Read to Me was a program broadcast on radio station CJBC in Toronto, circa 1960. The host was Alan Small, and I can only hope I’ve heard and spelled his name right because I’ve never seen it in print. I’m unable to find any reference to either him or the program online. The radio station itself switched to a French-only format not much later, and as far as I could tell (and as far as I know now), all traces of its former identity vanished into the ether.
The program ran on Tuesday nights, from 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., more or less. It was the last event in the station’s broadcast day, and was followed by “O Canada” and dead air.
Alan Small began the show with a short intro, and proceeded to read a short story or two from his collection of favourites. They were often short enough to fit two into his time slot, but sometimes there was only room for one. He read stories by a lot of authors, but the ones I remember best are ones by Poe, O. Henry, and Bierce. In fact, he was my introduction to Bierce.
I was 12 at the time. The last traces of my Hungarian accent were fading away; that was the school year (7th grade) in which I completely understood everything said in my classes for the first time. This had some awesome consequences, as you might imagine. My grades, until then hovering close to Fail, went through the roof. I’d been a big reader since age 5, but until then it was mostly books in Hungarian. That year marked the beginning of a voracious burst of reading the literature of the English language, which continued for decades. It was like diving into an immense, beautiful, always exciting ocean.
Alan Small and Read to Me got tangled up in my renaissance year, and so earned the distinction of being remembered by me for a lifetime.
I had an old AM radio in my bedroom (FM wouldn’t be along for at least another two years), but my parents were strict about bedtime. Lights-out was at 10:30, and there was a regular patrol checking for wakeful sounds and light under the door.
This meant lying in bed awake for an hour, and then, as silently as I could, get up and make my way to my desk, pick up the chair, and proceed to the radio on the other side of the room. I put the chair down in front of the radio, sat down, and craned forward so that my left ear rested right against the speaker. I then tuned in the radio station, just loud enough to hear in that position. One or two inches away from the speaker, it was dead silence.
I stayed in that position in the dark for the next 50 to 60 minutes, from the second I heard, “Hello, This is Read to Me. I’m Alan Small” to the opening note of “O Canada.” Then I turned off the radio and silently made my way back to bed, replacing the chair at my desk on the way. The only way the ‘rents could have caught me after that would have been to come in and put their hand on the radio to see if it was hot. I wouldn’t have put it past them, but it never happened.
It was magic. As I remember it, Alan Small had a broadcaster’s voice, a mellow, clear voice that never slipped up, and that, combined with his obvious love of the material, made him an absorbing delight to listen to. I often wondered why there weren’t more programs like his. It was such an obvious no-brainer for radio. Why make kids jump through hoops like that just to hear a few stories read? Why not at least move Read to Me up before their bedtime? There was so much to feel frustrated and rebellious about.
Today, kids have earbuds, and smartphones, and access to any story they want to hear, at any age and any time of day or night. Audiobooks exist in every category of published material, and thousands of great titles are legally downloadable for free. Young whippersnappers don’t know what deprivation is.
Today, I also realize that Read to Me was just a filler segment to close out the station’s broadcasting day. In the great city of Toronto, I was probably the only one who listened to it. Their daytime programming was in the category of “easy listening,” one step away from what was called elevator music back when they played music in elevators. (Please, don’t tell me there are still places where they play music in elevators.)
It’s strange sometimes to compare then and now. But that’s not the reason I decided to write about this. The reason is that the imprint Read to Me made on me by virtue of both the quality of the readings and the strained circumstances in which I listened to them, bears directly on the way I read today. Sometimes, while recording, I deliberately evoke my memory of Alan Small’s voice and think, “Come on, let’s read like that.” Then 12-year-old me grins and says, “Ok,” and then that’s how we read.
Besides, this is very likely the only place Read to Me has ever been and will ever be commemorated. There should be at least one.