Gord Whitehead was in his back yard on Saturday morning picking weeds – a meaningful and necessary task, certainly not the emotional and anxious day the retired broadcaster went through 34 years ago.
Whitehead stood outside the southwest door of the red brick building at 930 CJCA at 108 Street before sitting in the announcer’s chair for the Gord and Glen Show. Whitehead remembers looking up into the dark, unruly skies of Edmonton.
CJCA reporter Bill Douglas ran to fetch Whitehead with reports of a tornado in Leduc.
Whitehead slammed the heavy soundproof door to the main studio and turned on the microphone. Things were moving quickly – the phones were blocked and the CJCA newsroom was full of activity with some of the hottest radio news in town – Douglas, Ken Davis and Sporting Director Bryan Hall preparing to call the Edmonton Eskimo vs. Saskatchewan Roughrider game that was played at Commonwealth Stadium the next evening.
Whitehead used just one word to describe his next three hours of airtime.
“Composed,” he said.
Program manager Bob Lang called quickly to cancel all other Friday afternoon programs – music, sports, and feature interviews – and just follow the tornado story.
“You don’t rehearse for something like that … there is no script,” said Whitehead, who retired from the airwaves in 2010. “We flew past the pants.”
And now – 233 words in that effort – comes the news hook.
“I think it would definitely have been worse (if there had been social media in 1987),” said Whitehead.
He quickly points to a report from the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center on the Edmonton tornado. Whitehead spent several hours with the researchers and a question quickly rolled off his tongue.
“They asked, ‘Why didn’t you guys report that you knew there were deaths?’
“I said that was the rule. The only permit for fatalities had to come from the police. Because I think we had several calls from Beyers Transport in Sherwood Park saying they were hit really hard and they thought some people had died.
“In fact, they knew they were dead.
“But we couldn’t report it. I think in the age of cell phones and Facebook and Twitter as it is today, people would have spread the news of people dying – and that would only have seen more panic.
“But call me Mad Capp. I’m a little old-fashioned in that regard. And I think the less you know the better, right? “
It creates much-needed thoughtful debate and discussion. Shrinking newsrooms and the ever increasing number of citizen journalists – have a cell phone, will submit their story – has become a way of life.
But the fact-checking and knowledge of how to spread the news is unfortunately lacking due to the shrinking editorial offices.
In retrospect, July 31, 1987 was a terribly tragic day in Edmonton’s history.
But the lack of instant technology, replaced by noble, inquiring minds, certainly prevented further possible harm.