ELLIOT LAKE—“I think it’s only appropriate that I learn to fly in another direction, and that’s what I plan to do,” said Bob Alexander MacLellan, before queuing up the song ‘Learning to Fly’ by Tom Petty. Those were the last words he spoke before officially retiring as the morning show host on Elliot Lake’s CKNR 94.1 Moose FM on January 31.
Mr. MacLellan, or Bobby Alexander as he was known on-air, worked at CKNR for 39 years. In that time he has interviewed prime ministers, premiers, famous bands and even Don Cherry.
“I was always interested in radio, when I was a kid even. I was 10 years old and my mother would say I’d be ‘broadcasting’ games when playing on the road—stickhandling and broadcasting at the same time,” said Mr. MacLellan.
In the late ‘60s and shortly after graduating from high school, Mr. MacLellan got a job as a police dispatcher in Garson. A colleague knew he was interested in radio and managed to find him a position in production at Sudbury radio station 790 AM CKSO, queuing up tape reels of voice tracks from on-air personalities and the music for the overnight show.
After a couple months, Michael Cranston heard Mr. MacLellan making up his own voice tracks in the production studio and saw his potential, so Mr. Cranston offered him to take over the all-night show. It was not a long-lived position, though—only a year and a half later, Mr. MacLellan took a job at opposition station CHNO as its sports director and a swing announcer. He was only about 22 years old at the time.
“I’d take care of all local sports and I also did commentary. I was very controversial—I was young and brash and I didn’t care!” said Mr. MacLellan.
“If the field conditions at O’Connor Park were atrocious, I’d go on-air and make a comment about the outfield and how dangerous it was,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Mr. Parks and Rec Director, are you listening?’”
Despite the controversy, listeners seemed to enjoy his broadcasts and the ratings reflected higher audience numbers during his sports hits. CHNO is also the place where he would meet his future wife. However, broadcasting is not a particularly high-paying career except for rare exceptions and Mr. MacLellan had to look at the reality of his financial situation.
Through the 1970s, he worked in various positions away from the microphone including at a furniture warehouse and at INCO. He said the job security and paycheque was a welcome change, but he found himself unsatisfied.
“This voice was always in the back of my head saying ‘get back into radio.’ I’d have to say, ‘no, shut up, there’s no money!’” said Mr. MacLellan. He had no choice but to follow his rational thoughts and enrolled in a property management course.
He then applied for two property management jobs, one in Kincardine and the other in Elliot Lake. Things were looking up; it looked like he was going to get the Kincardine job with Ontario Hydro and got ready to drive down and meet the people there.
Mr. MacLellan had just pushed the elevator button at his apartment building to head down to his car when he could hear a distant phone ringing and wondered if it was coming from his unit. He dashed back over and caught the call just in time—it was a call from Rio Algom in Elliot Lake asking if he could stop in the following day to discuss a year-long contract in mining and property management.
“I couldn’t be in both places at the same time, so I flipped a coin. If it was heads, I’d go to Elliot Lake. If it was tails, I’d go to Kincardine. It flipped heads for Elliot Lake and I got the job,” he said.
Partway through his year-long contract he ran into John Baird, who had formerly worked alongside Mr. MacLellan at CHNO in Sudbury. Mr. Baird was now the manager of CKNR 1340 AM in Elliot Lake and asked what Mr. MacLellan was doing away from radio.
Mr. Baird offered him a job doing some part time on-air work on weekend mornings, a job Mr. MacLellan agreed to and worked at for six months.
“My contract with Rio Algom was coming to an end and he offered me a job at CKNR. I said I’d take it,” Mr. MacLellan said. He was assigned to do sports coverage and fill in wherever required.
It was Eleanor Pritz, CKNR’s office manager, who told Mr. Baird that Mr. MacLellan would be an excellent fit for the morning show, not only as an on-air host but as a face to represent the station within the community. It was a controversial decision.
“Doug Blackwood was the morning man for five years and he was a wonderful guy. They put him on the 10 am to 2 pm mid-morning show shift,” said Mr. MacLellan.
“I remember my first day, the phone rang when I was on-air and a woman asked where Doug was. I said I was taking over the morning show, and she could hear him from 10 to 2. She said, ‘so, he’s not in the mornings anymore?’ and I replied that I’d be taking over the show. She replied, ‘well, that’s the last time I’m listening,’ and click, she hung up the phone. I thought, well that’s a great start!” laughs Mr. MacLellan.
