Douglas "Darby" Coats (1892-1973)

Year Born: 
1892
Year Died: 
1973

Pioneer

Coats, Douglas "Darby" (1892-1973)

While Douglas Richard Proctor Coats later became known as Darby, his original nickname, occasioned by his initials DRP, and one that he was probably glad to lose, was "Drip". He was born in Gravesend, England in 1892, and received his early broadcast training at the British School of Telegraphy.  On immigrating to Canada in 1911, his first job in Canada was in Montreal with the Pacific Cable Board, a public company formed by the governments of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

In April 1913 he joined the Canadian Marconi Company as a marine wireless operator, and had many hairy experiences, including being in the S.S. City of Sydney, which went aground and sank in thick fog in March 1914, and in S.S. Morwenna which was torpedoed and sunk on May 26th 1916.  Later that year he left the sea to become manager and chief instructor at Canadian Marconi' s first wireless school, in Montreal.

By 1919, Marconi were already doing experimental broadcasting on station XWA, and when the engineers got tired of testing circuits by repeatedly counting numbers or reciting the alphabet, they borrowed a record player and records from a local store in return for mentioning it on the air - thus introducing the concept of contra to the airwaves for the very first time. They would also rip and read news and weather forecasts from the local Montreal papers.

While some sources contend that XWA was not the first radio station in North America to be licensed, it is generally accepted that Darby and his colleague Max Smith originated the first regularly scheduled radio programming in May 1920, from their studios on the top floor of the Montreal Marconi plant on William Street.

In 1921, Darby became editor of Canada's first radio magazine, Canadian Wireless.  In 1922 he moved to Winnipeg, to sell radios for Perkins Electric of Montreal. In 1923 he joined the new Manitoba Government Telephones radio station CKY, to both manage and broadcast for the station.  He was known as "The Man With the Cheerful Voice", and once, when someone asked Darby what CKY stood for, he replied: "Coats Keeps Yacking!"

It was also while in Winnipeg that he became nicknamed Darby, also because of his initials D.R.P. In his unpublished papers, he recounted how it happened:

"Now, about this "Darby" name by which some Manitobans know me: It happened thus .... In the spring of 1923, having been appointed manager, announcer and general duties man in charge of the old CKY, Winnipeg, I was looking for talented people who would perform at our microphone without lowering themselves to the extent of demanding a fee --- I being allowed no appropriation for such sordid concessions to human acquisitiveness. Actually, many of Winnipeg's best talented performers helped me through those early years with no reward but my grateful thanks and listeners' appreciation expressed in fan mail.

Soon after the station began regular service, in March, 1923, I was approached by a man who had an idea for a series of "Radarios" as he called them, meaning little plays for radio distinct from 'Scenarios" written for the movie screen. The idea was that a group comprising a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, and one or two Englishmen, would meet in Euston Station, London, all, it turned out, en route to Liverpool where they would be passengers on a liner bound for Halifax.

Being in need of someone to take the part of a Cockney, I was asked if I would do so. Having agreed that I would, the next question was regarding names. Radio plays not yet being established as radio fare in Canada, and most of our players being quite unaccustomed to performing at a microphone, the writer and producer of the plays - he who had approached me in the first place - decided that we would assume names appropriate to our respective parts ---rather, that those of us who had suitable first names would use them in the plays. Most of the half dozen or so performers had first or second names which fitted perfectly. Then the writer-producer, one Gerald Bourke, himself from Dublin, turned to me and said: Now Mr. Coats, what is YOUR first name? I blushed and answered "Douglas!" I might as well have said "Mephistopheles" for the sensation it caused. "Heck", said Mr. Bourke, "Whoever heard of a Cockney called "Douglas?" Then he said: You have three initials - What is the SECOND one? To which I answered "Richard". "But we already have a "Dick" said Mr. Bourke..."I guess we'll have to use your THIRD initial. What does it stand for ... Peter, Paul, Phillip?" Now thoroughly ashamed of myself and wishing my parents were present to witness my embarrassment, I answered: "It's none of those ... it's my Mother's name ... Proctor." "Well", said Mr. Bourke, "We shall have to invent a name for you." He wrote my initials on a piece of paper and proceeded to read them softly ..."D...D.R....D. R. P....D.a.r...I've got it! DARBY. We'll call you DARBY. That's a good Cockney name.

And so the series of playlets was launched and they became popular. They ran for a year or more and soon people began writing to me as Darby Coats and greeted me on the street by that name. It stuck and eventually I conducted my correspondence with radio fans as Darby. I was introduced to umpteen service clubs and other organizations by that name, and who am I to raise objections?"

Darby did everything at the station.  He read news, gave weather forecasts, introduced records, read stories for children, and provided sports scores. An annual Christmas tradition was his reading of excerpts from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He also kept an ear lifted for what was coming over the airwaves from American stations, and - like many other Canadian broadcasters at the time - had no compunction about patching in any particularly strong and entertaining U.S. programming he could pick up.

Darby's next Winnipeg job was in 1927 as manager, broadcasting department, for the James Richardson and Sons grain company, and the following year he became manager of the Richardson stations CJRM Moose Jaw and CJRW Fleming, Saskatchewan. In 1933 he was wooed back by CKY to be their manager of public relations, a position - which also included much on-air work - which he held until he joined the RCAF in 1941 as their local Recruiting Officer.  He retired from the RCAF in 1944, but as the war ended, British United Press sent him to Europe to report on the work of the YMCA.  Credited as a war correspondent to gain access to otherwise inaccessible areas, he filed graphic descriptions from Holland, as the people of Amsterdam tried to rebuild their lives after five years of German occupation. He was later in Berlin with elements of the Canadian forces.

With the end of the war in 1945, Darby returned to his public relations and broadcasting activities with CKY Winnipeg. When the station was bought from Manitoba Telephones by the CBC in 1948, he stayed on with Manitoba Telephones' corporate office as their PR Manager. He retired in 1957, and the family moved to Calgary, where he ran courses at Mount Royal College, and continued to do guest appearances on radio and television. 

He also did work for the Manitoba Medical Association, and the Community Chest.

Darby Coats died in Calgary, Alberta on July 7th 1973.

Sources include:

Unpublished papers: D.R.P. Coats
The Swashbucklers: Knowlton Nash

Written by Pip Wedge - May, 2005

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