Geoff Stirling – Report on Business Magazine

Report on Business Magazine
December 2004

Small, Lennon, the gods and ME

Geoff Stirling pioneered TV in Newfoundland and FM rock across Canada.
The next goal for the last media maverick? Reincarnation

Susan Bourette

The lights are up, the cameras are in place and a microphone is clipped
to the sweater of the man who is at once mogul, mystic and prankster.
Geoff Stirling is ready for his close-up. It’s the latest take in The
Geoff Stirling Story, starring Geoffrey William Stirling, produced,
directed, written and lived by the selfsame Geoff Stirling.

The show has been in production for almost a half century, ever since
Stirling erected Newfoundland’s first television broadcast tower and
began transmitting shows like Hopalong Cassidy.

Here in St. John’s, they joke that Geoff Stirling is 4 million years old
and 17 feet high. But in person, he’s utterly human. Standing 6 feet
tall, he’s thin, “all skin and grief,” as the locals say, and all the
more so dressed in black save for the red bandana around his neck and a
silver crop of bedhead that lends him the worn chic of an aging rock
star.

At 83, Stirling knows the production can’t go on forever. There’s only a
decade or two left to tie up loose ends. The rushes have been seen only
by friends and family — and by late-night viewers of Stirling’s NTV,
the dominant station in Newfoundland and an increasingly popular
diversion elsewhere via satellite. In the episode filming tonight, the
unwitting guest star is a writer from this magazine.

“Sit down right there, honey,” Stirling commands in a lilting voice,
pointing to the chair next to his at NTV headquarters, a low-slung
building on the edge of the Atlantic, a 10-minute drive from St. John’s.
“I hope you don’t mind the camera,” he says. Before I’ve had a chance to
answer, he’s bellowing to the technician, “Mike, have you got her in the
centre of the frame?” I see my head bobbing in a monitor. I can’t help
noticing it’s not a flattering look — slack-jawed, eyebrows hoisted in
italicized disbelief. “Okay, we’re ready to roll,” he thunders. Never an
enthusiastic performer, I meekly ask, “Mr. Stirling, what are you
planning to do with this?” He leans in close with a wild-eyed stare and
points to my tape recorder. “What are you planning to do with this?” he
asks with mock incredulity. Then he stretches his mouth into a wide, sly
grin.

It’s just another day at the NTV funhouse, a station unlike any other in
the country, or perhaps the world. The corner office likewise is
occupied by a media mogul unlike any other, one who diverts a
conversation about corporate strategy into reflections on crop circles
and reincarnation. At one point, Stirling declares, “I am whole.

I am perfect. I am unlimited.” But the singularity goes beyond the man’s
passions and persona: Stirling is the last of a breed, the independent
broadcasters who pioneered privately owned television in Canada (see
“Local moguls sign off,” p. 43). In a business now subsumed into a
handful of media conglomerates, Stirling is a lonely lion in winter.

For decades, Geoff Stirling ruled as if the island were his personal
media fiefdom. He didn’t enjoy a monopoly, to be sure, but Stirling was
the dominant player, with major outlets in print, radio and television.
Today, he serves as chairman of privately held Stirling Communications
International — an enterprise he oversees from his ranch in Arizona
when he’s not in St. John’s. His holdings include a printing business
(Stirling Press) and three province-spanning platforms: NTV, rock radio
station OZ-FM and The Newfoundland Herald, a once-scrappy tabloid that
is now largely a television and entertainment guide. His television
station is the only one in Canada with deals to broadcast both CanWest
Global and CTV programming, much of the former imported from the U.S.
Indeed, although Stirling fulminates about protecting Newfoundland’s
cultural sovereignty, he’s made his fortune by broadcasting American
shows such as Survivor, The Apprentice and The Young and the Restless.

Still, there’s no denying him his reputation as a trailblazer.

His TV station was the first to broadcast 24 hours a day in North
America, and he is credited with revolutionizing the FM radio dial in
the late ’60s. A 1974 documentary in which he co-stars, Waiting for
Fidel, is a cult classic, credited as the first “stalkumentary,” an
influence on the likes of Michael Moore.

“Geoff Stirling’s been a visionary,” says Rex Murphy, the CBC
broadcaster and fellow Newfoundland native. “In many ways, he was a
somewhat awkward anticipation of Moses Znaimer.” A visionary is bound to
run into static and interference, and these days the noise is coming
from all sides for Stirling. He’s in the fight of his life with the
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC),
which is demanding NTV produce more Canadian content than ever before.
OZ-FM, meanwhile faces fiercer competition for rock listeners. And The
Newfoundland Herald is losing eyeballs to on-screen TV-listings
services: Its circulation has tumbled by more than 50% since 1997, to
20,000 across the province.

