Roy Thomson’s Timmins Adventures – Michael Barnes

All millionaires have to start somewhere. After chubby,ambitious Roy Thomson started his first radio station on a shoestring in North Bay, his attention turned to the bustling Timmins-Porcupine area.

The hard luck,hustling salesman came to Timmins in the early thirties and worked to open a radio station.No one would loan him any money but he found an ally in J.P. Bartleman.

The insurance salesman thought a radio station would be a good thing and he rented the newcomer space in a building of his in the seamier part of town.

Thomson’s long suffering engineer cobbled together the parts for broadcast output and fell foul of the law until his tight fisted boss paid union dues. The new station started with a piano and a few records. Even the sole announcer became fed up with playing ‘In a Monastery Garden’ several times a day because the discs were scarce.

The canny fledgling newspaper owner played off local businessmen against each other and drove them into fierce competition to gain scarce advertising dollars. Since his pockets were always practically bare,he paid employees with cheques drawn on a North Bay bank because they took longer to clear.

Prominent Timmins businessman Leo Mascioli was a hold-out as Thomson hustled for advertising business. The fast moving salesman had sold the hotel owner an ice making machine for the Empire Hotel when he first came to town. The machine was faulty so Thomson lost the hotel promotion business.

Although the output on the airwaves was limited to a paid announcer and a few records,volunteer entertainers were welcome. Most dressed for the occasion as if they could be ‘seen’ on the air in the magic of radio.

Much of the time as the timmins outlet grew,the aspiring media magnate was elsewhere.He was in Kirkland Lake trying to promote his fledgling radio station in that gold mining town.

Thomson’s landlord,Jimmy Bartleman,was now a town Councillor. A character in his own right,he was always ready for a good fight. He was annoyed with the paper of record of the time,the Porcupine Advance, and decided to get even by purchasing a printing press and starting his own paper, The Citizen.

But Bartleman made more enemies than business allies and his new paper was losing money.Thomson popped up at this point and offered to take it off his hands for $200 down and promissory notes of $200 a month for 28 months.

Bartleman still owed money on the press but he admired Thomson’s gall. After all,said the wily Roy, if he went bust with the paper,at least the press owner would get his machinery back.

So Roy Thomson learned the newspaper business by studying the ratio of advertisements to news and initially charging for ads what he thought the traffic would bear.

He bought newsprint from Abitibi Paper at Iroquois Falls on credit, had no wire service or national news at first because he could not afford it, and worked hard to convince a sceptical government that it was not a bad thing to own both a paper and a radio station at the same time.

Even as he competed with the established paper, The Porcupine Advance, for advertising revenue, the cash-strapped Thomson had only enough type to print eight pages.

He often repeated stories on the back pages to fill up space but could still make as his slogan, “If it will help the North,we are for it.”

Readers could tell the upstart new paper was making progress when it endorsed Jimmy Bartleman for Mayor. He won the position but the Press later fell out with him and ceased to back the man who had given Thomson his start.

Roy Thomson suffered a major setback when his building burned at the close of the
thirties.But people rallied to his aid,he published in temporary quarters and finally found
loan capital from McIntyre Mine millionaire owner J.P.Bickell to build a new building to
house both radio station and paper.
After Thomson fell out with Jimmy Barlteman, in the next election he supported taxi-owner Emile Brunette who became the new mayor. Roy Thomson soon left Timmins to go on in his fifties to be a media mogul and billionaire. His fine Art Deco building remained in Timmins long after both paper and radio station had moved to new quarters.

The classic radio and newspaper building was torn down in 1995 when funds could not be garnered to preserve it. Thomson would have not cared. He never let sentiment interfere with making money.

Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario.