Costas Halavrezos of Dartmouth has one of the most mispronounced—butchered might be more accurate—names among Maritime personalities. But if many East Coasters have trouble getting their tongues around his decidedly Greek moniker, they have no problem identifying his “buttery” voice, as one caller described it when Costas announced in 2010 that he was retiring as the host of CBC’s Maritime Noon after 23 years.
Despite all that time on the air, the listeners who didn’t know Costas personally wouldn’t really know that much about the man. And, as Costas explains in his story, that was intentional.
“I was on every day,” he says. “Why would I blather about myself? The person you’re talking to—it might be the only time they’re ever on the radio because of the circumstances of the story. It’ll certainly be memorable for them. Very often people are nervous—even if it’s something they know about. The host’s job is just to make them comfortable, conduct the interview, get the information out. That’s it.”
However, when we sat down to talk to Costas, the tables were turned and he graciously opened up about his own life story. And it’s fascinating.
Costas’s father grew up among peasants in the Greek mountain village of Agios Stefanos, left school as a boy to travel with his sister to Egypt for work, and eventually joined the Greek merchant marine during the Second World War. “He had quite a few adventures and close calls,” says Costas. That included surviving being torpedoed and having the ship he was on sink in 12 minutes, a story that Costas relates in some detail.
His mother was “Miramichi Irish” and grew up on a small subsistence farm in Semiwagan Ridge, N.B. She moved to Saint John as a young woman and met Costas’s father while she was working as a waitress in The Paradise restaurant.
Costas recalls essentially growing up in his father’s eatery in downtown Saint John. He says Nick’s Coffee Counter was a “real classless society” that catered to everyone from politicians to prostitutes. Only occasionally, if someone was drunk and said something inappropriate, would Nick Halavrezos grab him by the scruff of the neck and the back of the belt and give him the bum’s rush out onto the sidewalk.
Costas regales us with tales of growing up “Irish Catholic” in Saint John, attending St. F.X. University, travelling throughout Greece and England for a year, working as a young man, drifting into radio work and more. He doesn’t pull any punches when explaining why he left the CBC in 2010 or when assessing the state of the public broadcaster today. But he insists his life wasn’t defined by his radio work.
He and his wife—respected reporter Jennifer Henderson—live a relatively quiet life on a leafy Dartmouth street. He’s grown grapes, sold spices and wrote a book titled Seasoned: Recipes and Essays from The Spiceman. He plays bass in a band called the BBQ Kings, does voice-over work and just started a podcast called Book Me! in which he interviews Atlantic Canadian authors and illustrators.
But it all started at Nick’s Coffee Counter …
(Were you born in Saint John?) Saint John, New Brunswick. Boxing Day 1947. My father was Greek. He was from Crete, the island of Crete. My mother was Miramichi Irish.
(Can you tell me a little about your father and how he landed in Saint John?) He was in the Greek merchant marine during the Second World War. He had quite a few adventures and close calls. They were mostly doing the North Atlantic run. But they went elsewhere in the world too. He stopped in Halifax, Sydney and Saint John various times in the first few years of the war. They’d meet the small Greek communities and then get back on the boat again. I think they were probably in dry dock in Saint John for a little while, so they got to know people there better. But he knew people in Halifax too.
He was on the Mount Taurus, a ship in a convoy that left from the Bedford Basin in November of 1942. I think they picked up a few more boats in Sydney. And then, somewhere past Greenland, they were torpedoed. He was one of the survivors. And the survivor boat, even though they were more than halfway across the Atlantic, came back to Halifax. This was the end of ’42. There were huge Allied losses at sea.
(And when they escaped, was it only a few from the ship?) There are a lot of details, unfortunately, I didn’t get from Dad. A site that I found indicated 40 survived from the Mount Taurus and only two died. His best friend, Theodore, escaped. He was the telegrapher, a guy I eventually met in 1971 when I went to Greece for the first time. Lovely man. Big, big gregarious guy. Huge elephant ears. Anyway, Dad was supposed to have been in the engine room that day. But he and this other guy switched shifts. And of course, they got the torpedo, bang, right in the engine room. The ship went down in 12 minutes. He jumped out of his bunk or wherever he was and ran up to tell his friend Theodore, said ‘Get off, get off!’ Theodore was sending a Mayday signal! They were in a convoy. Everybody could see that ships were getting torpedoed by the U-boats, you know. What are you going to do? So he and Theodore and some other guys escaped.