He’s also confronting bigger powers in TV who would love nothing better
than to fold Stirling’s profitable venture into their own empires.

He’ll wage those quixotic battles in due time. Meanwhile, there are
hours of programming to fill. That’s why, in the early morning hours a
week after our meeting, my phone rings. It’s Stirling, informing me that
my interview with him — largely unedited and including more than a few
cuss words and testy exchanges — will be beamed across the province at
3 a.m. Talk about reality TV. I didn’t even sign a waiver.

The Geoff Stirling Story has played out in episodes like the one I
wandered into — vignettes captured almost surreptitiously, aired late
in the Newfoundland night and then immediately archived for “the time
capsule” (Stirling’s term). The story stretches back to the time before
television.

Reel 1. Establishing shot: Wide angle of Stirling in his early 20s,
lying on an embankment beside a swamp in the Honduran jungle.

It’s 1946. He’s dressed in hip waders and has a rifle at the ready.

He’s a long way from home, fresh out of university, doing an improbable
thing for the sports-star son of a St. John’s restaurant owner.

But it was here, in Honduras, that he had the vision. It came down from
the sky while he was hunting alligators — stacks of tightly bound
newspapers. Stirling wondered: If The Miami Herald can get all the way
to readers in the Central American jungle, why can’t I get a newspaper
to the outports of Newfoundland? Stirling didn’t much like shooting
gators for the shoe-and-handbag trade anyway. He headed home with a
scheme to launch his own tabloid.

He’d already developed a taste for journalism, having worked as a
stringer for Time and the Chicago Tribune while studying pre-law at the
University of Tampa.

Back home, his plan met with a collective sneer. Among the most vocal
skeptics was the journalist and politician Joey Smallwood.

How could Stirling succeed, Smallwood pressed him, when his own paper
had folded? Stirling told him: “Joe, you’ve got nothing but politics.
I’m going to have ghost stories and comics and all kinds of stuff.” With
a start-up fund of $1,000 that he’d saved from working at his father’s
restaurant, Stirling purchased 60 tonnes of newsprint from Smallwood’s
defunct paper and launched The St. John’s Sunday Herald, a striking
alternative to the St. John’s dailies, the Evening Telegram and the
Daily News. For the first four years, he wrote practically everything in
the 100-page weekly save the letters to the editor. To build readership,
he had the Herald air-dropped onto the ice floes where sealers toiled
for long stretches during the winter hunt.

“I think the Herald’s beginning says something about the cornerstone of
Geoff’s thinking,” says his son, Scott, who, although he took over the
operational reins at the company 15 years ago, still relies on his
father as counsellor and corporate persona. “He’s always been a free
spirit and a freethinker. Somebody once said that while people typically
have two or three voices going on in their head, Geoff must have eight
or nine. He just sees things that other people can’t. He’s not afraid to
try something everyone else believes will fail.” The Herald hadn’t been
around long when Stirling waded into a debate over nothing less than
Newfoundland’s destiny: Should it become part of Canada or not? He and
the Herald joined forces with some of the island’s most prominent
businessmen — led by Ches Crosbie, father of future federal minister
John Crosbie — in an anti-Confederation crusade. To the
anti-confederates, the best option for Newfoundland, which had been
reduced to a virtual ward of the Crown by years of hardship, was
economic union with the United States. Stirling threw himself into the
cause: When he wasn’t lobbying senators in Washington, he was
proselytizing in the Herald.

It was a battle his side nearly won. Newfoundland became the 10th
Canadian province in 1949, but with just 52% of voters having opted to
join Confederation.

Reel 2. Establishing shot: Medium shot of Premier Joey Smallwood sunk in
a red leather chair. Seated beside him are his friends Don Jamieson and
Geoff Stirling. They raise a glass in a toast to a new beginning.

It’s the early ’50s. Stirling has licked his wounds and put behind him
the bitterness over his beloved Newfoundland’s fall into the embrace of
the Canadian federation. Although he’d worked to defeat Joey Smallwood
and his plan, the two men bonded thanks to their shared love of their
newly minted province.

It was a time when politicians and journalists freely associated with
each other and made common cause when their interests coincided.

Along with Jamieson, another vehement anti-confederate who would serve
as political minister for Newfoundland in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet in
the ’70s, Smallwood and Stirling formed a powerful triumvirate in
Newfoundland’s new era. In a place that had long been ruled by a few
merchant-class family dynasties, the three men were eager to exploit the
power shift that came with Confederation.

