PONTIAC May 27, 2020
J.J. Clarke is Ottawa’s weather man.
Sure, he recently retired and there are of course other weather forecasters at other networks, but odds are none of them will have the longevity of Clarke.
He’s been doing the weather in this city since 1986 and called it a career earlier this month.
With a career spanning over three decades, it’s no shock that Clarke has seen changes in everything from the actual weather forecasts to the industry itself.
In fact, Clarke’s first audition for the spot of CJOH weatherman came in 1982 and tested his artistic skills when the producers handed him a stick of chalk, pointed to a chalk board and told him to show them the weather forecast.
“They couldn’t hire me,” Clarke said. “I was good enough, but because I worked for CKOY, they had a right of first refusal on my contract.”
As a result, Clarke had to face the high-pressure job of being a morning show host on the radio for another couple of years.
He started working in broadcasting when he was a Geology student at McMaster University. After working for a few years in Hamilton, he was brought in to work the airwaves in the most competitive time slot on radio.
Eventually, Clarke was released from his contract and his first call was to CJOH station manager Al MacKay.
Three, days later Clarke said he was sitting on a verandah at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club talking to station management about his potential new gig.
“There was no contract, we shook hands and those guys gave me a dozen balls and a golf umbrella and said welcome aboard,” Clarke recalled. “That’s exactly how I got hired.”
Clarke doubts very much that in today’s high-stakes media environment, station managers would be doing their hiring at golf courses.
“I was just a rock n’ roll DJ signing up for what I was pretty sure was going to be the best time in my life,” Clarke said. “And it was!”
While Clarke acknowledges his job was to forecast the weather every night, he says the news team at CJOH during those years had a much loftier goal: make the world a better place.
The idea stemmed from the man who was at the helm of the news room in those days, Max Keeping.
Keeping, like Clarke and his longtime co-anchor Carol Anne Meehan, hold the status of Ottawa institutions. And Clarke thinks one of the reasons that three people on the local news could have such an impact is because of what they did off the air.
The three of them were always attending fundraisers, hosting telethons and out in the community on a regular basis. Even the broadcasts themselves aimed to be a little more personal with the audience.
Each newscast featured the happiness file, which would wish a happy birthday or anniversary to viewers celebrating that day. Also, youngsters got a chance to see their artwork on the news with Clarke’s weather watcher segment.
“What I miss was the happiness file,” Clarke said. “Every time you mention somebody’s name, you touch their family, they get telephone calls.”
Clarke said that was Keeping’s mission – to be personal with the audience.
When speaking of Keeping, Clarke’s gregarious voice takes on a reverential tone.
“He was Johnny Carson as far as I’m concerned,” Clarke said. “My shtick was just to back him up.”
But as the years wore on and the media industry changed, things like the happiness file fell by the wayside.
“[The station] was owned by Mom and Pop,” Clarke said. “Mom and Pop owned the grocery store, Mom and Pop owned the radio station ... Suddenly the big rich guys take notice and they want a piece of us.”
Which is probably why, when asked to pick his favourite decade to work in, Clarke said it was the 80s. He had just broken into broadcast and in that decade, he was a jack of all trades working in both T.V. and radio – not to mention the excitement of starting a new on-air job at a major station.
Clarke obviously takes pride in his career and rightly so, serving more than three decades in any position means you’re doing something right.
He points out that not only does the weatherman try and let you know what the day will look like, but he also helps get you through those awkward moments with strangers by giving you some small-talk material.
“Two people get into an elevator and the one thing they have in common is the weather,” Clarke said.
And while he did get some guff from viewers for missing the odd forecast, Clarke said his percentage was somewhere north of 80.
Wait, Clarke kept tabs on his forecast accuracy?
“Keeping did, oh yeah, he watched all of us like a hawk.” Clarke exclaimed. “Max knew better than I did.”
It was just one more way for Keeping to hold his team’s feet to the fire and get the most out of them.
While his professional accomplishments are nice, being able to forge such a strong connection with the community is what he’s most proud of.
“We did some good things, boy we had a blast, and there are just a lot of great memories I just sit back and smile about,” Clarke said.
Now that he’s retired, Clarke will have plenty of time to reflect on a stellar career. But with how busy he’s been during his pre-retirement years, he’s got a lot of things to catch up on.
While he enjoys golf, he hasn’t gotten out on the links in a while and says that’s something he’d like to change.
He also plans on spending a good chunk of that time in the Pontiac, where he has family connections.
“I’m still a member in fairly good standing at a fishing camp or two in the Pontiac, So I look forward to spending some time there as well,” Clarke said. “Sounds like I’m going to have a pretty good retirement.”
Clarke said he has a tentative invite to a few other fishing camps as well. When told he could probably show up to any fishing camp in the Pontiac unannounced and be welcomed with open arms, Clarke’s quick wit was on display.
“Well they are [welcoming] for a while until I don’t shut up and keep telling jokes all night and eventually someone tells me to leave,” he said wryly.
One thing is for sure, Clarke will have some extra time to visit that secret fishing spot he mentioned in a 1986 interview with The Equity. By the way, where is that secret fishing spot?
“Well, I’ll tell you what, I did a little bit of magic when I was younger in the radio days at Christmas parties,” Clarke said. “So, a good magician never reveals his secrets. But I will tell you that it’s still secret and it’s still a great spot, whether you catch a fish there or not.”
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