Sometimes, the best thing to do in life is to shut up and let the other person speak. And, at times, the same rule applies to writing -- let the subject of the piece tell the story. We introduce you now to Canadian writer, broadcaster, world traveller, explorer and bon vivant Jason Schoonover.
This is his story, in his words.
I was born in Melfort September 14, 1946 while my folks were living in the village of Gronlid where my mother was a teacher in the one-room school and my dad was trying to launch a farm with a quarter section and horse drawn machinery and running the livery stable and milk run. After the farm inevitably failed and the livery stable went the way of, well, livery stables, we bounced around—Barrie Ontario, Smeaton, Yellow Creek where I started school—but my school years and upbringing were really spent in Carrot River. That town made the major impression on me.
I was in drama throughout high school and had the lead in two plays, a drama and a comedy, as well as directed a class play in Grade 10 that was the hit of the festival. I loved 1950s and ‘60s music of course and my favorite DJ was the Wild EYE-talian Dick Biondi on Chicago supergiant WLS who I could pick up in the dead of winter on those crisp, clear -40F nights on my transistor radio under the covers, but I didn’t have thoughts of being one myself. I had nascent dreams of being a writer.
Wanting to be a writer since the age of twelve, I studied English literature at Simon Fraser University so I would be exposed to the English speaking world’s greatest writers. After graduating in ’69 and kicking around Vancouver a year trying to live an alternative lifestyle – really avoiding getting a dreaded job – I got tired of being dirt poor and moved to Saskatoon (I hated Vancouver’s depressing rain and crowds) in the spring of 1970 determined to break into writing. Besides the StarPhoenix (which had an opening in September), I hit the rock station I favored as a kid, CKOM 1250, and showed Copy Chief Pat Beaudreau sample spots I had penned. (Coincidentally I had worked under her husband Lou in the Order Desk at Intercontinental Packers when I was 18.) She said she didn’t have an opening for a writer—but the station needed an all-night swing jock and would I be interested in taking a voice test? Sure, absolutely, that sounds like fun! Dale Heath handled the test. Being green and unprepared, mine was stilted and amateur, and Dale gently showed me the door.
But with my blood now fired up, I drove home and practiced the rest of the day reading the StarPhoenix out loud, and phoned Dale the next morning asking for a re-test. He was very reluctant but Dale being Dale and being a nice guy, caved in. I returned to the studio and read news and a commercial with considerably more confidence and finesse. Fortunately, Dale still had the tape of the first test and when he played them back to back, there was such a significant improvement that it raised his eyebrows. He immediately took me to Operations Manager Arnie Stilling and Arnie was impressed too. He gave me permission to use a studio at night to practice, learn how to operate the control board and cue records and the like. They also threw what work they could at me over the summer – operating the control panel while Bill Gerald a.k.a Stovin Jr.did remotes from the exhibition and the like – and in September they moved out the all night girl and gave me the show.
I had been Harv Schoonover but they changed my name to Jason Michaels, which was fine with me although I wanted to use Simon Donovan. I always hated “Harvey” and never felt like one. “Jason” was far sexier and I changed it legally a few years later, especially since the whole town soon knew me as Jason. I had the usual, wonderful, memorable and completely nerve racking first night. It was the evening jock, Jefferson Davis, who set me up and who became a close friend. A university graduate and the recipient of a scholarship and numerous bursaries, I was paid the heady sum of $350 a month.
At the time, CKOM was going through a severe down turn—I joined just after the infamous period of Woody Cooper, Alfie and then legendary (and now completely forgotten) morning man Jack McClung—and ratings were a widely trailing #2 behind easy listening giant CFQC 600 and their phenomenal Wal-n-Den morning team. CKOM team spirit was non-existent, particularly because of a couple of revolting, ego-tripping dayside jocks and an equally egotistical, swaggering 21-year-old promotion director, all of whom were out for themselves and poisoned the atmosphere. The only thing more shallow and revolting than a kid with Grade 12 and an ego the size of Napoleon’s is three of them, but being low man on the totem pole I had to bite my tongue. Roy Norris handled mornings and he was always late for work, which I did not appreciate one bit after being on air all night for six solid hours. As I had to stay on air during the start of his shift I began making up daily outrageous on air excuses for Roy’s Daily Excuse For Being Late, and when he finally arrived, invariably 15-20 minutes into his shift and climbed into the saddle glaring at me, I’d write up in the fault report in front of him (well, actually behind him because that’s where it was but he knew damned well what I was doing) what time he finally arrived. We hated each other’s guts.
