On the afternoon of Saturday, November 2, as the CBC celebrated 60 years of public broadcasting, I was exposed for the first time to the Peter Gzowski phenomenon. Inside Mother Corp.’s marble mausoleum on Toronto’s Front Street, women and men in their fifties climb on perimeter railings for a better look as the cheering begins. Gzowski, in a worn, pale-green sweater and grey slacks, has just shuffled slowly into the atrium and is greeted by the applause of about 500 people. Less a mere radio journalist than a strangely revered, white-bearded, bifocaled sexagenarian pop star.
Gzowski is not comfortable with the crowd’s attention and heads for cover in one corner of a makeshift stage adorned with a piano and assorted sound and video equipment. Minutes later, the show begins.
“Good morn…whoops, afternoon, everyone. I’m Peter Gzowski and this is Morningside.” Cue soothing and familiar piano intro. The error was likely deliberate, although weekday morning radio is all Gzowski has known for 15 years. The crowd follows Gzowski’s summary of plans for the two-hour special broadcast with more noisy approval. The first hour, which involves a musician in each of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax, will “bring the country together musically,” he says. After hearing a version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Gzowski continues to settle in.
“We’re not used to leaving time for applause,” he says while receiving comments from the control room. With tremoring hands, Gzowski combs his hair quickly as three techies adjust the headset that wasn’t secured adequately. His quaky nerves are understandable. Gzowski is not accustomed to fretting about appearance or habits. He would rather be three floors up in the studio where he sits every day as the engine that drives Canada’s most popular radio program.
The atrium crowd is equally out of place, but happier about it. While they’re most comfortable with Gzowski’s voice in their living rooms and dens, a daily companion and friendly provider of current events, they’re eager to meet their Peter in the flesh. At last, in the wide-open atrium, he can be seen as well as heard, a tired, self-conscious, 62-year-old radio host who created a unique broadcasting love affair, and now, one and a half decades later, is ending it with his decision to depart Morningside this spring.
When he leaves the stage, Gzowski is swarmed by admirers hoping for a word, a handshake, some deeper insight into their friend. “It freaked him out,” says Shelagh Rogers, Morningside‘s fill-in host. “People wanted to be close and touch him.” Hype and fantasy surround every pop star and Canada’s Morning Man is no exception. When he finishes his last show in May, he’ll be remembered as the country’s best-loved radio journalist – warm, cordial, unthreatening and genuinely, unfailingly interested in people. That’s the legacy of the on-air Gzowski. The off-air professional leaves a somewhat different impression.
On a Wednesday in early January, Gzowski takes his seat in the studio a minute or so before 8:05 EST, when the show commences live on the east coast. Everyone – from the host to the technicians to the listeners in Glace Bay – is waiting for the signal. “This is the longest minute of the day,” says one of the three studio assistants who sit in an adjacent room to keep Gzowski and the program on track. It’s a standard Morningside lineup: the business column, a talk with Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest, the New Brunswick report, a discussion of flagging CD sales, a chat about artificial blood cells and, wrapping up, listener letters with Shelagh Rogers. On this day, however, Gzowski is battling flulike symptoms. His assistant, Shelley Ambrose, provides him with fresh coffee during a break and heads to the control room.
“How’s he doing?” Ambrose asks studio director Marieke Meyer.
“He’s shaking all the time and says his bones are aching,” Meyer replies.
“Why would he come in?” Ambrose asks the room aloud in a tone of annoyance.
Gzowski plunges into the phone interview with Charest but has difficulty penetrating the politician’s shell of well-rehearsed responses. After the call, he describes the interview in one word over the studio intercom: “Unsatisfying.”
Ambrose is busy being nursemaid to her boss. “Shelagh’s gonna host tomorrow and Friday and he can see the doctor this afternoon,” she tells the control room, calling Gzowski’s illness “a walking pneumonia.”
Listening, one would never know how ill Gzowski was. Through the pounding head and congested lungs came that same interested voice, the easy manner, the rambling conversation that has made him the most engaging of interviewers – an interviewer who approaches a discussion with Brian Mulroney the same way he would one on cooking beaver meat – by asking the questions the listeners are asking themselves. (Gzowski has said there is no better compliment than being told he has done this successfully.) His lack of smoothness (“Can I ask a dumb question?”) and apparent naiveté (“I don’t quite understand”) sound reassuringly ordinary and spontaneous to the folks out there. They don’t know, or care, that in fact these are Gzowski’s subtle techniques for relaxing his interviewees and eliciting more meaningful and lively responses.
