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That you, Bas?
After 40 years on air, Bas Jamieson's not allowed to retire

By Freelance Journalist and Fellow Newfoundlander Abroad Susanne Hiller

ST. JOHN'S, NFLD. - "That you, Bas?" asks Sandra from Spaniard's Bay.

"Yes, my love," growls Bas Jamieson who sits in a small booth in a St. John's radio station where he hosts a feisty, free-for-all Open Line show broadcast across the region.

"You're on the air. We've got everything lit up here, so keep your comments short."

You'd never know it, but Mr. Jamieson officially retired from radio in 1994. Yet, Newfoundland's most notorious and beloved radio personality can't stay away. His fans simply won't let him. When he sadly announced he was leaving his evening show after 40 years in the talk-show business, VOCM was swamped with angry callers demanding that their late-night friend never be allowed to leave them. After all, Bas Jamieson is a household name here and the question "That you, Bas?" is likely the most popular phrase in Newfoundland.

So, the tiny man with the "gift to gab" happily agreed to come back to fill in for special occasions. Mr. Jamieson, who is now 71 years old, is sitting in this summer for his colleague, Bill Rowe, who hosts the equally popular morning show. Yesterday morning Mr. Jamieson had Premier Brian Tobin as his guest, who wanted to talk mainly about the benefits of natural gas for the province. Some of the callers, though, had other beefs with Mr. Tobin they wanted to get out in the open. One irate man demanded to know why his lounge had been closed down by the provincial government while a woman on line six called in to ask the premier to buy a $10 lottery ticket to help out the SPCA.

"We're struggling, you know," she said.

"I'll buy my ticket today," promised Mr. Tobin.

After the premier left for a meeting, the show resumed its regular format that Mr. Jamieson describes as a serious forum for ordinary people to debate the issues of the day. People called in on everything from the location of a new hospital on Fogo Island, and making nature trails wheelchair accessible, to overly expensive airfare to Newfoundland.

Radio has always played a big role in the lives of Newfoundlanders. The debates of the national convention, which included discussion of the constitutional future of Newfoundland, took place between 1946 and 1948 and were broadcast on the Newfoundland government radio system. The debates ignited public discussion about politics for the first time.

"There was a time when all of Newfoundland depended on radio for the weather, the fishing reports, the hospital reports, it was all done on commercial radio," said Mr. Jamieson.

"There's still a lot of that around," he added. "We do things at this radio station that radio stations in Ontario and Vancouver would never do. We talk about Mrs. So and So who had her operation and she'll be home Friday."

But often "things go a little nuts," like during the referendum on denominational education when the switchboard lit up with people, yelling and screaming.

"It was a very touchy issue that became very religion orientated with people calling down their neighbour as a dirty protestant," he said.

But the show is more than just an entertaining forum to let off steam or to catch up on gossip. Decision-makers monitor the show for criticism of their government or local institutions. The police also tape the show to listen for any signs of illegal activity. When Clyde Wells, the former premier, announced he was going to sell Newfoundland Hydro to a private enterprise, "the place went up," said Mr. Jamieson.

"It was the talk show that killed the deal. No question. People did lots of homework and kept calling the show with their research."

It was on Bill Rowe's morning show in 1989 that a judge's wife first heard a caller's allegations that sexual abuse of boys at Mount Cashel was being covered up. The woman called her husband who called the Department of Justice. This prompted a police investigation and the conviction of eight Christian Brothers.

Mr. Jamieson said many of "the regulars" have become friends over the years -- even though they haven't met and live in scattered communities across the island.

Newfoundlanders do seem to have a special relationship with radio. The St. John's CBC morning show, for example, has the highest ratings for CBC morning show programs for its market size. They recently added a call-in segment as part of the show.

And Mr. Jamieson's fans don't have to worry about him leaving the air anytime soon. He said he would continue the same sign off he's been doing for the last 40 years for as long as he is able.

"Do something nice for someone, you'll feel better for it," says the little man with graying hair into the microphone. "You'll feel better for it. God bless. "

*First appeared in the National Post