A Conversation With... Doug Thompson
Some careers and lifetimes are exhausting. How much can one cram into a day and walk away wearing a big smile?
By Bill King
Some careers and lifetimes are exhausting. How much can one cram into a day and walk away wearing a big smile? I’m thinking the prolific Doug Thompson and the past fifty-plus years working in and around mainstream media can attest to the fact – with a set limitation of twenty-four given hours per day, a rare few can find an extra hour or two to put the finishing touches on the most demanding projects. Reading Doug’s back history; the studio hours, the documentaries, the connections deeply rooted in Canadian music you can see why sleep cometh when it overwhelms. This interview reads like a mini-biography – and what a vivid rich story to tell.
Life began in Kingston, Ontario. What played on the radio in the family home?
My parents had a 4-foot high Stromberg-Carlson radio that we used to listen to. It had a 78rpm turntable in the lid. I fell in love with radio as a nine-year-old. Well, there wasn't much else to do since we didn't have a television set.
The ’50s and radio were made for one another. Drama, comedy, family shows and groundbreaking music. What were some of your favourites?
I used to love to listen to Boston Blackie, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gunsmoke (with William Conrad as Matt Dillon), Jack Benny, Fred Allen as well as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. It took me years to realize that I'd been listening to a ventriloquist on the radio whose lips I couldn't see move anyway.
What did a kid walking the streets of Kingston do to amuse oneself?
My father was a career soldier, and he was posted from Kingston to Oakville when I was 10, so I didn't do a lot of walking the streets in Kingston except to school and back and around my neighbourhood. We did have a very hilly road a few blocks from my school that was great for tobogganing down in the winter since most cars couldn't get up that hill when it was icy.
The family eventually moved to Oakville, Ontario. You hung out during summers like most kids at the CNE. What was the main attraction for you?
I discovered CHUM in 1959 when I was thirteen and obsessed with the DJ's and the station. My parents would always take my brother and I to the Sportsman Show in the Spring and the CNE several times during the end of summer. They would do whatever they were going to do, and I made a beeline for the CHUM Satellite station where I would stand and watch all day. There was a Honeydew stand not far from the CHUM trailer, so I would grab a hotdog and amazing orange juice and run back and watch until my parents came to get me and it was time to go home. A couple of times when I was a little older, I'd take the bus from Oakville to the EX and stand there watching the CHUM guys all day.
You decided age 13 you would one day work for CHUM. What was the draw?
For some reason, at the age of 13, I just knew that radio was my future and working for CHUM was my main goal (I had no idea at what yet). At 15, my parents bought me a tiny portable 5" reel-to-reel tape recorder with a crappy microphone. I also had a Seabreeze record player in my room and I'd record commercials (of all things) on that tape recorder using instrumental records and copy from ads in the Toronto Star (which I delivered to have a little more spending money besides my weekly allowance). Every Saturday morning, I'd ride my bicycle to Kerr Street in downtown Oakville to the record store in the basement of a furniture store whose name I can no longer remember and pick up the latest copy of the CHUM chart. The first record I ever bought there was Freddy Cannon's Way Down Yonder In New Orleans" on Quality Records on a 78’ - that Stromberg-Carlson 78’rpm record player was all we had in 1959 when that song came out. After I got my portable record player, I started to buy 45's as often as I could afford to.
CHUM was where my musical education came from. In those days, CHUM (and a lot of other stations) played a wide variety of records, from the pop hits, rock'n'roll, novelty records (I still love novelty records), instrumentals, country music, even some jazz.
Where did your career in radio begin and what were your first duties?
My father was posted to Edmonton in late 1961. I immediately found a Top 40 station I liked – CJCA, which at the time was the number one hit radio station in Edmonton. I started hanging around their remote broadcasts on weekends and became friends with a couple of the DJs. Two of them, afternoon drive, DJ Barry Boyd and nighttime jock, Lorne Thompson (no relation) who invited me to answer phones for them at the station during their “Battle of the New Sounds” nightly feature. In May of 1964, that led to me being hired after school to operate the soundboard at CJCA FM from 2 pm to midnight, playing easy listening classical and opera. One Sunday night, I was extremely tired and, while doing homework during the opera hour, I decided to rest my head a bit. This was during the days of vinyl records and opera records with four sides which would take two hours to air. I put on side one and immediately fell asleep and woke up after an hour and a half later in a panic.
