If the phrase “the man, the myth, the legend” wasn’t already in common use, Geoff Stirling was the sort of individual for whom it would have been coined. He was an eidolon, as much a phantom as he was a presence. The sort of person for whom others create grand tales because the ones that contain veracity don’t come close to apprehending others with just how outsize an individual Geoff Stirling was, and quite likely will yet become.
Whether it was grand fables of mass staff firings or secretive anecdotes of leaving tips for restaurant wait-staff which could be counted in Bordens, his ability to capture people’s imagination seemed unparalleled in St. John’s society. The playwright and actor Andy Jones once described this ability of people from the island of Newfoundland to do things “just that little bit differently” as the “N” factor. It seemed Geoff Stirling had the “N” factor.
I worked for Stirling’s group of companies initially as a freelancer with the Herald in 1987 before becoming an announcer with OZ-FM in 1991. The environment he created for the staff was mercurial to be fair, but it commanded this creative sensibility one was obliged to engage with, whether it happened as you entered the front door of OZ and passed over a “Welcome Aliens” door mat, or you’d see the divergent images of Wizard of OZ figurines in a glass case across from a “Bat Out of Hell” album art mirror containing an entire wall to itself.
These were not the artifacts of whim but familial tributes, and the quicker you understood what loyalty and self-sacrifice meant, the closer you’d come to understanding Geoff Stirling.
During my brief years with OZ, he was mostly a tangential figure mainly concerned with NTV and what he chose to self-style during the wee hours. However, I did have an occasion to get an audience with him to discuss a program idea, and much to my intimidated surprise, I found myself in a meeting with him. If you’ve ever met someone you only knew from their public image, then you have some idea of the air in the room. And as a young inexperienced broadcaster, it would never be a equal exchange of ideas. Yet, he did hear me out and offered me some camera equipment to go off and shoot footage.
My naiveté got ahead of me and after the briefest of film experience, I returned to ask for money for my efforts. Needless to say, it didn’t end in my favour. Sadder still, the realization of how castled I became by not learning sooner the lesson of my interchange.
Stirling was self-made in many respects as well as the recipient of fortune in other matters. Good luck, it has been said, is what results when preparation meets opportunity. Given my then lack of knowledge of how TV was made, my show idea for NTV might never have come to fruition, and so I am ever thankful for what I learned from that brief experience with Geoff Stirling.
Creativity and satisfaction for what one does isn’t simply a matter of what wage we make per hour. It’s how we feel about the work and what that effort does for others around us. We can all be self-made, whether we choose entrepreneurship in it’s truest sense, or if we are employed by a large corporation but still view our job as our own small business.
You can see that ethos in so much of what Stirling did with his media enterprise. It’s an empowering approach I wrote about in 2006 for the pages of this magazine’s 60th Anniversary issue. The result is a culture in Newfoundland and Labrador that some of limited scope would describe as an outlier. A self-interested culture regularly co-existing in the greater North American mosaic. Whether it’s news and shows on TV produced territorially, to music of the downtown alongside recordings from all over the world on OZ-FM, to local heroes alternating with Hollywood legends on the cover of the Herald, one of the legacies bequeathed by Geoff Stirling is a confidence that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have the skills and rights to create any life they want. From here on, it’s not a matter of what he did, but how his example inspires others to choose from this day forward.
Russell Bowers is a writer and broadcaster in Calgary, Alberta. His biography on musician Harry Hibbs will be published in the Fall of 2014.