The late Carson Small MBE, who died last Thursday morning, was not gifted with sight. And Barbados was all the better for it.
Deprived at an early age of this vital sense, he developed one of the most uncannily sensitive abilities any human could possess. For Carson Small listened. He made listening his life’s work even though he was paid to talk.
The noted American television journalist Mike Wallace, whose own long life was spent before a microphone, once opined that the art of interviewing was “90 per cent listening”.
Carson Small was never armed with a list of questions for his radio interviews but his ever-curious mind, his disarming humility, and his other-worldly gift of not merely hearing but listening made his radio encounters required listening for many and compelling listening for others who marvelled at the humour and humanity of Barbadians, as if exploring a new world through a loudspeaker.
His entry into radio late in his adult life, in 1974, might, on first glance appear to be a social engineering experiment for Barbados Rediffusion (later Starcom Network). Veteran broadcasters Dame Olga Lopes-Seale, Alfred Pragnell and Frank Pardo, the veritable gate-keepers of talent in Barbadian radio in the 1960s and 1970s, saw in Small no mean talent for the microphone. He was already holding his own as station receptionist.
It was not an immediate and obvious choice. It was 1974. The great Rediffusion star Joseph Onessimus ‘Joe’ Tudor, host of the roving radio show, Far and Wide, had been dead four years. It was at the behest of the firm of Pardo, Pragnell and Lopes-Seale that Carson Small took over Far and Wide.
And for another two decades, until Rediffusion’s demise in 1997, Carson Small was Far and Wide, as if the jaunty signature tune that sounded every Sunday afternoon had been specially composed to advertise the qualities of its jovial host; as if the programme was his own invention.
For a generation or two of child listeners, Carson Small was best known by any other name but his own; he played the hapless “George” to ‘Aunty Olga’ as ‘straight man’ in a comic double act segment during Rediffusion’s Children’s Party on Saturday mornings. It was here, too, that Small filled the shoes of in-house comedian, Joe Tudor.
Whether it was a district hospital or a community centre or a village gap, Carson Small was an affable, genial and gentle life-force, whose rich baritone voice commanded the attention of interview subject and listener on Rediffusion Star Radio’s Far and Wide.
His job, a skill rarely expounded on today’s airwaves but no less vital in a nation in permanent social upheaval, was as simple to him as it has proved elusive to countless others in his field. Be human. Bring out the humanity in others, their best selves, effortlessly but engagingly. He was as human as he was humane.
To have on the payroll a radio man who just happened to be blind but yet functioned as if a script would be nothing more than an impediment is a noteworthy and laudable achievement for any radio station.
But Carson Small went further than merely using his gifts to conduct warm and engaging talks with Barbadians far and wide. From the 1990s, he would use his position to become a quiet revolutionary in the cause of the disabled community, hosting the daytime magazine programme, Visions, on Starcom’s Voice of Barbados. This was not some ghetto for the disabled, for Visions opened the figuratively closed eyes and minds of Barbadians hitherto closed to the travails but also triumphs of disabled compatriots.
Again, for the superb listener, humble soul and engaging interviewer, there could be not better person for the job. Among his many guests would be Kerrie-Ann Ifill, later President of the Senate, a trailblazer in her own right.
Upon his death, former senator Ifill said, “What a wonderful human Carson was. He had a phenomenal sense of humour a beautiful spirit and the biggest heart that I have ever known.”
So, from a treasured radio station employee to renowned broadcaster to humanitarian, Carson Small’s own visions were ever-widening.
The bestowing of the national honour of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2015 was a fitting coda to a life’s work of love in service.
It would be remiss of us not to admonish ourselves for our national blindness, when it was discovered that he lived in squalid conditions, all through the many years of uplifting the cause of the disabled and elderly.
But Carson St Elmon Small was no victim. He merely sacrificed his own conditions for the sake of others. He clearly never profited from the many thousands upon thousands of dollars raised through his efforts, the last of which was the Carson Small Foundation, formed ten years ago.
We salute this pioneer not only as an icon of a marginalized community, not merely as a broadcaster’s broadcaster, but as one of the many points of light this nation has produced, one we would do well to emulate and encourage.
At a time when mere economics and material gain have blinded so many others who are endowed with even greater faculties and senses, the lesson of Carson Small’s life and work is one we hope will open minds and hearts.
If only we would close our eyes and listen.