The Gzowski touch was evident in his interview with neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in the fall of 1989. Sacks, on Morningside to discuss his new book, Seeing Voices, about deafness in children, was awkward and restrained at first but Gzowski quickly broke the wall down. “Can I ask you some simple-minded questions?” he said. “Because this is not a simple-minded book. Where does language come from?” Far from being a no-brainer, the question galvanized Sacks. A lively conversation ensued about personal contact and communication and their importance in a child’s development. (While discussing the evolution of sign language, Gzowski revealed to listeners that both men were “waving their hands furiously” as part of the give and take.) Sacks, subsequently on Morningside to promote another book, has said of Gzowski: “I’ve never had an interviewer give so much to me.”
When the pink light goes off, however, the “giving” stops. Granted, the Gzowski I watched in the studio that day required antibiotics and rest and had every reason to be withdrawn. But an earlier interview revealed him to be the same: remote, morose, put upon – his whole demeanor, from trudging gait to inanimated eyes, a surprising contrast to the inquisitive, friendly radio persona. To some extent it’s a hazard of the job, or at least that’s the party line. His unsociability is a matter of public record – in Knowlton Nash’s book on the CBC, Cue the Elephant!, Gzowski acknowledged his “limited capacity” for talking to people outside the show. Friend Stuart McLean, host of CBC’s Vinyl Café, says, “He doesn’t have the energy to be in public what he is on radio.” Because of the pressures that come with celebrity, adds Shelagh Rogers, “there have to be two Peter Gzowskis. You have to protect yourself.”
It’s just that there are stories, a lot of stories, floating around about people who’ve encountered something more in the other Peter Gzowski than just the reticence of
a talked-out, over-exposed man. He’s renowned for making his in-studio guests feel about as welcome as lepers, turning the folksy charm on – and off – with the mike. “I’ve been on Morningside twice, and both times I was struck by the difference between his on-air and off-air personalities,” says one. “On air he was warm and friendly. Off air, he was indifferent. I know he has all kinds of information to synthesize – I understand that. But it would have taken very little to be warmer and more welcoming.”
Gzowski’s heard the criticism before and defends his behaviour as necessary. “I have to turn my head from one subject and mood to another,” he explains. “I’m preoccupied. I don’t want to go through the questions twice, I don’t want to leave it on the dressing-room floor.” Which prompts the question, how much of Gzowski’s interest in people is an act? “I would say none,” he replies. “Some people would say a lot. A certain amount of feigning has to be involved, but if you feign long enough, anything eventually becomes interesting.” It’s the host’s job to “suck people in,” says journalist David Cobb, a Morningside listener and longtime acquaintance of Gzowski. “Sometimes you have to perform.” He recalls talking to Gzowski a few years ago about a spot he’d heard him do on classical music. Cobb thought the interview was wide-ranging and informative and told Gzowski that both host and guest were fabulous. “He was very boring,” Gzowski replied. “You have to remember one thing: on radio, it’s all acting.”
Peter Gzowski came to the theatre of radio through print journalism. In his early twenties, he contributed to many newspapers, from The Timmins Daily Press to Moose Jaw’s Times-Herald, before moving over to magazines. He quickly established himself as a feature writer for Maclean‘s, and so impressed the management that in 1962, at age 28, he became the magazine’s youngest-ever managing editor. At the same time, Gzowski began to dabble in radio. His first documentary, for CBC Radio in 1964, was called “How the Beatles Changed the World,” tracing the evolution of the band and its effect on pop music. He continued to climb the magazine ladder, heading The Star Weekly until its demise in 1968. The following year, he assumed the editorship of Maclean‘s. It was a heady era for the ambitious “Boy Wonder,” as the 30ish Gzowski was tagged. Whether it was tossing coins against the walls in the Maclean‘s offices, volleyball and basketball games on Toronto Island with the magazine literati or being known as the best editor of the best magazine in town, Gzowski’s desire to win was legendary.”Gzowski would enter a room and his whole demeanor would say, ‘What’s your game, I’m here to play,'” says Toronto Life editor John Macfarlane, a Maclean‘s staffer at the time. “He wanted to write better than anyone else, do anything better than anyone else.” Jack Batten, who was a writer on Maclean‘s under Gzowski, says he was a demanding taskmaster. “He didn’t just want the best magazine in Canada, he wanted to make Maclean‘s the best magazine in the history of the world.”