Stirling and Jamieson, the latter well-known in the province as a radio
announcer, dreamed of a broadcasting empire. They planned to bring their
own radio station to the province (which had only the CBC and some small
religious outlets on the air), to be followed by a television station a
few years later. Smallwood smoothed the way with federal regulators so
that Jamieson and Stirling were granted their licences for TV and radio,
both with the call letters CJON.

Stirling then went to CBS-TV in New York, cramming an in-house, two-year
television course into six weeks. By the summer of 1955, his station was
on the air; Jamieson was featured as news anchor, seeding his political
popularity. Nationally, CJON joined the loose band of independents that
would eventually form the CTV network.

Stirling’s monopoly lasted until 1962, when the CBC was granted a TV
licence.

He spent two decades building his empire, picking up radio stations (or
sometimes contracts to run them) across Ontario and Quebec.

In the mid-’70s, his TV station took the novel step of broadcasting
around the clock. Night-owl viewers didn’t know what to expect — they
might catch licensing hearings or the company Christmas party, or one of
the heated dialogues between Stirling and Smallwood, often on the same
themes as their National Film Board documentary, Waiting for Fidel. (The
two never do get to interview Fidel Castro; while they’re waiting, they
talk.) In these wee-hours exchanges, Stirling, the free-enterpriser,
took the right-wing position; Smallwood, the onetime socialist, the
left. Spurred on by a few bottles of Blue Nun, they would often debate
till dawn.

Stirling’s outlets championed whatever cause inspired their proprietor.

Still sniggering over Stirling’s claims to have been cured of rheumatoid
arthritis by liquid gold injections, few Newfoundlanders paid attention
in the early ’70s when he got on his hobbyhorse about gold again, urging
them to buy the stuff, as he’d been doing. Stirling says he’d got an
insight from talking to a man in Tahiti: Prices had to go up. True. The
price of an ounce of gold sank as low as $35 (U.S) in 1970; by 1980 it
had soared as high as $892 (U.S). Stirling made a killing.

Memorial University business professor Dan Mosher says Stirling’s
attempt to share the wealth says something about the man. “Any other
individual might simply worry about amassing more for himself. But
[Stirling has] always tried to help improve things in his own way for
the people here.” Reel 3. Establishing shot: A studio booth in London.
Inside, there are four people: Scott Stirling, his father, Geoff, Yoko
Ono and John Lennon.

It’s 1969, shortly after the Beatles have released Come Together, a
Lennon number that began life as the campaign song for acid-guru Timothy
Leary’s intended run against Ronald Reagan for governor of California.
The song, cryptic though it was, mesmerized Geoff and Scott, a Lennon
fan. From the Londonderry Hotel, where the two were staying on vacation,
Stirling telexed a note to Lennon. It said, “I’ve heard your Come
Together. So here I am. Geoff Stirling.” A few hours later, they were
seated in Apple Studios, recording the first in a string of interviews
with Lennon that Stirling would later broadcast on his Canadian radio
stations.

“I look back on that first interview and I realize how profound it was,”
Scott says. “It was a philosophical discussion about the forces of good
and evil, and how Lennon was trying to use his music to socially improve
civilization.” Stirling used it to revolutionize FM radio in Canada. By
the late 1960s, FM radio was a profitable niche offering easy-listening
and light classical music. Stirling was determined to turn his stable of
stations into a different form, one already reverberating south of the
border — “tribal radio.” His Montreal radio station, CHOM-FM, was the
first such experiment in Canada. It was the quintessential hippie FM
rock station, a smoky crash pad where listeners could tune in for an
hour and never hear what time it was, let alone a word about sports or
the weather.

One of Stirling’s new crew took to the airwaves and cast the I Ching for
four hours to figure out if the format change would work. There were
endless spins of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, interspersed with meditation
chants and discussions on cosmic consciousness.

Jim Sward, who later became president of Global Television, was 24 when
Stirling hired him to run his mainland radio operations from Montreal.
“We were a mix of those on a social mission and button-down,
professional broadcasting types like myself,” Sward recalls. “Somehow
the professionals co-existed somewhat harmoniously with this group of
goddamned hippies.

“Geoff was so courageous. He did do things that offended and disgusted
me. He can do things that are hurtful. But I’ve never met another person
with that kind of charisma. I have great affection for him and if I saw
him now, I’d give him a big hug.” Listeners in Montreal were impressed
too. The station’s novel sound gave CHOM a lock on the teen and
young-adult market. Stirling introduced the rock format to the rest of
his radio empire, which swelled to 13 stations, including CKPM in Ottawa
and CJOM in Windsor.

Reel 4. Establishing shot: High atop a mountain in the Himalayas in the
’70s. Holding beads and wearing long flowing robes, Geoff and Scott
Stirling are seated in the lotus position next to a swami, in deep
meditation. Cue sitars.

