It was a yet another sweltering hot summer day in Revelstoke last week and after suffering in the heat for most of it, Jim Browning decided it was time to go to the beach. He got together with some friends and they left the Log Broadcasting Centre at First and Main, and crammed into his truck and drove up north to Lake Revelstoke.
There, they went for a swim, they listened to the birds and caught some fish. Tuber Propagator, Revelstoke’s oldest citizen, stopped by to sell them ice cream and sing a song. Another friend dropped by in his helicopter.
Of course, none of this actually happened. The Log Broadcasting Centre is just a studio in Browning’s home where he broadcasts an online radio show every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 p.m.
He is the host of Canadian Content with Revelstoke Jim, a show that’s on the Great American Broadcast Network, or GABNet, an online station run by veteran American talk radio host Alex Bennett.
The friends on Browning’s trip to the lake were his loyal listeners that call in almost every show and talk to him via Skype — what he calls the citizen panel. It gives the show an intimate, conversational feel; a group of friends hanging out and chatting, but broadcast for the world to hear. “When you see these people face to face on Skype, it’s like having a conversation with friends in your living room,” he says. “You see them get excited about a subject, and that sparks another idea.”
Browning is probably best known in town as the former organizer of the Revelstoke Radio Players, a local group that staged monthly radio plays around town for several years last decade.
He has an jocular, friendly demeanour, with a goofy chuckle and booming voice. A friend told me about his radio show, so I sent Browning an e-mail saying I’d like to do a story about it. A few days later, he walked into the Times Review office; even though we’d never met, he was instantly recognizable, probably due to his online profile that I’d seen (he’s an avid Twitter use). Without much prompting, he went into his history in online broadcasting that dates to the late-90s, when such a thing barely existed.
Browning grew up in Vancouver and spent some time working in the theatre business and in film in the 1980s. He moved to Revelstoke with his wife Theresa (who teaches art at the high school) in 1993. He was doing some freelance writing and working in construction when in 1998 he started corresponding with someone on the Internet about old-time radio shows.
“I had no idea who he was but American radio listeners, they knew him,” he said.
The man was Alex Bennett and he was working with a software and hardware company called Play Incorporated that was about to embark on a bold new experiment — online broadcasting. And not just audio, but video as well.
This was in the early days of the Internet, before streaming and YouTube and podcasts. Napster was just taking off and wasn’t yet castigated as evil by the music industry. Dial-up was still the most common way of accessing the world wide web. The dot-com boom was just starting.
When it came time for Bennett to do the first broadcast, Browning listened in to let them know if it worked. “He gave out the phone number the next day, but nobody phoned him because nobody was listening. So I phoned him.”
Bennett and Browning kept e-mailing and a week later, Browning was asked if they could try to get a signal from Revelstoke to their servers so it could be broadcast.
“I played some music, told some stories, and they said, ‘Great, we’d like you to do some more of that with us,’” said Browning.
The folks at Play Incorporated were impressed — not only did the technology work, but they also liked Browning’s impromptu show so much they asked him to be a host.
“It was just something about him. I have a sixth sense about these things,” said Bennett. “I can tell when people have something to bring to the table. I found him to be different, I found him to be very theatrical in nature and I just trusted his instincts. I was right from the get go.”
The network that was put together was called PlayTV. The station used a machine called the Globecaster to create video images. It was an early form of web television and definitely ahead of its time.
A studio was set up in Browning’s home. Green-screen technology was used to display the images for the video. He had a log cabin displayed behind him — the fictitious Log Broadcasting Centre at First and Main. All the equipment was crammed into a tiny room inside his home, which he still uses as his studio.
The show was called Definitely Not the CBC with Revelstoke Jim. It was interactive; listeners could call in or send messages via ICQ, the pioneering online messaging service. From there, he would share stories of Revelstoke — or at least his version of it.
Jim Browning’s Revelstoke isn’t quite like the real Revelstoke. For one, the mayor isn’t a former forestry official — he’s a short Italian barber named Tony Pepado.
