Up in the Air

The CHEK control room on Dec. 1, 1956. CHEK was the first privately owned station in B.C.

While the industry changes, what the people want is the same and TV newsrooms are fighting to stay alive

By Austin Everett

On a chilly afternoon in the spring of 1976, Rick Webber walked into a newsroom for the very first time. Webber was only in Grade 12 but he had been hired to run the station’s Top 40 music show, geared towards teenagers. With palms sweating, his heart racing, he read the news at the top of the hour—his first live radio news broadcast.

His nerves were so overwhelmed that when it came time to read the report he announced today’s “Webber” and named himself Rick “Weather.” “It was a nerve-wracking start,” he recalls.

From that first day in 1976 until July of 2019, Webber worked non-stop in broadcasting—in a career that took him from small-town P.E.I. to Kelowna, B.C, where he retired as anchor for Global Okanagan last year. Over the course of four decades, Webber estimates that he read some 10,000 newscasts.

Rick Webber retired in 2019 after a four-decade career in broadcasting.

In many respects, Webber is the last of a dying breed of broadcast journalists: someone who has made a career working at small-market stations. Today, journalists who come to work in smaller communities see it as a stepping stone to something bigger. But with many of these stations reducing staff levels, consolidating or closing, the prospects for small-market stations is far from certain.

Back when Webber started, the future of broadcasting—and whether he would have a lifelong career in it—was not top of mind. All he knew was that he wanted to be behind the mic: “I liked being a radio DJ. I thought it was fun.”

After third-year university, he left P.E.I. for the other end of the country, getting a part-time job at a radio station in Powell River, B.C.; soon, the 19-year-old was appointed the station’s news director. Webber—who, at that point, had never written a news story—started each day putting on the first few records, typing up a newscast, and reading the top stories of the morning.

“The job at Powell River was quite eye opening,” Webber says. “I had to be a jack-of-all-trades.” The town—thanks to the then-booming local mill—was quite rich at the time, which drove home the point for him, earning the wage that he did, that “you weren’t in the media because you love the money.”

 

Rick Webber and the news teams he has been a part of over his long career.

As Webber moved across B.C. for work, the assignments got more specialized. He was no longer the DJ plus news director; everyone had one job that they were responsible for, be it editing, reporting or shooting. Back then, says Webber, news was “a licence to print money,” so that sort of specialization was possible. After working at a variety of stations, Webber moved to Kelowna in 1990 for a position at what was then CHBC (now Global Okanagan). Webber felt he had finally found his dream job.

But in the spring of 2000, a company called Canwest Global Communications Corp.—which owned radio, television and publishing assets across Canada—had purchased WIC Television, which owned CHBC. As the decade progressed, Winnipeg-based Canwest started to rationalize services: in November 2008, 23 positions were eliminated at CHBC, while the company announced plans to move Webber—the face of Okanagan news—to Victoria’s CHEK, also owned by Canwest.

The initial idea was that Webber would read the news from Victoria, but after public outcry in Kelowna about losing their local newscast—and the face of that program—the decision was reversed. Still, CHBC’s future was far from certain. In 2009, at the depth of the economic crisis, letters were sent out to Webber and the CHBC staff announcing layoffs.

While the layoffs never happened, Canwest ultimately decided to rebrand CHBC and fold it into the Global TV network. The move saved Webber’s job, and the station, but would change the nature of local news in Kelowna forever.

Webber describes what the new reality looked like, upon his retirement: “With a green screen behind me as a new superimposed set, I have a director in my ear, talking to me from Vancouver. Sitting in front of me are two robot cameras that are also being operated from Vancouver. And I’m running my own teleprompter with
a foot pedal.”

 

 

For an interactive map of Rick Webbers career through the decades, click here.

 

It wasn’t just in the Okanagan where change was being felt. Other Canwest properties—including CHEK—were also feeling the pinch. Diane Dakers worked for CHEK from 1999 to 2001, and is the author of CHEK Republic: A Revolution in Local Television. According to Dakers, once Canwest purchased WIC Television, its stations—including CHEK and CHBC—saw a 30 per cent reduction in staff.