Side one of the opera had been in the run-out groove for all that time. Being the quick thinking 17-year old that I was, I put side four on the second turntable and placed the needle halfway to the end, faded it up, then played the tape with the announcer tag that said ‘For the past two hours you’ve been listening to La Boheme’ (or whatever the opera was). No listeners called in to complain, and I never heard a word about it the next day from anyone at the station. FM radios weren’t all that plentiful in 1964, so I didn’t get fired, and my radio career continued.
When CHUM hired you under Allan Slaight, you were now surrounded by the same radio personalities you admired. Who first embraced you?
My board operator shift at CHUM was six to midnight. CHUM’s all-night DJ Bob Laine became my first mentor. After my shift, I would hang around and talk with Bob for an hour or so, then spend another four or five hours in the production studio, teaching myself to produce. I created many ID’s for Bob Laine’s show and later Brian Skinner’s nighttime program. At six in the morning at the end of his shift, Bob Laine would drive me home. I did that for a full year. All of the CHUM DJ’s were great to work with. I learned about music theory from Mike Darrow (who was a professional singer), swear words from Bob McAdorey (many of which I’d never heard before) and all about UFOs from nighttime DJ Brian Skinner. He was a big believer, and one Saturday, the two of us drove out to Hamilton one Saturday to a farmer’s field to see a circular burnt patch of grass the farmer said was where a UFO landed. It could have been. Brian certainly believed.
Production is a specialty few have ears for transitions, sound quality and flow. How did you pull all of this together?
In 1965, all radio production was in mono, but one year after, I was promoted to the production department in 1967 when CHUM FM switched from a classical music format to progressive rock or ‘underground’ radio. We experimented with that like crazy. I had production music play backward under commercials, weird sped-up voices, all kinds of things you couldn’t do on AM with a “tight” format. It was great fun.
What was your first radio documentary?
My first radio documentary was a special on The Monkees in 1967. RCA had flown CHUM DJ Duff Roman to New York to interview The Monkees and their fans. We put together a one-hour special with music that aired on CHUM only.
You and Warren Cosford produced CHUM’s first international syndicated special – the Beatles in 12 parts. How difficult was this?
In 1969, CHUM Program Director J. Robert Wood decided we were going to create a CHUM History of Rock and Roll as our competition. CKFH had purchased the Bill Drake History of Rock. CHUM’s version was a 28-hour special, written by CHUM Creative Director (and talk show host) Larry Solway. It took a couple of weeks to put together all 28 hours, but we did it and beat CKFH to the punch. Our series ran four hours a night for seven nights and CHUM repeated it a few months later, due to listener requests.
The following year (1970), J. Robert Wood decided that CHUM would create a unique Beatles special that became a 12-hour special. Written by CHUM’s Bill McDonald (one of the best writers on the planet) and produced by Warren Cosford and I. Warren took the middle four hours while also handling the day-to-day commercial and promo production while I tacked hours one to four and hours nine to twelve.
Our deadline was very tight, so I ended up staying up for an entire week, only going home at eight in the morning for a shower, then returning to work on the special. At some point (probably Monday or Tuesday), I scraped my ankle on the chair in my production studio. Because I wasn’t able to rest (or sleep), my ankle blew up to twice the size. I didn’t notice it because we had a deadline (adrenaline kicked in). Finally, on the following Saturday morning, after I’d made the last edit on the 12th hour, my friend, David ‘Geets Romo’ Haydu and his wife Barb, picked me up at the station and drove me to Western Hospital in downtown Toronto. I was there for a week while the swelling gradually went back to normal. The program aired to great success and CHUM offered it to any radio station that wanted it. All it cost was the price of the 12 reels of tape. Over 100 radio stations in Canada, the U.S. and around the world aired “The Story of The Beatles”.