Roy’s spring ratings tanked and, desperate to do anything to improve them, management decided to reformat my show, since it led into Norris’. This was Roy’s get even ploy as he engineered it. Instead of the normal rock playlist, I was handed a stack of Montovani, Living Strings and Percy Faith genre albums and instructed every quarter hour just to give the time, temp and station ID. Well, this stunk like a rotten, beached whale and I saw no future here. There was none at this station for most at the time anyway; money was so tight they laid off the little old lady who had been running the music library for over twenty years. When I got into radio I thought I’d be surrounded by all these highly creative on air types and instead ’OM was stacked with mostly narcissist, talentless drones which was solidly reflected in the ratings (Bill Gerald and Jefferson Davis were exceptions, Dale was a solid journeyman announcer on afternoons and later moved to ’QC-TV where we worked together again in the same building and, I have to admit, Roy was effective on his Beef and Bouquets talk show, if way too serious to be a morning jock. He’s never told a joke in his life.) I began to parody the format, imitating the university FM station, C-JUICE’S lugubrious, droning, pretentious style: “You’re listening to CKOM broadcasting at 1250 kilocycles on the AM band. The current time is….”
It couldn’t last and I didn’t want it to. The writing was on the control room wall. As I expected, the word filtered down when my last night would be and I said my on air goodbyes and went in to see a very uncomfortable Arnie whom I had to put at ease rather than the other way around. I easily engineered being laid off rather than fired so I could start collecting UI sooner. It was springtime and I was relieved to be out of there—and with a year’s worth of UI to live on. I thought of it as my Government Art Grant. I never thought being canned could feel so good. It felt like getting let out of school on June 28th with the whole summer ahead.
Free of the all-night show—I’m not an all-night person, it was dragging me down physically and I had no social life—I began scrounging freelance writing bits for music magazines and doing editorials and documentaries for CBC-radio and working part time for What’s Up? Magazine with its TV Guide format. A year later Michael Christie a.k.a Bill Hominuke called. I had set him up for his first own nerve racking break in show and he had taken over my all night show and eventually moved on to the drive show when one of the ego trippers left and proved to be a real talent (he later moved on to a rock giant in Toronto, then law school and most recently became a film producer and he gave me small speaking part). He informed me that he heard that rival CFQC had an opening for the weekend swing shift. I phoned Wally Stambuck and went in for an interview. We were wearing the same shirt, which became a visual running joke of mine for years after. He offered me the show and ’OM’s Jason Michaels segued into ’QC’s Jason Schoonover (subsequently there was a Jay Michaels at ’OM which sowed some small confusion among listeners.) Dirty Dan Germaine broke me in for my first show with ’QCs unusual house made control panel and joked for years that I couldn’t remember which name to use on air.
After three weeks Wally called me in and I thought, what the hell? I’m going to get fired again? I’m rusty but not that bad. Instead he made me full time Music Director, the first such fulltime position in the province. I also was given the Saturday night show and, for a time, Sunday morning’s Best-by-Request, which had the highest quarter hour ratings in the province, something like 65,000.
Being Music Director was one of the two best jobs I ever had, I loved it, the music at the time was great, I flourished, and worked damned hard at it. This station was filled with creative people, some brilliant, particularly Station Manager Dennis Fisher, Denny Carr, Wally Stambuck and Marty Jeffries (more off air than on where he was intimidated and overly polite, but a real free form Robin Williamsesque comedian off mike), and I felt at home here. A talented boss, Dennis nurtured a positive, happy, supportive, creative atmosphere.