For another, there’s no Mackenzie Avenue — just Main Street. The radio station provides the bear report called Paw & Order where it lets people know where the bears are in town, and there’s an event called the running of the moose.
He likened it to Mayberry — the fictional town from the Andy Griffith Show.
“It has that friendliness, but occasionally there would be a bear walking down the middle of the street,” says Browning. “In my Revelstoke you can still go down to the river and catch a paddlewheeler and go somewhere.”
His listeners are mostly American, so he can make up stories about his semi-fictional home. To make sure he doesn’t upset anyone, he avoids using real names or mentioning local businesses.
The show is inspired by classic radio shows. It’sessentially Browning talking and telling stories — some of it make-believe, some it true.
PlayTV was a big deal and Browning was flown around the U.S., doing the show from New Orleans, Las Vegas, New York and elsewhere. Because of the technology, he could always pretend he was in Revelstoke.
Like many other web companies, PlayTV died in the early 2000s. It rode the dot-com boom and died when it busted. Browning found himself without a home. He kept up his show on his website OwlProwl.com and for a few years, he brought his love of old-time radio to Revelstoke audiences through the Revelstoke Radio Players. They put on live performances of shows like War of the Worlds, Casablanca and the Lone Ranger. Browning would transcribe the scripts and put together the sound effects. One year they put on a series of 10 performances during Railway Days.
Some of those shows, along with a few old PlayTV shows, are available on the Owl Prowl site.
He tried to get work in radio, but had no luck. He attempted to start an online station but couldn’t find anyone to partner with him. One executive called him to let him know why he wouldn’t get work. “Nobody’s going to hire you because you’re creative,” he was told. “Radio doesn’t want creative people. They are a machine that gets stuff done.
“What you want to do is too creative.”
Eventually he burnt out from doing the radio players, and health issues made him take a step back.
Last year, Browning got a call from his old friend Alex Bennett. Bennett, now in his 70s, was starting up a new online station called the Great American Broadcast Network, and he wanted Browning to host a show.
“When I started doing this, one of the first people I got a hold of was Jim,” said Bennett.
Browning agreed to do three nights a week. He renamed the show Revelstoke Jim’s Canadian Content and this time around it was just audio.
The new show was launched in January and picks up where Definitely Not the CBC left off, but there are little differences. For one, instead of ICQ, Browning reads messages from Twitter. Instead of people phoning in, they call up via Skype. This allows up to 10 people to join in on the same call; they can see each other, share stories and tell jokes.
Browning’s listeners are from all over the United States and Canada. On Monday, he tells stories and on Friday it’s more of a free flowing conversation with his callers on Skype. On Wednesday, he does what he calls the adventure show.
“It’s me doing an old-time radio show for the entire show,” he said. “I take people on trips. I use sound effects, I use vocal effects. I turn off the camera so they can’t see me and I take them from the Log Broadcasting Centre.”
On one show he launched the first ever private spacecraft from Revelstoke. On another, they patrolled Lake Revelstoke in a submarine to protect the lake from Albertan party boaters. On another show they went for a trip underneath Revelstoke.
Browning brought back Tuber Propagator from his old show and gave him a humourous Twitter account.
“He’s ornery and cantankerous. It’s just me but people love to hear from him,” he said.
Browning sees his role to regale people, make them laugh and let them relax before they go to bed.
“I try to talk about just life and anything that comes into my head,” he said. “Small town life, comparing it to things in the big city. I tell stories about my Revelstoke, not the real Revelstoke.”
The show is broadcast live on GABNet,net, and is also available to listen to as a podcast on iTunes. The station can be heard using a smartphone app. Bennett said about 12,000 people download the podcast every month, a few thousand listen in live.
Bennett told me Browning brings “great honour to Revelstoke.”
“I think at times the show is pure magic, especially on Wednesday when he does his adventure nights,” said Bennett. “It’s like old-time radio with the sound effects and everything. Really, it just works.”