Howard Dill of Windsor, N.S., once interviewed by Barbara Frum about his prize pumpkins, recalled: “She was one that didn’t hold anything back; she came out with whatever was on her mind.” CBC chairman Patrick Watson said that “she was so amazed by the skills and capacities of others that she could never see herself as a star.” Last week, when the host of the CBC’s flagship documentary show, The Journal, died of complications arising from leukemia, tributes poured in from across Canada, from the obscure and the famous. Frum’s death at 54 ended a 19-year radio and television career that set new standards for broadcast journalism and made her one of the country’s best-known and most respected figures.
Although few outside her family and close friends knew it, the Niagara Falls, N.Y.-born Frum had battled leukemia for most of her professional life—she was first diagnosed in 1974, only a year after she began her rise to national prominence as host of the CBC’s national radio currentaffairs program, As It Happens.
But the end came suddenly. On March 10, she interviewed novelist Mordecai Richler, who said afterward that he thought she had been running a fever. That night, Frum entered hospital, where she remained until the weekend of March 22, when she was allowed to go home. Journal executive producer Mark Starowicz said that her husband, Murray, a real estate developer, phoned to say that Frum was “really feeling much better and should be on the air in a week or two.” But at midweek, she returned to Toronto General Hospital, where she died at 12:25 a.m. on Thursday.
For the persistent, knowledgeable and sometimes abrasive interviewer who hosted 2,600 Journal episodes for an audience that ultimately reached 1.3 million homes, the praise was predictably lavish. Peter Gzowski, host of CBC Radio’s Morningside, said Frum was “an example for everybody who ever tried to do an interview.” Peter Mansbridge, host of The National, said that “for the vast majority of Canadians, Barbara Frum was the CBC.” Peter Jennings, the Canadianborn anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, said that “I always got the
BARBARA FRUM WAS A UNIQUE AND POWERFUL FORCE IN CANADIAN JOURNALISM
impression that she had her audience on her shoulder, because if you waited a while she always asked the question that you wanted to ask—she’ll be sorely missed.” Trina McQueen, the corporation’s vice-president of news, current affairs and Newsworld, the 24-hour news channel, recalled that Frum “must have made 100 phone calls a day”— many to troubled colleagues. Added McQueen: “In her book of life, she must have had a million acts of small kindness.”
The two people who played perhaps the largest roles in shaping Frum’s career were former Maclean ’s editor Peter C. Newman and Starowicz. Newman said that a few months after he became editor of the magazine in 1971, he was casting about for new writers when he came across a story that Frum had written for Chatelaine.
“I just called her on a whim and asked her if we could discuss some possible articles,” he said, “She came in with something like 10 ideas, all of which were good, and we assigned them all. But we didn’t get them all because she kept getting better and better ideas. What impressed me
was not her writing style, because she never was a stylist, but her research, which was indomitable. She really went at a subject with compassion, curiosity and integrity. She felt she had to write the truth—not just get the facts, but get the truth, which often is slightly different and a lot harder.” Frum deserted magazine journalism for radio two years later, but she and Newman became close friends. He recalled: “She would go to her beautiful home, which opens up into a ravine and makes you think you’re a thousand miles away from any city, and sit there amid all that beauty and the African art and the waterfall and talk in a very tough and realistic way about the poor and what needed to be done to raise the country’s social conscience. It should have been incongruous in
that setting but it wasn’t, because her dedication was real.” After he moved to Vancouver, Newman said, he returned to Toronto from time to time and had dinner with Barbara and her husband. “I would have preferred to talk about the Toronto scene, but she would literally debrief me about what was going on in British Columbia. I discovered
that I had to be on my toes and found myself reading up before I went to their house. I can’t think of anybody who had her combination of curiosity, compassion, integrity and dedication to her work.”
The hard-driving Starowicz entered Frum's life when the 45-year-old former Toronto Star reporter took over as executive editor of As It Happens on the day after New Year’s, 1973, and immediately began redesigning the program. Recalled Starowicz: “I inherited Barbara from the old format and we instantly did not get along. The new direction of the show led to serious conflicts. I don’t remember who was arguing for what, but you would not have thought this was a match made in heaven.” One day Frum called Starowicz and proposed that they meet in a restaurant midway between her North York home and the office to see if they could mend their differences. “We both ordered fries and gravy which neither of us ate,” said Starowicz. They argued for most of the afternoon but eventually agreed on the show’s design and objectives.
Over the next two years, Frum and the staff of less than a dozen pushed the audience to 250,000 from 69,000. Sometimes Frum brought home-made cookies to work. Other times she brought her five-year-old adopted son, Matthew, now 24, who had to be restrained from attempts to Xerox his face. (The Frums had two other children, David, now 31, an editor with The Wall Street Journal, and Linda, 29, a writer).
Starowicz left As It Happens for other radio assignments, but in 1980, when he was hired to help design The Journal as its executive producer, he tried to recruit Frum. “We were going to have to do thousands of interviews at the last second without being able to brief the host,” he said, “and she was the only person in the country who had the track record to handle that. But she took one look at the studio we were building, all the
lights and cables and ladders, and turned me down. She said, ‘All that stuff scares me. There’s just too much of it.’ For two months, I kept at her. Then one day I said, ‘Barbara, this program is going to be television’s Normandy invasion and you’re not going to be there.’ That did it.”
For the next 10 years, interspersed with trips to the hospital for blood tests to monitor her leukemia, Frum set a torrid pace, often encompassing 13-hour days at The Journal. “It would be easy to assume that we were all helping her along in her last days, but are you kidding?” said Starowicz. “It was exhausting trying to keep up with her. Her conversation was filled with ‘wows!’ and ‘goshes!’ and she started every day as though she faced opening night. She could watch four TV monitors and listen to two radio stations at the same time.”
After she finished the Richler interview on the night of March 10, Frum called Starowicz at home. “She said, ‘I’m really, really feeling run down. I’m not feeling good at all. I want to go home.' I told her to go ahead, the show was done. I said, ‘Take care of yourself and for God’s sake get some rest.’ She said, ‘Thank you.’ Those were the last words I had with her. I just can’t get used to the idea that she won’t be there on Monday.” On April 5, a memorial service will be held at Toronto’s Massey Hall at 3 p.m.
In a 1988 interview, Frum said that she was inspired by endurance— “by people who know that they were born to die and all that matters is how they do in the meantime.” She had a clearer idea than most people of when she would likely die, and in 19 impassioned, hectic, pioneering years in Canadian broadcasting, she made unparalleled use of her time.
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