City’s talk show king isn’t full of hot air

CJAD’s Neil McKenty is a former priest who’d rather reason than rant

By MIKE BOONE Gazette TV & Radio Critic

Montreal radio phone-in shows have always burned up the airwaves with fire-breathing demagoguery.

Classic phone-ins were character­ized by heated, only occasionally ra­tional debates. And any arguments that weren’t won convincingly by the host were abruptly terminated with the cheerful growl of “Yer gone!” and it was on to the next vic­tim.

Joe Pyne and Pat Burns at CKGM, John Robertson at CFCF, Ted Tevan at CFOX and CFCF — all brash, aggressive motor-mouths who entertained listeners by skew­ering callers.

And then there’s Neil McKenty — historian, biographer, former priest and good listener. McKenty is the voice of moderation, a man whose personality is anything but that of the stereotypical phone-in host.

‘On the patient side’

Every weekday morning from 10 to noon, 58,000 Montrealers are tuned to Exchange on CJAD to hear Neil McKenty engage in reasoned, low-key conversations with his call­ers and guests. In the six years McKenty has been on the air, Ex­change has become Montreal’s most popular English phone-in pro­gram — success which the host at­tributes to “the quality of our call­ers and the respect with which we treat them”.

“We invite people to call Ex­change,” says McKenty. “They’re our guests while they’re on the pro­gram. It would be pretty bloody cheeky of me to invite someone to be my guest and then dump all over them in the first minute. My procliv­ity is to be on the patient side.

.“In the years I’ve been doing the show,” McKenty said in a recent in­terview, “I’ve become much less ob­trusive in every respect — the amount of time I talk, the vigor with which I express opinions. I see Ex­change as an informational pro­gram with a high entertainment quotient. I’ve never wanted to do it as a classic hot-line show.” , McKenty’s steadfast refusal to become ringmaster of a radio three- ring circus owes as much to his own upbringing and personality as it does to his conviction that “hot-line is passe”.

Born and raised in small towns, McKenty was a latecomer to radio and has never considered himself a star. In a radio world dominated by gigantic egos and ruthless ambition, he is an anomaly.

“I got into the media quite late,” McKenty says. “There was never any time when I wanted to run a radio station. If I were 25, it might be a different ballgame.

Turned down $75,000 “But I have no goals. I’m enjoying life where I am. I’m doing what I want to do at a station where they let me do it.”

McKenty is well-paid for doing his thing. When CFCF tried to lure McKenty away from CJAD two years ago with a salary offer of $75,- 000, the Exchange host turned it down.

“Maybe it’s because of my Jesuit background or growing up in the lat­ter years of the depression,” McKenty says, “but money is not something I think about.”

McKenty and his wife (they have no children) live in lower West- mount, next door to Gazette car­toonist Terry Mosher. When he’s not spending leisure time chasing Mosher’s cats off his lawn, McKenty enjoys cross-country skiing and rid­ing his 10-speed bicycle along the trail that borders the Lachine Canal.

“My idea of a real ball,” he says, “is taking the 24 bus to St. Denis Street and going for a stroll in that part of the city.”

McKenty finally broke down a while back and bought himself a car. But try as he would, the Exchange host could not remember what kind of car he drives. This type of detail is not important to a man who “gets a bang out of the simpler things in life”.

McKenty’s ascetism is a reflec­tion of his background. Born in-the late 1920s in Peterborough, Ont. — he won’t be more precise about his age — Neil McKenty grew up, son of a hardware store owner, in the near­by town of Hastings.

The McKentys were Irish Roman Catholics in the heart of Anglo- Saxon Protestant Canada. McKenty still remembers attending Orange Day picnics at which demagogic orators (the forerunners of hot-line hosts) preached against the evils of Popery.

The boy who attended these fire- and-brimstone sessions because free ice cream was provided with the speeches emerged with his faith un­shaken and was educated at a Jesuit boarding school in Kingston.

Regular subject

McKenty subsequently took a bachelor’s degree in Canadian his­tory at the University of Toronto, a master’s in communications at Michigan and began a 15-year ca­reer as a teaching brother and, even­tually, ordained priest in the Society of Jesus.

Politics had been a regular sub­ject of conversation around the din­ner table of the McKentys, who were Liberals in a Tory province. McKenty had worked on the 1943 Liberal campaign. His interest in the career of Mitch Hepburn, Liber­al leader elected premier of Ontario in 1934, eventually resulted in a bi­ography, of Hepburn and, ultimate­ly, to a’departure from the priest­hood.