I also continued producing docs for the station, initially hour long ones based on interviews I did with stars passing through that interested me. Foremost amongst these were my childhood music idols, The Everly Brothers. They were on what turned out to be their last tour; when they finished it, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, they didn’t speak to each other for twenty years. They hated each other so much “after being hitched together like a team of horses” so long they had separate managers and I had to interview them separately, then go into the studio and splice their answers together, along with their music. This, like several of the music docs I produced, were distributed nationally through the Canadian Association of Broadcaster, or CAB. I also continued writing and voicing CBC editorials and, after publishing an article in Westworld Magazine, was invited to pen a regular column. For CFQC’s 50th birthday in 1973, I got carried away and produced a series of a half dozen 15-20 minute documentaries displaying the history of ’QC against a background of period news clips (“Oh, the humanity!” etc), music, prices and general culture. It was during this period when I tightly programmed the music that Wal n Den hit their highest ratings ever – 82% of the Available Listening Audience. Only one other station matched us in Canada and it was the Windsor giant CKLW booming 50,000 watts into Detroit and beyond.
However, after 15 months I resigned to travel in Europe for a year—I’ve had the travel bug even longer than the writing one and have been to over 60 countries and around the world three times, including living in Bangkok—but the implicit impression was given to drop by when I returned. During this year off I wrote what I call my training bra novel, which was (happily) never published. When I returned to Toontown, Dennis promoted me to Promotion Manager at double my old salary and I was off. It was a fabulous position and allowed me free rein to expand creatively in all directions writing, directing and producing. I’ve never been in a job where I felt so comfortable and at home.
Because we were central Saskatchewan’s rating giant, we attracted all the national advertising and media campaigns, which it was my job to produce and which ran me off my feet in the months before Christmas. We were always sold out. Here my great help was Bev “Beav” Frey, my executive assistant. I had never met anyone who never made mistakes before, even spelling ones. When I actually discovered one after almost three years, I was so flabbergasted I had to bring it up. For her part, she was actually devastated and embarrassed beyond belief. To this day, I brag about how perfect she was—except for that one mistake. To this day, she cringes.
I had the pleasure of producing several Miss Teen Saskatoon pageants, something that surprised me because I was invariably impressed by the high quality of the applicants when I expected bimbos. After the heinous murder of three children in Saskatoon in 1975, we launched the Block Parent Program with me as Implementing Chairman. It proved an instant and huge success and within two months we had set up area chairmen throughout the city with hundreds of homes displaying the Block Parent Sign, and soon were mentoring other communities on implementation. For our work, and my considerable media application, CFQC won the B’nai B’rith Media Human Rights Award a year later. A delighted Dennis flew me down to Montreal to accept the award, along side Roy Bonisteel for Man Alive and a jovial Harvey Kirk for something or another. He just looked awfully comfortable and content with his big mitt wrapped around a Scotch glass. “Harvey” doesn’t suit him either. Harvey doesn’t suit anyone, except maybe an invisible rabbit.
The job included some real fun things, the greatest of which was Larmancaller Time in 1975 (I think it was). The five month government program introducing metric temperatures was—most propitiously—to end March 31. The next day was…guess what? April 1st. April Fools Day. Har har har. We announced that the government’s next program was directed at time—it too was going metric. Instead of 12 hours in a day, there would now be 10. I duplicated the Celsius media introduction template provided by the government down to a T. The elaborate spoof was introduced on Wal n Den and immediately went viral. Incensed listeners jammed our switchboard furious at the government. Birks Jewellers phoned telling us about all the calls they were getting asking if they had the new ten hour clocks and watches and if we knew anything about it because callers heard about it on our radio station. A rumour spead that there was a ten-hour overlay one could paste to wristwatches. Time Magazine even phoned (though didn’t use it). And many stations coast-to-coast borrowed the spoof in subsequent years. Larmancaller Time still comes up in conversation every few years and I get a chuckle out of it, especially since the person bringing it up often doesn’t know that I was the criminal mastermind behind it. It’s now been a third of a century since but a google search just turned up eight hits. Larmancaller, incidentally, was a corruption of Rembrandt’s middle name, Harmenszoon. Schoonover is a Dutch name and I love Dutch art, culture and Holland’s laisse faire ways. And I finally got to use the name “Simon” in radio.
