Friday, August 13, 2010

Clare Copeland, radio station owner (1924-2010)

The comedian Jack Benny (left) hams it up with Clare Copeland. Both were careful with a nickel.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 13, 2010


Clare Copeland, who has died, aged 85, turned a struggling radio station into a regional powerhouse and later lent his name as well as his fertile imagination to an advertising agency.

An ideas man with a keen sense of promotion, Copeland found an outlet for his creativity as a car dealer, a radio advertising salesman, and as a communications specialist. He also played a pivotal role in reframing the political culture of British Columbia.

In 1963, he and Charles R. Smith purchased Victoria radio station CFAX, which had gained a license only four years earlier. Launched by radio equipment suppliers with limited broadcast experience, the 1,000-watt outlet (“your good music station”) aired programming only from sunrise to sunset. After dusk and until dawn, the 810 frequency on the AM dial was dominated by a more powerful station based in San Francisco.

Copeland and Smith were the third partnership to own the station, which they bought from businessmen Art Phillips and Charlie White. (The former later served as mayor of Vancouver, while the latter became a celebrated author and fishing guide. The pair had gone into business running coin-operated laundromats.) Mr. Smith died in 1966, aged 51.

The station became a force after Copeland gained a 24-hour license at 10,000 watts. CFAX moved on the AM dial to 1070, where it remains to this day. After transmission towers were erected on an islet near Victoria, the station could be heard in Duncan to the north and Port Angeles, Wash., to the south, as well as in parts of Vancouver to the northeast. Offering “more music, less talk” and featuring the sounds of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the station also delivered news at the top of the hour. It eventually became the city’s top station.

Clare Gabriel Copeland was born on Sept. 2, 1924, in Calgary to Mary Aileen and George Franklin Copeland, a grain merchant. The boy moved to Winnipeg with his family at a young age. He attended St. John’s High School (now St. John’s-Ravenscourt) before volunteering for the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. The time spent at the Patricia Bay airfield, now the site of Victoria International Airport, convinced him that southern Vancouver Island would be a good place to settle.

He first became interested in radio operations while studying at the University of Manitoba after the war.

“To pay my way, I was working Saturdays, holidays and any other days they wanted me in the records section of the Eaton’s musical department, so I was pretty up to date on what was popular and what wasn’t,” he told the Victoria Times Colonist four years ago. “And I was fascinated with radio. Winnipeg had five stations, including CBC, and when I had a chance to join CKRC I didn’t hesitate.”

By 1949, he was the station’s promotion manager. Like many in the radio business, he lived a peripatetic life, working at stations in Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal, where, in 1952, he married a nurse and Trans-Canada Airlines stewardess named Barbara Exelby.

The couple moved to Vancouver the following year, as Copeland became national sales manager for CKWX.

A decade later, the Copelands moved to Victoria after buying CFAX. The new owner lured to his station a freewheeling collection of personalities, both in front of the microphone and behind the scenes, including the likes of Barry Bowman, a Saskatchewan hire who would be dubbed the “morning mayor,” and music director Gord Cruse, who had been a broadcast buccaneer on a pirate radio ship off England before joining CFAX as a disc jockey in 1969.

Creative directive director Rich Mole credits Copeland with creating “Cinema Scene,” a twice daily review of what was playing at local cinemas, an aid to moviegoers before the thumbs-up, thumbs-down review became ubiquitous.

“I often say I never went to work in those days. I went to play,” Mole wrote in a letter to the editor after Copeland’s death. “Clare? He was right in the audio sandbox, having fun with the rest of us.”

Copeland hired an Anglican priest to produce weekly taped reports on the happenings of young people. The youth who contributed received a transistor radio and quantities of soda pop for their efforts.

Earlier, he established a working arrangement with the student radio station on the University of Victoria campus. He offered to train the staff and helped purchase equipment. He also offered the students a free telephone link to CFAX so they could broadcast his signal when they would otherwise be off the air.

In 1970, Victoria’s police chief issued a 30-day ban on his staff assisting the station in gathering news, a protest against what he feel had been a report derogatory to the police department. The week-long impasse ended with a meeting including the provincial attorney general.

Afterwards, Copeland said the chief “realizes now that he could have called me anytime ... if he’d had a disagreement.”

“I still think he was totally wrong in imposing the ban.”

Copeland sold his interest in 1974 to Mel Cooper, a Newfoundland-born entrepreneur for whom he had served as mentor. Cooper adopted a talk format that made the station dominant among commercial competitors.

During the reign of Premier Dave Barrett, Copeland became involved in a movement to defeat the NDP government. He was one of the players in a unite-the-right movement in which Liberals and Conservatives were to abandon their venerable parties to join a revamped Social Credit. The Socreds won the 1975 provincial election under the leadership of Bill Bennett in what was a two-way race.

Copeland and partner Ian Stewart, a lawyer, bought an automobile dealership. While many such businesses use the owner’s name, Copeland figured a potential customer seeking to buy one of his cars would look in the telephone directory for the manufacturer’s name. Thus was born Honda City.

He also was a founding principal with his daughter of Copeland Communications, which remains a prominent agency on Vancouver Island.

He was an active fundraiser in election campaigns, served as president of the local chamber of commerce from 1968 to 1970, and was so involved with St. Michael’s University School as a director and benefactor that the private institution named a lecture theatre on campus after him.

Clare Copeland was born on Sept. 2, 1924, at Calgary. He died on May 14 in Victoria. He was 85. He leaves a daughter, two sons, and two grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 57 years, the former Barbara Exelby, who died on March 18.