Just as his stations devotedly played Lennon’s work, so did Stirling
follow the Beatles up the mountain, embracing Eastern mysticism,
meditation and the same group of holy men.

The search for meaning was inspired by the spectre of death. Scott was
20 when his doctor found a large lump in his neck and diagnosed
Hodgkin’s Disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. A second doctor
told him not to worry: It was a cyst. Scott headed for India, wanting to
believe his second doctor and hoping that medical treatment could wait.
Geoff followed him a month later.

“Geoff told me that he was going to devote all his energy to finding a
cure for his son,” recalls Sward, Stirling’s radio boss. “He left and I
didn’t see him for nearly a year.” During the trip, war broke out
between India and Pakistan, and the Stirlings found themselves stranded
for months. As bombs dropped around them — and with Scott’s health at
the forefront of their minds — they began to seek out India’s holy men
for answers.

“We went through that together and I think it changed me and it changed
Geoff. That’s why India was so significant to both of us,” Scott says.
Father and son both became ardent proponents of yoga and meditation.
Scott believes it was his conversion to vegetarianism that prevented the
lump on his neck — which was in fact a cancerous tumour — from
growing. His cancer went into remission.

After the India trip, Stirling was wont to spontaneously show up at CHOM
with his swami and put him on the air. But Eastern religion was no mere
dalliance for the Stirlings. Clicking through the corners of the NTV
website (ntv.ca) can resemble a lecture in world religions, with links
to New-Age websites and Stirling’s self-published book, In Search of a
New Age. The NTV site also features a Stirling father-and-son creation,
a comic-book spiritual superhero called Captain Newfoundland, who fights
evil with telepathic powers and a keen understanding of the collective
consciousness. The backstory is that Captain Newfoundland is descended
from divine creatures that once inhabited the lost continent of
Atlantis, now the northern tip of Newfoundland.

Scott believes that daily meditation is crucial to steering the family
empire. “This job demands a lot of concentration and a lot of focus. I
think the business has benefited from my meditation.

I don’t think that either Geoff or I could live without it.” The two had
to rely heavily on their practice in 1977 when tragedy struck. Scott’s
19-year-old sister, Kim, was killed in a car accident.

It was a life-changing event for the elder Stirling.

“When that happened, I think Geoff reassessed where he was,” Scott says.
“He thought: What’s this all about? Do I want to just keep expanding? Or
is there something more to life than this?” Stirling consulted his
family, asking them what assets they wanted him to keep. But his family
left the decision to him. Stirling sold off all of his radio stations on
the mainland and retreated to Newfoundland.

Reel 5. Establishing shot: Close-up of Geoff Stirling in the St.

John’s studio. The clicking sound of a camera shutter fills the
otherwise silent room. Stirling’s smiling, but he’s not happy.

The photographer is politely asking Stirling to work with him, but he
proves to be a reluctant subject. If these were promotional stills for a
Stirling production, he’d be more co-operative. But, no, it’s a shoot
for the magazine that you’re reading. It’s one thing to star in your own
biopic, it’s another completely to yield creative control.

The photograph really isn’t what’s bothering Stirling though.

It’s something the lens can’t capture, something happening behind the
scenes. The office is a flurry of paper and faxes. Today is the deadline
for the next round of documents to be filed with the CRTC explaining why
NTV can’t possibly meet the regulator’s demands for increased Canadian
content.

The CRTC is fiddling with NTV’s broadcast day, effectively shortening
the time period in which the station has to air its allotment of
Canadian content. The way NTV sees it, it’s vicious and punitive.

Under the regulator’s new rules, the broadcast day goes from 7 a.m.

to 1 a.m., instead of the formula of 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. that’s been in
place since the 1970s — a concession from the CRTC that allowed NTV to
take advantage of simulcast opportunities despite its unique time zone.
The upshot is that the station can no longer count its early-morning
newscast toward its Cancon quota. NTV will have to generate more
programming, and that won’t be cheap.

And it could put a serious dent in the new hybrid model that NTV has
become. Today, not just Newfoundlanders, but some 1.3 million people
between Vancouver and St. John’s — and as far south as the Caribbean —
watch NTV each week.

Adding satellite transmission to conventional signals, NTV started
broadcasting continentally in 1994. In 2002, its growing
non-Newfoundland audience led to a parting of ways with CTV, of which it
had been an affiliate. Paul Sparkes, a spokesman for CTV parent Bell
Globemedia Inc., says that while NTV wanted to keep airing the network’s
top programs, it didn’t want to show the corresponding national
commercials.

