When this writer attended his first Radio and Television News Directors’ Association meeting in 1979 one was in awe of those who managed some of Canada’s really big newsrooms—Cameron Bell from BCTV, Bert Cannings ex of CFCF, Ted Stuebing of CFTO, Max Keeping at CJOH Ottawa and Don Johnston of CFRB, whose death was announced this week at age 91. Managing the newsroom at CFRB, Don Johnston worked with legends like Bob Greenfield, Jack Dennett, Prior Smith, Dave Hodge, David Taffler, Valerie Pringle, Bill Stephenson and the legendary Gord Sinclair. Connie Smith who later anchored CHCH news worked as a “good news” reporter at CFRB at the beginning of her career as did Sue Prestige who later went on to CBC and Mohawk College as a Journalism professor. Prior to his success at CFRB, however, Johnston had a lengthy and successful career as a journalist in Hamilton.
Born in Walkerville, (now part of Windsor) Don Johnston grew up in Hamilton. He started his journalism career, in the era before journalism schools as a summer copy boy at the Hamilton Spectator. The Spec hired Don full-time after he graduated from Westdale Collegiate and by age 19, he had progressed from newsroom copy boy to cub reporter. Don was soon covering police matters, the courts and City Hall. Over the next 35-plus years, Don built an impressive and fulfilling career in journalism. Early in his career, radio station CHML persuaded him to leave the newspaper and become their City Hall Reporter. Don soon became the News Director at CHML, where his department won a number of awards for their skilled reporting. In 1972 he was lured away to CFRB—Canada’s highest rated radio station where he spent the rest of his career.
Don was one of the founders of the Radio & Television News Directors of Canada (now RTNDA) in 1962 and a former VP (’69) and President of the organization (’71). In 1972, CFRB Toronto was the most listened to radio station in Canada. When they needed to fill the role of News Director, they chose Don. He served there for 15 years until his retirement. In 1984. Don co-founded the Gordon Sinclair Foundation in order to support young journalists.
News directors, in the Don Johnston era, were often loud, gruff rarely abstemious and ego driven. Don Johnston was by contrast soft spoken and kind. As his obituary reads, “his loved ones feel fortunate to have known such a smart, kind, and accomplished man. Hamilton’s Bob Bratina worked with Don Johnston both at CHML and at CFRB. He recalls, “Don was known for his mild friendly manner and warm smile in an era noted for excessive larger than life personalities. I worked with Don at CHML and CFRB where our conversations usually centered around our mutual love of jazz. Don had a grand piano in his Oakville home which he played by ear. His hallmark as a news director was insisting on integrity in story writing and good grammar.”
A celebration of life for Don Johnston will be held at Smith’s Funeral Home in Burlington (Guelph Line location) on March 12th at 1 p.m. Visitation with the family will begin at 12 p.m. www.smithsfh.com