The Jesuits gave McKenty time off to write the Hepburn biography. By the time the book was published in 1967, he had begun to reassess his career.

“I had reached a kind of impasse in my personal and spiritual life,” McKenty recalls. “After a great deal of thought and discussion, I came to the conclusion that I could make a contribution in life in ways more productive than as a Jesuit.”

PR work on behalf of the Special Olympics in Toronto eventually led McKenty to seek a career in radio. He arrived at CJAD in October, 1972, as-an editorialist, succeeding Rod Blaker. As a unilingual On­tarian thrust into the tempestuous Quebec politics of the ’70s, McKenty had to fake it for a while.

“It took me some time to feel comfortable here,” he remembers. “I’ll be frank — most of my edito­rials were about’subjects I knew very little about. I knew a great deal more about Toronto than I did about Montreal.”

‘A bit concerned’

Eventually, McKenty learned the ropes and his contributions at CJAD were expanded beyond morning edi¬torials. His drop-in conversations on Andy Barrie’s mid-morning pro¬gram led to a 60-minute phone-in show, where McKenty was host with Helen Gougeon. In 1977, Gou- geon left CJAD and McKenty was asked to serve as host of an expand¬ed Exchange — an idea to which he was initially unenthsiastic.

“I was a bit concerned about maintaining a sufficient volume of calls,” he says. “If no one was call-ing on a hot day in July, what would I do? There’s a limit to how long I can go on editorializing about Rene Levesque and still make any sense.

“But overriding my reluctance was the absolute certainty that this was a great opportunity for McKenty and I could make it go. I lost no sleep worrying about that.”

McKenty needn’t have worried about lack of callers either. In the city where Pyne, Burns, Tevan et al burned up the phone lines and the airwaves, there is never a shortage of people who want to speak their minds on the radio. For two hours every morning, McKenty has nu-merous occasions to tell his listeners “the lines are blazing”.

Exchange has been a consistent ratings winner and McKenty has outlasted a succession of competi-tors at CFCF. Al Pervin, host of CF’s In Conversation from 1980- ’82, attributes McKenty’s success to two factors:

“McKenty has a fatherly image,”

says Pervin, currently anchorman of a CBC television newscast in New Brunswick.“That type of character, personified by Walter Cronkite, is very hard to project successfully.

“The other thing is his consist-ency. McKenty is always right there in a consistent format which people rely on and learn to trust.”

Another distinguishing feature of Exchange is the program’s careful screening of calls — a process de-signed to save the show from bores and cranks.

Getting through to Neil McKenty is not simply a matter of dialing 790-0991. The first voice Exchange callers hear is that of Holly Hai- merl, the program’s producer.

She restricts regular callers to once-a-week access to the show. Haimerl also asks callers what they intend to discuss with McKenty and will politely weed out calls that are not relevant to the day’s topics. She also tries to balance calls for a good mixture of men and women, old and young and pro and con opinions on issues.

Once callers get through to the host, they are assured of ample op-portunity to state their cases with-out getting involved in a screaming match with McKenty.

“The basic exchange on Ex¬change is not between the listeners and Neil McKenty,” says the host. “It’s between the listeners. If you set up the chemistry, the show goes on its own momentum and I’m al¬most on the sidelines.

“On the other hand, I’m in the en-tertainment business. There are thousands of people out there who never call the show. If I turn them off with boring calls, I’m dead.”

No personal problems

McKenty and Haimerl work hard to prevent the program from be-coming monotonous. Shows are planned a week in advance; and McKenty exercises tight control over subject matter.

During the planning for what McKenty called “a reluctant ex-periment” in which a psychic would be invited to Exchange, he made it clear to his producer that no callers asking personal questions would be tolerated.

“This show might be entertain-ing,” said McKenty, “but we’re not going to have poor, misbegotten souls phoning in to ask if they should move to Edmonton.”

The discipline of his previous ex¬perience as an historical biographer is evident in McKenty’s approach to his work on Exchange. He arrives at CJAD’s Fort Street studios week¬day mornings at 8 to begin two hours of preparation for the day’s Exchange.

“I can’t remember a day in the last six years when I’ve gone into the station reluctantly,” says McKenty. “Callers would pick it up quickly if I were taking a cynical approach to my job.

“I’m sure there are people who listen to George Balcan and switch the dial at 10 ’cause they can’t stand me. But what they get on Exchange is Neil McKenty — the genuine article. That’s not what they get on a lot of talk shows.”

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