An unlikely dream, perhaps, given that the young Gzowski, tending to be sharp-tongued and abrupt, had no patience for nurturing writers. Author Sylvia Fraser, who wrote for The Star Weekly at the time, says Gzowski was a magnet for good writers and could get them to write better than before. However, “he was not good at teaching anyone the basics. He tended to surround himself with people who could do the job. If you couldn’t fit in to that, you fell off the cart.” That’s one interpretation; others have stronger words for it. One freelancer recalls sitting in Gzowski’s office while he scrutinized his story queries, feet deliberately on desk. “He made rude remarks about them and dumped a few in the wastebasket,” he says. “He had the smarts, but not a sense of how to treat people with some kind of respect. I got the impression quite readily that he could be a son of a bitch.”
You’d be inclined to dismiss that as sour grapes from one who “fell off the cart,” until you run into other hints that the nice guy we hear on the radio was not so nice. While describing his boss as “innovative, radical and ready to embrace new ideas,” former Maclean‘s writer Alan Edmonds admits that “he could be a put-down artist.” Put down was exactly what journalist Pat Annesley felt after interviewing Gzowski in 1969, about his appointment as Maclean‘s editor. In such a tumultuous time at the publication (there’d been a rapid turnover of editors), she asked about his deal with management.
“He said, ‘I really want to tell you. But this is off-the-record for the next two minutes. Put up your hand and promise for the next two minutes you are not a reporter.'”
“I said, ‘Sure,'” Annesley explains. “I was genuinely interested anyway.”
“He was about to speak, and then stopped himself. ‘Nope, you’ll write it anyway,’ he said. And I said, ‘No I won’t. If I say I won’t, I won’t.'”
“Then he said, ‘Well, if I were you, I would.'”
Conflicting standards of professionalism. But what kind of pro would doubt a writer’s word, then mock her for keeping it?
Gzowski admits to having a certain arrogance in those days. “I may have given off that feeling,” he says. “I was a cocky young pup.” But, he points out, “[Arrogance] can at times be a case of shyness.” In fact, one of his buddies, writer Martin O’Malley, says that it’s shyness that causes Gzowski to dismiss people coldly. “He’s then misinterpreted as a snob, which he’s not.”
But really, how shy is a guy who leaves the behind-the-scenes world of magazines for a career in radio hosting? After seven months as editor, Gzowski parted company with Maclean‘s, the magazine that marked both the peak and the end of his full-time print journalism career. In 1971, at 38, he and CBC producer Alex Frame co-created the revolutionary This Countryin the Morning and the country discovered the power of Gzowski’s companionable voice. The show was a classic even before it left the airwaves three years later. As Frame, now director of programming for CBC English radio, says, “You were hearing the country talking in a witty, insightful way.”
The success of This Countryin the Morning led CBC management to offer Gzowski the nine to noon chair again in 1982, when Don Harron quit as host of Morningside, but not before Gzowski’s quest for excellence and national attention made him take a dangerous detour into television. The infamous experiment known as 90 Minutes Live struggled through two seasons of criticism, much of it superficial, focussing on the host’s appearance and mannerisms rather than the program’s substance. Gzowski, who suddenly had to fret about climbing pants and exposed shins, was battling insecurity, the “tremendous insecurity that comes with being such a household name,” says Selena Forsyth, one of the ill-fated show’s editors. “If he fell down, the world was going to know.” She got the feeling the reason he rarely took a break from hosting wasn’t so much workaholism, but fear that the world might think his replacement was better. “He wants to keep that edge.”
To lose the edge as badly as he did on 90 Minutes was humiliating and humbling for Gzowski. “It helps the maturing process to screw something up badly,” says Gzowski. “I’m a lot easier on myself and others than I used to be.” Indeed, both Alan Edmonds and the burned Maclean‘s freelancer have noted the difference in dealings they’ve had with Gzowski in recent years. Still, if Gzowski has mellowed, as he feels he has, why are the majority of the colleagues and acquaintances I interviewed afraid to speak frankly about his off-air personality? When people will not even talk off the record for fear of “repercussions,” for fear of jeopardizing their careers or their relationship with this powerful man, it makes you wonder whether Canada’s easygoing broadcaster is more than a little sensitive to criticism.
