Don Connolly, Nova Scotia’s morning man
Information Morning host chats his way into Nova Scotians’ homes and hearts
January 20, 2016, 9:30 am ASTLast Updated: January 5, 2018, 11:54 pm
It was an early morning in January 2015. Don Connolly was at home getting ready for work when he walked to the top of the staircase and put his left foot down.
The next thing he knew, he was at the bottom of the staircase, facing the ceiling.
“You’re in f—ing trouble,” he remembers thinking.
He had slipped down the stairs and landed on his back, breaking four ribs. The force had propelled him forward down the stairs. Connolly had jerked his hand out to stop his fall, breaking his wrist and hand. He had landed at the foot of the stairs, jamming his shoulder into the radiator, breaking it, too.
Connolly lay in a daze, the wind knocked of him. One of his first coherent thoughts was that he wasn’t going to make it to work, for the first time in his career. His wife and daughter found him, carried him to their truck and took him to the hospital. Before they left, Connolly called his office to say he couldn’t make it in.
On that day, Information Morning would be without its beloved host.
39 years ago
Don Connolly, 68, is the host of Information Morning Nova Scotia, the most popular morning radio show on mainland Nova Scotia.
Information Morning is a CBC Radio One current affairs show that comes out of Halifax. It has been broadcasting to mainland Nova Scotia every weekday morning since 1970, with a focus on interviews, news, weather, and traffic.
Connolly, originally from Bathurst, N.B., joined in 1976 as an interviewer and co-host to Don Tremaine, who had been a host of the program since 1972. Connolly, at the time a self-described “hippie,” contrasted with the clean-cut Tremaine, a former member of the RCMP Marine Division.
“I could tell Tremaine was pretty underwhelmed by (me),” Connolly says.
Connolly knew the first few weeks with Tremaine would decide his CBC radio career in Halifax, so he set out to impress his imposing host by doing his job as professionally and respectfully as possible. After six weeks, Tremaine pulled him aside and said, “This is going to work.”
“That was a huge breakthrough for me,” Connolly says.
Connolly polished his skills as an interviewer, and in 1987, Tremaine retired. Connolly stepped in as the host of Information Morning, a role he’s held ever since.
The morning team
Connolly enters the CBC building around 5 a.m. every weekday. He fills up his mug with coffee from the production booth and enters his studio. He sits in front of his microphone at a hexagonal table and spreads out the day’s newspaper in front of him, along with his breakfast, usually Greek yogurt and a banana.
A producer hands him a script for an upcoming segment, which he reads over, circling words so he can find them at a glance during the interview. Another crew member makes a hand signal. Connolly nods, slips on his ear buds and leans into the microphone.
“Welcome to Information Morning for November 17. Good morning, I’m Don Connolly.”
Connolly is joined by Louise Renault, who has been his co-host since 2010. She introduces segments, conducts interviews and provides traffic and weather updates. Connolly is the anchor of the program; Renault, in her words, helps “smooth things out.”
Connolly is also joined by Sandy Smith, who delivers news updates; John Hancock, who discusses sports; and Peter Coade, who gives detailed weather reports. They flutter in every half hour, bantering with Connolly during segments. It’s a casual atmosphere, more water cooler talk than stiff news delivery.
“You get comfortable in your groove,” says Renault.
It’s a band of friends, not coworkers. When Connolly was injured, there was, according to Renault, a sense of “worry and panic” about what to do without him. He has been the voice of Information Morning for nearly 40 years. His popularity, according to the Numeris Fall 2014 Halifax Market Report, has made Information Morning Nova Scotia the number one morning radio show in mainland Nova Scotia, with a regular audience of more than 120,000 listeners in Halifax alone.
‘Part of their family’
Connolly admits that news content is not Information Morning’s main draw. The show provides the basic news people need in the morning, much like other morning shows. In addition to news, Connolly interviews a variety of guests across mainland Nova Scotia, making the program local and relevant, and offering listeners something they can’t find anywhere else. On most days, though, there are “more people listening for the company,” Connolly says.
“There’s a woman in Kuwait who listens an hour every day just to get a feel (for) home,” he says.
Margot Brunelle worked as a chase producer for Information Morning for 18 years until she retired in the summer of 2015. She spent her career chasing stories and “sometimes (my) tail,” she says with a laugh. She saw how the audience personally connected with Connolly.
“Don has a way of engaging the audience that is really special,” she says.
“Don can be their brother, or their son or their father,” she adds. “He feels like part of their family.”
Betty Boyle is part of that family. She lives in a retirement home in Truro, N.S., and has listened to Information Morning since its inception. She turns the radio on at 5:30 a.m. and lies in her bed, waiting for Information Morning and Connolly’s “mellifluous tones,” she says.
“It’s like listening to a chat in the living room,” she says.
Boyle belongs to Information Morning’s largest demographic, people 65 years of age and older. According to Numeris, this group makes up a third of the audience, and includes more than 40,000 listeners.
When Connolly was off the air due to his injury, Boyle noticed his absence. A month after Connolly had fallen down the stairs, Boyle called in to the program and asked if Connolly was dead. She didn’t actually think he had died; she just wanted to know what had happened to him.
Brunelle played the phone call for Connolly, who was delighted by this “feisty 90-year-old.” He called her back, saying, “It’s Don Connolly. I’m not dead.”