B.K: From there other radio assignments – Ringo’s Yellow Submarine.
D.T: In 1972, my friend and CHUM writer Bill McDonald and I left CHUM to form a creative company called That Commercial Place. We produced local, regional and national commercials for radio stations and advertising agencies. We were very successful for six years, during which we won 85 awards (mainly U.S. awards such as CLIO’s, Hollywood International Broadcast Awards and many others. We wound the company down in 1978 when Bill McDonald was hired by Chuck Blore and moved to Los Angeles.
B.K: You engineered at Eastern Sound in Yorkville, from 1977 to ’83. What were some of the projects you contributed to? I remember expat Jesse Winchester spending time there.
D.T: I continued writing and producing commercials for clients while also freelance engineering at Eastern Sound on Yorkville in Toronto. Eastern was a legendary studio that had been around since 1959. There were three studios - Studio 1 where most musicians recorded, including Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Murray McLauchlan, Ian Thomas and many more including Elton John who spent several months in Studio 1 recording his Blue Moves album in 1976. Studio 2 was mostly used for overdubs and commercial jingles. I mainly worked in Studio 3 at the back of the building recording commercials, working with the cream of Canadian voice over talents, such as Billy Van, Henry Ramer, Richard Thomas, Alan Blevis, Nick Nichols and Len Carlson. For a couple of years, I recorded commentator Gordon Sinclair’s Dominion Stores radio commercials.
A highlight from that era for me was working with Jim Henson on several projects. Henson and Associates were filming Fraggle Rock at VTR Productions next door to Eastern and did their audio work at Eastern. In 1982, Jim and Frank Oz co-directed the film Dark Crystal in England. They had created these evil bird characters called “Skeksis” who spoke their language. Jim and Frank put English subtitles on the screen during the moments the “Skeksis” were talking but quickly found out during advance screenings that all the mothers or fathers would be reading the words to their kids out loud. That obviously wouldn’t work, so after filming Fraggle Rock was completed for the day and my daytime recording was done, Jim and Frank flew voice actors over from England to re-record English dialogue, and we recorded for several days from 7 pm until midnight.
I also was hired to be the Sound Designer for the Henson TV special, The Fabulous MissPiggy Special which was being shot at CFTO studios in Agincourt. That took two weeks, working side by side with Jim Henson; pulling sound effects and creating our own Foley effects.
One time, for a walking sequence between Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, Jim put his hands in a pair of shoes and crawled across the hardwood floor surface as Kermit. I borrowed the high heels of Eastern’s receptionist Teresa and stuck my hands in her shoes as Miss Piggy. What great fun we had.
Ringo’s Yellow Submarine came about during my last year at Eastern (1983). Actually, I decided to leave when I was hired by Tom Rounds of ABC Watermark in LA to write and co-produce the 25-hour radio series that ABC had negotiated with Ringo Starr to narrate.
Rounds had co-created American Top 40 with Casey Kasem and several other partners in 1970. I knew Tom a bit, and he knew I’d done CHUM’s Beatles special (although I had not written it). We met in New York, spoke with Ringo on the phone to work out logistics and details for the trips to England to record. On the first trip, we travelled to England in January. Nothing is colder than England in January, except England in February.
We stayed at the Dorchester Hotel (at Ringo’s recommendation) for that first week. The next time, it was a much less expensive hotel. Recording Ringo reading my script was surreal. The studio was attached to his house at Tittenhurst Park in the studio that John Lennon had built. The first couple of days, we did interviews with him to insert into the program several times an hour, then got to the script.
We recorded half the show that first trip, then returned in February to finish up. We got there at noon every day and finished up at 6 PM. The final day in February, Ringo wasn’t quite ready to record, so he took Tom Rounds and me for a tour of the grounds. When we returned to the studio, Ringo had his drum tech set up his drum kit and he gave us a drum lesson (which we taped and used in the program). After it was over, I spent the next couple of months in LA working with Tom Rounds producing all 24 recorded hours. The 25th hour was live from ABC’s radio studios in November 1983 with Ringo taking phone calls. Legendary LA DJ Gary Owens was the host. Ringo specifically asked for me to be there in the studio as well, saying, “Doug knows more about The Beatles than I do. I was just there doing it.”
