Sharon Taylor In Conversation With Evelyn Macko
She worked alongside people like Dick Smyth, Tom Rivers, Robert Holiday, Jim Brady, Larry Silver, Erik Tomas and for a time her voice defined an era in Toronto radio.
By Sharon Taylor
There was a time when Evelyn Macko was the preeminent radio newscaster in Toronto. She worked alongside people like Dick Smyth, Tom Rivers, Robert Holiday, Jim Brady, Larry Silver, Erik Tomas and many, many more. Her presentation and her writing helped make her a star talent. Her voice defined an era in Toronto radio. Not as apparent to the ear is the woman who also had to deflect sexism, define herself in the rough and tumble news world and develop the work ethic and the thick skin that not only took her to the big show, but kept her there for decades.
Tell me about you before radio. Where were you, what were you into?
I was living in Oshawa, my hometown. In high school, I was in a band in theatre arts. I either wanted to be a nurse or a kindergarten teacher. The nursing thing faded away, and then the qualifications to become a teacher changed. You now needed to go to university before you went to teachers’ college. I was too anxious and in too much of a hurry for that. I wanted to get going, and I didn’t want to waste time. I investigated continuing in drama, which I really liked, but realized that for me it would be better to find a career that would give me a regular paycheque.
A high school friend of mine whose brother who was going to Ryerson had seen an article on the back page of the Toronto Star about Phil Stone who was looking to attract more women into the radio program he had just started the year before at Humber College. He said, “you need to contact this guy,” and I did. I met with Phil and was accepted into the 2yr radio program. However, I jobbed out after the first year.
Hey! I went to Fanshawe for radio and left after the first year. I’ve neverheard the phrase “jobbed out”. Love it. Where did you go?
I got a summer job at CKTB in St Catharines. As summer was finishing, I was offered a full-time position there starting in September. I weighed my options. I had learned a lot in just a few months at CKTB. Kevin Hodges, who is still a good friend, was a terrific mentor. I wanted to be a jock, but he really helped me understand the news medium.
Wait a sec, you wanted to be a jock?
Absolutely. In my first and only year at Humber I had air shift in their little station that maybe reached a couple of nearby houses. I called it the “Wacko Macko” show! I always opened with (sings) 'Painted ladies and a bottle of wine' – you know music better than me who is that?
Right, right! My music director eventually hid the LP on me, and that was that (laughs).
One morning when I was on the air in this little studio, Phil Stone was upstairs in the building taping me. That morning the newsperson didn’t show up. I’m waiting, looking at the clock, worrying. There are just two rooms – the one I’m in with turntables, a couple of dozen albums, a mic etc., and then across the glass is the newsroom complete with a clickety-clack teletype machine, and a manual typewriter. It’s coming up to news time and nothing! What are you going to do? I put on an extra long song and ran around into the newsroom and ripped the wire and just put together what I thought was a newscast. News, some sports and weather. I mean I did know what the formula was, we had covered that in school. Around I come, hit the stinger and read the news. Fast forward to later that morning and Phil Stone is doing a class and he plays a tape from my show that morning. He asked the class “should she be a jock or a newsperson” and my fate was sealed after that. I started streaming into news stuff. Isn’t that crazy?
One year of Humber and you start a summer job that turns into fulltime at CKTB in St. Catharines.
Yes, that was a bit of a rough haul. I was there for four years. A six-day week, Sundays off and 100 dollars a week. It was tough for a couple of reasons. The difficult part for me was I would get phone calls from other women in the community who would accuse me of taking away the job from a man. It was a blue-collar town, very industrial. I ran into a lot of that. I also worked with a guy who used to hide news copy on me because I was a woman.
Wait, what? Because he didn’t think you had a right to be there?
Yeah, he would do that and other things too. Finally, he just said, “you shouldn’t be in this newsroom.” It was hurtful, so I started developing a thick skin quite early. Not an attitude, just a thick skin. I’m here. If somebody doesn’t want me here, it’s not up to me, and it’s certainly not up to you.
