Offering an open line for callers, talk radio often gets a bad rap in Canada. Many highbrow listeners tuned to CBC Radio One tend to denigrate the commercial format, especially, as a magnet for local cranks and a bully pulpit for right-wing commentary. Yet call-in shows attract thousands of daily listeners — of all stripes — in markets both large and small.
Misconceptions arise when the story of Canadian talk radio is conflated with that of our neighbours to the south, where right-wing voices have come to dominate, especially since The Rush Limbaugh Show debuted in 1988, airing in syndication on over 650 stations at its peak. Out of the 1,600 stations that carry talk radio in the United States, only a hundred or so buck the trend by offering progressive takes on social and political issues.
Compared with American programming, there are few national talk shows in Canada beyond CBC Radio’s venerable Cross Country Checkup and, perhaps, The Roy Green Show, aired on weekends on Hamilton’s 900 CHML and in nine other markets, including on Radio NL in Kamloops, British Columbia. The shows that do exist are more often local in nature and more focused on giving voice to the everyday concerns of the proverbial little guy. Still, it’s a relatively underappreciated form of journalism. Out of an estimated 1,800 broadcasters, just over 100 offer the format, including CBC Radio One stations, from St. John’s to Vancouver, and regional chains operated by Corus Entertainment and CityNews. One of the more popular examples, The John Gormley Show, has aired on Saskatoon’s 650 CKOM and Regina’s 980 CJME for over twenty years.
In many ways, the recently retired broadcaster Rick Howe typified the Canadian brand of talk radio. From his familiar greeting —“Good morning, Nova Scotia”— to the end of his shift several hours later, he presided over a virtual town square each weekday in his battered Halifax baseball cap, weathered jeans, and array of well-worn boots. He interviewed the likes of Stephen Harper and the UFO researcher Stanton Friedman, gave voice to sex workers and assisted-dying advocates, and fenced with irascible regulars. No matter the subject, Howe ran a tight show, jumping on the latest local news, delighting in stirring up a little controversy, and disguising how well informed he always was. His familiar sign-off —“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”— was part of the act and, it seems, a spoof of his shock jock American counterparts.
Raised in New Brunswick in the 1950s and ’60s, Howe remained true to his roots, always sounding most comfortable when engaging with regular people. His decades-long career began after high school with CKNB, in the small town of Campbellton, on the south bank of the Restigouche River, and included stints in Newcastle and Saint John. But he’ll likely be remembered for the programs he hosted in Halifax, most notably CJCH’s The Hotline and News 95.7’s The Rick Howe Show.
When Howe retired on September 3, 2021, citing his battle with cancer, he was heralded as Atlantic Canada’s most listened-to talk radio host. His popularity and longevity invited comparisons to other notable personalities, such as Larry Solway and John Gilbert, icons of CHUM in Toronto, and Saint John’s legendary Talk of the Town host Tom Young. Now, with the publication of Behind the Mic: Five Decades Covering the News in the Maritimes, Howe offers readers “a glimpse into what can be an intense but sometimes zany business, one I have loved for each of the nearly fifty years I have worked in radio.”
Perhaps Canada’s best-known talk-show host, gruff-sounding, Glasgow-born Jack Webster not only leaned left but espoused Scottish Labourite views. His career, in both Scotland and Canada, spanned some sixty-eight years, including twenty-seven on open-line radio and television. “It should identify with the ordinary guy,” Webster once said of his approach. “They’re the people that matter. That should be the priority, not esoteric nonsense.”
Webster remains the only Canadian talk radio host to become a true media celebrity, thanks in part to appearances on the CBC TV shows This Hour Has Seven Days and Front Page Challenge. In 1972, the so-called king of the Vancouver airwaves took his act to BCTV with a show called Webster!, which debuted with an exclusive interview of a combative guest, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1988 and was the rare talk radio personality inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame.
Another pioneer of the form, Larry Solway, served his apprenticeship with stops in Northern Ontario and Oshawa, before landing an evening time slot with Canada’s leading rock station in Toronto. Ebullient and often abrasive in style, Solway challenged his callers to state and then defend their opinions on his controversial CHUM show, Speak Your Mind. Every episode sparked verbal fireworks; a few calls were cut off with speakers in mid-sentence. But the show came to an abrupt end in November 1970 when Solway was fired (not an uncommon occurrence in radio, as Howe points out in Behind the Mic). Despite top ratings, Solway’s termination followed a week-long series on human sexuality. “If I understood my audience,” he later wrote, “they indeed wanted to know, to reveal, to question.” He believed that his listeners would “not be offended by explicit language” or be “tuning in to giggle,” but management thought otherwise.
Solway’s successor at CHUM, John “Gibby” Gilbert, made the show his own and became a fixture of Toronto radio dials in the ’70s. In place of an aggressive issues-driven format, Gilbert delivered plenty of empathy. Warm and friendly, firm and fatherlike, he hooked listeners with common, everyday issues and probed the frailties of human nature. Many of his go-to topics were known to appeal to women, especially mothers of school kids. During one memorable show, on the question “Have you ever contemplated suicide?,” he kept a caller who had just “taken a lot of pills” on air long enough for help to arrive. A week or so later, she called back to say he had saved her life.
