Twenty years ago, and for many years before and after that, CKX radio and television was a powerhouse in southern Manitoba. The AM station, on the air since 1928 and booming out 50,000 watts to small towns and farms as far as northern Manitoba, eastern Saskatchewan, and North Dakota, was a common link between us all. Their TV station was for many years almost the only one available in the area. And the face and voice of this local media giant was a man named Ron Thompson. When I worked with him he’d done almost every job in the building; but he was best known as the local host of the popular Reach for the Top television quiz game for high school students, and, perhaps even more so, for decades of weather reports that ended with his trademark, “Easy does it, my friends, that’s the weather.”
His office was at the very back of the sprawling CKX headquarters on Victoria Avenue in Brandon. Past the “Crystal Palace,” rarified realm of management, past the labyrinth of studios, interlocking workspaces and winding corridors, his door was at the end of the very last hallway. The sign read:
All around the sign were storm clouds and suns from the old magnetized TV weather map, retired when computers appeared on the scene. Ron missed the old map. “Here’s a high pressure system moving in from the south,” he’d say, and whack!, a high pressure system hit the steel door.
The office was crammed with mementos. There were maps, and cartoons about weathermen lining the walls. A set of World Book Encyclopedias was a relic of his days as host of Reach for the Top. A few of his beautiful pieces of woodworking lay scattered around.
When veteran announcer Johnny Murphy joined CKX AM in November, 1992, it took him less than a week to figure out the importance of Ron Thompson. Armed with the results of a smoking study, he went on air with an address to “the gang out there on the back stoop.” He said, “I’m not going to pick sides one way or the other, but think about this… If smoking takes seven years off of your life, you’ll miss over 1,800 Ron Thompson weather forecasts.”
When I think of Ron, who lost his long battle with cancer on Sunday at just 68 years, I can’t help smiling. He was funny. It was funny when Johnny poked fun at such a reciprocal target. It was funny in the same way that it was when Ron came on stage at the local folk festival and did a straightforward weather forecast in front of a large weather map held up by two hairy “nurses.” It was funny because his voice held our utmost trust and respect, but he still knew how to smile at himself. Our viewers and listeners took him with surprising seriousness. At live events some would ask, “Do you know Ron Thompson?” Others would glare up at a light rain and say, accusingly, “Ron Thompson didn’t predict this, did he?” He deserved every bit of the good and jokingly bad publicity. He was a journeyman.
I asked him once, why radio? What was it that had led him down this path?
“There was something fascinating,” he said. “The mystique of broadcasting. I had a couple of friends who were in the industry. Mike Williams, who’s now in public relations with VIA Rail. And there was a gentleman that worked at CKSB Saint Boniface. He was a French radio announcer, and he lived a couple of doors down from me. I used to hang out at CKSB, and go up and visit Mike at CKSB on occasion. And I was just fascinated with the industry, and said, hey, that’s what I wanna do for a living.”
Almost miraculously, Ron landed a job at CJOB when he was just 15 years old. “This was when FM was just starting to make waves in the broadcast industry,” he said, “with its non-static reception and what-have-you. CJOB had an FM station, and it dated back to 1946, except that they didn’t do anything with it. They just simulcast AM on it. Back in the late-‘50s they decided, well, they’re gonna do something with it, and they started separate programming. It was the first FM station in Winnipeg, and I was an operator on that FM station. We used to, what they call ‘voice-track’ all our programs. We used to just roll LPs, basically, and then it was ‘that was, here is’ type of thing.”
Except for a month with KBOM, a little 1,000-watt station in Mandan, North Dakota, Ron was with CJOB until 1963.
“I learned a lot at that station,” he told me. “Boy, did I learn a lot. Because…” He paused, for once struggling for words. “Totally professional. They had some great announcers. A great news staff. Great technical team. And that was back in the salad days of radio, too. There was a lot of creativity in it.”
