Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gary Bannerman, radio host (1947-2011)

Gary Bannerman was a tough interviewer and an acerbic commentator in a long career on Vancouver radio. Photograph from B.C. Radio History.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 19, 2011

Three desperate prisoners holding 15 hostages at knifepoint in a prison vault invited a popular radio host to enter their stronghold.

Gary Bannerman reported the redoubt had only a narrow entrance, affording inmates the chance to harm hostages should an assaulted be attempted. Ominously, he said the prisoners warned that “blood will flow” if their demand for safe passage out of the country was not met.

A 41-hour standoff ended when guards stormed the area, shooting to death one of the hostages. While prison authorities ordered a news blackout, Bannerman went on the air to describe the siege.

The incident at the B.C. Penitentiary was the bloodiest and most dramatic of three hostage-takings by prisoners in 1975 in which Bannerman was asked to be an intermediary. The others involved inmates with psychiatric problems, both of which ended after radio station CKNW aired interviews with the troubled men.

Bannerman, who has died of what the station describes as liver complications, aged 64, was a newspaper reporter who became the top-rated radio host in Vancouver, a city with a long history as a hotbed for hotline radio. A tough interviewer and an acerbic commentator, he generated plenty of legal actions, including more than 150 libel cases, according to Top Dog!, an official history of the station published in 1993. The claim is made he never lost one, but that is radio ballyhoo. At least two cases were settled out of court. He was also once found guilty of criminal contempt of court. As well, he was censured by radio’s governing body for making “racially abusive remarks” about First Nations people.

Bannerman did not particularly care if he won over the listening audience with his opinion.

“People agree and disagree and I’d be an insufferable idiot if I tried to get everyone to agree with me,” he told TV Week magazine in 1979.

With a balding pate and dramatic sideburns, he favoured a workday wardrobe of a short-sleeve shirt with a tie loosened at the neck. The Globe once described him as “a large smooth egg of a man,” while the columnist Allan Fotheringham called him “the Orson Welles of CKNW.” The hint of a compliment in Fotheringham’s description — Welles had a lovely voice — was likely trumped by the auteur’s corpulence and fondness for alcohol.

Gary William Bannerman was born on May 23, 1947, at Sydney, N.S. In Centennial Year, he was hired by the Saint John (N.B.) Telegraph-Journal as an obituarist, soon after gaining promotion to cover the New Brunswick Legislature. He made a strong impression and by 1970 had been hired by the Province in Vancouver.

Two years later, CKNW launched a program called The Investigators, featuring two hosts and a news legman. The show was a bid to make up for the loss to rival CJOR of top radio personality Jack Webster, the hard-hitting interrogator from Scotland known as the Oatmeal Savage. Two months later, Bannerman, who had been covering City Hall, was lured away from the daily. In time, the show and its coveted 9 a.m. to noon time slot would be all his.

He had been on air less than a year before an editorial about police policies led more than 700 irate listeners to call the station to complain. He exposed crooked car dealers and corrupt businesses.

The daily outrage expected of a talk radio host was leavened by occasional display of a light touch.

“Our schools teach the kids reading and writing, and they can’t spell,” he said in a 1975 commentary. “They teach them arithmetic, and they can’t add. Now they’re teaching sex education. I guess that ends the worry about the population explosion.”

An indefatigable workhorse when healthy, Bannerman continued writing newspaper columns after moving to radio. In his debut for the Kerrisdale Courier, a community newspaper, he offered a hint of his political philosophy: “Nothing but contempt will be expressed toward our city’s redneck fraternity: the people who believe all welfare recipients are bums; those who would substitute harsh punishment for rehabilitation of criminals; the type of individual who resents the immigration of poor suffering Ugandans to this wealthy nation; racists of all descriptions, particularly those who are secretly or publicly indignant about the French fact in Canada.”

Bannerman never revealed a party affiliation, though his antipathy to the NDP and his admiration for Social Credit did not harm his standing with station management, or with advertisers.

In February, 1974, he aired a three-hour show during which he castigated the NDP government of Premier Dave Barrett for buying companies and shares on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. The premier cited six remarks he described as malicious libel and demanded an apology for himself, his cabinet, and his caucus. Bannerman’s comments did lead to an apology and an out-of-court settlement, but not with the premier. An undisclosed sum was paid to four former associates of Dunhill Development Corp. Ltd., who felt the broadcast alleged that they had engaged in improper insider trading.

(In an only-in-British-Columbia twist, Barrett would later be hired by CJOR to host a hotline show facing off against Bannerman, who managed to maintain his ratings lead.)

Just a month after that contentious show, the B.C. Court of Appeal issued an injunction prohibiting the repetition of what the judges described as “grossly defamatory language” in a program in which Bannerman and others described the activities of the Church of Scientology.

Bannerman was found guilty of criminal contempt of court in 1979 after accusing William Faulder (Fats) Robertson of being a “leading member of the Mafia” in a broadcast. Robertson was on trial at the time on cocaine smuggling charges, for which he was found guilty and sentenced to a long prison term. Despite offering “deep apologies,” the hotline host was fined $4,000, as was the radio station.

In 1985, Bannerman delivered an editorial about a Victoria lawyer who had been in the news while representing Holocaust denier Jim Keegstra and Nazi apologist Ernst Zundel. “Doug Christie has aligned himself so many times with these perverted monsters that he has to be viewed as one himself, in my view,” Bannerman said. The lawyer sued for libel. A jury decided the comments were defamatory, but fair comment.

A month after that commentary, Bannerman told listeners native people had no respect for the law, and were dirty, child-like, alcoholic, and committed incest. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission censured the station for the “racially offensive” comments, which it declared to be “ill-advised, irresponsible and regrettable.”

In 1988, Bannerman went on extended sick leave, replaced in his coveted time slot by Rafe Mair, a former Socred cabinet minister.

Denny Boyd, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun, later revealed to his readers the reason for Bannerman’s absence. He described a lunch with Bannerman during which “he had looked like death on a biscuit.”

“He had just been released from University Hospital that morning after a near-fatal collapse from extreme liver damage caused largely by his legendary consumption of Bell’s Single Malt Scotch Whisky,” Boyd wrote. “On that July day, Bannerman was gaunt, rickety with weight loss and his skin was yellowish. He looked like a stack of wooden pencils.”

“Drinking was never a compulsion for me,” Bannerman told Boyd, “but it was part of my lifestyle, sitting around a table after my program was over, arguing and debating. I could go through a bottle a day, a bottle-and-a-half, sometimes two bottles a day and often I wouldn’t bother to eat.”

He returned to the station as a replacement host in the 1990s, but his run at No. 1 was over.

Bannerman wrote several books, including a helpful history of BC Ferries, on whose board he would serve, as well as two well-received guides to the cruise-boat industry. His most recent book, Squandering Billions, co-authored with Dr. Don Nixdorf and published by Hancock House six years ago, examines health-care spending.

In 1974, he co-founded Bannerline Enterprises, a communications company, with his wife, Patricia, a painter and photographer. She survives him. He also leaves a brother, two sisters, and his mother.

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