THE MOUTH THAT ROARS
As the $70,000-a-year master of the crafty art of radio hotline showbusiness, Montreal's Pat Burns hides behind blustery boorishness a fact his livid critics miss: he really cares
THE LONG-DISTANCE LIGHT on the telephone console had been flashing for several minutes. Finally, Pat Burns reached over and threw the switch.
"Burns on the line. Speak.” As though he was personally issuing the right of free speech that day.
"Yeah,” he went on, "this is Burns. Who’s this?” That voice started to take on an aggressive edge, as though Burns was some irritable bullfrog with a megaphone.
"It’s Harry Truman.”
Burns geared down. "Why, Mr. President. I didn't know it was so easy to get hold of you.”
“I’m a helluva lot easier to get than you are,” grumbled old Harry, who'd probably waited longer to speak to Burns than he had in deciding to fire General MacArthur.
And so they went at it. the former president and the hot-line man from Vancouver. BC. As they discussed the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima some 20 years after the event, thousands of people on the lower mainland of British Columbia and thousands more across the border in the U.S. listened.
Some were delighted; others were enraged. And a good many in both groups were getting that sweet, vicarious kick they got a couple of times a week when Burns, the voice who had become their hero, took to baiting what he calls a "bossman” from “wheeler-dealer country.”
But the amazing thing about the Harry Truman phone call was this: if you listened only to what the two men were saying — never mind who they were or how they were saying it — you discovered you were simply hearing two voices
chatting in total agreement about a few facts you could read in any modern history book.
And once you made that discovery you came closer, perhaps, than most radio listeners ever do to understanding the curious appeal of hot-line shows in general and the compelling magic of Pat Burns in particular. For, among the very few broadcasters in Canada who have mastered the crafty art of hot-lining, Burns ranks as someone special. Somehow, he has taken his greatest natural asset — that deep, resonant voice — and developed it into a $7(),000-a-year showbusiness property. Somehow, when Burns opens his mouth (which is often) the most commonplace observation can sound like the pronouncements ol a heroic liberator revealing a new bill of rights for a long-oppressed people.
Burns is smart enough, of course, to enhance this effect, and he does so with a rudeness that is sometimes monumental, and with the posture of a defender of the little man against all manner of tyranny, bureaucracy, quackery, shysterism and plain, old-fashioned deceit. Burns assumes his listeners believe that / continued on page 54
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“It isn’t fashionable to believe in people, but Burns does”
there’s always somebody out there conning them — a company president, a politician, a big-time lawyer, a greedy doctor — and presents himself as one of the few men in the world with the cunning and the courage to denounce them.
Such techniques leave a small minority of sophisticated radio listeners with the distinct impression that Burns is simply a rabble-rouser with all the sincerity of a psychopathic sideshow barker. But it is quite possible that Burns’s most ardent fans arc actually getting a message that his cynical critics are missing: for in Burns's private actions there’s considerable evidence that beneath all that bluster and boorishness is a man who really cares.
Burns certainly got that message through to his listeners on CJOR in Vancouver, for when the station fired him they staged a massive demonstration unprecedented in Canadian broadcasting. Now he’s at CKGM in Montreal. running the same electronic circus, spouting those glib opinions and putting down anybody who calls in and doesn't keep that hot-line w'arm and lively. The commonest victims of Burns's cutoff switch are housewives who come on the line sounding terrified and soon make it obvious that the very thought of finally getting through to the great Burns is enough to make any girl speechless.
Burns's habit of placing calls as well as receiving them gives his hot-line show an edge over most.
With Burns at the mike, you never know who’ll be heard from next — pipefitter, premier or Pope.
When people call him.
Burns lets them have the first word, but whatever subject they introduce.
Burns is sure to have an instant opinion about it— from drug addiction (“the trapdoor to hell,” he calls it) to universities (Burns thinks their tuition should be free), to varicose veins (here Burns puts down a woman who says she didn't know' she had them: “Don’t you ever look when you wash. doll?”).
The risk of such insults doesn't seem to discourage callers any more than the odds do. Four thousand people try to call Burns each day. and only 40 or 50 of them get on the air. (A few others, bored with waiting, are away from their phones when Burns responds.) If Burns thinks you haven't much to say, he'll cut you off quickly; but if he finds you interesting, you may be granted as much as 45 minutes.
That’s how it goes on Burns's show, seven hours a day, Monday through Friday, and throughout it all. his voice grates, his pudgy forefinger stabs the air and his feet tap in time to his portentous words while thousands of people listen in anger or in awe — but never in boredom.
