Story first Published Oct. 22, 2001 | By Mark Dwyer
As a broadcaster, printer, publisher, author and filmmaker, Geoff Stirling has committed his life to upholding the highest standards of media excellence. The groundbreaking visionary was the first to bring commercial FM radio to the province and launched the first TV station in North America to broadcast 24 hours a day.
Born in St. John’s in 1921, Stirling attended grammar school in England, Bishop Field College in St. John’s and later the University of Tampa, where he studied pre-law (Stirling won a U.S. college athletic scholarship and stills holds the Newfoundland record in the high jump). A true entrepreneur, he founded The Sunday Herald (now The Newfoundland Herald) in 1946. He wrote the paper from cover to cover himself, sold all the advertising, printed the product and personally sold copies door-to-door. He also worked on the side as a stringer for a number of American newspapers and magazines.
“I simply told the stories”
Both issues of the Herald, meanwhile, sold out in a matter of hours. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I simply told the stories,” he says.
Stirling’s ground-breaking tabloid was a raucous look at life in Newfoundland. It reported on everything from cops getting caught in a bawdyhouse to the backroom shenanigans of Joey Smallwood’s Liberals. Readers loved it.
Two years after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, Stirling launched CJON-AM Radio in St. John’s. Four years later, he opened CJON TV, Newfoundland’s first television station. As Stirling’s sphere of influence grew, new broadcasting enterprises were added to his organization, including CKGM, Montreal, 1959; CKWW, Windsor-Detroit, 1964; CKPM, Ottawa, 1964; CHOM, Montreal, 1965; CJOM, Windsor, 1966; KSWW, Arizona, 1967; CJCN TV, Grand Falls, 1965; CJOX TV, Grand Bank, 1966; CJCR TV, Gander, 1974; CJWN TV, Corner Brook, 1974, and the formation of the OZ FM Radio Network in ’77.
But Stirling wasn’t only a broadcasting mogul. In the years when the price of gold was languishing, Stirling bought in. People told him he was wasting his money. When the price of gold started to soar, many of those same people wished they had similarly “wasted” their money.
His investment in gold added to his growing fortune and gave him the physical means to be independent, matching his natural independent spirit. Stirling remains adamant that even in the burgeoning plastic economy, gold remains a rock solid investment.
That independent nature was most evident in his broadcasting activities. When launching the first English language FM radio signal in Quebec, he pioneered the concept of “more music, less talk.” He even installed a button on his desk where he could cut off the DJ and go directly to music if the DJ was on the air longer than seven seconds.
Stirling was constantly adding a unique touch to the radio industry. Stirling’s meeting with John Lennon and Yoko Ono led to the couple’s famous Montreal “bed-in” for peace. And when he started broadcasting 24 hours a day at NTV, Stirling eschewed the millions of dollars he could have made by filling up the overnight hours with paid “infomercials,” opting instead to air as much local Newfoundland content as possible.
Stirling saw the overnight period as a way to reflect Newfoundland culture back to the people of the province, build a sense of provincial pride and, in turn, build viewer loyalty.
In another bold move, Stirling risked making himself a target of ridicule by creating Newfoundland’s and Canada’s own television superheroes. It was an ambitious endeavour for an independent television station located on the coast of Canada. Some critics misunderstood the move, but most viewers welcomed Captain Canada and the other “heroes” for what they were, an attempt to give Newfoundland children superheroes of their own, the kind who emphasized values of love, reason and understanding, instead of the American ones who solved most problems by using violence.
Stirling’s pioneering late-night programming, playing of music videos during commercial breaks, and emphasis on local content continue to be hallmarks of NTV’s tapestry of programming. As his competitors have come to realize, the quality of the broadcasting signal was always more about art than money to Stirling. As a leader in the broadcast industry, Stirling’s special assistance to industry newcomers has been unparalleled. His companies have launched thousands of careers. Many former employees have gone on to become industry leaders themselves: Jim Seaward, Gord Rawlinson, Don Jamieson, Leslie Sole and Brian Tobin, just to name a few.
Stirling’s service to community in the role of broadcaster has resulted in millions of dollars raised for Newfoundland charities. NTV and OZ FM have won national philanthropic awards from organizations as wide ranging as the Canadian Red Cross, to Big Brother and Sisters, to the Salvation Army. He is a member of the Newfoundland Business Hall of Fame, the Newfoundland Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Royal Newfoundland Regatta Hall of Fame.
He founded Apache Films, Records and Books in ’64. One of his documentaries, Waiting for Fidel, produced in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, remains a classic. The New York Writers Association, California Film Board, London Film Board and New Delhi Film Board have all bestowed honours on Stirling.
Today, Stirling serves as Chairman of the Board for Stirling Communications International, a group of companies comprised on television (NTV), radio (OZ FM), print (Stirling Press), publishing (The Newfoundland Herald), and internet holdings.
A “true pioneer”
In a recent letter to Stirling, Michel McCabe, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, called him a “true pioneer” and a man whose “leadership, vision and dedication to excellence in broadcasting over the years has been an extraordinary example to all of us, and has left his mark on the Canadian landscape.”
Privately, Stirling enjoys skin diving, horseback riding, skiing, travelling, meditating, a good game of table tennis, and the study of the world’s great religions. This month, Stirling received two honours. He was named Broadcaster of the Year by his Atlantic Canadian counterparts, and is now being inducted into the national Broadcasting Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Ottawa. We caught up with him at his home in Motion, near Torbay.