As I say, he’d already had other adventures. On one of the earliest trips out, they went to Dakar in Senegal in Northwest Africa. The French government fell and since Senegal was a French colony, it was taken over by the Nazi-compliant Vichy government of the day. So any Allied ships in Dakar were held under harbour arrest by the Nazis or their French collaborators.
So you can imagine North African temperatures—being trapped on a ship there. They could go ashore now and then. But just ridiculous temperatures—over 100 Fahrenheit and things like that. But people were getting sick. There were people with malaria and there were parasites. It was pretty grim, I guess. But they actually escaped by boat one night, out past whatever kind of barriers they had at the mouth of the harbour, and got out into the open ocean. It was kind of a rowboat, I think, and then they went with the currents. They were actually picked up by a British ship and taken to South Africa and then they were transported to London, where their shipping line had an office. So he was up to London in time for parts of the Blitz! You know, just ridiculous. That was near the beginning of the War. I think it was late 1940.
(Did he tell you any particulars about how many people were on that rowboat?) No. If he ever did, I can’t remember.
(Did he expand at all on the effect of being torpedoed?) No. Happy to be alive of course. But looking back, he eventually developed dementia. And he had what they call several ‘insults’ to his brain over his life. He may have been concussed when the boat was torpedoed. Later, in the 1950s, he was in a car accident—a head-on collision. He was a passenger, in the middle seat in front. The guy next to the door was killed. And my father was in a coma for, I think, three days. So definitely concussed there. And a lifelong, heavy smoker. All the things that predispose you to developing dementia.
(What were they transporting in the Mount Taurus?) Supplies. I really don’t know. Obviously, England wasn’t getting anything from Europe.
(When the survivor boat came back here, that was it for him for the duration of the war?) Yeah. The survivor boat landed here (in Halifax), probably through Pier 21 or something. But he decided to stay in Canada. That was it. His nine lives were running out. (Costas laughs). He considered staying here but then went over to Saint John and he got offered a job there with a couple of Greek guys, the Nicholas brothers, who ran a place in the centre of Saint John. Just called Nicholas Brothers. Then he worked and saved. He met my mother. She was working in a restaurant next door called The Paradise—a waitress in Paradise! So they started going out. I don’t know exactly how soon they started going out, but they were married December 28th ’46.
(Nicholas Brothers, was that a restaurant?) They had a lunch counter. But it was also a variety store. Cigarettes and sundries. All and sundry. You know, soda fountain, sandwiches, magazines, newspapers. It was a great place. I remember it from when I was a kid. It was still operating. Right at the centre of town on King Square.
(Would he have had much English?) Not a whole lot. He had smatterings of several languages which you pick up. He told me his friend Theodore—whenever they landed in a port—was the charmer. He always kept a little notebook and he’d take it out at their table in a restaurant when they’d spot a couple of women. Theodore would go over and say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t speak much English. What is the word for this?’ And he’d point to something, maybe in his book or on the menu. He’d charm them and then eventually they’d get together. Dad was Theodore’s wingman, I guess.
(Your mother was from the Miramichi?) Yeah. Her parents had a little farm in a place called Semiwagan Ridge in the area called Barnaby River, which is one of the tributaries of the Miramichi. But she had come to Saint John in her early 20s.
(Was it odd that they would get together, him being not long removed from Greece?) I’ve no idea. I get the feeling that there was a pretty lively social scene in Saint John during the War. I was recently listening to a documentary I scripted 30-some years ago. It was about the art scene in Saint John in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. I got to interview a lot of people who were involved. Not just painters. There was a writer and teachers and someone running the theatre guild and a guy running a gallery and so on. But they talked about the ’40s and the War years. Saint John was a port, so there’d be regular dances attended by soldiers and sailors. People were getting together at house parties and all that kind of stuff. A steady stream of people on leave and people from other countries. You’d meet people in restaurants or in King Square and invite them to the parties or the dances.
(Where was your father from?) A little mountain village. I’ve been to it several times. Up from the southeast coast of Crete. Agios Stefanos. It translates as St. Stephen. It’s funny—one of those weird coincidences—I was born on St. Stephen’s Day.
(Did you know much about his childhood?) Well, they were peasants. It was subsistence living. They were living in the mountains. You know, they grew their own grapes and vegetables and foraged and had some sheep. There’s a fantastic beach at the foot of the mountain. I don’t know how long it would take to go down by donkey because I’ve driven up to the village by car, and it’s a long, winding drive. Wonderful stuff down there on the coast these days—greenhouses and tavernas. There might have been more work down there back then. But it was just subsistence living up in the village when my father was a child, really. Pretty tough.