B.K: You created the 90-minute John Candy show. This must have been a situation where ideas and humour crisscrossed with frequency.
D.T: In 1985, I had been Creative Director and Executive Producer at Telemedia Network Radio for several years. I was responsible for coming up with concepts, writing and producing six multi-hour radio specials per year to run on stations across Canada. 1985 was (more or less) the 50th anniversary of rock and roll, so for a summer series (2 hours per week for 12 weeks), I created Rock 30 (this was many years before Tina Fey had 30 Rock). I had worked with John Candy on radio commercials since 1975 and we had become friends.
The President of Telemedia was on vacation in Florida and ran into John, who was filming Brewster’s Millions with Richard Pryor. In the course of a conversation, my name came up, and John said, “Tell Doug I’d love to do more radio with him again”. So, I adapted Rock 30 for John and his cast of characters. That series ran on over 40 stations in Canada, was financially successful for Telemedia, plus John had a great time, so the following year, we created a weekly 90-minute program called, That Radio Showwith John Candy that aired on Q107 in Toronto and more than two dozen radio stations across Canada. Again, I wrote with John’s SCTV characters in my head. John was focused on his movie career and really missed doing those characters, so we created a venue for him to keep doing them. The series lasted a year and ended just as John moved his family to LA.
John called me a few months later, and said, “Let’s keep going”. I flew to LA and together we came up with the concept for Radio Kandy. The reason for the change in spelling is that most radio stations call letters west of the Mississippi River start with the letter K. We partnered with Transtar which later merged with Dick Clark’s United Stations Network to become Unistar. At our peak, we were on 250+ radio stations in the U.S. Just like a TV sitcom, we had a cadre of writers including Martin Short’s brother Mike Short, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty wrote with us sometimes, plus we hired a couple of former Second City writers. We had several guest stars and most of the SCTV cast. We also had Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, after two years, John went off to Italy to shoot a movie directed by his pal Eugene Levy (Once Upon A Crime), so we wrapped Radio Kandy. Telemedia Network offered me my old job back, so I returned to Toronto.
B.K: You have been the creative director at Telemedia Network, CHUM Radio’s sports network, imaging producer at Newstalk, and awarded numerous citations and celebrated for your many achievements. Do you ever take a moment and reflect on the whirlwind of events behind you?
D.T: I look back at all of these excellent opportunities that I had and am still amazed that they all happened. Over the 50+ years in the communications business, I’ve been fortunate enough to win 154 awards and work with and for amazing talents as John Candy, David Foster, Spencer Davis, Allan Slaight, Allan Waters, J. Robert Wood, Bill McDonald, Tom Rounds, Graham Nash and Dave Charles and I look forward to hopefully many more years of fun projects.
B.K: You’ve done profiles on Canadians Bob Erzin, Ian Thomas, Bobby Curtola, Ritchie Yorke, Duff Roman and others - the many pioneers of the Canadian music industry. How do their stories intersect and inspire?
D.T: In 2010, I met Ken Murphy, who was the founder and President of High Fidelity HDTV, which had four cable channels in Canada. Ken was an avid music fan, so he asked if I had any ideas for his Hi-Fi pop culture channel. I came up with “Hi-Fi Salutes”, which were short (10 to 12 minute) profiles of Canadian musicians, producers, managers and radio personalities. Over two seasons, I wrote and directed 24 television profiles of pioneers including Paul White (Capitol Canada A&R Director who released The Beatles’ records nearly a year before the U.S. and was an early supporter of Canadian talent), record producer and DJ Duff Roman, singer/songwriter Ian Thomas, The Stampeders, rock writer Ritchie Yorke, legendary radioman David Marsden, Bruce Cockburn’s manager and True North Records founder Bernie Finkelstein, producer Bob Ezrin and Canada’s first homegrown pop star Bobby Curtola. These were all successful Canadians, many of whom had worldwide success.