One of Gilbert’s earlier posts was with CFBC in Saint John, where Rick Howe went to work in 1976. Howe was thrilled to land in New Brunswick’s largest city, with his salary doubled to $800 a month. For two years, he covered the local-news beat and crossed paths with the down-to-earth, straight-talking Tom Young. He also met a gregarious and ambitious high school student working the late-night shift, Steve Murphy, who would later achieve fame as an anchor for CTV Atlantic. But Howe longed to be in the centre of the action, and in the Maritimes that meant Halifax. He got his chance on October 1, 1978, when he joined the city’s top news station, shortly after John Buchanan’s Progressive Conservatives defeated Gerald Regan’s Liberals in the provincial election. “I was hooked,” Howe writes. “When I walked through the doors of CJCH/C100 Radio that morning, a young lad of twenty-four, little did I realize it would take up the next thirty years of my life.”
Howe was awestruck by the scale of the news operation —“fourteen strong”— and he found himself rubbing shoulders with the sports reporter Jim Tatti, a future Global TV anchor, and Stan Carew, who later achieved prominence with the CBC Radio music show Weekend Mornings. He also met his future wife, Yvonne Colbert, who joined CJCH in 1979 and who went on to become an award-winning reporter with CBC News. “We got married on the tenth anniversary of our very first date,” Colbert writes in this book’s foreword.
A newshound, Howe thrived on beat reporting. Then, in 1998, he was “summoned” to the station manager’s office and “informed I would be the new host of The Hotline.” The long-established CJCH talk show had become a hot potato of sorts, generating controversy and regularly turning over its hosts, most notably Dave Wright and Steve Murphy, who both left for CTV Atlantic. Howe had reservations. “Hosting a talk radio show with, at most, a few hundred listeners, and even fewer callers, was not a challenge on which I was particularly keen,” he recalls. But the station manager, Bill Bodnarchuk, “made it clear there was no choice.”
Taking over The Hotline changed the trajectory of Howe’s career. He bucked trends, surviving the advent of the Internet, the onslaught of social media, and the exploding popularity of podcasts. CJCH became known as Talk Radio 920 CJCH, and Howe gradually built and sustained a loyal morning audience. In 2001, the station’s programming changed to an all-sports format following a takeover by CHUM Radio Group, and Howe’s show was threatened with cancellation. After listeners petitioned and sent hundreds of letters, The Hotline was rescued and switched to the Metro Radio Group’s 780 KIXX. It was a somewhat complicated arrangement, Howe explains: “I was a CHUM-paid employee, the news director of a competing radio station, broadcasting a talk show on a country music station owned by another company, Newfoundland Capital.”
Howe recounts his time with The Hotline in vivid, attention-grabbing prose. He hosted the show for much longer than any of his predecessors, but that run came to a definitive close in 2008. Toward the end, he kicked up some controversy: an in-studio debate between the Saint Mary’s University philosopher Peter March and the white supremacist and editor of American Renaissance Jared Taylor proved highly contentious. It prompted the Chronicle Herald ’s Jim Meek, for example, to describe the show’s listeners as a “small but rabid audience” that would likely “march with Mr. Goebbels,” in reference to the Nazi propagandist. “I knew holding the debate was risky, and management wasn’t going to like it,” Howe writes, “but I felt I couldn’t pass up the chance.” On May 29, 2008, The Hotline took its last call, and the station transitioned from the AM dial to the FM market the next day.
After a short hiatus, Howe joined Rogers Media’s all-news channel News 95.7 and “settled into a routine as a reporter.” When Andrew Krystal, the flamboyant and unpredictable host of Maritime Morning, didn’t come to work one day in 2010, the news director asked Howe to fill in —“with about ten minutes to prepare.” Although the station awarded the permanent gig to someone else, it offered Howe a new afternoon drive show. There he worked with the producer Jennifer Casey (who later joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and tragically died when a Snowbird jet crashed). Together, they built a new format that mixed short guest interviews with hour-long call-in segments bearing catchy names like “Manic Monday,” “Mid-Week Meltdown Wednesday,” and “Friday Free-for-All.” Once again, Howe attracted a devoted following, particularly among stay-at-home parents, retirees, and fiftysomething commuters.
Joining a Rogers channel meant working within a more corporate, managerial culture. Radio was also, Howe explains, a more serious business than when he started out. But somehow he stayed true to his style and convictions. In his final years on the job, he survived budget cuts and two office purges, one of which actually saw him reclaim the coveted mid-morning slot. He put his stamp on the program, which became a go-to stop for premiers, mayors, visiting dignitaries, and controversial speakers. His patented segments, including “City Councillors on the Hot Seat” and “Science Files,” were mainstays, as were some regular outspoken callers: a perpetually enraged working-class socialist known as “Michael from Cape Breton” and “Dolores,” a fierce supporter of Donald Trump.
For a time, Howe ruled Halifax’s airwaves and shaped thousands of morning conversations at the neighbourhood Tim Hortons and government offices alike. He was “Halifamous,” as the saying goes. His entertaining, nostalgic trip down memory lane provides readers with rare and fresh insights into Canadian talk radio. It is also a reminder of how a succession of personalities — from Jack Webster and Larry Solway to Roy Green and, yes, Rick Howe — have worked to understand their audience and to give voice to countless everyday Canadians over the years.