There was a period when he was young … there was a friend of the family who had a shop in Alexandria, Egypt. There were seven kids in my father’s family, and he and his younger sister, Athena—the next in line—basically were shipped off to Alexandria to work with this guy. There were too many mouths to feed. They were in their early teens I think.
(That means no school?) He had gone for a while, whatever schooling there was in the village. You can only imagine. He was born in 1909. But he and his sister Athena learned Arabic in Alexandria. I stayed with her a few times. Wonderful woman. In Athens, they had a little dry goods shop in the foothills of the Acropolis—she and her husband, Politimos. But there were a couple of cafés she pointed out in Athens where a lot of Arabic-speaking people gathered. And she would cruise by. She was always interested in eavesdropping on them, especially if they had anything to say about her. (Laughter).
(So when you were over in ’71, your grandparents wouldn’t still be alive?) No, they had died in the late ’60s. I have a picture of them out there on the stairs. My grandmother looks like my father in a black dress. Their faces are exactly the same.
(How did your aunt relate to you when you went over?) Oh great. She and Dad were very close. I was her brother’s son. I was golden. He had been over the year before—1970—the only time he ever returned to Greece. He visited all his brothers and sisters.
They had been out of touch for years because of the War. He had done his compulsory military service shortly before the War up on the border with Albania, and then he got into the merchant marine. And Athena ended up working as something like a nurse’s assistant in—well, at the time it was under British mandate—Palestine. And they never made contact for years because he didn’t know where she was, and she didn’t know where he was. She told me she thought he was dead. Which would be a fair assumption in those days, considering the odds. They didn’t reconnect until 1946. Somehow, by mail, the connection was made. He may have sent something back to his parents in Crete, and word must have got back to her in Athens. By that time, the postal service must have been restored, because Crete had a very hard time during the War. She was telling me, ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. My Nikos was alive.’ She just loved Dad and the feeling was mutual.
(Of course, they would have been close, travelled together.) Yeah, yeah. And she was a really feisty woman, a real firebrand and a fireplug of a woman. Short, stocky. She’d bang you on the shoulder, you know, as a greeting. She was very, very kind to us. Jennifer and I, about a year after we got married, finally got around to having a proper honeymoon, because we’d only taken a few days off in 1984 and then gone back to work. We went to Greece in ’85. Athena was living in Athens at that time and her husband Politimos was still alive.
(You would have had other relatives there, but she was the main contact?) Yeah. They had two daughters. One of their daughters, Litsa, has remained … she’s sort of my closest relative, the one I know best. I last saw her in 2012.
I briefly touched down in Athens in 1971. Litsa and her sister Maro and their friends ran me around town and down to Corinth on the bus for a few days. But then I took the ferry to Crete and stayed with my cousin Katina and her husband Bobbis and children and her mother Irini—my father’s sister—on the south coast in a town called Ierapetra. It was my base. That’s where I learned whatever Greek I have, because I had time on my hands, Greek-English grammar books and lots of opportunities to practice. I would help out at the dry goods store that Bobbis operated right on the town square. Met people my age from Canada and all over the world, who were hitchhiking around. The locals were still buzzing about the hippies hanging out in the caves and beaches in Matala along the coast to the west of Ierapetra. Joni Mitchell had been among them, about a year before.
Katina’s brother, Michael, had come over to Canada in the 1960s. Dad sponsored him and he lived with us for a while. The hope had been that he would work with my father and eventually take over the lunch counter business. He didn’t want me to continue in the trade—it’s exhausting—and I wasn’t inclined to, either.
Michael stayed. He didn’t take over my father’s business, unfortunately. But he worked in Saint John and is still living. So I stayed with his family. That was great. I learned a lot of Greek. I’d go hiking up the mountains nearby or go hitchhiking around Crete for a week and return.
(How long were you there?) I was there until about Christmas, nearly three months. And as I say, I travelled around and got to know my way around Crete a bit. Then I went back to Athens just before Christmas that year, so I got to know the city quite well. I took classical guitar lessons, twice a week, and was coming along pretty well. And then forgot everything by not practising.
I think it might have been St. Patrick’s Day when I left Athens and went to England by train. I had a friend from Saint John, Tony Lamport, who was studying sociology in Southampton, and I ended up spending about six months in England.
