It was just another Monday. Beginning of my work week and about halfway into my shift, events would shape the history of the entire planet and create a moment in time that would be inserted into mine. I was a disc jockey at CFMQ-FM Radio in Regina, Saskatchewan. It would fatefully be the last stages of my career in Broadcasting but I didn’t know that. I had earned my diploma in Radio & Television Broadcasting graduating with honours from Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University) in Calgary, Alberta in May of 1980. I wanted to be a professional musician but for great advice from my guidance counsellor, Ken Sherwin, that a diploma from MRC would guarantee a job where a career in music can be unpredictable. When he suggested Broadcasting, I replied, “Like on TV?”, to which he replied…”You’re kind of ugly for television! But radio, that’d be a great idea.” By the way, not only did Mr. Sherwin have a sense of humour, but importantly, so did I. Oh, and also by the way, I was hired for my disc jockey job two weeks after graduation so, rather prophetic.
What was actually pretty cool, although frankly, there were some nights that lasted forever, I was hired as the “All Night DJ”. Remember them? I recently heard a promo on a Radio Station in the United States, Denver I believe, who proudly proclaim they are “DJ Free!” Truly offensive! The culture of the “Live” Disc Jockey was something I was proud to be a part of and the culture of the “Live” All Nighters, was in a league of its own. The bonus? We were an album rock station when I started my job there so I could actually pretend to be “cool”! But my days in that slot were short as six months into my gig, I was promoted to evenings. Even in those days, the highest paid DJ’s were the morning folks, followed by the “drive” slot (so named after the afternoon commuter crowd) and the “daytime” slot. But when I say “paid”, and though the aforementioned folks did better, none of us were paid what they are today. My first pay check for two weeks work was $225.00…serious! Okay, it “was” 1980 but not so far from what I would have done to be a musician, it wasn’t about the money.
On Monday, the 8th of December in 1980, I had begun my shift at 6:00 PM as usual. My routine had changed in the previous month as even then, the bean counters were looking at ways to save money (I guess they thought they were paying the DJ’s too much), the station had switched formats from “Album Rock” to “Adult Contemporary” or as we’d call it today…”POP”. One of the things we learned in college was that that the style of music you would play as a DJ shouldn’t be the main reason for your taking a job, but liking it helped. I didn’t “love” pop but more to the point, I missed the “rock” but what I missed most was the vinyl. Remember that? Albums? Look, I’m not trying to go retro here but there was something special about going to the music library, picking out a few dozen albums then doing some research on the back stories of the music and the bands and being a rock DJ. The station had subscribed to a “service” so no more albums, but reel to reel tapes with your entire show pre-recorded and no ” back stories”. Boooooring!
There was another part of the job that anyone who worked in a smallish market station knows that you usually had to do your own hourly news, sports and weather, as our station did. You didn’t need to do much writing as there was a “teletype machine” connected by telephone to a subscription service that in my case was called “Broadcast News”. Someone somewhere would write the latest news, send it down “the wire” and the teletype machine would print it on a piece of what they called “magnetic” paper that came in rolls. The news came on one machine, the sports on another and for the weather, you had to call the local weather office yourself. Our newscasts were top of the hour so to be current, you would put on some music about ten minutes before the newscast and you’d run to the news room, tear the copy off the teletype, then run back to your booth and call the weather station and you’d morph from DJ to newsreader.
At 9:30 PM or so, I had run into the newsroom because the caretaker had knocked on my door to tell me the teletype machine was beeping wildly. It was an “emergency alert”. You didn’t ignore one of those. I sprinted down the hall into the newsroom and not only was the machine beeping, it was actually like an old telephone ringing but just one ding every three seconds and the script on the roll was in all capitals with italics. I didn’t tear it right away because what was printing froze me in my place.
“JOHN LENNON IS DEAD! JOHN LENNON IS DEAD! JOHN LENNON HAS BEEN ASSASSINATED IN NEW YORK! JOHN LENNON HAS BEEN ASSASSINATED IN NEW YORK!” DETAILS TO FOLLOW!