Boyle, like so many others, admires Connolly’s ability to put people at ease. Connolly’s show is like a lively breakfast table discussion. The relaxed atmosphere makes for intimate interviews, which can be “real conversation(s),” Connolly says.
Connolly’s interview style is professional and organized, but playful. On the morning of Nov. 10, 2015, chef Craig Flinn dropped in to discuss his new cookbook entitled, Out of New Nova Scotia Kitchens. Connolly flipped through the cookbook, admired the recipes and greeted Flinn as an old friend.
On air, they talked about the book, Flinn’s cooking experience, and their favourite recipes. Connolly asked Flinn why Nova Scotians need another cookbook, but didn’t pose it as an aggressive question. It was an opening for an amicable dialogue about Flinn’s intention with the book.
Not everyone is fan of Connolly’s conversational style. Bruce Wark is a long-time listener of Information Morning who tunes in to the show every day from his Parrsboro, N.S., home.
Wark is a critic of Connolly’s approach to morning radio. He thinks Information Morning’s emphasis on the hosts is detrimental to its news delivery. Wark, who worked with CBC for decades and has seen its budget shrink due to government cuts, says that instead of delivering interesting news, Information Morning has become studio-bound and reliant on the host to capture listener loyalty. He says Information Morning has lost the wide swath of content it once had, such as longer news pieces and satirical skits.
“The show’s so narrow now,” he says. “It’s bound to get stale.”
Brunelle admits she has seen the show lose some of its variety. In 2009, the news reporters in Information Morning’s office were moved into the TV offices in a different building. That meant fewer reporters were available to appear on the show to discuss their news items, and the Information Morning staff had fewer people available to produce stories. The show had to rely on more phone and in-studio interviews, which Brunelle found “really hard.”
Wark’s criticisms go beyond content; he also criticizes Connolly’s interviewing style, stating that Connolly uses too many closed or leading questions. He says the constant chatting between hosts is irritating and drags the show down.
“When Connolly is there, it’s too rambling,” he says.
But Miglena Todorova sees conversations as the lifeblood of good radio. An assistant professor in the social justice education department at University of Toronto, she is on a quest to preserve radio because of its importance as a form of “cultural communication.” She thinks radio, especially local programming, provides personal conversations within communities. Todorova says radio’s intimacy brings diverse communities closer, strengthening multiculturalism.
“Radio stimulates our imagination,” she says.
Connolly understands the communal power of radio. He says he wants to make the program less Halifax-centric, and he tries to get the show out of Halifax for “remotes” – shows broadcast from rural Nova Scotia – whenever he can. Connolly says he tries to bring the program to the “nooks and crannies” of the province so he can connect with people who don’t receive much attention.
“When we are at our best, we’re making some small contribution to a sense of community,” he says.
‘The last chapter’
Every hour, Connolly takes a smoke break while World Report (the 10-minute national news broadcast) plays. Connolly stands in front of the building while the sun rises and looks at the nearby Halifax Shopping Centre. CBC’s radio and television departments moved to this building – a former department store – in 2014. Connolly misses walking through the Public Gardens, the Victorian gardens that were close to the old CBC Radio building downtown. When he moved here, he gave himself a year; if he didn’t like it, he would retire.
Retirement has been on Connolly’s mind lately. When he fell down the stairs, he was unsure if he’d return to the show. As he recovered, he got worse news: cancer. It’s manageable and he’s responded well to treatment so far, but it’s put things in perspective. Connolly knows he only has so much time to do what he wants outside of work. He wants to walk on the west of Ireland, and do other things that “don’t involve responsibility.”
During her time at CBC, Brunelle had discussed Connolly’s potential retirement with him, thinking he’d retire before she did. She’s met Nova Scotians who “listen to the show religiously,” and say they need Don. Renault also says radio listeners in Nova Scotia treat Information Morning like a “real tradition,” which Connolly’s retirement could change.
“I think (CBC) is afraid to talk about (Connolly’s retirement),” Renault says.
Brunelle thinks Information Morning will have to change when Connolly leaves. Perhaps a host with a news focus or someone with a “sharper edge.”
“Nova Scotians will just have to get used to it,” she says.
Connolly flicks his cigarette on the ground and goes inside. Most of the office is empty; not many people are up this early. He walks into the studio and sits in his chair, reading over a script and scooping out the rest of his yogurt.
Connolly says he isn’t ready to retire, not yet. He enjoys his job and thinks he owes something to his audience. Healing from his injuries, he asked himself, “Do you want to go out on this kind of whimper?”
Connolly will punctuate his career on his terms. Whenever he retires, he’ll do it his way.
“You’d like … the last page of the last chapter (to) be appropriate, (to) sum it up,” he says.
Connolly gets the signal. He puts his earbuds on, leans into the microphone and opens his mouth.
“Welcome to Information Morning for November 17. Good morning, I’m Don Connolly.”
Main photo: Don Connolly, host of Information Morning Nova Scotia, conducts a phone interview in the show’s Halifax studio. Photo by Sean Mott.
Correction (made January 22, 2016): In an earlier version of this story, the first paragraph suggested that Don Connolly fell down the stairs the night before a show; he fell early in the morning. In paragraph 15, it was suggested that Connolly “reformats” his scripts – he does not. Also, the earlier version stated in paragraph 16 and in the final paragraph that he begins each show by saying, “Good morning, welcome to Information Morning, I’m Don Connolly.” The current version of the story has corrected these errors.