(When you were with your relatives, that’s when you learned most of the Greek you have?) Yeah, yeah. (You didn’t learn any from your father?) Well, no. A few words but that was it. There was no conversation. My mother didn’t speak any, so …
(What was the feeling you had your first time there in Greece?) Oh, I felt very comfortable with it, you know. I loved the way of life, the social aspect of it—going to a café, and having big family meals every night, and living outdoors a lot because the climate was so good.
(And your father’s name again?) Nick. (What was his full name?) Nikolaos Kostas, probably with a K, it was spelt with, because there’s no letter C in Greek.
(And your mother’s name?) Hilda Mary Bohan. She grew up as Hilda, but she hated the name, and eventually went by Mary. (And she came from more or less a subsistence farm?) Yeah. My grandfather worked in the woods in the winter as well. Between farming and working in the forestry industry, that’s what he did. William Bohan. Lovely, gentle man.
(Did you know your maternal grandparents?) Yeah. We never had a car, so we used to go up by bus and visit when I was a kid. Once I was shown how you got eggs from chickens. I marched in the next morning and—not knowing—lifted off these hens to get the eggs. Created quite a stir. The family wondered what was going on in the henhouse. It was me lifting these poor hens off, flipping them out of the way. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes pecked out. (Laughter).
(Your father being Greek, was there any question of acceptance there?) Not that I know of. My maternal grandfather would come down to visit us in Saint John from time to time and he and Dad got on very well. (No culture clash?) No, no, no. You know, Dad was a hard worker and treated my mother well, so that was all right as far as my grandfather Bohan was concerned.
We finally got a TV. Probably the last family in the apartment house. We were not early adopters of things. I mentioned my Dad was in that car crash. While he was in hospital—he had quite a long convalescence, he was in for about a month—he had a TV in the room. He got hooked on TV. (What year would that have been?) I think it would have been ’58 maybe. Thereabouts. Anyway, I remember it was new to us and my Grandpa Bohan was down for a visit from the Miramichi. I remember him sitting there watching the test pattern before the shows came on, smoking his pipe, watching the old Indian-head test pattern. (Laughter). And he was a lovely man, too, my grandfather. Very gentle. Big strong guy.
(Would he have used horses in the woods?) Yup. There’s a David Adams Richards novel—I think it’s his best—The Friends of Meager Fortune, that’s it. It really pivots on the last year they were doing horse-driven log drives. The trucks were coming in the next year. Some people were already using trucks, but it was sort of this last drive. And it’s this big allegorical thing, really paralleling the crucifixion of Christ.
(But being set in New Brunswick, it gives you this sense of what it was like?) Oh yeah. And the thing about bringing a full load of logs down steep hillsides with a horse-drawn team in the winter… what could go wrong? (It’s not for the faint of heart.) No, no. So my grandfather was of a generation … he would have been involved in all of that.
There was a period during the ’30s when some of them went down to the States to stay with relatives. My mother was in Waltham, Massachusetts, went to school there for a couple of years, and she was staying with an aunt and an uncle. I think another brother went down and I think my grandfather got some kind of work there too. I’m not really sure how many of the family went down.
(That wouldn’t be uncommon for people to be going down to the Boston area.) Oh, not at all. You know, when I was growing up, I thought Boston was made up of aunts and uncles. Everyone I knew had aunts and uncles in Boston. From Saint John, especially, being a very Irish city, there was that connection, too.
(Right, and you’re relatively close.) Oh yeah. Well, the CP train used to run from Saint John down to Boston. You went up to McAdam, New Brunswick, crossed into Maine, and then it either cut south through Portland to Boston or northwest to Montreal. That’s how we travelled. And Halifax used to have a Boston boat. I think there used to be a Boston boat from Saint John, too.
(What year did your father start the lunch counter?) I think it was after I was born. I remember the original Nick’s Coffee Counter. It was around probably ’49, ’50. He had that for a while.
I remember being there and I remember the neighbourhood. The butcher shop, the pharmacy. It was across the railway tracks that terminated at the grand Union Station, just a few blocks away. And then the land he was on was expropriated. He found another place to rent—not far—on City Road, just across the Wall Street bridge over the railway tracks. Next to a fire station and across from where there’s a big Irving station now. He kept the same name, Nick’s Coffee Counter. He had that running until the mid ’80s.
