CBC Radio fired me after just one day of work. It was Friday September 18, 1981.[i] Not a good day. But at least I can say I worked at CBC at the same time as Max Ferguson, and I can appreciate why, when Ferguson passed away at 89 in March 2013, he was eulogized as much for the length of his half century radio career as its content.
It’s not easy to keep up the creativity for that long, particularly amidst all the irony and bureaucracy of an institution like the CBC. Part of the answer for Ferguson was, ironically, to get fired. He shared the story of his firing, re-hiring under contract, and pay increase along with other anecdotes in his 1968 Leacock Medal memoir “And Now ... Here’s Max,”[ii] a book written about the half way mark in that long career and life.
Ferguson called it “a funny kind of autobiography,” and it is a bit different. He shares very little of his personal life in it. But because he was well known and popular, book-buying CBC fans were willing to shell out for his broadcast-industry war stories strung together in sequence. In each, Ferguson describes his experience in terms of colorful characters, practical jokes, and mishap induced by administration.
Some of his stories are pretty funny. Others are not so effective because cited personalities are no longer known and the premise of CBC’s domination of electronic media is dated. But all draw on Ferguson’s friendly style.
The book starts in 1946 with his first radio job (at the private station CFPL in his hometown of London, Ontario). He was earning $25 per week, $5 over the norm in recognition of his unusual qualification of a university education. CBC recruited him for its Halifax, Nova Scotia operations in December of that year.
In Halifax, he fell into the role of performer rather than announcer when he was told to host a “cowboy” music show called After Breakfast Breakdown. In a story now well known as Canadian broadcasting lore, Ferguson tells us that he didn’t like the music, was embarrassed, and decided to cloak himself on air in the persona of "Old Rawhide," an elderly cowboy who ridiculed the music he was playing. To Ferguson’s surprise, the character was a hit. At one point, some 9,000 listeners in Atlantic Canada wrote in requesting photos of Old Rawhide. Ferguson amused himself by adding other characters to the show, which eventually moved to the CBC flagship operations in Toronto where it accessed a national audience.
Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ferguson, as Rawhide, anchored one of CBC Radio’s most popular programs. Yet, as his book reveals, he was not paid a cent for his Rawhide work during those glory days. Formally, Ferguson was a regular CBC staff announcer paid only for routine on-air duties. In a circumstance many in government bureaucracies would recognize, CBC management said his job classification would not allow for a raise or any incremental money for his optional work on what was one of the network’s most popular programs. Ferguson decided to test the “optional” nature of the arrangement by staying home.
With his termination in the works, a CBC executive[iii] suggested that he leave, become a private sector producer, and provide the Rawhide show to the network as a contractor and non-CBC employee. Ferguson took the advice - and immediately received a fee that was four (4) times his former CBC employee salary. The best part of the deal for Ferguson was the freedom to move his family back to Nova Scotia and to mock his meal ticket.
By the end of the book, Ferguson’s stature as a performer had reached the point where he could drop the Rawhide character altogether and pursue a more flexible style in The Max Ferguson Show. Over the following years, Ferguson produced daily skits, parodies of literary classics, and satires of current events. He used his show to promote alternative music, folk music, and what is now known as World Music. Very few cowboys.
He was creative and often off the wall. In one skit, he performed as two talking heads that had been grafted onto one body to allow CBC to pay a single performing fee for two voices. This tells me he and his colleagues could laugh about the bureaucracy around them.
And this might be the main reason why he managed to do so well and to stick it out for a lot longer than just one day.Max Ferguson Trivia
[i] By union rules, the corporation had to pay a salary when trying me out as a researcher for the CBC Vancouver Noon Hour show. I know the date because of clippings on the news story I screwed up.
[ii] The title of the book was the standard introduction to his radio shows as delivered by well known CBC announcer Allan McFee.
[iii] The Executive was Harry J. Boyle, a Leacock Medal winner himself.