His actual listenership figures are as open to question as any other pro-
gram's. but there’s no doubt that there are a lot of people out there paying close attention. Burns mentions he's been at CKGM just a year, and anniversary cakes come cascading into the station. Burns comes on one day with a cold, and the patent medicines poutin. One of Burns's recent visitors was a nun who had been posted to the Maritimes. She just had to meet him. she said, before she left town. (With her departure. Burns lost a dozen or more listeners: this one nun had been acting as translator of his programs for
most of the convent’s French-speaking sisters. )
Anyone lacking Burns’s patience and good nature could do without some of his admirers. One criminal wanted for murder w'alked in and gave himself up to Burns — the only method, he felt, of making sure he wouldn't be mugged at the police station. Burns spent most of Christmas Eve with him, taking pic-
tures and trying to calm down ¡he agitated fellow. Finally, the con turned to Pat and Don Wall, vice-president and general manager of CKGM, and said, “You guys are nice. I'm gonna get all my friends to give themselves up to you.”
Such incidents have made Burns something of a legend, though his boss, Geoff Stirling, who owns CKGM. insists Burns’s motives are more laudable than mere legendmaking. “It isn't fashionable today to believe in people or in the principles:
of what you're doing.” Stirling observes. “but Burns really does.’'
Whatever the worth of the little legends surrounding Burns, the biggest one of all is false — as the public record shows. This is the persistent legend that Burns left Vancouver because the Board of Broadcast Governors took him off the air. Certainly, Burns’s performances in Vancouver had been giving the BBG a bad case of heartburn. A thousand letters a week were landing on BBG desks from listeners demanding that the board take “this loudmouth Burns” off the air. But the board, in fact, never did. (Andrew Stewart, the BBG chairman, was so fascinated with hotline broadcasters that he once took the owner of another station and its hot-line moderator out to lunch, explaining later, “I simply wanted to meet someone who could talk that much.”)
It was the management of Burns’s station in Vancouver, CJOR, who put him off the air, though not for the traditional reason of low listenership. Vancouver listeners, in fact, had learned to revel in his show, for they could eavesdrop delightedly on the game Burns was playing in those days: Burns getting on the phone and bullying Tycoon’s secretary: Tycoon’s secretary anxiously trying to tip off Tycoon; Tycoon coming onto the line unwarned; Burns hitting Tycoon with a tough opening question; Tycoon waffling and stammering and finally hanging up in fear and confusion; Burns turning to the audience to spell out, for any who had missed the point, what a wishy-washy weasel Tycoon really was.
“It made great listening, but it gave rise to grave questions about his tactics.” one Vancouver critic recalls. (A BBG rule introduced since then makes it illegal to put anyone on the air like that without prior agreement.)
Burns’s tactics may have raised grave questions among a few critics, but their more noticeable effect was to clobber his station's competitors. Before Burns. CJOR had been near the bottom of the night-time ratings; with Burns, it climbed to the top. “The opposition could see what was happening.” Burns relates. "They were sitting on the top of a big ice cake and it was going to melt — they knew' the writing was on the wall." (The mixed cliché is a Burns specialty.)
Then, suddenly. Burns was off the air. Vancouver was stunned. Nobody seemed to know where Burns was, and the only source of information was Burns’s attractive lady agent. Elaine Alexander, who tersely told the press there would be no statement. A few
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Doctors fume —but some privately agree with his attacks
“I agree — that’s wrong”
Just as the story of his “firing” has been distorted, Burns’s attacks on the Establishment often get exaggerated. It’s true that he does often have his say about certain professional groups, notably doctors, lawyers and politicians. And while it's almost impossible to get a doctor, for instance, to comment publicly on Burns, his reputation among the profession indicates that a good many medical men listen to him with feelings of anger, shock and dismay. Yet a doctor friend of mine, confessing privately that he’s among the minority of medical men who often agree with Burns’s criticisms, made the point that it’s the tone of Burns’s comments, and not the content. that disturbs so many listeners in the profession.
“Burns gets at some real problems in his criticisms,” this doctor says. “For instance, he's always taking after privileged admissions. While an ordinary citizen is waiting in discomfort to be admitted to hospital for an operation, a football hero comes in with a hangnail and is immediately cared for — and 1 agree with Burns that’s wrong.”
Burns errs, this doctor adds, when he offers an instant opinion about some medical diagnosis or treatment, when he hasn’t either the background
days later, there w'as an announcement that a public meeting would be held, at which Burns would tell all. When the time came, even Burns couldn't believe the turnout.