I really grew up in the lunch counter on 31 City Road. Fourteen stools, I seem to remember, and no booths. But along one wall, opposite the stools and counter, there were magazines, newspapers, weeklies, tabloids, comic books. There was a rack of pocketbooks, and then there was a small counter with penny candy and chocolate bars on the other side. And a pop cooler. The free candy and pop wrecked my teeth. Bananas—we always had bananas for whatever reason—and a set of scales to weigh them. But I spent a lot of time there.
(And if you were there, were you working even as a young person?) I was, as my father would say, ‘eating the profits.’ No, I was helping out. Which became important when I got into the spice business after I retired from CBC. But I’d take back the empty bottles and keep the cooler stocked and change the magazines. New, updated magazines would come twice a week, so I’d take down the old ones and put up the new ones … after I gave them a good scan.
And it was a wonderful education, because I had completely unsupervised reading. Any moment I had, I was over there and checking out the stuff that interested me. It killed me of course, when I was a teenager, that we didn’t have a car, because it was the heyday of all those car magazines and customizing cars and Motor Trend and all that kind of stuff. I kept up to date with all the cars. Dad just relied on taxis.
It was the ’50s then and it was funny because only about a couple of miles away there was the big strip—Rothesay Avenue—where all the car dealerships were. It was hot and heavy in the ’50s because the economy was growing and they were affordable and I guess gas was cheap. There was a new model every year that looked very different from last year. So the guys would come in on their break—the salesmen—and have coffee or lunch or whatever. And you could see there was a real competition to see who could sell Nick his first car, because everybody else had cars. They knew when he went home—he’d leave after the noon rush. He would start at six in the morning when the longshoremen would come in. There’d be about three breakfast rushes, you know, depending on shift changes at different jobs. And then there would be a lull and then there’d be a lunch break rush. But about 1:30, he’d leave and go home and have a nap for a couple of hours and then come back. So he usually took a taxi home. But the (car salesmen) would come for coffee and they’d say, ‘Nick, give you a ride home? You want a ride?’ He’d say, ‘Sure.’ ‘We got the Buicks in, really nice.’ All that kind of stuff. Or they’d show up at nine o’clock at night and, ‘Give you and the family a ride home?’ I remember getting those rides. But he never bit.
You know, he was working seven days a week when I was quite young. And then he cut it back. He would close Saturday afternoon and night. He’d take me to the harness races at Exhibition Park on Saturday afternoon. But he was still coming in Sunday until one o’clock. So yeah, he was working seven days a week.
(And would he have somebody else cooking.) No, he was the cook. There’d be one waitress and she might make up sandwiches, get the coffee, make the fountain Cokes, scoop the ice cream. They had one of those Campbell Soup machines. I don’t know if you’ve seen one, but it was a sort of insulated metal cup and you’d pour in the can of soup and push it into a jack. It would heat up really fast. Basically, a kettle for one bowl of soup.
But he did a daily special—I remember in the early, mid ’50s, it was 75 cents. One day the special would be roast beef with the vegetables cooked in the juice, and then there would be roast turkey, and then there would be pork chops usually done in a sort of tomato-onion sauce. Friday was always fish. It was either harbour salmon—because you were still allowed to catch Atlantic salmon in the harbour back then—or halibut. And it was all 75 cents. So for people who didn’t have much of a lunch break, they’d just come in and (say), ‘Dinner.’ They knew what it was. I used to make the signs.
(You didn’t have to worry about choice.) No, you didn’t have to think. There were other things. If they wanted a western sandwich or club sandwich, a steamed hot dog or a hamburger, he had all that stuff. But the dinner was the daily special. It was great and he had a huge following. It was very, very, very busy there.
(But if he was having roast beef or turkey or something like that, that’s something he would put on in the morning?) Yes, he’d slow cook it in the oil-fired oven. So it was just melt-in-your-mouth by 11 o’clock. (And he’d still be making the breakfasts?) That’s right, yeah. A lot of customers. It was a busy, busy place.
(And he would have done the cleanup?) Yup, yup, yup. He cleaned the floors every night. When we closed at nine o’clock, he got out the mop. And in the winter, he’d mop several times during the day, too.
(He was there six in the morning?) Until one or 1:30, then go home and have a nap for a couple of hours. (He’d be there until nine?) Yup. And we would, too. My mother would be there helping in the evening. It was quieter. But Saint John was still very densely populated at that time, so there were a lot of people in the neighbourhood who came for the milk and bread and cigarettes and coffee or a piece of pie. Kids to get their comic books, you name it.
(Your mother, she didn’t work outside the home other than that?) Right. She helped out at the restaurant. And there was just my sister and I. Just the two of us. Georgia’s three and a half years younger than me.
