Article: Phone-in radio is talk of the town

Another article from the archives.

Former Jesuit priest Neil McKenty is in his third year as the host of CJAD’s ‘Exchange’ – above right: Ted Tevan – An agressive style.

By JUAN RODRIGUEZ Special to
The Gazette Saturday, September 13, 1980

People say the darndest things. And one of the best places in the world to hear people talk, babble, argue and complain, live and on the air, in two languages, is Montreal.

It has no fewer than 14 daily phone-in radio programs. The mod­erators earn up to $40,000 a year for encouraging, putting up with and cutting off approximately 250,000 callers for two or three hours daily each. How about this from Ex­change on CJAD:

“Hello Neil, how are you?” “Fine, go ahead, you’re on the air.”

‘ “Neil, just one point. Have you ever noticed the uncanny resemblance between Claude Ryan and Abraham Lincoln? You know, the hooked nose, the deep sunken eyes…”

“No sir, it never struck me” ’’Well, it struck me!”

Some 55,000 anglophones demon­strate they’re a highly vocal minor­ity on Neil McKenty’s Exchange on CJAD, and jock-hustler Ted Tevan bullies callers to CFCF on Sports Rap for 30,000 late-night listeners.

About 5,000 insomniacs, lonely- hearts, and nightbirds while away the wee hours on CFCF’s Night Talk.

At 7 a.m., as many as 120,000 French-speaking listeners tune into the give-and-take on CKVL between former politician Yvon Dupuis and his callers. And 130,000 francophones spend lunch hours lis­tening to federalist politician Jean Cournoyer and separatist edito­rialist Matthias Rioux spar with each other and their callers to the same station.

Hotline snows are so popular that even CBM, the local CBC station traditionally near the bottom in audience ratings, gets the most lis­teners when it opens the airwaves on Radio Noon to the people for an hour at 1 p.m. with host Pat McDougall.

Hotline history

Montreal carved a niche in hot­line history with two of the most abrasive phone-in hosts ever heard — Pat Burns who’s now in Vancou­ver and the late Joe Pyne, popular in late 1950s and 1960s.

Today, with just the flick of the dial, one can hear Montreal talking and squawking almost all day long.

Unpredictable is the best word to describe the way callers approach topics for discussion — usually cho­sen from items in local newspa­pers.

Some people are regulars who leap to the phones before the issue of the day is announced. They call out of loneliness, outrage and a desire to be heard (tempered by a seven-second delay system). Poi­gnant, pugnacious — people have opinions on everything.

Controversy runs rampant: Have you had problems enrolling your children in English schools? Had any hassles baptising your infant? Are civil servants paid too much? Should women have to admit their age on official forms? Does the Ku Klux Klan have the right to set up an office in Toronto? Should boxing be banned? Would you rather live in another country?

In the absence of a separatist-fed­eralist brouhaha or other inflaming controversy like abortion and capi­tal punishment, there are always such stand-in subjects as your favorite song or vacation spot. And, there are always callers with fixa­tions on the resemblance between Abe Lincoln and Claude Ryan.

“I’m continually amazed by the enormous range and extraordinary calibre of callers,” says Neil McKenty, now in his third year moderating CJAD’s Exchange.

“I think there’s an awful lot of common sense out there, not just from PhDs but from the taxi driv­ers and the housewives” the latter group providing the bulk of his audience.

McKenty, 48, is a former mem­ber of the Jesuit Order who has been writing editorials for CJAD for a decade.

At an imposing six feet, he looks as though he’d be at home thun­dering from the pulpit.

Peaceful coexistence

On the air, he’s parental in a dith­ering way, contrasting with the punchier attack of rival Al Pervin of CFCF. McKenty professes peaceful co-existence with callers —  he points to the ratings as vindi­cation of his approach — but his exchanges can be sharp.

Recently, McKenty asked: “Do we really love our country?” A slew of folks called in to answer yes, by all means, but an immigrant put it succinctly: “I’m sick of hearing about the mother country. We should leave the mother country alone and work to make Canada beautiful.”

