Lyman Potts compiled a huge catalogue of Canadian content for radio stations. He did it not because some government edict told him to, but because he wanted to. Mr. Potts, who has died at 102, built the foundations for the Canadian music industry by creating domestic content for radio stations, recording bands and singers in a collection called the Canadian Talent Library.
Gordon Lightfoot was one of the Canadian musicians. Mr. Potts arranged for the first recording session of the man who would go on to become one of the most successful recording artists in this country.
“Willa Burke, who worked at the office, said she’d heard this young singer named Gordon Lightfoot playing around the corner,” Mr. Potts recalled. “We went to see Gordon and asked if he’d like to record some of his music. He agreed and we did seven songs in a one-hour session,” Mr. Potts remembered years later.
“It was mostly traditional folk songs from the Maritimes I was singing back then at the Purple Onion,” Mr. Lightfoot said. But it also included at least two songs Mr. Lightfoot had written himself.
The problem facing radio stations here was how to get their hands on Canadian-produced music. The musicians’ union loved the rules that forced stations to play live music. There was no recording industry in this country so any recorded music came from the United States.
Mr. Potts, a radio executive at Standard Broadcasting in Toronto in the early 1960s, went to the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG) – the predecessor to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) – and came up with a plan to record Canadian artists. The stations could then play Canadian music and at the same time keep the broadcast regulator happy because of the money spent on home-grown talent.
By 1963, the plan was approved and Mr. Potts set about organizing the recording of Canadian musicians. The Canadian Talent Library contained 266 albums with 3,000 individual selections. The music was mostly big bands conducted by the likes of Howard Cable and Alexander (Ragtime) Read, but it branched out into individual singers.
The Canadian Talent Library was a huge success and more than 200 private radio stations played the recordings across the country. It even replaced Muzak on Air Canada.
The recordings also had the desired effect of making the regulators happy. “It cost the radio stations a fair chunk of dough, but they bought a lot of goodwill with it,” Mr. Potts said. “It also put money in the pockets of the people who made the recordings.”
It also made Mr. Potts a legend in the radio and music business. In 1978 he was made a member of the Order of Canada for “the establishment of the Canadian Talent Library, which has done much to encourage the recognition of Canadian performing artists.”
Many musicians were in favour of recorded music, but the head of the union, Walter Murdoch, was dead set against it. He wanted to stick with live orchestras and singers in studios. In the long run, the union agreed it was in the interests of the artists, and Mr. Potts was made an honourary member of the Toronto Musicians Association.
Not many years later, the middle-of-the-road music was knocked off the air by rock 'n' roll. But by that time, the Canadian recording industry was established. When the CRTC made a rule in 1972 ensuring the airplay of a certain amount of Canadian content, it wasn’t that difficult to provide it, even though at first Anne Murray and Mr. Lightfoot perhaps got too much exposure.
Joseph Lyman Potts was born in Regina on Nov. 11, 1916, just 11 years after Saskatchewan became a province. He was named after Lyman Abbott, a hockey player on the Regina Victorias – coached to victory in the Allan Cup by his father, Joe Potts. Captain Abbott, awarded the Military Cross twice, was killed in the last months of the First World War.
Along with coaching hockey, Lyman Potts’s father ran a barbershop, and not just any barbershop – it was an elaborate operation with seven chairs on the ground floor of a building that housed lawyers and doctors. It was a meeting place for the local establishment. Many of them kept their own razors at Mr. Potts’s barbershop.
Young Lyman went to Regina Central Collegiate. He was not an athlete, but he was outgoing and active in things such as high-school plays. He was also fascinated by radio from the age of 5 when he watched transmission towers being installed on the Regina Leader Post Building.
As a teenager he also wired his own neighbourhood, using thin copper wire hooked up to his own radio at home to send programs to some of his neighbours. He also had a microphone to practise broadcasting. He started working at the local radio station, CHWC, when he was 16, and took a full-time job there when he finished high school. The pay was $5 a week.
