Gord Whitehead was out in his backyard Saturday morning picking weeds — a meaningful and needed task, certainly not the emotional and fearful day the retired broadcaster endured 34 years ago.
Whitehead was standing outside of the southwest door of the 930 CJCA red-brick building on 108 Street before sitting in the announcer’s chair for the Gord and Glen Show. Whitehead remembers looking at the dark, unruly Edmonton sky.
CJCA newsman Bill Douglas ran to get Whitehead with reports of a tornado in Leduc.
Whitehead pushed the heavy soundproof door to the main studio closed and turned on the microphone. Things were happening fast — the phones were jammed and the CJCA newsroom was buzzing with activities with some of the city’s sharpest radio news minds — Douglas, Ken Davis, and sports director Bryan Hall, who was getting ready to call the Edmonton Eskimo vs. Saskatchewan Roughrider game, which was still played the next night at Commonwealth Stadium.
Whitehead used but only one word to describe his next three hours of broadcasting.
“Composed,” he said.
Program manager Bob Lang quickly made the call to abort any other Friday afternoon programming — 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 by the seat of our pants.”
And now — 233 words into this effort — comes the news hook.
“I think without question it would have been worse (if social media was around in 1987),” Whitehead said.
He quickly points to a University of Delaware Disaster Research Centre report on the Edmonton tornado. Whitehead spent several hours with the researchers and a question rolls quickly off his tongue.
“They asked, ‘Why did you guys not report the fact that you knew there were fatalities?’
“I said that was the rule. The only approval of fatalities had to come from the police. Because we had several calls from, I think, Beyers Transport in Sherwood Park, saying they were hit really hard out there and they thought a couple of people had died.
“In fact, they knew they were dead.
“But … we could not report it. I think in the era of cellphones, and Facebook and Twitter like it is today, people would have been spreading the word of people dying — and that would have just sighted into more panic.
“But call me Mad Capp, I guess. I’m a bit of an old-fashioned guy, in that respect. And I think the less you know the better, right?”
It does evoke much-needed thoughtful debate and discussion. Shrinking newsrooms and the ever-increasing numbers of citizen journalists — have cellphone, will file story — has become a way of life.
But, fact checking and knowing how to tell news is, sadly, lacking because of shrinking newsrooms.
Looking back, July 31, 1987, was a terrible tragic day in Edmonton history.
But the absence of instant technology replaced with noble inquiring minds certainly prevented more potential damage.