Journalism’s boy wonder turned the radio interview into a rounded, textured and vital conversation
Raised in Galt, Ont., educated at the University of Toronto, and weaned on small-town newspapers in Ontario and Saskatchewan, Peter Gzowski took Canadian journalism by storm. From the Toronto Star he moved to Maclean's, becoming, at 28, its youngest-ever managing editor. By 40 he was a national icon as morning host on CBC Radio. For three years in the early '70s, Gzowski channelled his boundless energy and curiosity into the groundbreaking national talk program This Country in the Morning. After an eight-year break for television and writing, he returned to his old radio time slot in 1982. His 15-year stint on what was then called Morningside cemented his reputation as the voice of Canadians. A heavy smoker for 50 years, Gzowski died in Toronto last week of emphysema at 67. On the following pages, Michael Enright, his successor as host both times he left radio and now host of CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition, offers his appreciation of Gzowski’s place in broadcast history.
It was Peter Gzowski who came up with the perfect description of a radio interview. He said it was like two people paddling in a canoe, each trying to go in the opposite direction. It was Peter Gzowski who came up with the perfect description of the radio interview because he was better at steering the canoe than anybody else. The politician sweatily trying to stay on message and the author chirping the title of his book in every breath could feel the interview moving into the tall weeds with Gzowski in command.
Before Gzowski, the radio interview was almost a set-piece encounter. With the glorious exception of Barbara Frum on As It Happens, most interviews were dignified and respectful, predictable answer following predictable question. Peter turned the long-form interview into a fully charged and rounded conversation that had muscle and texture and vitality. It was an irrefutable technique, and in a major way it transformed radio.
CBC Radio in the ’60s was in the doldrums. Seeded by the mythic BBC granary and planted in the shade of American commercial radio, the venerable old institution had lost its way. Listenership was anemic; programming was dull; it had become irrelevant. It was time to turn the thing around or let it go.
Peter didn’t save CBC Radio alone. Among other innovators were Frum and young producers like Mark Starowicz. What Gzowski did was bump radio into a new compass heading. He had a vision. The vehicle was a 9-to-noon daily program called This Country in the Morning. For three years starting in 1971, Gzowski presided over a cockamamie daily mix of interviews, music, quizzes, audience contests, weird monologues and oddball comedy. Peter took the radio to the listener. It was brilliant, and brilliantly original, and it worked. With a band of aggressive and slightly mad young producers, This Country changed the way radio was done. And in doing so changed the way Canadians listened to it.
Hosting a three-hour live morning radio program is like carrying a refrigerator up the stairs. Its like blowing up a lifeboat by mouth. You get up at 3 in the morning and dress in the dark or in the next room so as not to awaken your partner. At dinner parties you excuse yourself at 9 o’clock. You go to movie matinees with senior citizens or kids playing hooky. You start to think about sleep all the time, the way teenagers think about sex. The program is not part of your life; the program is your life. Peter Gzowski, in three years on This Country and then for a phenomenal 15 years on Morningside, did it day-in, day-out, year after year.
This Country made him the most famous and admired broadcaster in Canada, better known than the Governor General. When he left for television in 1974,1 was plucked from the editorial board of the Toronto Star and given the job of replacing the icon. It was like trying to replace Dave Keon as captain of the Leafs.
Peter and I had parallel though not contemporary careers. Small-town newspapers, magazines (including this one), radio here and there. But he was the icon; I was the upstart. He did things on the radio that would have been folly for anyone to try to imitate. His connection with the listener was at once immediate and intimate. He could—when he had to and it was not often—disguise or hide his boredom; boredom, never disdain. I could not. He radiated curiosity like the electric element of a stove. It was real. He genuinely wanted to know how the young girl in Gimli carried off the blue ribbon at the fall fair for her pickle relish. His enthusiasms were never forced, his compliments never rehearsed.
In the very early going of my tenure, the differences between the veteran and the new voice became embarrassingly obvious. He was warm and cuddly. I was edgy and confrontational. He was rural, small-town Canada. I was urban, big-ugly city. He was Uncle Friendly. I was Mister Meanie. When I was fired at the end of the first season, it was something of a relief.
Radio can reveal a lot or a little about a person depending on the confluence of a number of variables. The inflection in the voice, the response to a dumb answer, the pitch and texture of the way you read a script. Everything is nuanced, and it is the relationship between the listener and the host that makes those nuances accessible and understandable. In his years behind the mike, Peter revealed a lot about the country and his love of it and his knowledge of it. But he didn’t reveal an awful lot about himself.
Warm, engaged and affectionate on the radio, off-air he could be brusque, aloof, remote. In fact he was extremely shy. When I first met him, I was surprised at his physical mannerisms. I had expected him to stride down the hall in big lusty steps, swinging his arms and smiling broadly. In fact, he kind of shambled, shoulders hunched, head down, walking like a man wearing slippers.
Peter was highly competitive, even in his personal relations. He would bet on anything—a football game, a horse race, a by-election or the date of the first snowfall. One afternoon we were drinking at the Red Lion, the watering hole across the street from the clapped-out old CBC Radio building in Toronto. Peter asked me if I was any good at shooting pool. As a certified high-school dropout who spent many afternoons in smoky halls, I allowed as how I was not unfamiliar with the game. “Let’s bet,” he said. We agreed on $50 a game. I beat him four straight.
Repairing to the bar, Peter was obviously distressed. “Lets cut cards for the $200. Double or nothing.” I had never won $200 at anything in my life and wasn’t eager to let it go. But he pushed and we cut the cards. I lost the $200, then a further $200.1 learned not to bet with him again.
Peter and I were colleagues, not friends.He was a complicated man, hard to know and not given to confessional conversations. When we talked, it was rarely about radio but mostly about our days in newspapers. He loved newspapers and he loved the newspaper life. In his heart he felt himself to be a writer.
But his lasting magic was on the radio. It was formed in the little boy from the small Ontario town who hit the big city with ambition, grit, impatience, talent and intelligence. He made new trails, new pathways through the thicket, and like a little boy yelled over his shoulder, “C’mon, you guys, follow me.” As Dizzy Gillespie said of Louis Armstrong after his death: “No him, no me.”
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