Neil McKenty Live! The lines are still blazing
CJAD’s First-ever Open-line Talk Show
Covering the Olympics was an exciting adventure. It was a great time to be in Montreal and to be on radio. One of my indelible memories is strolling down to the Montreal Forum one night to watch gymnast Nadia Comaneci score a perfect ten. I was on the phone and on the air within ten seconds. Blackman and I never became pals, but I believe he began to respect me.
One day he called me into his office, sat me down, and asked me if I would be interested in becoming moderator of CJAD’s first-ever open-line talk show. I nearly fell off my chair. The program would run from 10 to 11 a.m., five days a week, and my co-host would be Hélène Gougeon, seasoned professional. (Her husband was a distinguish author, playwright, and Laurier biographer, Joseph Schull,) I was startled by Blackman’s officer, because I didn’t think he had that much confidence in me, and I certainly didn’t have that much confidence in me. Doing a daily talk show in Montreal, with all its conflicting and treacherous undercurrents, seemed to me a daunting prospect.
The day before the show was to debut Elvis Presley died. I say this not because I was a fan of Presley, but because his death was the topic of my first ”Exchange” program. Normally, I would not have chosen Presley, But Montreal was going nuts over his premature death of a drug overdose. There were candle light vigils and special charter flights to take fans to his funeral in Tennessee. I couldn’t ignore the impact of Presley’s passing. I did the only thing I could do. I took a contrarian view. I switched on the microphone and openly questioned why there was so much fuss over the death of an overweight, bloated, pill-popping singer with rotten teeth. You can guess what happened. The lines melted with outrage. the response was exactly what I had wanted. It demonstrated that (a) I had a lot of listeners, (b) many of them were young, which was great for advertising sales, and (c) any self-doubt I have had about generating calls was unfounded. The lines opened and kept blazing for the next ten years.
Thanks to my enthusiastic and intelligent producer, Trish McKenna and Holy Haimerl, it became one of the most exciting in the business – being plugged into a Montreal audience for two hours. We talked about everything from abortion to incest. One of the zaniest shows I recall was ”Driving With Your Mate,” – (neilmckenty.com/radio) – how to get along with your spouse while driving a car. Live radio is simultaneously exhilarating, intimate, anonymous, and enormously flexible.
The program which provoked the most uproar involved Brian Mulroney when he was still leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. He agreed to be a guest on the program, but his handlers informed me that one of the conditions of his coming on ”Exchange” was that he would not take nay telephone calls. To me, that made as much sense as going for a television interview on the condition that no one turn on the lights. The Toronto Star got wind of Mulroney’s conditions, carried the story on it’s front page, and by the time he arrived at CJAD he was in rage. I was ordered to the station manager’s office.
There was Mulroney, perspiring, red-faced, and yelling at me for embarrassing him politically. ”Why should I waste my time taking calls from English-speaking Montrealers?” he shouted, ”They are all bloody Liberals.”
But Mulroney was no fool. He knew that he had more to lose than to gain if he ducked the questions. So he stood up, squared his shoulders, flashed a wan smile, and went on the air. He took a dozen or so calls, almost all of them in his favor. Callers gave him both a warm and intelligent reception.
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