Denny Boyd talks about his radio experience:
It began with another of those fateful (there is no other word) telephone calls. A lady named Lil, whom I had been seeing worked at the Grosvenor Hotel, which had the radio station CJOR in the basement. The station manager, Don Wall, remarked one day that he missed my column and wondered what I was doing. Lil told him I was doing nothing. He asked her to ask me to give him a call. I did and he invited me down to the station. Within an hour he hired me to write and read three sports editorials a day at more money than I had ever made newspapering. I knew I had gotten away with writing columns while I was drunk. I knew I couldn’t get away with it on radio. So I had to quit. And I had help.
Just prior to getting that job, I was in the bar at the Top of the Marc, brooding into my gin and tonic, when I saw a female leg under the table next to me. I got down to check it out and met Robin. She was looking for a contact lens. We found it and each other. Like my first wife, Robin was a redhead from Victoria. Like me, she was divorced. She knew nothing of my drinking habits until one day when she dropped in unexpectedly and found me completely wrecked. Instead of running, she literally packed me to her apartment and laid down some law. If we were going to have a relationship, I had to give up my first love. It was the first time that the idea of quitting drinking made sense to me. So I put the plug in the jug and started a new career in radio. The irony is that going without booze was a snap. It was radio that gave me fits.
I have heard a number of reformed alcoholics testify that they first realized they were getting sober when they began to remove the dishes from the sink before pissing in it. Well, whatever works.
For me, the first tangible evidence of change when I quit drinking in 1973 was creative energy, fiery bursts of it. I wanted to do things, dozens of things, right now. Mostly, I wanted to write. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it. I wanted to prove it to the Vancouver media market. And I wanted to make up for all the time I had squandered in drinking over the past four years. I didn’t put myself through too much tortuous retrospection, but there were memories I wanted to put away in a dark room, with the door bricked up.
All the gin, all the scotch, had provided brief moments of false elation and short-term enlightenment. But the truth was as bleak and hurtful as the day-after hangovers: Through those four years I had been living in the lap of misery.
During one of my stays at Hollywood Sanitarium, an overburdened nurse asked me to help her restrain another patient, a truck driver, in what we called the Rubber Room. I literally sat on him for two hours while a strong sedative dripped into his arm through an IV needle. He howled and thrashed in delirium at the phantom images of seeing his best friend lose his brakes on a hill near Oliver and die in roaring flames. Later, when he was at rest, the dour, aristocratic owner of the place thanked me for the help. I thought to myself, “Great, I’ve finally impressed this snotty son-of-a-bitch.” Then he added, “You should know that when you came in, you were in worse shape than he was.”
I was kicked out of a very nice apartment for setting my mattress on fire in a drunken stupor.
Hired to five a speech at a kid’s sports banquet, I passed out in the men’s room.
One time, perhaps seeking my behavioural level, I took a room at a seedy Granville Street hotel, me and my bottle of gin.
I was awakened by a heavy pounding on the door. I opened it carefully, expecting to see a fellow lodger who had smelled a gin spoor. But it was two uniformed policemen, grim-faced guys. They demanded my identification. I asked why. One of them said, “We were doing a routine check of the registry. You signed in as Denny Boyd. He’s a journalist and he wouldn’t be in a dump like this. Who the hell are you?” Instead of being humiliated, I was indignant. “I am so,” I insisted and showed them proof. They went away, shaking their heads.
I almost died in Royal Columbian Hospital. My electrolytes were out of kilter and my kidneys were on the edge of failure. My mother was called over from Victoria.
It is unproductive to dwell on horrors like this, but their having happened, and the possibility of them happening again, can’t be ignored. Better to put them behind you, but close enough behind you that they can look over your shoulder and say “Ahem” from time to time, just as reminders.
There is no question but that I owe my life to Robin, for giving me an attractive ultimatum, and to Don Wall, for giving me a job when I was a risky proposition.
