Broadcaster, playwright, novelist, CBC executive and a former Chair of the Canadian and Radio Television Commission, Harry J. Boyle was a huge influence on CBC radio and television as a programmer, talent spotter (think Wayne and Shuster), broadcast boss and policy maker.
"He helped the CBC become the link that held the country together," said novelist and radio producer Howard Engel. "The CBC, in my time [the 1950s-1970s]was like the railway a century earlier. It let people in Corner Brook know what was going on in Edmonton. He was very important that way in his writing and in his broadcasting."
Harry Boyle was born on a farm in 1915 in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Wingham High School and St. Jerome's College (now part of the University of Waterloo) he worked as a journalist for the Goderich Signal Star and a stringer for the London Free Press and the Globe and Mail.
He got his first job as a broadcaster in 1936 at Radio Station CKNX in Wingham, Ont., the town later made famous as the birthplace and literary home of short-story writer Alice Munro. He left the radio station in 1941 and worked for a year at the Stratford Beacon-Herald before joining the CBC as a farm commentator in 1942. He quickly rose to become a network supervisor of features and director of the National Farm Radio Forum.
"He literally had an understanding of broadcasting and life from the grass roots up because he was a farmer," said playwright and Toronto cultural maven Mavor Moore who was a colleague at CBC radio as far back as the 1940s. There were two Canadian programs that were way ahead of every other in the world in terms of the size of their collective audience -- audiences that would gather in halls and meeting places across the country to listen to radio, according to Mr. Moore. One of them was the Citizen's Forum and the other was the Farm Forum under Mr. Boyle's supervision.
"He was a real thinking farmer," said Mr. Moore, "and a good deal deeper than people expected of the head of the farm dept." Those programs gave him an insight into the importance of broadcasting across the country, an understanding that he used "to turn radio into a medium where difficult and large topics could be tackled," said Mr. Moore. With his "enquiring mind and his lively concern about big issues in society and communications" he was an "anomaly among the people starting radio and television, who were on the whole pretty low brow," according to Mr. Moore.
He was an anomaly in other ways, too. A devout Irish Catholic who enjoyed a drink or three, Mr. Boyle hated hypocrisy, top-down bureaucracies and micro-managing. The legendary broadcaster Max Ferguson was a staff announcer at the CBC in the late 1940s. By that time Mr. Boyle was head of the Trans-Can network.
"I was the lowest paid announcer on staff," Mr. Ferguson remembered yesterday, "Every year we got an annual increment, although we called it the annual excrement because it was about ten dollars a year." That year -- it was 1949 -- Mr. Ferguson was told by a functionary that he wasn't going to get a raise at all, even though he was doing Rawhide, his satirical commentary in addition to his regular duties.
In the ensuing blow-up, Mr. Ferguson either quit or was fired for insubordination, depending on who is telling the story. While Mr. Ferguson was still seething, along came Mr. Boyle with the suggestion that he should think about selling Rawhide to the CBC on a freelance basis. "He was like the army sergeant interceding for the privates with the officers, except he did it between the announcers and the producers," said Mr. Ferguson.
"He sold that Rawhide show to them [the CBC]or about five times my salary and I was able to move back to Halifax, which I certainly preferred to Toronto. Things worked out beautifully and I owe it all to Harry Boyle. He was the only one who would listen to you and go to bat for you with his bosses."
When the Dominion Network was established at the CBC, Mr. Boyle created the feature show Assignment which reflected "homey" local stories from across Canada and his real triumph, CBC Wednesday Night, a mix of opera, musicals, classical and original plays and even documentaries that ran for 90 minutes or three hours depending on the strength of the program. Until then, the CBC schedule was divided into rigidly fixed and timed segments. What Mr. Boyle did, to the delight of both listeners and freelance producers, was to make the process more flexible so that the quality of the program determined the schedule rather than the other way around. This was the era that is known as the "golden age" of CBC with actors and producers of the ilk of John Drainie and Lister Sinclair fusing listeners to their radios.