B.K: What was the thinking behind Hitsville U.S Eh! – Motown from a Canadian perspective? Detroit is across from Windsor, and I’m guessing radio straddling the border played a significant role in making those artists household names in Canada.
D.T: A friend of mine hired me to write and direct a one-hour television documentary he called Hitsville U.S. Eh!, Motown with a Canadian twist. There were several Canadians who worked at Motown behind-the-scenes as well as performers on their various labels, including R. Dean Taylor (from Toronto) and Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers (you can probably guess what city they’re from) which featured a guitarist named Tommy Chong. We taped interviews in Detroit and LA. With Windsor and radio powerhouse CKLW directly across the river, Canada loomed large in Motown’s legacy. The documentary took one full year to complete and ran on Hollywood Suite in Canada.
B.K: Toronto was a hotbed for rhythm & blues in the 60s’s – bands played six nights a week and mostly confined to covers of American hits. Did you have a go-to band?
D.T: When I was at CHUM, we had a Sunday night one-hour program called “Talent In Toronto” for several years until 1968. It was hosted by CHUM DJ Bob McAdorey and featured interviews and a live performance from many of Toronto’s top artists and bands of that era. I no longer can remember all of them, but I remember Gary & Dave, The Ugly Ducklings and Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot was the only one who didn’t want to perform live (although he did the interview live) so we spent Sunday afternoon recording Gord and his band, listening back, then re-recording any song mixes he didn’t like. I only remember the Ugly Ducklings as there’s a bootleg CD that has the entire show on it.
As for my likes, I always was a fan of The Guess Who (both before and with Burton Cummings), The Last Words, The Haunted (from Montreal), Wes Dakus & The Rebels (Edmonton). The Downchild Blues Band and Bobby Curtola, (who almost got he and I killed one day at CJCA in Edmonton, but that’s another story). I did see a lot of performers at The Riverboat in Yorkville during the mid to late ‘60’s, but missed Joni Mitchell and a couple of other future big-name stars, much to my regret.
B.K: You work alongside Dave Charles on ELMNT FMs – what’s going on there?
D.T: I work with Operations Manager Dave Charles at ELMNT FM in Toronto. We also have another station in Ottawa that many of us in Toronto also create programming for. I write and produce the imaging for both stations. These are two unique radio stations…owned by First Peoples Radio, a division of APTN in Winnipeg. Both stations are competitive in the market but with a unique twist in that within our 35% Canadian Content, we play 25% contemporary Indigenous music. These are amazing musicians and music that doesn’t get much airplay on commercial radio. We’ve been on the air for just over a year as of last month (October 2019). I’ve also known Dave Charles for close to 50 years (from our CHUM days) and he’s a great source of inspiration. He’s a very hand on, collaborative programmer with a constant source of fantastic ideas.
B.K: What’s on the horizon?
D.T: I’m currently developing two television documentaries that I can’t talk about (otherwise I’d have to have you maimed or worse). For the past four years, I’ve also been working with my longtime friend Spencer Davis on his autobiography. I met Spencer in the 1970’s at Eastern Sound where he was producing an album for the Downchild Blues Band.
B.K: What’s on the music device?
D.T: I like a lot of different genres of music. On my USB, I have over a thousand songs with plenty of variety from The Beatles to Green Day with a little Frank Zappa thrown in for good measure (Frank was one of my favourite interviews). Eclectic would be the word. There’s some classic country, instrumentals, my favourite novelty songs (there are no novelty songs anymore). I love Johnny Cash, John Lennon’s solo career, The Eagles, Pink Floyd and the Julian Taylor Band.
B.K: What’s the perfect day for you?
D.T: A perfect day for me would be sleeping in until at least 10 am, relaxing with a good book for a few hours (I love music biographies or non-fiction), then sitting down at the computer and working on my documentary ideas or imaging for the stations. Don’t have any plans to retire…I’ll keep going until the angels come to carry me away.