So for the next five years I worked. I did my sports work at CJOR. I wrote a sports column for the Georgia Straight. (The graphics artist who illustrated and pasted-up my column was Doug Bennett, leader of the rock group Doug and the Slugs.) I freelanced articles to the Sun, just to let them know that I was able to make deadlines.
My new energy sometimes overwhelmed my common sense, as in 1973 when I agreed to write two books—and to deliver the finished manuscripts on the same day. Taking on that double load was as insane as taking English 200 and 205 in second-year college.
The first book, for a small Vancouver publisher, was reasonably easy. It was to write a cookbook for single males, called Man on the Range, and based on some cooking columns I had previously written for the Sun’s food pages. The other book was much more problematic. It was to be the story of Vancouver’s long, frustrating quest for a National Hockey League franchise, the building of the Pacific Coliseum and the team’s first three seasons in the NHL. I did my research and had the book half-written when the Canucks’ story changed dramatically: one of the American owners, Thomas Scallen, was convicted in Vancouver court and jailed for illegally diverting team treasury funds and issuing a false stock prospectus. I had to start all over again, but it was a terrifically more saleable story. I suggest to McGraw-Hill that, under the circumstances, the title should be Pros and Cons. Too inflammatory. They had recently been duped and discredited in publishing Clifford Irving’s phony Hitler diaries and wanted to keep a low profile. The book was called The Vancouver Canucks Story.
Through the fall of 1973 I laboured on both books. Spring came. So did a gall bladder attack. I was in absolute agony one night while teaching a creative writing course at a west side high school. I went into the emergency ward feet first. The surgery some weeks later and the recovery put me on the disabled list for a few weeks. Finally, with an end-of-June deadline closing in, Robin and I took the five kids to a lovely cabin on Saltspring Island. Every day, from sunrise to spectacular sunset, I sat gingerly at a picnic table (the healing gall bladder incision still caused me to twitch with muscle spasms) with the cookbook manuscript to my left, the hockey book to the right and my typewriter in the middle and just pounded. I missed some glorious clamdigging but I got the two books whipped with a week to spare. I handed in the cookbook manuscript and had the hockey bundle, an original and three carbon copies, packed in a metal-edged box, ready for the mail.
Robin and I came home from dinner one night and I about dropped dead. There was no sign of a break-in, but the box with the hockey book was gone. I think I sobbed. An hour later, Robin answered the phone. It was the booknapper and he had a deal.
Actually, it was Robin’s estranged husband. They were on their way to divorce court and they were playing power games. Robin had gone to his townhouse and lifted a letter. He had come to our apartment and taken my manuscript. (He had managed to get his arm through the trapdoor where the milkman left the 2 per cent and unlock the door from the inside.) And now he wanted to make a swap. We agreed to meet him in the lobby of the Bayshore Hotel. From there we walked up Cardero Street to a white vw parked under the fifth chestnut tree from the corner. Rabin gave him his letter, he handed me my manuscript, even wished me brisk sales. On our way home, I kept asking myself, “Did Ernie Hemingway have to put up with this kind of aggravation?”
My two publishers held a joint book launch. It was low budget. I stayed up all night cooking enough chilli to feed all the invited guests. Both books sold about five thousand copies each and disappeared. I think I bought the last nine copies of the cookbook in a Granville Street bookstore, marked down to ninety-eight cents. As I paid for them, the clerk said, “Man, you must really like this writer.” I still have a framed McGraw-Hill royalty cheque for $5.67. I never cashed it; it was worth more as a reminder of the difficulties of book-writing.
Every day I came to work at CJOR. I never
really felt totally comfortable or properly placed in radio, but I knew I was
lucky to have the job. I thought about newspapers, but I knew that, in that
business, I had burned more bridges than the Russian army in the 1940 retreat
To my utter astonishment, quitting drinking was not difficult. I just did it. I didn’t have any nervous tremors, no heaving stomach. My nerves did not twang like banjo strings and they didn’t have to wrap me up in restraints, like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. And I wasn’t the least bit tempted to take a drink. My new employer, radio station CJOR, was in the basement of the Grosvenor Hotel which had a popular cocktail lounge in the lobby. Every day I passed that cool, inviting bar. I didn’t go in. I knew my old self was in there, thirsty, and I didn’t want to meet him. I walked past the bar five or six times a day and there was no magnetic pull. I had all I could handle, trying to learn radio.
