Jeff Stewart has been Trent Radio’s historian for the past 26 years. In that time, he has not only produced outstanding radio, but has also proven himself to be an accomplished writer, radio dramaturge, and stage producer.
“It goes all the way back to 1986,” Jeff says about his start at Trent Radio. But before he worked at Trent Radio, Jeff worked at Ark Industries, a company that completed various manufacturing contract work for factories such as Fisher Gage, Quaker Oats, and General Electric. They would do things like put stickers on bags of oats and assemble latches. “We did a lot of things,” he says. He particularly remembers working with his boss, Gino Dimico and loved all 11 years he spent there. “I love[d] the people I work[ed] with… and I loved the work I did,” but Jeff wanted more community involvement. “I thought I’ve had enough of that. So I went out into the community and I found Trent Radio.”
Back when Jeff started at Trent Radio, Johanna Rogers was the General Manager and John K. Muir was second in command. “It changed a lot” ever since John took over as GM, according to Jeff. His first show was with his friends from Ark Industries, a programme called ‘What’s In It for Me?’ that had different people every week picking out selections from the record archives, playing them on the radio and talking about why they had selected them. “They wanted to create their kind of show,” now a staple kind of broadcast on Trent Radio.
The programme Jeff is most known for though, is his country and comedy variety hour, ‘The Country Cousins,’ which he hosts with his real life cousin, Washboard Hank Fisher. The story of ‘The Country Cousins’ is that one day, back in 1989 (when Trent Radio was still 96.3FM), Hank came in to visit his friend John K. Muir. Jeff and Hank’s conversation about country music was so lively and so funny that they decided to just hop on the radio together and produce a live pilot episode of what would later become a time-honoured Trent Radio classic. Jeff remembers: “We just went on the radio and everybody loved us!” the pilot went so well that they have been doing the programme ever since. ‘The Country Cousins’ have fans all over the world according to Jeff. Including a friend of Hank’s in Detroit and a cousin in Coburg that listens. As Jeff puts it, “in this digital age… they can just put us on.” You can put them on every Tuesday from 12pm until 1pm this season.
The history of ‘The Country Cousins’ is intertwined with the history of their family and the history of the area. Sarah Griffin married Ephraim White and had seven kids: Ethel, William, Carrie, Bertha, Pearl (Jeff’s grandma), Laura (Hank’s grandma), and John. Jeff writes: “They live in Cavan on Stewart Line… They all live in a white house and all of them did the farming together. So I got the idea to do the show in memory of them… They all passed away so I wanted to do the Country Cousins in the memory of all of them.”
A fixture of the programme is Jeff playing his favourite country artist, Daniel O’Donnell, and singing along. On Tuesday March 24, 2009, Jeff got to speak with the Irish country superstar. Jeff quips, “I give that an A plus!” Jeff had gotten his book in 2007 and read it thoroughly, so he knew all about Daniel O’Donnell’s family enough that he got to speak with Daniel about his mum. They also got to talk about Jeff’s favourite Daniel O’Donnell song, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon.’ Jeff also remembers that when Daniel mentioned that he was calling from Cavan, Ireland, Hank mentioned that their family is from Cavan, Ontario.
As well as making live radio, Jeff writes and produces radio drama. His first radio drama can be found on tape cassette in the Operator’s Room at Trent Radio. This classic is a remake of the iconic Star Trek episode called ‘The Menagerie.’ In this episode the crew beams down to Talos IV where they find ex-Enterprise Captain Christopher Pike burnt and paralyzed by delta rays. For Jeff, this was the first time he had seen the hero of a TV show be a handicapped person and this interested him very much. Jeff writes: “You know there are people out there with disabilities and they don’t have a lot of education. For example, they always wanted to be a producer of a musical but others say ‘Oh no you can not do it,’ so that is why it is hard for them to do anything. I am a producer of ‘The Country Cousins Radio Show’ and also co-producer of White Christmas this year.”
One of his favourite productions is called ‘The History of the Batley Family Singers’ in which the Sound of Music is set in Peterborough with his good friend Fred Batley as the protagonist. His interest in The Sound of Music began when his grandmother took him to see the movie in 1965, the first year it was in theatres. After that his mum got his grandma the record and Jeff would play it all the time (and still does). Jeff says that he was very interested in the idea of a singing family and when the Batley’s came to his church in 1991, they sang so beautifully that it reminded him of the Von Trapps. So it took him month and a half to write the script and it was originally told as a radio story by Laurel Paluck. Later the project was revisited and music was put in to correspond with the narration, including Jeff himself singing the theme. “It was a good production and I loved doing it,” he recalls.
Beyond his radio talents, Jeff Stewart is also a producer for the St. James Players. This drama group is based out of the congregation of St. James United Church which has been in Peterborough since 1908. The St. James Players started in 1972 with a variety stage show and through the years have done many productions including ‘Babes in Toyland,’ ‘Oklahoma,’ and ‘The Sound of Music.’ Jeff got his start with the Players making props for the 1980s performance of ‘Oklahoma.’ “The best part of it is when I got in ‘The Sound of Music’,” he says of his experience as a contestant in the Salzburg music festival. For the 40th anniversary of the Players Jeff got to co-produce Erving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ with his good friend and local Fleming professor Fred Batley. He speaks highly of Fred: “He’s the greatest guy you’d ever want to meet” and “my close friend at the church, and with the Players.”
Jeff is a little known local icon and a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the history of Trent Radio and its community. Be sure to tune into ‘The Country Cousins’ and keep an ear to Trent Radio to hear one of his radio drama productions.