“Good point,” offers McKenty. “Why should we always be muling and puling about the mother coun­try?” The difference between Cana­dians and Americans, he says, is that while it’s difficult to find an American who cannot belt out The Stars and Stripes Forever, Cana­dians seem reluctant to sing O Can­ada because, he reasons, “we don’t know the words…”

By now, “the lines are blazing” and a caller gets on who strikes a raw nerve:

“I’d like to offer a somewhat neg­ative opinion on Canada. I came here from Ireland, eh, about 22 years ago and I’m a musician, eh, and I played this function at the Ritz recently and these Americans had no problems bursting into their anthem. Why can’t Canadians do it? Maybe it’s because the country is so dull. I get a little tired of people saying how great it is…”

“Well,” huffs McKenty, “I’d get a little more tired of people saying what a crock it is.”

“Maybe if we had a war,” says the Irish guy, “we’d have more character.”

McKenty cuts him off — some­thing he rarely does — and repeats the caller’s war statement testily.

“Normally I don’t consider the callers as enemies and I don’t describe Exchange as a ‘hotline’ show. The primary purpose is to give listeners an opportunity to reply to each other, not to me. Indeed, I’m stimulated by them. I usually leave the show more refreshed than when I started.”

McKenty started as a phone-in host almost by accident. He would chat about an editorial on air with a disc jockey and “the response to these off-the-cuff comments was so great that we decided to expand to take in the listeners.”

Like all talk-show hosts, he has his share of critics. He regularly earns the wrath of weekly Monitor newspaper columnist John O’Meara, who portrays McKenty as something of a flaming radical.

Then there is the issue of the seals. McKenty has come out in favor of seal hunters, claiming they have a right to earn a living.

“Every year I get into the same argument, but I don’t mind. I’ll get hit by a bus long before the protes­ters get to me.”

He also says he doesn’t get to know callers personally — “It’s not something I encourage” — and that he; doesn’t hear a peep from his west-end neighbors. “My wife hears from them though”.

Operator helps

Like other moderators, McKenty fields calls with the help of an oper­ator who screens them beforehand. “It’s not a question of censorship, but of selection. The operator is like a conductor in that she orchestrates the calls. You must have a variety of opinion or else the show would flop.”

Politics is more usual fodder on French hotlines than English ones. And the vicissitudes of unionism — bosses, pay, working conditions, strikes, you name it — are frequent grist for the mill. French phone-in programs reflect the growing polit­ical consciousness in the province over the past dozen years or so.

“Maybe that’s because politics isn’t an abstract thing for the Quebecois,” says Jean Cournoyer, co­host of CKVL’s Face a Face, the city’s most popular program. “Everybody has sufferered from and lived with strikes, so it’s natural to talk about unionism.”

No program reflects polarized political positions better than Facea Face, with former provincial cab­inet minister Cournoyer (currently mayor of Dollard des Ormeaux, the suburb where he lives) battling with separatist co-host Matthias Rioux.

“We conceive the show as a tav­ern conversation,” says Cournoyer. “We popularize the issues, if you will, so that people can understand them, and after we’ve chewed them up, we let people from the sur­rounding ‘tables’ join in.”

Cournoyer and Rioux, celebrating their third year on the air together this month, get along well off the air: “I’ve known him since 1965, ever since I was labor minister and he was head of a teacher’s union.”

Cournoyer, 45, former provincial Liberal labor minister, has been close to power and understands it. This is reflected by his razor-sharp arguments.

A wiry man with piercing eyes, he keeps a tight schedule. He goes through the newspapers — English and French — over breakfast, and usually arrives at the Dollard des Ormeaux city hall by 8:30 a.m. He’s as smooth handling suburban affairs over the phone as he is over the air. He heads off to CKVL’s Verdun studios about 11:30. He and Rioux enter the studio, armed with newspapers and clippings, without deciding beforehand what they’re going to talk about. The spontaneity and sharpness of their opinion have earned the respect of “listeners and so-called intellectuals alike,” says Cournoyer.

“We usually go for lunch together after the show. We enjoy a good man-to-man amitie because we basically respect each other’s opin­ions. We’ve learned there are cer­tain tones,of voice that we won’t tolerate from each other over the air.

“We tend to miss each other on vacation. It’s become a habit, this show; we simply must have this daily conversation to help us form our own opinions.”