My job, at first, was to write and read to tape, three two-minute sports editorials a day. The writing was easy. The reading was pure hell. Like every print person who jumps media, I wrote long, flowing, perfectly punctuated sentences. And then strangled myself trying to read them. I had to learn to write shorter sentences, with breathing spaces at regular intervals so that my untrained voice didn’t peter out into a thin wheeze in mid-sentence. But with the kind help of the station’s professionals, like Don Wall, John Barton, Neil Soper and Al Jordan, I began to catch the cadences and the timing, and things got better. In fact, everything got better.
Robin and I moved in together, into a West End apartment. And one by one, my five kids joined us. We had to rent another apartment on the same floor to contain the overflow. Very shortly, we rented, and later bought, a big house in North Vancouver with a stunning view and room for the seven of us. It was a hell of a challenge for Robin; she was less than ten years older than my oldest daughter and had never had kids of her own. On top of getting a risky husband and five instant kids, she held a responsible marketing job with Eaton’s.
I was learning radio at the height of the talk-show wars in Vancouver. Wall, totally dedicated to information radio, had assembled a powerhouse of yackers. The same day I started, Jack Webster moved into the morning slot, having been lured away from the rival CKNW by a rich contract and the creation of his own satellite studio in Gastown. There was Ed Murphy in the afternoon, Pat Burns at night and the late Chuck Cooke on weekends. They were a fascinating lot, quick thinkers, bellicose debaters, fuelled by egos that burned at the heat of liquid iron. Wall made a shrewd move, putting Webster in a studio across town; his ego grating against that of Burns would have imploded the entire building.
I did my six minutes of opinion and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out these guys. I was listening to Webster one morning while driving in and noticed that he sounded down. The Oatmeal Savage, as we called him, was thin gruel. On a whim, I stopped in Gastown and visited him. He was glum because he had no guests, no audience to play to. But my presence kicked him up a notch. Then two Vancouver cops dropped in for coffee. Now Webster had a live audience of three people and his program took off. I was to learn that insecurity is a daily crisis for all radio personalities.
Burns was the undisputed father of talk radio in Vancouver and had, in fact, patented the term “hot line”. Possessed with a brilliant mind, a memory like a blotter, hard-right conservative views and a voice like lump coal rumbling down a steel chute, he brought in the advertising revenues that fuelled CJOR long before Webster was hired. Burns didn’t have to worry about playing to an empty studio, he had to worry about constant death threats and CRTC ultimatums. And he was really a sweet, friendly guy, except when he had an open mike in front of him or had drunk his lunch. One afternoon, Neil Soper grabbed me and said, “Come on, Denny, we have to get Pat out of there.” Burns had been on air for five minutes, four of which had been filled with commercials on orders from Soper, who had realized Pat was bombed. Burns stood barely five-foot four-inches tall, a fact that amazed people familiar with the voice but meeting him for the first time. It always amused me that when he was shaking the air, his feet weren’t touching the studio floor. This made our evacuation job easy. Soper took one arm, I took the other and we lifted him up and out like a piece of light-weight furniture. Burns didn’t protest when we took him to his office, and I was proud of my part in averting a disaster. Then I was horrified when Soper said, “Denny, get in there. You have to go on for him. And don’t tell anyone that he’s drunk.” I settled in front of the microphone—my feet didn’t touch the floor either—and saw a note that I was to talk to a maverick Liberal MP in Calgary. I had never heard of the guy but I faked my way through the interview and then opened the lines. Every caller wanted to know where Burns was and why the pismire from the sports department was talking politics.