So NTV was competing with CTV for both viewers and advertising.

“One reason our relationship with NTV is different is because one-third
of its audience is now outside of Newfoundland,” Sparkes says. “They are
competition in a way that they weren’t before they went to satellite.”
Still, CTV continues to allow NTV to air news shows such as the evening
national news and Canada AM, in exchange for NTV news reporting.

So the network that NTV most resembles now is Global — a lot of shiny
American imports and a few perfunctory domestic productions, done on the
cheap. The local content consists of news programming and
live-entertainment shows like the surprisingly addictive Karaoke Idol
(which is just what it sounds like, filmed in a bar) and George Street
TV (sketch comedy featuring two comedians, a couch on the sidewalk and
whoever happens by).

Stirling could, of course, pledge to do more and better original
programming. But the best-behaviour face that private-sector
broadcasters put on to satisfy the CRTC has a nervous tic in Stirling’s
case — his tendency to mouth off.

It’s true too that Stirling’s causes these days don’t have the historic
sweep of the battle over Confederation. He has used his media machine to
promote various New Age ideas and to lobby the producers of Survivor to
locate the next edition of their show on Kellys Island, an uninhabited
scrap of rock near St. John’s. But he does still take on matters of
public policy, calling for the renegotiation of Newfoundland’s Churchill
Falls energy agreement with Quebec and decrying another Labrador deal —
the one the province struck with Inco for the Voisey’s Bay nickel
development. In 2002, Stirling suggested that members of the provincial
legislature who voted for the Voisey’s Bay deal should face criminal
charges.

“I’m not anti-anything. I’m just pro-Newfoundland,” Stirling says of his
pronouncements. “Communicating is everything. I am in the unique
position to have the opportunity to contribute to the culture that’s
unfolding here.” But the line between Stirling’s role as a media owner
and his role as a citizen is too faint, according to Noreen Golfman, a
board member of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and a professor of
English and Film Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s. “He owns
the station and uses it to promote his own ideology,” Golfman says.

“He’ll get right on television himself to say what Newfoundland should
be doing, or what Canada should be doing. Just imagine if [Bell
Globemedia president] Ivan Fecan did the same. It would be a huge flap.”
In a place that’s still rich with shared family history, where the first
question is always, “Who do you belong to?” the answer in Geoff
Stirling’s case isn’t so clear. Who is going to defend his interests
now? In another era, a phone call from Premier Joey Smallwood might have
fixed everything. Stirling has indeed enlisted Premier Danny Williams to
write the CRTC, but it’s not like Stirling’s calling up his buddy any
more. In a different time, faced with bureaucratic intransigence,
Stirling would have stood aligned beside a powerful group of independent
broadcasting affiliates across the country, staring down the CRTC
together.

Today, seated against the black backdrop of the cavernous room, peering
into the blinding studio lights, Stirling looks vulnerable.

“I’m not ashamed of what I’ve tried to do. Maybe I’ve bitten off more
than I can chew,” he says, pausing reflectively for a moment.

“They’d love me to sell,” Stirling tells me. He won’t say who wants to
buy his crown jewel, although there are whispers in the industry that
all of the private-sector national broadcasters — CTV, Global, CHUM —
have designs on his station. None is expressing interest publicly. All
Stirling will say is that he’s had four informal offers in recent years.
But with three generations of Stirlings now working in the family
business — grandson Jesse is in charge of marketing — Stirling says
the family is here to stay. Indeed, the eve of the 50th anniversary of
his introduction of television to Newfoundland would hardly be a
suitable time to sell.

“I’m sure that if NTV were sold to a national company,” Stirling says,
“we’d lose our sovereignty, which is the only sovereignty we have right
now — television and radio owned by Newfoundlanders.

“No,” he continues, his voice shaking now, “I’ll never sell out.

They’ll never drive me out. I’m going to keep doing it my way.” With
that, the interview is over. The lights are dimmed. Stirling removes his
microphone and heads to the door, bidding me goodbye as he steps into
the foggy night.

Two days later, he calls me. I can hear it in his voice. He’s in much
better spirits. Even an auteur and resident philosopher-king is entitled
to a bad day. Now, the clouds have lifted, the view from the mountaintop
is clear. He’ll soon be off to Arizona. Meditating on all of his
accomplishments in this lifetime, and what’s left to come on life’s
stage.

“This is my movie. I’m the writer, the producer, the director and the
hero,” Stirling tells me. “In my new movie, my reincarnation, I may not
come back to Newfoundland. I may not even come back to this planet.”
Wherever he is, he’ll look back on this movie and smile broadly, knowing
that it was he who was truly Captain Newfoundland.