As I became successful at CFQC and freelancing, such as producing/directing/writing John Diefenbaker’s 80th birthday gala at the Centennial Auditorium with over 300 performers and personnel and the like, Roy and I steadily gravitated towards forgiving each other and eventually became mutual admirers. He even invited me onto his talk show, when it moved to’QC and after I left radio and moved on to travel and related fascinations.
I loved radio, but the siren song of writing and independence and adventurous dreams called louder. Besides all the freelancing I was doing for stage, CBC radio, the StarPhoenix and magazines, I was the pioneer of taped music entertainment in town and, with my radio background and access to ’QC’s music library and studios (I’d actually started when I was at ’OM) my Rolling Thunder Sound dominated the scene in the early-mid 1970s. All the income from my various sources I diligently saved and funneled into revenue producing real estate, to buy my freedom. I like to brag that since November 1977 when I left ’QC (after giving Dennis a generous two-month notice) I’ve been gainfully unemployed. I segued to travel writing, then collecting anthropological collections from around Southeast Asia for museums around the world and this has fed into five books so far. All have adventure themes both in fiction and non-fiction, one was an international bestseller on Bantam (Thai Gold) and another with an international readership (Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives on the cover of which Buzz Aldrin wrote that every school kid should read the book, which ain’t a bad endorsement from a guy who certainly has lived his. We both belong to The Explorers Club of New York.
Since 1982 I’ve lived full and part time in Bangkok, but Toontown is my spring, summer and fall home. I love it here. I’ve been interviewed on cross country book tours and because of my ethnological collecting and travels over a hundred times and it’s always fun to be on the other side of the mike, and back in contact with the media. I’ve never left it but book writing is a solitary act, which is why I actually preferred radio to TV. In radio I could write a spot, walk into a studio and voice it, write it up on the log, and it could be on the air in 15 minutes. In television it takes an army to reach that final broadcast stage. As a writer, my office is the pen and paper I always carry in my breast pocket.
CFQC Radio 600 was my university of the media and it allowed me to stretch, exercise and develop what gifts I have. When I left the promotion job, after 3 years and 3 months tutelage under Dennis Fisher, the best mentor a guy could have, I felt like I had my Ph.D. My friends from those early days are too many to mention, many are still my closest friends, and so as not to exclude anyone, I won’t toss out any names.
But I raise a Scotch to all of you. It’s been a pleasure and an honour working with all of you.
(Note: - ToonTown is Saskatoon.)
JASON'S RADIO RECIPE: Whisky.
This comes from master Canadian moon shiner Joe Begin, a legendary Saskatchewan hermit. Jason picked up the recipe from Joe back in 1982. As quoted by Jason, Begin says "I don't call it moonshine. I call it whisky. Dat's not whisky dey sell in da store. It's coloured. Real whisky is clear. Dat's what I make. Real whisky."
All the fruit, preferably going bad, you can buy.
Lots of raisins.
1 gallon of boiled wheat.
1 pound of sugar for each gallon of water.
Put 30 gallons of well water in an oak barrel, warmed to summer temperature. Mix a package of yeast in a half cup of lukewarm water and allow it to "work" for hand an hour. Then mix everything, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and cover. Let it ferment in a warm place, stirring once a day, until the bubbling stops, which will be after about nine days. Filter and pour into the still. When it starts to run, throw the first cup away -- that the "bad" alcohol (methanol). The stream should be steady but small, don't overheat the still. You don't want a boil but rather a slow roll -- or you'll get lots of water in it and it'll be murky, weak and taste bad. The first gallon will be prime whisky, the second good, and save the next half gallon to pour into the still with the next batch. The first half gallon will be about 70 percent alcohol and will burn well on a spoon, and it'll decrease in strength as it runs so you can either mix the two gallons or bottle separately, in order, and mark accordingly. It should be allowed to age for five months. Drink in shot glasses with garlic cloves and salt.
And there you have it, the Jason Schoonover story, told by the man himself. Excerpted from "The Great Saskatchewan Radio 'n Recipes Memory Book" by Dennis Rimmer, coming soon.
(The opinions expressed in this profile are those of Jason Schoonover and Jason Schoonover alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this writer or this publication.)