‘I have a job to do’: Women of CKNW discuss breaking broadcasting’s glass ceiling

Doriana Temolo in the CKNW newsroom. Submitted

When you turn the dial to CKNW 980 AM today, some of the boldest voices you hear belong to women.

Hosts Simi Sara and Lynda Steele now lead two of CKNW’s three flagship talk programs, and female reporters lead CKNW’s coverage and have won numerous awards. But it wasn’t always like that.

On CKNW’s 75th anniversary, some of the pioneering women who helped crack the radio world open joined Sara and Jon McComb to talk about what opening that door looked like.

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“The mid-to-late 1970s at CKNW started a trend that changed the sound of radio newscasting, radio reporting,” said Belle Puri, a former CKNW reporter who now works at the CBC.

“It changed news and then it went on to change sports.”

Belle Puri in the CKNW newsroom. Doriana Temolo

When Shirley Stocker started at CKNW in 1971, she was the first female producer to ever work at the station.

She said there was initially resistance from the audience.

“I had one woman call and say, ‘I don’t like women on the air. Are you wearing pants?'” she said.

“I didn’t care, I figured that was my job and that’s what I was going to do and if they didn’t like it, too bad.”

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Reporter Doriana Temolo, who started with the station in 1978, shared a similar experience.

“If you answered the phone, they assumed you were the receptionist. I had someone say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, I want to talk to a man, I want to talk to somebody who knows something,'” she said.

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“I hung up.”

But things changed. The hosts accepted their colleagues and the audience followed suit, said Stocker.

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Puri said when former CKNW station manager Warren Barker gave her the chance to fill in on Saturday night sports, it opened the door even wider.

“Within a matter of months, within a year, Laura Ornest was a full-fledged member of the CKNW sports team with Big Al [Davidson] and all those names,” she said.

Newsroom culture

To say workplace culture in the 1970s and early 1980s was different would be an understatement, and the pioneering women of CKNW say the station was no different.

For example, there were bikini-clad women in pin-up posters hanging behind the newsroom teletype, said Temolo.

“They weren’t super bad, but it was still girls in a bikini in the workplace that today would not be considered appropriate,” she said.

“I brought my centerfold of John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. He had the white suit, he was dressed, but when I put it up I think they thought, ‘She seems to be offended.'”

Doriana Temolo in the CKNW newsroom. Doriana Tremolo

Not long after, the pin-ups came down.

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When women like Yvonne Eamor, Shiral Tobin, Shawn Webster, Temolo, Puri and Stocker started working at CKNW there also weren’t women’s washrooms anywhere nearby.

There was a men’s toilet right next to the newsroom. The women’s room was a significant walk away, off near the receptionists’ area where the “women worked.”

“Because when they built the building there were no women working in the newsroom,” said Temolo.

“So we would use the men’s washroom in a pinch. I remember Al Davidson once opened the door.”

Shawn Webster, who spent 14 years on air with CKNW from 1990 to 2004 said there were other elements of workplace culture that wouldn’t fly today.

“Mostly I was the ‘traffic chick,’ and I will say that because that’s what we said back then … It was the shtick I had to go with,” she said.

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“My predecessor was known as ‘Wonderbuns.’ I mean, come on.”

But Webster said while the culture needed to adjust, she loved the job itself — filling in sometimes as host, and often acting as the eye in the sky for breaking news.

Big stories

While helping to change the culture around news, the women of CKNW also covered some of B.C.’s biggest stories.

Stocker recounts how she was filling in as host when CKNW’s Gary Bannerman ended up broadcasting live from behind the walls of the B.C. Penitentiary during the 1975 hostage taking that cost nurse Mary Steinhauser her life.

“[Inmate] Andy Bruce had a knife to [Bannerman’s] neck and they were demanding to fly to Cuba,” she said.

“He was broadcasting live to me as the host, and it was just so scary.”

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Temolo shared how her first night on the beat was the day cancer was discovered in Terry Fox’s second leg, forcing him to return to Vancouver.

“I remember the airport was just jammed, because he had started out in pretty well obscurity but by Thunder Bay he was pretty well known and there were a lot of people cheering for him and it was devastating,” she said.

“Months later, unfortunately, he passed away and we were there. That was so sad.”

Reporter Janet Brown, who started at CKNW in 1989 and remains one of its most recognizable voices, was on the front lines of the 2011 Stanley Cup riot, and watched first hand as mobs burned and flipped police cars.

“I remember my father and my brother kept phoning me every 20 minutes and saying, ‘We’re coming to get you, where are you?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m busy, I’m working.’ And another 20 minutes the other one would call. And I said, ‘I have a job to do, you have to leave me alone,'” she said.

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“And I realized then and there I did have a job to do, it was important to tell the story of what was unfolding.”

CKNW is broadcasting live from the Anvil Centre in New Westminster until 6 p.m. for its 75th anniversary.

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