Rebranding stations to rationalize production costs became part of the Canwest plan. Similar to how CHBC was now Global Okanagan, with a control room in Vancouver, Canwest announced in 2001 that it would rebrand CHEK as CH—part of a “secondary television system” that included stations in Red Deer, Hamilton and Montreal.

The rebranding came with celebrity gossip and lifestyle programming that was different from what the B.C. capital had seen before. “The local market rejected it. They would make decisions that weren’t in Islanders’ best interest,” says CHEK general manager and CEO Rob Germain, who has worked at the station since 1995. “People here just didn’t like it.”

The rebranding effort ultimately didn’t work, and by the time the 2008 financial crisis struck, Canwest announced further cuts to the CHEK newsroom: 19 employees would be let go, leaving the Victoria workforce with just 40 staff. Then Canwest announced that they were looking at “strategic options” for their remaining stations, saying that a “secondary conventional television network is no longer key to long-term success.”

By May 2009, Canwest announced that buyers had been found for some of its secondary CH stations, including those in Montreal and Hamilton. But CHEK, and the Red Deer station (CHCA), were without buyers—and their futures in question.


Germain, who was CHEK’s news director at the time, says that initially they were relieved CHEK was for sale—hoping that a new buyer would reverse some of the severe budget cuts. But when CHEK remained on the selling block as 2009 progressed, worry began to set in. That worry turned to panic when Canwest announced that summer that CHEK would go off the air by August 31, if no buyers were found.

 

 

For a timeline showing the history of CHEK, click here.

 

Germain and John Pollard, who was then CHEK’s general manager, put their heads together and came up with a pitch to save the station. When that failed, they decided to find the money themselves. “We got together and started thinking about how we were going to stay alive,” Germain recalls. “Investors said to us that if we put up our own money, they were more likely to consider investing.”

The initial fundraising efforts were promising. Global newsrooms in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver each raised over $15,000 to help the CHEK cause; local, provincial and federal politicians voiced their support, while Vancouver Islanders also pitched in. “Save CHEK News” t-shirts popped up everywhere in a sign of support. “The public was a great motivator— knowing we had them behind us helped us to get moving,” Germain says.

Just four days before that final newscast was set to air in August, $2.5 million had been raised. The buyout plan was presented to Canwest, but it was initially rejected. “I arrived at work that day not knowing if it would be my last day or not,” Germain says. After another week of negotiations, Canwest agreed to sell the station, with CHEK becoming fully employee-owned.

Diane Dakers, in her book on CHEK, outlines how the station managed to survive as an independent operator—thanks to a combination of its unique business model, post-Canwest, and a close bond with its community. As Dakers sees it, there is a deep culture of prioritizing local companies in B.C.—especially on Vancouver Island—which, in part, explains CHEK’s survival.

The Island identity has always been a unique part of Victoria and Vancouver Island, and that’s reflected in its newscasts. Islanders are passionate about local stories and were willing to give to the CHEK cause to keep its identity alive, says Dakers. “The people in Red Deer lobbied to try to save their station in the same way,” she notes. “But the interest just wasn’t there.”

The CHEK offices in Victoria.

From CHEK to CHBC, every small-market station in B.C. has local stories to tell. They have passionate audiences. And they’ve provided lasting and meaningful careers to broadcasters like Rick Webber and Rob Germain—a legacy that both men embrace. “I can’t think of a better way to spend your time, to make a living, than to be providing this kind of a public service,” says Webber.

“I feel privileged to work in an industry where it has purpose, people care, and we can make a difference in people’s lives,” says Germain.

And he’s bullish on the future too.

“We had to update our cameras and all our equipment,” says Germain of the initial costs of relaunching CHEK as an employee-owned station. “Our next step is to create an over-the-top channel, like Netflix likely to be called CHEK-Plus. We are all really motivated here. We are doing more than just news.”

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