I secretly hoped to stay with ‘OR long enough to get my own talk show, not because I felt I was born for it, but because I knew that was where the big money was. But filling in for Burns was not the way I had planned to ease in.
The year before I joined the station, Jimmy Pattison, the multimillionaire owner, had bought a hockey team, transferring the franchise of the Philadelphia Blazers of the new World Hockey Association to Vancouver. The NHL Vancouver Canucks were doing dismally and Pattison, with no previous experience in sports, figured a new team in a new league would run the NHL out of town. God, was he wrong.
At Pattison’s request, I attended one of his board meetings and learned how big business works. He was grilling some of the Blazers executives he had inherited. At one point he asked a young marketing man, “Ron, how are we doing on that discount ticket deal with McDonald’s?” Ron said, “Oh great, Mr. Pattison. I talked to Arnie at the Fraser Street store and he’s really interested.” The temperature in the room dropped forty degrees. I swear frost formed on the walls. Pattison’s senior directors looked at the floor, waiting for the death sentence. Pattison swung around in his swivel chair a bit and then said, “Ron, this is the Jim Pattison organization. We don’t talk to Arnie. We talk to my very good friend George Cohon, the president of McDonald’s of Canada.” Ron was on his way back to Philadelphia by the end of the week.
The Blazers, a collection of retreads and overpaid rookies, were a bust, but they were an interesting experience. This was at the height of the free agency movement, when players in all professional sports were throwing off the iron chains of contract bondage and were auctioning off their talent to the maddest bidder. Pattison asked me to find him a public relations mouthpiece who could handle the hostile Vancouver media. I couldn’t find anyone so I took the job myself, splitting my work day between the radio station and the team offices at the Pacific Coliseum. Joe Crozier, an experienced NHL coach, was brought in as coach and general manager, and a clash was inevitable. Crozier was old-school, adopting the martinet methods of his mentor, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach. Imlach and Crozier had had the big hammer: just one big league and a lot of minor leagues where recalcitrant players could be banished until they learned to follow orders without question. It had worked for years and made players not much better than indentured slaves. But now there was an alternate league, players were hiring agents, money was falling out of the sky and players of dubious talent were learning to tell coaches to go pound salt up their asses.
I lasted one season. The Canucks killed us by putting together a superb team that won its division and sold out 15,300 seats for every home game. The Blazers were lucky to draw six thousand no matter how many tickets we gave away. One night, before a late-season game, Pattison frowned at me and said, “Denny Boyd, you’re my friend. How could you let me get into the hockey business?” A few weeks later, Crozier called me into his office and said, “Lad, they’re panicking downtown. Two guys are on their way out here to fire you. Don’t give the bastards the satisfaction.” I didn’t. I wrote out my notice and went back to radio full-time. During the off-season, Pattison moved the franchise to Calgary.
But the great radio adventure wasn’t over. Wall phoned me one morning and asked me to come down to the station.
He and Soper, the program director, had a bunch of program tapes piled up on a desk. Wall said they were going to turn Vancouver upside-down and that I was to be the tosser.
The tapes were from a Los Angeles talk show called “The Female Forum,” hosted by a purring-voiced guy named Bill Ballance. What the program was was a sex clinic. You know, just the run-of-the-mill stuff like mutual masturbation, multiple orgasms, impotence, foreplay, having it off in bathtubs filled with lime jello.
The show was a sensation in L.A. Wall was sure it would go over in Vancouver. He needed a new voice. Mine. It would run from 12:30 to 3 P.M. There would be a nice raise in it, lots of technical support, plenty of lead time to make sure we got it right. All I could think about was having my own talk show. I should have given more thought to the sex-in-the-jello warning, or that Greater Los Angeles had 120 radio stations and that any kind of programming could find a niche in La-La Land. I should have twigged when my wife laughed herself breathless when I told her I was going to do a program about sex problems.