In 1963 Ron moved to CKRF Regina, as staff announcer, at first doing a few weekends and then taking over the weekday evening shift. He soon jumped at the opportunity to take over the morning show at CJGX Yorkton. While he had not been particularly impressed by Regina, Yorkton had him smitten.
“I fell in love with the town,” he said. “Beautiful community. The radio station itself was a real hole-in-the-wall, but it was a good place to learn.
“I was up there for two years. Did mid-mornings. Did afternoons. Did evenings. Did a lot of remote broadcasts. Did a lot of amateur shows. We used to go out on Saturday nights, with the Associated Canadian Travelers, and broadcast from local communities. And we had a lot of fun doing that. I got to see a lot of eastern Saskatchewan that way, and parts of western Manitoba. We got up to Russell, Roblin, up to Swan River, Binscarth, and places like that, doing these amateur shows.
“But I could see the writing on the wall, as far as radio was concerned, even back then, because the formats were starting to come in. Everybody was starting to specialize. You had a country music station. You had a rock’n’roll station. You had an easy listening station. The music systems were starting to fragment into all their little niches, as they are now. Or you were the CBC, and the CBC was way over there. Everybody hated the CBC, and I don’t know why. I think it was professional jealousy, because the CBC were actually doing things. But back in the mid-‘60s, what we were doing was playing records and that’s it. Low-budget programming. You’d buy a fist-full of records, hire a kid off the street and stick him in a control room, and there’s your evening programming. That was it.
“So I could see the writing on the wall then, and I wanted to have a little bit of a crack at television, and that’s why I got into CKX. Because television was the cutting edge of the industry at that time, as far as the electronic media was concerned, and this was, at that time, a relatively small station.”
Ron started at CKX AM as morning man on October 14, 1965, doing fill-in work on TV such as live programming and commercials, and standing in for the weather on evenings and weekends. He was host of Reach for the Top and in 1970 became Quizmaster—a position he held until Reach for the Top was cancelled in the mid-‘80s. He did the afternoon drive shift on CKX AM, then eased into the CKX FM station, CJCM, in about 1969. For years he was the CJCM program director.
When CJCM became KX96 in 1983—shifting from easy listening to cutting-edge rock, Ron returned to CKX AM on the afternoon drive shift. Somewhere along the way he had become the staff meteorologist. In 1986 Western Manitoba Broadcasting (the CKX mother company) put their Manitoba Television Network on the air, and Ron moved into television announcing full-time. He did weather for CKX and MTN, and anchored an evening newscast on CKX television. “You were a company announcer,” he said. “They put you where they wanted you, and you got a lot of experience doing a lot of things.”
Ron was with the company for 37 years. He worked in almost every announcing job that the AM, FM and TV stations had to offer. That was an anomaly in the transient world of broadcasting. “Hank” George McCloy was in the first team of announcers at CJOB Winnipeg when it went on the air in 1946 and didn’t retire until 1987. Ron had a close friend who had enjoyed an equally long tenure at WSM Nashville, and they used to jokingly refer to themselves as the “George McCloys of WSM and CKX.”
Ron was the voice of CKX by the time I grew infatuated with radios, building my own pathetic crystal radio, with its copper wire antenna, and tried to pick up our iconic stations—for us, in order, CKY, CKRC, and CKX. He was an iconic voice by the time he became my mentor, colleague and friend in the 1980s and ‘90s. I always took time to record on tape the radio veterans, and in Ron’s case we sat down in the prod studio, infrequently and in bursts dependant upon mutual availability, over a period of months. One day I asked him to sum up his career.
“I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “To be in radio when I was 15 years old, for God’s sake, and still in the industry! And still as excited about it, today, as I was back then. It’s neat. Always listening. Always tuning the dial. Listening to KFYR Bismarck, of WGN or WLS. Or picking up some two-bit radio station down in Drinkwater, Montana, or someplace like that. It’s always interesting to see what the other guy is doing, and you’re always listening to see how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it.”
“That’s almost the essence of what we do,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ron said. “That’s it.”