“I was driving in my car on the way to the theatre, and blocks away l got into this traffic jam. I w'ondered w'hat the reason w'as. never for a moment thinking that it had to do with me. Fortunately, some of the other drivers recognized me and let me through — otherwise I would never have made it.” he says.
The rally drew' the largest crowd the Queen Elizabeth theatre had ever had. Three thousand people squeezed inside, and 7.000 others ignored the March rainstorm and stood outside for 90 minutes, listening to Burns over a public-address system as he denounced the “conspiracy” that had removed him from the air.
And, in a sense, it was a conspiracy. CJOR was in disfavor with the BBG for airing what the board considered offensive material. (One contentious item, aired on another CJOR hot-line show, was a detailed physical description of lesbianism.) Other pieces of evidence in the BBG case against CJOR did, indeed, include tape recordings of some Burns programs, but the board never publicly condemned either BLirns or his show. With the BBG due to hold hearings to decide whether CJOR’s licence should be renewed, the station decided it might placate the board if it fired Burns. So Burns was out of the picture before the hearings were held. And, as it turned out, his firing was to no avail. The BBG ordered CJOR's management to sell out, in order to get the station under more responsible ownership.
or facts necessary to make a sound judgment. Recently a woman called Burns to say that doctors refused to admit her child to hospital even though the youngster was running a high fever. She explained that the child had been given a smallpox vaccination just a few days earlier. In his customary style. Burns had some rude words to
say about the hospital's alleged error.
"What this woman didn't realize, and Burns didn't realize.” this doctor explains, “is that in a small number of cases a fever will follow the vaccination. It's really nothing to worry about, and certainly it's no reason to admit the child to hospital.”
Yet it's these glib answers, solutions
and denunciations that keep any hotline show moving — most of all, Burns's. And the man's abruptness and rudeness are part of the same bag. These are necessary evils if the hotline show is to function at all — a fact that an employee of the Board of Broadcast Governors recently learned the hard way. To get a first-hand idea of the problems, he recently went on a talk show in Montreal — and was criticized later by listeners for being rude. / continued on page 56
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Can’t find the Klan? “Look under ‘B’ for burning crosses”
CKGM owner Geoff Stirling goes further. He regards the attacks on callers as legitimate devices. "In print you can emphasize things by putting it in large type or bold face. On the air. the only weapon you have to tell your listeners that you think the person who is calling is stupid, is to say so.”
Burns’s put-downs make sensitive listeners wince, but others think he's at his best when a dumb-bunny doll gets on the line. ‘‘Doll, will you start opening your mind?” lie'll say. "Think, doll, THINK. What you’re saying is stupid. Gotta go, doll.” And another caller has had her little say.
Recently a man came on the line
wanting to talk about hate literature. Burns let him ramble for a while, and then jumped in like an exclamation mark: “You’re an anti-Semitic bigot and I'm not. Good-by.”
The most common, anti perhaps the most helpless, targets for Burns's sarcasm are the telephone operators who handle his long-distance calls. (His
long-distance bill runs to $4,000 a month.) Burns likes to use these girls as foils for his deadpan wit. And while his kibitzing helps fill in the dead air when she’s dialing or looking up numbers, is can also make for some sadistic, if entertaining, baiting.
"I remember one time,” says Burns, "I was trying to get Robert Shelton, the head of the Ku Klux Klan, in a southern town. He wasn't listed in the phone book and the operator claimed she didn't know what the Klan was. so I decided to have a bit of fun. 1 asked her if she had a copy of the yellow pages. She said she had. So 1 got her to look up in the yellow pages under “S" for sheets, and she did and came on that there wasn't any mention of the Ku Klux Klan. She was serious. So I asked her to look up under “B" for burning crosses, and she did. and came up with the same answer. ‘Can I help you any more?' she asked in a marvelous southern drawl. And people all over Vancouver and the state of Washington were breaking up with laughter, and I said, ‘No, doll, you’ve been enough help already.’ ”
“How about that?”
On a few rare occasions it’s been Burns who has been doing the squirming on one end of the hot-line, thoueh he's so adept at covering up. his audiences are seldom, if ever, aware that their hero is in trouble. One such incident happened just recently. Burns had been tryine to reach H. L. Hunt, one of the world's richest men. (Burns called him the richest, which just added to the drama.) Hunt’s secretary was on the line. “Hello. Pat Burns here, CKGM. Montreal. I'd like to speak to Mr. Hunt.”
“Certainly, Mr. Burns. I’ll put you right through.” said the girl.