They told me nothing could go wrong, that Vancouver was changing and was ready for frank talk about sex. To make sure the first show got off fast and hot, we salted it. We primed all the young women in the station to call in to brag or complain about their lovers’ performances. That got us though the first forty-five minutes. After that, a silence so complete I could hear traffic going by on Howe Street. And that was just the first day. On the second day, the organized hostility began. I was called a sexist pig, a filthy degenerate, a threat to women, children and possibly to small farm animals. People who couldn’t get through to me jammed the phones at Pattison’s head office, demanding that I be taken off the air. At the end of the first week I couldn’t hold food down. Wall said we were right on course for terrific ratings.
The program lasted six months. We tinkered and toned it down but the program was doomed. Vancouver simply was not ready or willing to talk about sex in anything but discreet whispers. Fortunately, my belly gave us an out. I had to have surgery to remove an inflamed gall bladder. While I was out, CJOR scuttled the program.
It had nothing to do with work but Robin and I split. There was no bitterness, no name calling, no attempts to damage each other. It just seemed that the odds against the marriage caught up with us. The age difference was a major factor, as were our dispositions. Robin was ambitious, hard driving, wanted to set goals and acquite things. I was revelling in mellowness and unwilling to set targets or make long-range plans. And the challenge of Robin becoming step-mother to five teenages overnight was just too daunting and caused too many domestic arguments. When pushed to take sides, I inevitably took the sides of the kids.
We worked out the divorce sensibly, split the cost, sold the house and shared the proceeds. I bought a townhouse in North Vancouver and became a single father. It seemed to work out for everyone.
The next damned thing to go was my pancreas. All that gin I had drunk in the preceding years had turned the poor thing to a lump of non-functioning stone. I was always tired, constantly as thirsty as the Gobi Desert. I blamed it all on work stress. But at breakfast one morning, former Canucks hockey coach Hal Laycoe watched me pound down two glasses of ice water and two of orange juice with my eggs and said I had all the symptoms of diabetes. Blood test proved it. After getting the results, my doctor called me and said, “Your’re the walking equivalent of a raspberry popsicle. Get yourself to Vancouver General as soon as you can. I’ve booked a bed for you.”
I said, “I’ll get there as soon as I can but traffic is heavy.”
He bellowed at me over the phone, “Call a cab. Don’t even think about driving. You could go into coma.”
They put me through more tests, pulling blood and muttering numbers that didn’t mean anything to me. And the next day, the Hospital Employees Union struck the hospital, removing all the nonmedical staff. The Teamsters honoured the HEU picket line so no fresh food was coming in. The bad news was that we had to make our own beds and most meals were thawed hamburger patties and Kraft Dinner, not the wholesome food needed to regulate my runaway blood sugar levels. The good news was that I was inside a struck hospital and was able to feed CJOR”S newsroom with the only live coverage from the inside. On one report, I complained about the food shortage. My friend Hy Aisenstat, owner of the best steakhouse in town, had a complete steak dinner smuggled into me. The next day there were two picketers outside his restaurant. On the fourth day, I answered my bedside phone. A very weary voice said, “Mr. Boyd, this is Dr. Edwards and I’m calling to apologize. Usually we give new diabetics a complete indoctrination program. But with all this, the clinic is closed and I hope you’ll bear with us.”
I told him, “I can understand that but the nurses have been great. Yesterday I injected an orange and today I gave myself my insulin shot, right in the arm. Tonight I’m going to shoot it up in my butt.”
He said, “That’s terrific and that’s a good way to start. But you realized that it will be more complicated when you’re released.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, perhaps they haven’t told you yet but after the first few shots, you have to start injecting the insulin through your penis.”
I fairly screeched. “Is this a rib? Who the hell is this?”
His voice got hard. “Mr. Boyd, I have a struck hospital. I have no clinic staff. I can assure you I have no time for jokes.”
I apologized and asked him to go on. My knees were up around my ears.
“You’ll be surprised. It won’t hurt that much. The new needles are very sharp. Just make sure you space the shots, and try to keep a straight line. Eight shots should do it.”