(Like you say, it was usually always busy. Was he comfortable financially?) You know, he was very frugal. We didn’t have a car. We took the bus or taxi or walked. I certainly didn’t feel we wanted for anything. He used to say the coffee paid for my college education.
We lived in an apartment until sometime in the early ’60s. One of his customers was also his lawyer for what little legal work he had to get done. Great guy. S. Roy Kelly. Right out of the 1930s—his office was quite something. Lovely man. Anyway, he was always saying to him, ‘Nick, you should look for a house.’ So he called him one day and told him there was an interesting place coming up at a tax sale for the city. It had been a turn-of-the-century drug store on the street level on the corner of Richmond and Prince Edward Street in the East End, just down the hill from the Cathedral, and then there were two big apartments above, the two floors above. It was a brick building. He went down during his nap break and he overheard someone make some slur remark like, ‘What’s that damned Greek doing here?’ And that was it. He got stubborn and decided he would bid on this thing—against these people—and got it.
I don’t think they had all the checks you have these days on your ability to pay. They probably had some. Anyway, he didn’t have the money saved to buy the place. He rented his lunch counter space from a Mr. Rodgers and his unmarried sister who lived in a very gloomy, but well-furnished apartment upstairs. But Mr. Rodgers had quite a bit of real estate in town and he really liked my father, you know, appreciated that he’d done well with the business and took care of it and was a fine, upstanding fellow. So he gave him the mortgage. He lent him the money—a private mortgage. So that was it, and all of a sudden my father has a property for the first time. God knows, what age would he have been then? He’d be around 50.
(Any little anecdotes stand out about the lunch counter?) Well, it was a great foundation for working in public broadcasting because you have absolutely no choice about who comes through your door. It’s a real classless society when you’re in that business, which is great. It was a large part of your social life, just the people you meet coming in the store and the regulars. You have to be very comfortable with the arithmetic of business, buying and selling things, keeping track of inventory. Talking about different classes, just down the street where City Road became Station Street, that’s where the whorehouses were. So occasionally, either the clients or the operatives would be up at the lunch counter.
(And your father would treat them all the same?) Yeah, yeah. Unless someone was drunk. I remember him giving the bum’s rush to guys—literally, what they call the bum’s rush—a couple of times. Someone would be at the counter—on a stool and drunk and say something inappropriate—and Dad would not say anything to him. Wouldn’t warn him. He’d come up behind him, grab him by the back of the belt and by the back of his jacket collar and give him the bum’s rush and throw him out on the sidewalk. (Laughter). But it was only a few times that I saw him do that. (It was all done in one fell swoop.) Oh, yeah. The guy didn’t know what hit him.
(And when did broadcasting become an interest for you? Was that early on?) No, it was later. (You went to St. F.X.?) Yeah. I was going to take English. I went to register in the lineup. First of all, they looked at my name—Costas William Nicholas Halavrezos—and they assumed I went by Nick. And the person registering me said, ‘So your name is Nick, right?’. I said, ‘OK.’ (Laughter). I was very deferential in those days. And then I had applied for English. They said, ‘Well, you’ve got good science marks. I think you should go in honours physics.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I ended up in honours physics for three years.
(And that was?) Sixty-five. (It was basically decided …)…on the spot for me. I was 17 when I went and turned 18 later that year. By the third year, in 1968, I was down in Antigonish doing my summer of research in the department, nominally helping a physics professor. A really brilliant guy. Dr. David Pink. Got his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford. But I just realized physics was not for me. I had no passion for physics. I greatly admired people who did. By the end of the summer, I told him, ‘Look, I really want to go on into English.’ He understood. He was a very well-rounded, well-read guy. He was doing all kinds of international collaborations in England and Germany, but he understood. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. Someone else who was more forceful and less empathetic might have talked me into staying, but I know I wouldn’t have been happy.
So my fourth year, I took all arts courses—four English and a history and a philosophy. But I still had so many science courses that I got a B.Sc. Then I went back for a fifth year and just took, again, four English courses, a history and a philosophy. I graduated in ’69 but I went and finished in ’70. At that time, I thought I would be heading for an MA in English. But I got out and worked.
(So that wouldn’t have given you an arts degree?) Right. It was probably a few courses shy of an arts degree. I had almost enough credits, but, hey. So I worked for a year, mostly substitute teaching around Saint John. Then I worked in a drug crisis centre and youth hostel the summer of ’71 in Saint John. And then that fall—I’d saved up enough money—that’s when I went overseas. I seem to recall the one-year round-trip ticket to Greece was less than $300.
