Smith creates his taped daily broadcast by using the latest technology — a couple of laptop computers with sound-editing capabilities — plus something as laughably backward as an electric typewriter to jot notes. It speaks to the fact that Smith is an old-fashioned businessman at heart. He takes comfort in the fact that many of his business deals are done with a handshake, including his three-decade relationship with Publix.

A pitchman for Florida

Canada Calling is something of a family affair. Smith’s wife, Allana, assists with the business side of the show, and his 25-year-old son, Tim, handles his Web site, But because the show represents only a certain time commitment, Smith keeps busy with other radio work, including producing a popular, two-decade-old Canadian program on hockey.

He also has taken on something of a role as a pitchman for Florida: Three years ago, Smith was hired by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism program, to create a series of radio spots to air in Canada. The campaign clearly has been successful: In 2005, the number of Canadian visitors to the Sunshine State rose by 8.2 percent.

And although other factors may play into the spike, Visit Florida Chief Executive Bud Nocera gives a chunk of credit to Smith and his keen ability to speak to Canadians. Nocera likens the humble radio man from up north to broadcasting legend Paul Harvey.

Says Nocera: “You hear the voice, you trust the person.”

Charles Passy – Palm Beach Post