“Eight shots,” I croaked. “Space ‘em, straight line. And after that?”
“After that we’ll send a piccolo player around to teach you to pick out a few tunes on it.”
It was then and only then that I knew I had been had by Vancouver’s most notorious practical joker, the diabolical Murray Minions. That night, my blood sugar reading was off the chart. The nurses couldn’t figure out why.
Maybe I would have bluffed and blundered my way through an entire career in radio (many have), but I rather doubt it. Not blessed with a sonorous voice nor the quick glibness required for talk radio, I reached the peak—actually the foothill—of my radio potential quickly. I knew I would not get better. I knew I had written some good sports editorials but I didn’t know if anyone was listening. I had the creepy feeling my mark on radio would always be summed as “the guy who did the kinky sex show.” The money was still alluring, and Wall was one of the greatest men I ever worked for, but I was restless. I needed another of the improbable alignments of the stars that had rescued me in previous years. What I got was not a miracle, it was a tragedy. I didn’t get another momentous telephone call; this message came by radio.
I was driving home in North Vancouver one night when I heard a CJOR news reader lead off with the announcement that Jack Wasserman was dead. He had collapsed, in a tangle of microphone wires, with a massive heart attach while giving a witty speech at a roast for logger-politician Gordon Gibson in a downtown hotel ballroom. Wass was dead before he hit the floor.
I went home and wrote a tribute to Wasserman and dictated it to the station. I was in shock. So was the whole town. Jack was fifty years old. But his were fifty roughly used years. He smoked heavily, drank too much, slept too little, ate like a foraging wolf and was kept in a constant state of stress by the demands of his five-a-week column. A few weeks before his death I had met him backstage at a fund-raising telethon. He told me then that he had suffered severe chest pains during a recent trip to Montreal. “No big deal,” he said. “Keep it to yourself.”
After a decent interval, I began getting calls. Friends, old colleagues from the Sun, suggesting I apply for the job. I made no such move but I received a note from Stu Keate. He said he had heard from enough people that I wasn’t drinking, said it was “time to come home,” and suggested a discreet lunch. Keate didn’t want it known that he was shopping the job around so he suggested we meet outside the office, at one of his favourite Italian restaurants. It just happened to be the place where all the wheeler-dealers who ever made Wasserman’s column met to eat, drink and tell lies. And when we slipped into our table, there was a gabby radio reporter at the next table. The next morning it was reported on radio that I was returning. But in fact, we didn’t have a deal. Jack Webster had taken me aside, told me I was dealing from strength and told me to price myself accordingly. When Keate asked me what I wanted, I said I wanted what I was earning at CJOR, a car and a secretary-researcher. I was ready to toss out the secretary demand, but it was on the car that Keate balked. He said it was against company policy, but I knew that most Pacific Press executives were given company cars. CJOR had provided me with one and I wasn’t about to buy my own just to change jobs.
Negotiations bogged down. Finally Keate suggested an intermediary, my old pal Fotheringham, the reigning star of the paper who had been my Monday replacement the first time I tried a cityside column. Keate said, “I think you two old jocks can settle what you and I can’t.”
No chance. Fotheringham met me for an early morning breakfast at the Hotel Vancouver. Foth was not well, sleepless and faintly green with hangover. He had just arrived on an early ferry from Victoria and told me he had been up all night drinking scotch with Bill Bennett, and that “Bill wouldn’t go down.” I felt actual pity for him as I watched him push aside most of the cheese omelette he had ordered. I learned a good lesson that morning: never try to dicker with the hung over. When I reiterated that I wanted a car he snapped, “The Sun isn’t a radio station and we aren’t asking you to deliver a milk route for Jimmy Pattison.”
I have no idea what he told Keate but very shortly I received a gracious letter from Keate, offering the car and the requested salary for five columns a week, four on the news pages, one on the food pages. When I told Don Wall, he said he was delighted for me.