In the 1930s, live music of big bands was the staple of private radio stations in Canada. On a Saturday night the Regina station would handle the broadcast of an orchestra from a local ballroom. The station would come on after a similar broadcast in Winnipeg and, after an hour and a half, would switch to a broadcast from Calgary.
Mr. Potts worked as the announcer, technician and traffic manager, organizing the logistics of it all. One night he remembered packing up the equipment and rushing out to meet some friends. He had a date with a girl he never thought would go out with him. All of a sudden there was a problem with the next station and he had to go back inside, set up his gear and get the band playing again to broadcast for another half hour. Things with the young woman worked out. He married Michelle Bole three years later.
In 1940, he went to Hamilton as production manager of radio station CKOC. He was delighted to be making $125 a month. Once again he did everything, working as an announcer, traffic manager and program director. One night when there was a fire at the Woolworth’s store in Hamilton, he hooked up a primitive relay and broadcast live, at first from a payphone then from an apartment across the street from the fire.
In 1955, he was hired by a Toronto lawyer and a London, Ont., insurance executive to start a radio station from scratch in London. Mr. Potts successfully opened and ran CKSL.
His next stop was Montreal, where he worked for CJAD. The station was soon bought by Standard Broadcasting, which owned CFRB in Toronto and was part of the Argus empire run by E.P. Taylor and Bud McDougald.
In 1963, he moved to Toronto to work for the chief executive of Standard Broadcasting, a rather formidable Englishman by the name W. Thornton Cran. Mr. Cran’s wife liked to give new hires the once-over so she invited Mr. Potts for dinner, and served him kidneys. He couldn’t stand them but ate them anyway and passed muster.
His jobs included overseeing the operation of FM radio stations. In 1966, he organized the first private radio news network, Standard Broadcast News, using reporters and announcers from stations across the country to put together a national news service.
One of his key jobs at Standard was helping write presentations for Mr. Cran to present to the broadcast regulator, the BBG. Keeping the regulators happy was one of the reasons for starting the vast library of Canadian recorded music.
Prime Minister John Diefenbaker created the BBG in 1958. Up until then, the CBC had been the regulator. One of the first appointments was Mabel McConnell, Mr. Diefenbaker’s dentist from Prince Albert, Sask.
“None of these people knew anything at all about broadcasting,” Mr. Potts said. “Along with Diefenbaker’s dentist was the head of the Potato Board in Prince Edward Island. It was all political.”
However, Mr. Potts had a lot of time for Andrew Stewart, the head of the BBG.
It was while he was at Standard Broadcasting that he started the Canadian Talent Library. His skills as a diplomat with the BBG convinced Standard to post him to London, where Standard was working with companies that were trying to set up the first private radio stations in Britain.
When he left the radio business in 1981, he was president of Standard Broadcast Productions and a vice-president of Standard Broadcasting. He then started his own consulting business and kept active in broadcasting for another two decades.
In retirement, Mr. Potts archived the history of the early days of radio broadcasting in Canada. He helped establish a website, The History of Canadian Broadcasting, and wrote many of its entries. He was a walking encyclopedia of the history of radio and television in Canada.
Mr. Potts’s mind was razor sharp. His brain seemed like a computer hard drive, and well into his 90s he could recall the most extraordinary pieces of information without any hesitation.
A diminutive man, he kept the booming voice of an old-fashioned radio announcer all his life. He loved to talk. As Mac McCurdy, his boss at CJAD and Standard Broadcasting used to say, “Ask Lyman a short question and you get a long answer.”
He also kept broadcasting – or at least programming.
Mr. Potts once lent part of his Canadian Talent Library, about 100 records, to a man who had started a radio station in Winnipeg. To repay the favour the man sent back CDs of the records he transferred. At the retirement home where he lived in Burlington, Ont., Mr. Potts organized the music program for the place, programming his CDs every day the way he once programmed radio stations.
His wife, Michelle, suffered from Alzheimer’s and in the last few years of her life lived in an intensive-care home. Mr. Potts would visit her every day and for a long time he read her the newspaper or chatted with her while they watched television.
Mr. Potts died in Burlington on Dec. 9. He leaves his brother, Jack, and his son, Joel.