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A voice that graced the airwaves: Bob Coles looks back on a 30 year career in radio

'That’s the fun of it is experiencing the unpredictability. You have to stay informed yourself, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen and you really have to be ready for anything.'
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For 26 years he was one of the most recognizable voices that kept you up to date on what was happening in and around North Bay. Longtime afternoon anchor for Rogers Radio, Bob Coles retired earlier this year and he says one of the biggest joys was knowing that people were listening and paying attention.

“It really showed that we were a big part of people’s lives, in their cars and in their homes and it was like we were a part of their family,” says Coles.  

“I always had a lot of respect for people that cared about what they were hearing us say about the community.  It wasn’t always great when you were in a hurry and trying to finish your Christmas shopping at the mall and people wanted to stop and talk to you, but all kidding aside I enjoyed chatting with people in the community.”

Coles says, “It also showed that you were never off in news. Wherever you go in the community you’ve got to fit that image as “the news guy.” You can’t embarrass yourself, or your station or your company, but it’s very nice to hear from people. Even now when people say they miss hearing you on the radio, it is very much appreciated.”

Born in 1959 in Bristol, England, Coles moved around a lot with his family. He was only in England for a year and a half before moving to Canada and settling in Winnipeg. The family then spent six months in Barbados, before coming back to Canada and they lived in Vancouver, Edmonton, and St. Johns, Newfoundland as well as Toronto in 1971 and stayed there until the late 1980s.

Coles would then go on to graduate with a journalism degree from Ryerson University in the mid-80s.

“Soon after I went to Dryden, getting my first job in radio in 1989. I was there for two years and was compiling news and doing afternoon newscasts and that was really where I got my foothold in the business. I then went to Timmins for three and a half years before I applied for a job in North Bay and that’s how I got here.”

Coles says news and media were a family passion.

“I’ve always had an interest in news and media. My sister was a radio host at CBC News in Saskatchewan. My mother was a production assistant, and my dad produced a supper hour news show after starting in print media at the Winnipeg Free Press and afterward, he became an executive producer at the Fifth Estate,” he says.  

“News, media, politics, and what’s going on around the world was always part of the talk at the dinner table. So, for me, there was never a time that I didn’t want to go into media.”

Inside the newsroom, Coles says covering politics on a municipal, provincial, and federal level has allowed him to meet and do interviews with some big names over the years.

“With Mike Harris being from North Bay I had a great opportunity to talk to him regularly when he was the premier,” says Coles.

“To have a premier in your hometown was certainly a big deal. I got to cover several prime ministers as well; I remember interviewing Jean Chrétien when the National Liberal Caucus was here. He was a big supporter of the “Save the Base” campaign and thanks to Bob Wood lobbying along with Jack Burrows, that came to fruition and that was a big deal for the community.”

Coles says during his tenure over three decades working in radio, the newsroom environment evolved over the years.

“It started as a team approach,” he says.  

“You would have three or four people in the newsroom and as time went on it went down to just one person by themselves. During my last year at Rogers, because of COVID-19 protocols, you had one person working in the morning and then they would leave, and there had to be an hour gap before the next person could come in,” he says.  

“More technology and better technology led to fewer people being needed so that the job could get done. We started out with wire copy and reel to reels and then by the time I retried everything was done digitally.”

He says social media has spurred on a new development on how a journalist covers a story.   

“It really allowed you to get more information more quickly, but you also had to be staying up to date on the relative information and understanding how to use it and how to respond to it,” says Coles.

“You read something on social media and then you have to find out if it is accurate and then do you report it? One of the things we’re seeing through social media is that people are getting all their news from Facebook and that is not a good thing.”  

Coles continues, “I really think it’s important that people who are wanting to get into this industry should learn about the world and see the big picture. It’s important to use other news sources outside of social media. Don’t let that be your only news consumption. If there is a story or issue that is important to you, find multiple sources on it. Go to BayToday, go to The Nugget, watch Cogeco’s nightly news and get a sense of what that story is about so that you don’t have just one person’s point of view clouding your judgment.”

Coles says that’s why local news is so important.

“So many communities are underserviced now in terms of the information they get. They don’t get as much information and they don’t get information from a number of sources. My view when I was interviewing somebody, your job is to ask questions that your audience wants to be answered.”

Coles also got out of the newsroom and into the press box as he called many high school, College, University, and Major Junior sports events.

“I chose sports because, I guess psychologically because it was something that no one else in the family was doing but I was always watching games at home and so sports became something I wanted to go into, specifically sports broadcasting on the radio,” says Coles.

“That’s mostly because of my age as at that time radio was where you’d hear all the games. I remember listening to Bob Cole doing Sunday night hockey on CBC during the original six days and that’s where I got that inspiration from. He was always someone I followed during my journey.”

Coles says there are several broadcasters he enjoyed, and still enjoys listening to.

“Chris Cuthbert is the person I consider the best today doing hockey. I love Al Michaels in the USA doing football. What I learned from the guys doing hockey is that if you are doing that sport, you better be excited.

"What I learned from Michaels is that you are there for that game. Don’t get too bogged down in stuff off the field unless you have time to talk about it. Your focus is on the game and that’s why people are listening, they want to know what’s happening with the game. With Jim Nantz I learned that you have to capture the moment. Golf is different than doing hockey or football or covering an election but it’s all about capturing the moment,” says Coles.

Coles says what he enjoyed the most about live sports broadcasting is the immediacy and excitement of the event.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen and so much can happen in a game. Are there going to be controversial calls? Are there going to be injuries? Is a big player going to have a career night? That’s the fun of it is experiencing the unpredictability. You have to stay informed yourself, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen and you really have to be ready for anything.”

On the sports side, he’s had the opportunity to speak to some big names too including Bobby Orr and players from the Gold Medal winning National Women's Hockey Program. He also says one of his highlights was being on-site when the official announcement was made to bring the Brampton Battalion to North Bay.

“It was a big deal,” says Coles.

“I was the only local reporter in Toronto when the decision was made by the Ontario Hockey League to move the team here and the success of the team in their first few years here was a great story to cover.”

“On the other side,” Coles continues. “the sadness of losing the North Bay Centennials to Saginaw was a tough story to do. How did it happen? Why was it allowed to happen? That story was tough to cover from an emotional standpoint. Covering events that mean something to the community was the reason why you get into local news and sports and that was something I had a lot of passion for, and I enjoyed very much.”