Open-mouth radio: shouting stars

Allan Fotheringham May 16 1994

Open-mouth radio: shouting stars

Allan Fotheringham May 16 1994

Open-mouth radio: shouting stars

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

There are not many droll things about Lucien Bouchard, so the drollery must be supplied by those who encounter him. The funniest thing that happened on the Bloc Québécois leader’s trek through the wilds of Western Canada came from Vancouver hotliner Rafe Mair.

Opening his microphone to Bouchard, Mair announced that he wouldn’t be taking any calls from listeners (supposedly because he was afraid of the F-word, i.e. “frog”) and would conduct the entire interview himself. Those who know rollicking Rafe guffawed at this one, knowing full well that with the national media in attendance in his studio, the modest host wanted every single spotlight on himself. Thus was put in view a major feature of the life of British California: the ego of the open-mouth heroes.

Now manufacturing himself into a tribune of the people, Mair has spent more time than most trying to figure out what he’s going to be when he grows up. He was born to society, where his mother used to pen newspaper columns on the ladies who lunch. Boy Rafe tried law, struggled with it, got into real estate, turned himself a Liberal politician, then jumped to Social Credit, became a cabinet minister and finally vaulted to the supreme spot in B.C. civilization: shouting at people on the radio. He is now clearly out of his skull, his latest screamer his theory that British Columbia could and should separate.

There are a number of theories why the isolated province that pulls the mountains over its head is so obsessed with openmouth radio. Mair is given credit for killing the Charlottetown accord and electing the Reform crackers in British Columbia, just as Jack Webster before him supposedly could turn elections. Obscure ex-politicians become more famous than the premier once they get their gums into a microphone on a daily basis, a strange phenomenon not equalled in any other city.

One theory is that, as the retirement capital of the country, British Columbia has all these pensioners sitting around, not with a lot of money, able to get their free entertainment every day by picking up the phone and shouting abuse at one another. An Ottawa executive assistant, guiding his cabinet minister to his initial foray into Vancouver, advised him: “The first thing you’ve got to realize when you get off the plane is that everybody here hates everybody else.”

That is about true, out on the edge of the frontier, and hotliners aid the ambience by stirring up the hate. In other jurisdictions, small boys aspire to become lawyers or industrialists or rock stars. In Vancouver? Open-mouth radio host. Little old ladies hail them on the street and pit bulls tum and flee at their approach.

The way to—and from—politics is through the hotline. Mair, when he resigned as B.C. health minister, grabbed the mike and replaced John Reynolds who once, as a

loudmouthed but otherwise obscure member of the Tory backbench behind Joe Clark in Ottawa, was described in a headline as the MP who “stood head and shoulders below the rest.”

Premier MiniWac Bennett swiftly replaced Mair in the health ministry with the ducktailed Jim Nielsen, who was a former hotline host on the same station that recycled Reynolds in favor of Mair. Judy LaMarsh, when she left Ottawa politics in 1968, became a Vancouver radio host and was sued for libel by Ed Murphy, a testy broadcaster who was sent to jail for conspiring to offer a $100,000 bribe to a Social Credit cabinet minister who turned out to be the aformentioned Nielsen who succeeded Mair who succeeded Reynolds who later became, of all things, the Socred Speaker of the legislature. All clear?

Fat Dave Barrett, when the voters rendered him unemployed in 1975, was hired for $100,000 by the province’s No. 1 capitalist, Jimmy Pattison, to air his tonsils as a radio host. All of them owe their fame and fortune to Webster— The Mouth That Roared and also known as Blather McHaggis. Before he retired to his sheep he was making $300,000 a year with five months off.

Possibly the only Vancouver figure more colorful than Webster was the late Rene Castellani, a promotion manager for the most successful of the local stations, which grow more rich the more noise they make. He had a bright idea, to be the volunteer on a marathon flagpole-sitting stunt on behalf of his station’s favorite charity.

The only small hitch was that Castellani, after dark, would sneak down the pole and, on the way to his girl-

friend’s flat for a little dalliance, would drop off at the hospital to visit his ailing wife and stuff down her throat milkshakes laced with arsenic. Sent up the river for murder, he spent his weekends playing drums in the prison band, which called itself The Hangman’s Five.

It is clear that Lucien Bouchard missed the full flavor of the movement this time around. In other jurisdictions, handsome TV anchormen are the personalities in town, sometimes even a newspaper columnist. In Vancouver, open-mouth is king. The insults bounce off the mountains and echo across tranquil waters all the way to Victoria.

Visiting cabinet ministers must pay obeisance. Trudeau always went on Webster. Now the man who would break up the country goes mano-a-mano with a radio host who will not let mere citizens interfere and himself has an agenda for British Columbia to separate. It is appropriate that two equals meet.