CBC Radio host Norma Lee MacLeod recalls lifetime of journalism experience

CBC Radio host Norma Lee MacLeod recalls lifetime of journalism experience

Whether in print, on television or through CBC's radio signal, Norma Lee MacLeod has always just yearned to know and share the stories of everyday Canadians.

"I like talking to people," MacLeod said. "I like to approach my show from the point of view of the common man — not to take a giant philosophical view, but to keep it close to the people. That's the way I grew up."

The host of CBC's Maritime Noon will be given the Atlantic Journalism Award for Lifetime Achievement on Saturday in Halifax.

The honour is, in her words, both "humbling" and "frightening."

The Norma Lee

Born into a family of six, her mother was a teacher and her father was a lobster fisherman. He bought a new boat the year she was born.

"The boat was named after me," she said. "It was always a sore point with my other sisters."

When MacLeod was 16, Joe Schlesinger, the journalist and former executive producer of The National, roomed at a P.E.I. hotel where she waitressed. They spoke, and he got her thinking "about that world" of journalism.

Unofficial P.E.I. takeover

MacLeod recalls around that time hearing about a set of twins her mother taught in elementary school. Her siblings knew them, too.

Bob and Tom Murphy would, years later, join MacLeod and the likes of Preston Mulligan in an unofficial P.E.I. takeover of CBC Nova Scotia's airwaves.

"I never expected to be in broadcasting. I went into journalism to be a newspaper reporter. And one thing led to another," she said.

MacLeod married her high school sweetheart, Iain MacDonald. That was 29 years ago. They now have an 18-year-old son, David.

Starting at CBC

MacLeod landed a job at the New Glasgow Evening News in 1984 before graduating from Holland College. For 18 months, she ferried back to P.E.I. every other weekend to visit MacDonald.

She eventually moved back to the Island to deliver CBC's weather for $35 a day. "An opportunity" she seized at the expense of a pay cut.

"But it was about being back where Iain was, too," she said.

Filling in on both radio and TV news, her big break came in 1989, joining Jim Nunn, Frank Cameron and Colleen Jones on the supper-hour news. The gig was "intimidating" but she was part of a team that helped tell powerful stories.

MacLeod lists the Westray Mine disaster in Plymouth, N.S., as one of the toughest. Seven long, gruelling days spent in 1992 covering the tragedy.

Swissair 111

Six years later, a producer knocked on her door in the middle of the night.

"Suddenly she was standing in my bedroom. She said, 'Get up — there's been a plane crash. You have to come to work.'"

MacLeod thought the crash was somewhere else in the world. It wasn't until they were rushing to Peggys Cove that she understood the disaster's proximity.

Live coverage rolled out over many hard hours.

"When I first arrived, they were saying the rescuers were still out looking for survivors. I remember saying to myself, it's time to change the language. There's no sign of any survivors. No evidence that there's anyone to rescue," she said.

"You realize that's where this thing is headed and there's no happy ending."

Maritime Noon

MacLeod became host of Maritime Noon in 2011. Radio provides the special intimacy she seeks with an audience.

The call-in elements provide a live two-way connection five hours a week. MacLeod produces the show alongside Polly Leger and technician Geraldine Thibeau.

"You're in a constant conversation and you never know what they're going to say," she said.