Jim Wellman’s career as a broadcaster and journalist spans six decades. Although he’s officially retiring at the end of this month from his position as managing editor of The Navigator magazine, the 67-year-old intends to continue writing.
“I’m going to continue to write for The Navigator, but these are feature items — they’re not current affairs,” he said of his long-running series Final Voyages, a staple of the fishing and marine industries publication since its first edition in 1997. Wellman will also write his Sea Folk column profiling people in the industry.
The fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador has been the focus of Wellman’s work through most of his career as a journalist. He became the host of CBC Radio’s “The Fisheries Broadcast” in 1982 and stayed there for 15 years before accepting an early retirement package. He became managing editor of The Navigator in 2002 and was among those who founded the publication. Wellman is also the author of several books related to the fishery.
Wellman self-describes the start of his career in media as “purely by fluke.” He had a friend looking to break into radio in the 1960s set to audition for VOCM’s station in Grand Falls. Wellman tagged along and met the manager, who suggested he consider trying out for the new station in Marystown, CHCM.
“I did and I got the job and that was it,” said Wellman.
What is your full name?
James Wade Wellman. I’m known as Jim. I’ve never been called James.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in November 1946, and I was born at the Twillingate hospital. I grew up in a little place called Port Anson in the west end of Notre Dame Bay.
What would a kid do for fun in Port Anson?
(Laughs) You know, there was just so much to do. It was no different, I’m sure, than a lot of the other small communities. We were on an island, we were isolated, there was no causeway to it in those years, but summers in particular were just absolutely, incredibly wonderful. Everybody had punts. We were out in boats constantly or playing soccer or swimming in the ponds — sometimes in the ocean. I would leave home in the morning and Mom wouldn’t worry about whether or not I came back for lunch. ... If you didn’t come home for supper, they would probably get a little bit concerned.
Can you recall what your first paid job was?
I don’t know if you can call it a job, but when I was in school I had a bunch of lobster pots — I think it was about 10 or maybe a dozen. I would catch lobster and sell them. I remember I used to sell them for a dollar each, no matter how big or small. You’d get a little bit more than that today (laughs).
What is your favourite fish dish?
It would have to be a toss-up between cod and salmon. But when I say salmon, I’d have to make that salmon of the wild, back before the moratorium on salmon in 1992. Wild salmon is just so different from the farmed salmon that we have today. ... Right now, with only farmed salmon available, I would have to say cod.
Can you recall the first story you covered?
I was in private radio in Marystown (with CHCM), and there was a trawler named the Blue Mist that sank. I remember my first sort of solo type of job was to go to the memorial service, which was in Grand Bank. I handled that live and it was probably the first thing I can recall of any significance doing for the radio station at that time.
What bugs you?
I don’t like the way that so many reporters these days feel like they must spin stories as opposed to just reporting on them. I don’t particularly care what you think of a story. If it’s a straight-up piece, I don’t really care so much what you think. Just give me the goods. Tell me the story, and I’ll make up my mind whether I like it or not. I don’t need a reporter telling me that he or she thinks (Toronto Mayor) Rob Ford is ... well, I don’t know if I can say this without being sued (laughs). Just tell me what Rob Ford said or did, and I can tell you what I think of him. I don’t need your help.
Had you not chosen a career in media, what do you think you would have done instead?
I don’t know. (Media) was never something that I thought about, so it just happened. I was young, it just happened and I ran with it, and it has been very good to me. I’ve had a wonderful time over the last 40-something years.
Who was your favourite person to interview?
I remember a fisheries minister back a long time ago who later became the governor general of Canada. His name was Roméo LeBlanc, and he was in the (Pierre) Trudeau government. He was a long-serving fisheries minister — we seem to have a (new) fisheries minister every other year these days in Ottawa. He was just a fascinating person and a caring person. He really cared about fishermen and he cared about the industry. He cared about fish. He was just a wonderful person to talk to.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Pretty much the world, but I’m still really fascinated with Europe. I’ve been to a few European countries and, in fact, over the weekend we were just looking at maybe doing another cruise fairly soon — maybe in the fall — and it would include countries like Italy, Spain, I think Greece is in there, and a couple of others. But one there that I have sort of been fascinated with and that I have never been is Croatia. … I’ve been in Japan. That’s the only place in Asia I’ve been, but I was not as fascinated with Asia, although it has wonderful things.
Where is your favourite place to be in Newfoundland and Labrador?
I think home where I grew up is certainly one of the places. There’s a sense of something there that’s hard to explain. It’s a sense of security, perhaps because it’s where you came out of and it shaped you, it moulded you, and so it’s always a very special thing to touch the green, green grass of home once again. But other than that, I have a real soft spot in my heart for Fogo Island … and I love the Bonne Bay area.
Among all the people you’ve worked with, who would you say you respect the most, or who stands out?