By this point had you turned in a newsperson?
Totally! They had me do everything. I would go to school board meetings, and regional government at that time was establishing itself in Niagara, so there were those kinds of political meetings. Covering city hall, police stuff, the courts, I did everything. I think it also helped that I wasn’t afraid to ask questions when I was out there. That was critical. I needed to understand what I was covering so that I could write it in a way that my listeners understood. I tell my students all the time that you must ask questions. There is no such thing as a dumb or wrong question. You must learn to translate it to your listeners.
You found your calling and your career has begun. How was life for you at that time?
I loved it. Loved the work, the people, the community, it was all great. I got married to someone who worked at the same station as I did but that only ended up lasting four years. My career is taking off, and then Dick Smyth called me and asked me to come to Toronto to interview for a job. He sent me a dozen yellow roses with a note “talent is the greatest gift of all.” The husband took great offence to that, and it was the beginning of the end of the marriage.
I had a goal, and that goal was to be good enough to work in Toronto. Then Dick called, and I eventually ended up turning down the job….
Dick Smyth offered you the job, and you turned it down? Why?
Because I was STUPID. At the time I thought it was the honourable thing to do. The wife stays with husband kind of thing. I was getting pressure from his family and stuff like that as well. Then from that moment that I turned Dick down, something was not right in my soul. I starting thinking, this is MY dream. This is MY career; this is MY life. If I have a chance at Toronto, I want to be able to give ‘er. Then, Robert Holliday from CFTR called.
I stayed married for awhile, and I would take the bus every day from St. Catharines to Toronto. I would sprint from the bus station to CFTR which at the time was at Adelaide and Victoria. Once the marriage ended, I was in Toronto 24/7.
I was so excited to be where I was and to do everything related to the job. I felt so alive. To be with these people and the talent was just a notch up. The level of expertise was crazy. I was working with people like Jim Brady, George Hamburger, Tom Rivers, Mike Cooper, Gerry Forbes, Bill Hayes, John Landecker. I just thrived being in that level of professionalism. Bob Holliday was wonderful. Clint Nickerson, Trisha Wood who was a news writer, Melanie Reffes, Cory Galbraith, Ted Bird, Larry Silver. Having come in from a smaller station, I was prepared for people to have walls but there was none of that. I felt included and felt like one of the team.
No radio station is immune to making mistakes, but boy was I ever schooled with a high standard. Writing was everything. If you weren’t sure about something, you made damn sure you found out before you went to air, especially pronunciations. Robert used to say when in doubt leave it out. And when you are on the air in Toronto for heaven’s sake, you’re there because you should know better, and you should get it right.
You were doing a day shift at CFTR. Then you are offered mornings at the station.
It was quite an honour, Robert had been doing morning news. I don’t think I worked another shift other than mornings for decades. Those days were very heady, and I hold the memories tight. Special times.
Did you know then that you had a distinctive sound?
No. It was only drawn to my attention when I was out people would recognize my voice and of course that always blew my mind.
Can you elaborate on what it was like working at CFTR which was in a ratings battle with CHUM at the time?
Everything was so slick. The promotions were huge; we were top of the game. We were so proud of our product. We were also appreciated by the company we worked for. When we did exceptional stuff, it was acknowledged which made us try even harder. And we were friends! We would get together and hang out at someone’s house; I’m not sure that happens much anymore. It was also family; how did Ted Rogers know all our names? I know that Gary Slaight was also like that. I just watched the interview he did with George Strombo and boy I wish I had worked closely with that man, gotten to know him.
I get it. Gary Slaight was a bucket list boss to me. You were at CFTR when they changed the format to 680News.
Oh, that was a sad day. All the announcers had been called off property to a meeting at a hotel. I was getting my 9 am newscast ready and Paul Fisher from CHFI was in master control putting a reel on. I asked what he was doing because I was going on with the news and he said, “there is no 9 o’clock news today”. That answer made zero sense to me. How could there be no news? Unfathomable. Incomprehensible. Then I found out what was going to happen.
Anyone left at the station was still employed. For the next 21 days, while the station was being staffed up, a handful of people kept the station going. We trained all weekend so that Dick Smyth could start the cycle on Monday doing 20 minutes; then I would do 20 minutes, then Marianne Summers would do the last 20 minutes.
I stayed for another five years but for me, the magic was gone. I had also been moved from the morning shift to afternoons to evenings. I left to go to Q107 and Talk 640 and was there for about 10 years.
The move to Corus was an invigorating one?
Absolutely. I had my little fiefdom again and it felt really good. Dave Trafford, the News Director who remains a great friend, hired me to do the morning news on both stations, top and bottom of the hour, which involved some quick writing and recording!
Another place with lots of good people, like Dan Pollard who did sports in the morning, Marsha Lederman, Karen Horseman, Brother Jake, Jeff Chalmers, Humble and Fred, Jesse and Gene, Al Joynes, Andy Frost, Iain Grant, Ira Haberman, Larry Silver, Tom Rivers, Kathy Kenzora, and of course, Kathleen Rankine. Sandy Salerno and Jim Lang kept up laughing. By 9 o'clock, Dan and I were exhausted!!!!
At one point the station became involved with the Toronto Argonauts and they asked me to try out to be their stadium announcer. It went well, but eventually they decided to stick with a male voice. And that's okay...I was thrilled they asked, and that I had that experience.
I was also working there the morning of 9-11. Humble and Fred were on Talk-640 one floor up. As I watched what was unfolding, I was calling upstairs on the intercom, 'put me on.... put me on,’ There was only my sense of urgency to get that story on the air, and the subsequent long day of unravelling a horrible yet historic event.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw our PD at the time, Stewart Myers, leaning against a table; arms crossed just watching me. When I stopped talking he began walking away and said, "so that's what you do, and what happens in here!!" Funny how you rarely think about what you do, you just do it.
Then a family ownership became corporate, and you and everyone else in radio knows the rest of that story. Restructured is the word I think. A bunch of us were let go. About three months later, Bill Carroll (now news director at CFRB) called me and offered two overnight news shifts at CFRB. My foot was in the door and my re-invention began.
Well yes. It was a tough job, but eventually I started doing some weekend shifts, some holiday fill-ins, mornings, afternoons. I spoke to Brian Depoe who was the PD at EZ Rock and told him that I could be doing that station as well since it was 10 steps from the newsroom.
I co-hosted the EZ Rock morning show when Troy McCallum was filling in; then I became their news person. I did the top of the hour newscast on EZ Rock and the bottom hour on CFRB.
I’m a big Mike Bendixen fan – did you read the interview Bill King did with him? It was Mike and Dave Trafford that asked me to do mornings with Dave on CFRB. When Dave left for Global TV Dave Agar came back to doing mornings so I was then doing mornings with him.
Then Standard sells to Astral, who sells to Bell and cuts started……
Is this where Seneca and Humber College enter your life?
It was Seneca first, back when I had been let go from Corus. Joanne Wilder had been teaching at Seneca and was leaving. Joanne recommended me to Course Co-ordinator Jim Carr. When he called me, I didn’t hesitate. I was excited about the idea of teaching.
Jim guided me all the way. I just started at Humber in 2015 in the post-grad program under Paul Cross, and then last fall in the diploma program under Sheila Walsh.
Your excitement about teaching is evident. What is it that draws you in?
What I love most is seeing the sparkle in the eyes of the 'keeners!' They really are radio's future. Such a pleasure to interact with these young people - I call them my 'kids." They are eager, and really 'want' this. It’s my job to make sure that they leave here with solid skills for the real world.
Finally, give me your favourite words of wisdom.
No question is a stupid question. Even that one (laughs).
Sharon Taylor is a freelance broadcast consultant based in Toronto. You can reach her at 437 992 9202. or at firstname.lastname@example.org