(And you would have been gone a full year?) The fall of ’71 to ’72. It was roughly six months in Greece, six months in England. After visiting my friend Tony Lamport who was studying in Southampton and meeting some of his friends, I went up to London. Met up with my pal John Gillis from Saint John and we went hitchhiking to the south. A German woman in a van picked us up, gave us several coffee and brandies at her place, and told us about a friend who was leaving his job as a barman at a country pub. So I ended up working there—the Silver Plough in Pitton—outside of Salisbury for a few months. Then I went up to London for the summer. Met up with my friend Mike McAfee who was taking a summer course in London and we went hitchhiking around Ireland, too. That sort of stuff.
(Working in the pub, was that kind of like being back … were you comfortable in that?) Yeah, it was comfortable. And it was different from the lunch counter, obviously. I was selling alcohol. But getting to know that part of British rural society was fascinating. And the country pubs have different hours from city pubs. There were two rooms at right angles to one another, separated by a wall—one for visitors and one for the locals. There was a restaurant attached to it, too. Yeah, it was a lovely, lovely place. I’ve been back there a couple of times. On my day off, I used to walk into Salisbury along the path through these ancient, planned beech forests. Catch the free organ recital in Salisbury Cathedral. It was interesting. Some visiting friends of a friend from Canada—Sandy Moore and Jim MacSwain—and I played some guitar tunes and sang at a village fair. I remember doing John Barleycorn and some Neil Young. Probably some Crosby, Stills & Nash. And years later, we all ended up in Halifax.
I liked staying in one place for a while, as I did in Crete and Athens. You really get to know so much more about a place and its people from just getting into the rhythms of daily and weekly life and finding out what goes on. In Athens, one of my chores—when I was staying at Athena’s—was to take the empty bottles down to the guy around the corner who had all the big wine barrels and fill them for the two big meals of the day. Again, my aunt and her husband still had two daughters at home, and his brother lived upstairs. So there were six of us for the midday meal, after which Athena and her husband took a power nap before returning to their store, and then a late supper. That’s also when I realized that what Dad had been replicating with his afternoon nap in Saint John was the siesta that everyone takes in Greece.
Early in the morning, Athena would leave for their shop in the centre of Athens. But first, she used to drop the daily dinner off at the baker’s. The potatoes and carrots would be cut, the onions, and tomatoes, and garlic, and whatever the main ingredient would be … it might be chicken. There would be a lineup of women at the baker’s. The day’s baking would be done and the oven’s high temperature would begin to taper off. So basically, the prepared meals the women brought in big pans would be slow cooked. It would be just right by about one o’clock. And Athena would leave the shop early to pick up the hot meal from the bakery and bring it home. Because they didn’t have a stove in the house—just had a couple of little propane burners, I remember, in their little kitchen. (That would be ideal. You wouldn’t have the heat of the stove.) Exactly. And there’s a lot of the year when you really don’t want the heat of a stove in your home in Athens. (Would they charge something for that?) Yeah, I think there was a nominal fee charged by the baker.
(Would they have wine?) Yep, wine with the noon meal, wine with the evening meal. Evening meal tended to be late, you know. (And the siesta, that would be during the heat of the day I guess?) Yes, exactly.
(Why did you choose—or did somebody choose it for you—St. F.X.?) That’s a good question. Because there’s a story there. I was accepted at St. F.X. and Dal. There was quite a pipeline from the school I went to in Saint John—St. Malachy’s—and St. F.X.
(Was that a religious thing?) Yeah, it was a Catholic boys’ school. I was brought up Catholic. Irish Catholic, specifically. It was a brand of Catholicism. You know, there are Italian Catholics, there are Spanish Catholics, there are French Catholics. So, it was Irish Catholic in Saint John. It was a major port of entry for ships bringing immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s. Anyway, we didn’t do Broadway productions in the spring, we used to do these St. Patrick’s Day plays. There’s quite a store of material written. I think they were written in the States—in Boston and New York—for the Irish populations there, these original musicals with big casts. You wonder where a lot of the stereotypes come from? I remember one song called Shamrocks, Shillelaghs and Shenanigans—‘Put them all together and you’ve got an Irishman.’ I remember being in one production where there were gypsies on the outside of town. A local Irish girl and a gypsy guy get together and everybody’s opposed to it, of course, but eventually love reigns supreme. And they get married and all the people have a big, big party. Kind of like Romeo and Juliet without the bummer of an ending.