He had arrived in Elliot Lake during the boom times as mining operations were at their peak. He even shared a ‘stork report’ on the radio of all the babies born on a certain day because there were new births all the time. However, it was not meant to last.
“At the end of 1989, rumours started circulating about the mines and 1990 was the first major layoff at the Denison Mine. Over a thousand people were laid off,” said Mr. MacLellan.
Shortly thereafter, city councillor and mining housing executive Claire Dimock devised a plan to convert the now-vacant houses into affordable retirement living options. The city had been given a new lease on life. But the now-thriving town would not be spared from devastation for long. Disaster struck once more on a beautiful, sunny afternoon.
It was June 23, 2012. The Algo Centre Mall collapsed, killing two people and injuring many others. Moose FM’s broadcasting centre is right across the street from where the mall once stood.
“I’d just finished doing a Rotary Radio Days radiothon and I phoned my wife, saying I was going to the mall to pick up some hamburgers for a barbecue,” said Mr. MacLellan. “She told me, ‘don’t go to the mall, you’re going to be talking to everybody and in six weeks you still won’t be home!’”
He instead resolved to get takeout and was just about to change into a lighter outfit at home when the phone rang, and his wife answered. It was his daughter-in-law Marcy who broke the news that the mall had collapsed.
“I left and went straight down there. Little did I know that was the start of an 18-hour day of coverage for seven days in a row,” he said. There were three of them at the station: Mr. MacLellan, his wife, who was by then the CKNR office manager, and news director Kori Rowe.
“I went on-air and I got angry. I said I was not going to speculate or sensationalize,” said Mr. MacLellan. “We’re sticking with the facts and will not jump to conclusions. I’m angry, frustrated, hurt, the same as you. Now’s not the time to point fingers. People need help, people need healing. We need to get through this together and figure it out later.”
Through their support of each other and counsellors, they managed to get through the tough times and were hailed for their coverage of the crisis.
“What I’m proud of is that in that dark time, we did right by people. I know they feel that way because everywhere after that, people would stop me and say thank you,” Mr. MacLellan said.
One thing he says he always valued over the years was the connections he made with the numerous communities within earshot of the Elliot Lake broadcast signal.
“The Manitoulin connection is dear to my heart. During my show from about 1995 or 1996 until about 2010, we were in a partnership with Jake’s in Mindemoya,” said Mr. MacLellan. “The owner then was (the late) Kevin Mackan, but he was really known as Jake the Snake on-air. He became one of our characters and was so popular because every Friday we would have a talk show for five minutes.”
It was the local connections that mattered to Mr. MacLellan because he said he always tried to remember that CKNR was the station for Algoma-Manitoulin, not just Elliot Lake.
“I always made sure I namedropped. I’d say ‘good morning Gore Bay,’ ‘another day in Meldrum Bay,’ ‘Massey’s fair’ (in reference to the Massey Fair), or ‘Spanish, I love your onions!’” said Mr. MacLellan.
One of his more notable place references was his tongue-in-cheek ‘downtown Spragge,’ which is little more than a couple businesses along Highway 17. Algoma Chrysler has a dealership there and adopted the tagline as part of its commercials.
Mr. MacLellan has also done a lot of charity and fundraising work during his career, including walking from Blind River to Elliot Lake twice for different causes. He estimates that during his career at CKNR he has had a hand in raising over one million dollars. It’s milestones such as that which have helped to form some of his fondest memories behind the microphone.
“People of all walks of life, they’re a family and radio can pull them all together,” he said. “It’s all about the audience, it’s all about the listener. That’s the reason I get up—I get up for them because I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t care if it’s a snowstorm, you’ve gotta get in.”
“It’s all about the listener. Forgetting about all the accolades and everything, it’s truly about them. When working in local radio, it’s more than just a career,” added Mr. MacLellan.
Now that he is no longer getting into work to start his shift at 6 am, Mr. MacLellan said he is looking forward to “taking it easy” for a bit of time, but suspects he will be active doing something else sooner than later. His love for sports has never waned and he said he might look into doing sports radio or play-by-play in the future.
For the people who have listened to Mr. MacLellan through his decades on-air in Elliot Lake, they know there are many more stories from his radio career than can fit on a page. Mr. MacLellan will undoubtedly have many more six-week-long grocery shopping trips in his future when he stops to chat with everyone he meets, much to Ms. MacLellan’s chagrin. But that’s all an extension of his favourite parts of being CKNR’s morning host for so many years.
“Everybody has a calling, and I was born to do this. I’ve been very lucky,” said Mr. MacLellan.