“How about that?” said Burns, with the surprise and awe of a Soho flower girl who's been instantly connected with the Queen.
What the audience didn’t know was that the call to Hunt had been arranged in advance. In fact, it was Hunt who had called Burns. The whole encounter had been brought about by a zealous listener who had wanted to ask Hunt some questions. Realizing he would get nowhere as a private citizen, the listener had written to Hunt in Burns’s name, inviting Hunt to go on the program. The letter-writer had even sent Hunt a list of questions. Burns only gathered this from what Hunt said — but he had never seen the duplicate list of questions that the listener had sent to him. (Burns figures it was lost somewhere among the thousands of letters he receives each week but scarcely kv ks at.)
Now, with Hunt on the line. Burns felt he had to pretend he had the questions at hand, so that the millionaire wouldn't discover the invitation had been a fake and hang up in anger.
Somehow. Burns sweated his way through it all, faking a knowledge of the questions until Hunt got talking volubly. And Burns's listeners heard Hunt hold forth on such subjects as his own boyhood and his theory about restricting the vote to people who pay the most taxes — all apparently without realizing their hero had been in trouble.
So many of Burns’s long-distance
THE MOUTH THAT ROARS continued
Burns can “fire” any sponsor not delivering what’s promised
calls have been successful that he now tries to have two or three items underway at once. As soon as the daughter of a Montreal woman was kidnapped in West Germany. Burns was on the phone to Bonn. Munich and West Berlin. Though he didn’t get results for a day or two. he managed to achieve great suspense with each call. And. in the end. his persistence paid off. He received a tip-off from Germany that the child had been found. It was a scoop that beat the Montreal newspapers by several hours. During the same period. Burns was talking to the brother of a man whose body had been shipped from Vancouver to Blind River. Ont., for burial. The coffin arrived after the funeral service. And only then did weeping relatives discover it was a bizarre case of mistaken identity, for when the coffin lid was raised, the corpse turned out to be a stranger.
As the man in control of that cutoff switch and the guy who can scoop the big-city newspapers just by picking up the phone. Burns feels able to adopt one set of tactics few broadcasters would dare try: he bullies his listeners into buying his sponsors’ products. "Do what I tell you,” he’ll say during a commercial. Sometimes he also bullies the sponsors. A clause in his commercial contracts allows him to “fire” any sponsor who doesn’t deliver what Burns is promising — and he has done this, right on the air. One such incident has given rise to a $175,000 law suit. The plaintiff is the Bel-Air Rug Company, which claims that Burns's comments on the air ruined its business.
Bullied or not. many sponsors are eager to get on Burns's show and stay on. And in the eternal war over ratings, Burns is managing much of the same sort of success in Montreal as he enjoyed in Vancouver. According to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, CKGM's ratings have increased some 60 percent — from 35,000 listeners to 56,000 — in the period between November 1965 and May 1966. (However, at the same time, CJAD, which is the largest English-language station in Montreal, has maintained its audience of 150,000 listeners.) Burns, according to Stirling, is largely responsible for CKGM’s climb: the audience for one of his three shows has jumped from 8.500 homes to 18.500 in his first year at the station.
But one thing has been different for Burns since he moved east. Vancouver newspapers used to attack him. (In the Vancouver Sun. columnist Jack Wasserman dubbed Burns “The Mouth That Roared,” and his colleague, Mamie Maloney, complained, “We don’t bait bears anymore — just people.”) Montreal newspapers, on the other hand, largely ignore Burns (though the Star had a reporter spend a week digging into Burns's background so they would have “a file on him” ).
When Burns has suffered at the hands of the press, it has perhaps been because it’s easier to talk about his flamboyance and his booming voice than it is to commend the man for his
generally liberal philosophy and the minor wrongs he rights — like getting welfare cheques to people, making sure hospital workers are paid, getting a Negro child in a small Quebec town registered in a school that had previously denied her admission.
But such achievements impress the “ordinary” people who listen avidly to
Burns. And anyhow, it seems selfevident to them that the man is a font of profound wisdom. As one Montreal cab driver put it. “You’ve got to hand it to the guy. I mean, those professors take maybe a year to come out with something on one small part of a subject. And Burns has his opinions ready instantly.”
What Burns talks about most is smartening up members of city councils. legislatures, and parliament. “Push them. You are their boss,” he tells listeners. “Get them to work for you.” And, he also talks with mock serenity about his wishes for the coming year in Montreal, as he puts the knife through his first anniversary cake: "For all my detractors, I hope 1 bug you all for another year.”
At the moment, nobody’s betting he won’t. ★