My very first manager would come to mind. His name was Charlie Noseworthy, way back in Marystown. I don’t even remember what year I started, but I think it was about 1965. Charlie … used to be on air at VOCM in St. John’s. He’s from St. John’s. He’s now deceased. He had such patience, because that station at that time was sort of a training ground for new announcers. Charlie would have to break in all these youngsters practically coming off the street. … He was also, in my mind, ahead of his time. He knew radio, back when it was so fundamental, just so basic. With an old Ampex reel-to-reel tape, he could work wonders with that. He was just an absolutely incredible character.
What was your toughest story to cover?
I think one of the toughest things I’ve ever reported live was the night the (cod) moratorium was called. John Crosbie was at what is now the Delta Hotel. The place went up ... and Kathryn King was my co-host at “The Fisheries Broadcast” at that time. When all this activity started, I wasn’t sure if I was on air or not, so I had to keep talking and talking, not knowing if I was on or Kathryn was on. We didn’t have the technology that I could hear live radio in my headset or anything ... I jumped up on a chair and tried to just describe my scene, what I could see, the best I could and just keep on talking and hope for the best. That was a very difficult thing. I can remember at the end of that night you could wring out my shirt and I was just in a lather of sweat (laughs). I listened to some of it (afterwards), and it seemed to turn out pretty good.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just read magazines. I don’t read books very much. ... But I read magazines a lot. I subscribe to a bunch of magazines like the geographics — both the Canadian and National Geographic. Maclean’s magazine. A friend of mine has The New Yorker, and when he’s finished he gives them to me, and I also read some financials, like Canadian Business and one called MoneySense. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have just enough to worry about, and I love reading about investing so that one day if I do have enough, I’ll know what to do.
Working in live radio, did you ever have a funny or embarrassing moment on air?
Oh yes! Once we had a tape going, and it was a tape of a Memorial Day service in Burin. I was in Marystown at the time, only five or six months into the business. ... My information from my scripts is that the tape was about 25-minutes long.... So I just settled back and said, ‘Oh, this is great. I’ve got 25 minutes now where I can just sort of relax a little bit.’ But about five minutes after I did the intro to it and turned on the tape, there was silence. Just dead air, and of course in private radio, dead air is not acceptable. It’s a no-no. You’ve got to be tight. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, but it was probably five seconds or less. Anyways, I thought that instead of 25 minutes, it must have been five and I guess it’s over. So I opened up the microphone ... and just went on and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been listening to the Memorial Day service,’ and then I realized I didn’t have anything ready. I had no music cued up or anything like that, so I just ad-libbed a little bit of the weather and time checks and ... took out the closest (vinyl record) at hand and put it on the turntable, cued it up, and said, ‘OK, let’s get back to more music now. It’s six minutes after 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning and here’s the Beach Boys with “Help Me Rhonda.” And it was a minute of silence for the war dead that I interrupted (laughs). It was the most horrible thing that ever happened to me in my life at radio.
What’s your favourite movie?
I don’t think I have a favourite movie. I can tell you that I just watched again a movie called “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” with Russell Crowe. … Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I’ve been surrounded by people of the sea, fishermen and otherwise — I remember thinking that this is a movie anybody who has to be in command of a vessel of just about any size — from a 65 footer up to a Navy ship — should see. I just thought it was really well done.
How do you reckon the fishing industry will change in this province in the years ahead?
It changes every year. It barely resembles the industry that my father (Bert Wellman) fished in as the captain of a schooner when he fished in the Labrador fishery, the salt fish days. And it barely resembles (the industry) when I started with “The Fisheries Broadcast” with CBC Radio in 1982, when cod was king. Then, of course, 10 years later we had a moratorium on cod. Shellfish, i.e. crab and shrimp, became the fisheries of the day, and they still are. But it keeps on changing, because we have this total evolution of different kinds of boats and technology. … Back when cod was king, we only had small boats that only went offshore for a few miles. Now we have these 65-footers that go offshore for sometimes days and days, and they go out quite often beyond 200 miles even. ... My father only had a compass and that was it. Now you’ve got all your GPS and all your doodads and bells and whistles.
Who do you regret not getting a chance to interview?
Again, I read some of these financial magazines and I’m always fascinated with Warren Buffett, who is the best-known investor in the world. He just seems like such a nice man. ... He has wit and wisdom. He just seems like such an incredibly fascinating person that you would come away from him feeling so much wiser and better for it.
Who inspires you?
I think good fishermen have always inspired me tremendously. I mean the guys who put their face to the gale, they don’t go whining and complaining about their lot in life, they just get the job done. They’re so determined, they’re so knowledgeable about what they do, and it’s not an easy job. I’ve always been inspired by them because they face a lot of odds. There’s so many things that can go against you in the fishing industry. I have a job, and whether or not this month I do a better job or I’m more successful than I was rounding up stuff the month before, I’m still going to get exactly the same pay. These guys never know what they’re going to be paid, but yet they keep on doing it. ... I know some good fishermen who had a couple of years they didn’t even really break even. They were in red ink, but they keep on going. Then they’ll have a good year and it’s fine again.
What’s your favourite indulgence?
I have a fairly large music collection, and it’s pretty eclectic. I love to listen to music and either drink a nice single-malt Scotch or sip on a good red wine.