Sylvia Fraser recalls that Gzowski had the humour to “take criticism and say it about himself,” yet was simultaneously “thin-skinned and could be surprisingly hurt.” Rumours of hurt arose when Geoff Pevere, former CBC Radio host of Prime Time, told his audience of younger listeners four years ago that “if you are bad you will go to hell. And if you go to hell, you have to listen to Morningside 24 hours a day.” His program was subsequently replaced by an evening hour of Morningside reruns. This past fall, Gzowski had Pevere on his show ostensibly to flog his new book, Mondo Canuck, but also to squash the stories that he had “reacted” to Pevere’s slight. “I only thought it was funny,” says Gzowski of the hell-is-Morningside statement. “I didn’t help to get him fired. [The rumour] was out there in the world and I wanted to bring it up.”
The result was a bemusing bit of radio, with Gzowski assuring Pevere he didn’t go “screaming to somebody and say, ‘Get that young whippersnapper,'” and Pevere assuring Gzowski that he knew he would have “laughed” it off – all of which served to draw even more attention to the alleged incident. Pevere says now, “It was not a wise career move to be anti-Gzowski at the CBC. The fact that taking a dissenting opinion on Morningside is so controversial is more revealing than the opinion itself.”
Whether or not Gzowski “reacted” to this particular criticism, it’s apparent that many people believe him capable of lashing back. If there’s any truth to the tales of Gzowski’s thin skin and nasty temper, it may go hand in hand with the enormous self-doubt and need for acclamation that comes from being a celebrity. One source theorizes, “He’s been too long in the public eye. At the radio he needs a lot of upkeep, a lot of catering to, a lot of stroking. To accept that from other people is very isolating. You cease to self-edit.”
Few, however, take anything away from Gzowski’s on-air professionalism. Even his dissenters, self-censored or not, make the point that he’s very observant, intelligent and a damn good journalist. Friend Stuart McLean credits Gzowski with putting out “a magazine every day.” But that might be stretching it a bit. Let’s not forget there’s a large team of researchers and producers who plan the shows, dig up the stories, write the questions and prep the interviewees. Gzowski, while participating in story meetings and reading extensively to prepare himself, is there to ask the questions. And if he has the reputation of being a “soft” interviewer, rarely challenging his guests, Gzowski doesn’t want to hear it. “The too-friendly criticism is made too often,” he says. “People confuse politeness with friendliness.” Certainly, where he excels is in drawing people out by allowing a tightly structured interview to wander from the plan. “He’s a natural on-air,” says his colleague Shelagh Rogers. “And he couldn’t be that natural if he wasn’t such a good journalist.”
But is being a skilled host the same as being a good journalist? Some people have a hard time making that leap. “It’s only conversation – how can that be journalism?” asks magazine writer and novelist Barry Callaghan. “He’s the consummate radio performer and moderator.”
Gzowski bristles when asked if what he does is journalism. “I don’t know what that means,” he says with irritation. “I never set out to be a journalist.”
Not at Morningside, that is. But he did indeed set out in life to be a writer, and even now, on air and off, defines himself as one. Since making the break from print journalism in the early seventies, he’s written four nonfiction books and an autobiography, The Private Voice. Lately, his writing is confined to a light, folksy column in Canadian Living magazine and the occasional preamble at the beginning of Morningside. “I think he senses he’s not spent a lot of time being a writer,” says Sylvia Fraser. “As a broadcaster you ask questions, but you don’t take them into considered analysis. You don’t do the other half.” She thinks Gzowski feels a certain frustration over not having pushed himself harder to realize his early journalistic ambitions. But everything came too easily and fast – from newspapers to magazines, from print to broadcasting. “He got waylaid too long from being a writer,” says Fraser. “He did not pursue what would have been his first love. When you listen to Peter, you hear an edge of regret.”
If not a journalist, then what is he? “A communicator,” she replies.
Sitting in a cramped listening room of the CBC Radio archives, I hear Gzowski attempting to define his life’s work as well – 23 years ago, on June 28, 1974, the final day of This Country in the Morning. His voice breaking with emotion, he said, “I’ve learned that journalism, or communication, or whatever it is we do here, is a two-way street. And the people who taught me that are the people who listen to the program.”
It is a comfortable irony that this man of words should be such a poor communicator with people in the flesh, yet speak so eloquently to the nation from a distance. Whatever regrets ensued, whatever directions it changed, Morningside has allowed the insecure, arrogant and talented Gzowski to project the best possible image. No doubt it will prove to be his strongest and most lasting one.