Unlike the internet where you can get fake news on occasion, Broadcast News or BN, is never wrong. I tore off the sheet, and started running back to the DJ booth but my instinct said to race to the music library in the basement first, where the “now gathering dust album collection”,was still there. I was looking for the “L”‘s and the “B”‘s for “Lennon” and “Beatles” and grabbed as many as I could carry under my chin, and raced back upstairs. On the way by the newsroom, I collected an update on the machine and headed to the booth. I found the album I was looking for first, placed it on the turntable,and cued up the song, “Imagine”. I found the “cart” (it looked like an old 8 track cassette that each contained either a commercial or promo spot) for “news alert”, plugged it in and hit the start button, turned on my microphone and proceeded to break into our normal programming for some horrific news…”John Lennon is Dead! I repeat, ex-Beatle and world famous writer and recording artist, John Lennon is Dead! Details are sketchy but it appears he has been assassinated in New York. Again, John Lennon has been assassinated and is Dead. There has been no official confirmation, but early reports point to a lone guman who killed Lennon by shooting him at close range. I repeat, John Lennon has been shot and killed by a lone gunman in an apparent assassination. As details are made available, CFMQ-FM news will provide updates so please stay tuned.”
As I was reading the final words, I started up the turntable and slowly slid up the volume and the voice and music of John Lennon and the unmistakable strains of “Imagine” began filling the airways. It was 9:45 in the evening. We would later find out Lennon was shot at 10:50 PM New York Time, 8:50 in Regina. Less than hour after it happened, I’d reported it! Today, 55 minutes would be unacceptable. In 1980, 55 minutes was remarkably fast. For the next two hours, I never touched the reel to reel, deciding, without permission, to play nothing but John Lennon and Beatles music. I was glad they had lots of material because I remember having “no brain”! In 2015, our culture would still be surprised, but in 1980, this just didn’t happen…ever! It should also be pointed out that I was barely 20 years old! I loved the Beatles, who didn’t? Most important, I had to be composed and professional. I was trained in news writing and reading, but this was also playing in my head. To be accurate and unbiased. Remember that?
At 10:30, I got a phone call on the emergency line so immediately answered it. It was the station manager! He was angry. He had just got home from a dinner and all the way home (Regina was pretty small compared today) all he heard on the station was Beatles music. “WHY WAS I PLAYING BEATLES MUSIC? WHY WASN’T I PLAYING THE TAPES? HAD I LOST MY MIND?” He hadn’t heard. So I told him. He didn’t speak for ten seconds! He was an old rock and roller. He asked me to repeat what I said again, I heard him swear and then I heard him say he was on his way in to help me with the newsroom.
This is great deal longer than my usual blog, sorry. It doesn’t have a real point either…sorry about that too. But what prompted me to write is hopefully obvious. Yesterday, December 8, represents 35 years since this event, one that shook the world and one that would ultimately change my life. I have told this story hundreds of times. Heck, it would turn out that I, yes just me, would be the first to announce the death of John Lennon to the City of Regina and wherever its 50,000 watts could reach. Being first meant people were tuning into our station and tuning off everyone else. Our listener numbers went through the roof. I even got a $100 Christmas Bonus. But what I have never told anybody is why it changed my life.
I played the song, “Imagine”, several times that evening. I listened to the words and I cried. I cried a lot! You see, I loved my new job. I had consumed two years of my life focusing on doing the best I could in college so I could hopefully get a job. A job I not only earned but one that I got for what I had, and not what I didn’t…no arms. I can tell that story another day but for CFMQ to take a chance on me meant a ton. I was very loyal. Two months later, I quit. I quit to become a speaker! I quit to become a speaker so I could live and teach the words of John Lennon. I want to print those words below and simply say, thanks for reading them. But don’t just read them. Take them in, think about them, cry if you want. But please consider that 35 years ago, a difficult but remarkable human being lost his life to the kind of violence that is paralyzing our planet in 2015. We cannot let them win. We must believe. We must…”Imagine”
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one. Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one”.