Agree to disagree

Rioux asked Cournoyer to co-host the program in 1977 to help raise CKVL’s sagging ratings. “We had’ one major fight at the beginning. Matthias had invited Pierre Vallieres (the former FLQ separatist) on without consulting me. He asked me whether I wanted to argue about the choice over the air, so we had a bitter hour-long battle. Since then, we’ve both got to be in agree­ment over guests and topics.”

Cournoyer says the most tedious subject of discussion is the Cana­dian constitution: “It’s got to the point where we won’t discuss it unless either Canada or the prov­inces have something specific to say, instead of the generalities we hear”.

The most difficult part of the show is “making sense of those big headlines many of our listeners read in the Journal de Montreal. We try to find ways to explain the issues. And as many of our listeners have been involved in strikes and unions, they have very definite opinions because they really feel as if they make the news.”

Cournoyer says he’s amazed at how many male callers Face a Face attracts. “I don’t know where they come from. You’d think they’d be at work or at lunch.”

As for angry letters from listen­ers, Cournoyer smiles: “Matthias gets most of them, probably because he’s a teacher and many people don’t like to be told off by teachers.”

Ted Tevan isn’t a teacher, but his eight-year tenure as agent provo­cateur and radio advertising sales­man (his original trade in Kingston, Ont.) on CFCF’s Sports Rap is a local record for continuous hotline service.

Tevan, “between 40 and 50,” is mostly mouth. His aggressive attack is often predictable, yet he succeeds in making “the city of champions” (he coined the phrase) seem like a small town. With faith­ful operator Dan McGarrity in the control booth, Tevan directs low­brow drama, aided by the seven- second delay system that prevents listeners from countering his barbs with obscenities.

His head topped by a grey mop of hair, decked out in his three-piece Dorion Suit, he appears to enjoy his role as local mouthpiece and man- about-town. He makes public appearances (for charity as well as merchandise), kids ask him for his autograph. He frequents the places and uses the products he endorses.

Harold Waxman Tuxedo: “Claude Mouton (ring and hockey announcer) and I wore Harold’s tuxedos to the Duran-Leonard fight. Millions of people throughout the civilized world saw Harold’s tux via closed-circuit!”

Tevan conducts his show with the timing of a hitman.

He gets hold of a caller ,(you call, then Tevan calls you back) and asks: “I know you’re not prepared for this, but can you name me your all-time Expos all-star team?” The guy stammers the names of Cromartie and Carter, gets stuck, and Tevan intervenes: “Hold the line sir, we’ve got something important here.”

Ted and Dan have reached the owner of a restaurant, in the tiny resort town of Osawa, B.C., where a bunch of cherry pickers from Que­bec were ejected and subsequently attacked by town rowdies. The news story ran across the country on the news wires, with overtones of racism.

Say it ain’t so: hollers Tevan. “These are my people out there, we’re all the same people in this great country of ours!”

The restaurant owner explains that the cherry pickers were turfed out because of their unkempt appearance and were refused access to the salad bar because he felt they didn’t meet sanitary requirements. He’d do it to anyone, French or English, he says. “Sure, turn ’em all out if their- hair’s too long!” barks Tevan, “It’s your joint! But tell me that the local police are looking for the hooligans who attacked our fellow citizens!” Eventually, Tevan gets back to the poor fellow still holding the line: “Thanks for holding on.” Then he cuts him off. Then a caller com­plains about “all this crap” about the cherry pickers. Why aren’t we talking about the Expos?

Ted goes to town: “It’s in the news and we jumped on it: that’s what this show’s all about! This is a talk show that deals with life and sports. We can do without the Alouettes, the Canadiens, the Expos, soccer, golf, you name it, but we can’t do without life!”

The guy on the other end com­plains again and Ted finally cuts him off: “Aw c’mon man, don’t waste my time! Go waste your own time!”

The sequence ends with a caller who figures Tevan should’ve given the B.C. restaurant owner “a shot.” “He was fooling you, Ted, and it really made me angry. I’ve been lis­tening to your show for eight years and I’ve never called before, but this guy irritated me.”

“Sir, I can understand your feel­ings,” says Tevan with uncharac­teristic understanding. “But this is give-and-take radio. We called him up, so we don’t have a license to attack him.”

“I think he made a fool of him­self,” says the caller, “and I think you know it.”

“If he did, he did,” says Tevan quietly, with obvious satisfaction. “If you let people talk on, perhaps they’ll wind up saying more than they realize.”

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