Anyway, I was offered a modest scholarship to St. F.X.—I think $400 per year. But I was accepted at Dal, too, and I guess I was kind of an outlier, because I was more curious about that. A Iot of friends were going to St. F.X. I’d never been to Antigonish. I’d been to Halifax maybe once with the school band. I decided to go (to Dalhousie). My father wasn’t happy.
So I was uptown in Saint John one day. I was walking through King’s Square and I ran into Father Dolan, a priest I knew. And he says, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Great, great, Father.’ ‘So, you’re going to St. F.X. in the fall?’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, no. I’ve decided to go to Dal.’ ‘Oh, really, really? Listen let’s go over to the Riviera restaurant’—which was just across the street, next door to where Nicholas Brothers used to be. I remember we had a grilled cheese sandwich and he talked with me. Again, I was very deferential and it was the time it was—1965—and he said, ‘Look, I know the registrar there. I’ll ask him to hold your letter in abeyance for a week while you think this over.’ So I caved and wrote Dal and said I wasn’t coming and wrote St. F.X. So I ended up at St. F.X., taking honours physics under an assumed name. (Laughter).
(Any regrets?) Oh, no point in having regrets. You can imagine, but what’s the use? What happened if you’d taken another choice? I really don’t know. Things worked out OK, I’d say. Aside from that three-year speed bump of taking honours physics.
(We were talking about your time after university and you said you’d done some substitute teaching.) Yeah. When I came back from Greece, I did a bit of that. And then I started doing contract work for the National Film Board, which was interesting. They called it audience relations. I had different projects, short-term projects, two or three months, to take out new films to target audiences. It might be some animation films or documentaries. It was mostly—not entirely—Atlantic productions, but national productions, too. And there would be some themed contracts I’d do.
The NFB contracts were great because they enabled me to travel all over the Atlantic Provinces and get to see places I’d only known as names on the map or in the news. And that came in very handy later on when I was working with Maritime Noon. I’d actually been to all these places.
I made a lot of contacts in that period because I’d have to make arrangements beforehand for these screenings. And then I would take the films around—16-millimetre films and a projector—and show them to a group, talk, and answer questions and discuss what we’d seen. One contract involved a couple of films about the Cree in Quebec who were being affected by the big James Bay hydro dam project. One was about their lifestyle, living on the land. The second was more about the negotiations with governments and possible environmental and social effects on their way of life. So I took that and screened it at every reserve in the Maritimes. That was really eye-opening and stood me in good stead for years afterwards. Because when else is a white guy going to get around to every last reserve in the Maritimes?
And then there was a community newspaper started up on a grant called The Echo—in Saint John in the mid-70s. I was writing several columns for that. But somewhere in there I had been interviewed by someone who was freelancing for CBC. It was a friend of mine, Irène Guerrette. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ There wasn’t a CBC station in Saint John at the time so she was doing interviews and sending them up to Fredericton. They did a show for Saint John from Fredericton. Sore point, of course, because Saint John was the biggest city in the province and we didn’t have our own station. Fredericton and Moncton did. She said, ‘Maybe they’re looking for freelance stuff.’ So, long story short, I got myself a tape recorder and started doing interviews and reviews and all that. I’d do it on cassette and put it on the bus and the bus would take it up to Fredericton and they would dub it from cassette to reel-to-reel. I know this sounds like ancient stuff. So I started doing that, too. Again, all freelance work.
(But was that something you would’ve had a comfort level with right from the start?) I was interested in trying it. Now the other thing, I became a single parent in 1974. I had a young son at the time, named Nick, after my father. So freelancing worked OK. My parents were very supportive. I could take him to their place if I was going to be out of town for two days or something. My girlfriend at the time, Lu, was also wonderful with him. That was great to have that help. The freelance thing worked OK. I was just trying to get by.
(That would have been your main gig at that point?) A little bit of everything. I’d get National Film Board contracts, doing stuff for radio, writing for The Echo. I worked at a daycare for a year. It was always pretty tight, financially. But CBC finally opened a station in Saint John in 1978. I had been freelancing for a few years, and I wasn’t just doing stuff for Saint John. I had started doing things for regional—and occasionally national—shows. Anyway, they knew me, they knew my work, so I was interviewed. I was hired as a producer for the new station to do the noon show. That was my first full-time job at age 30. I’d been working continuously, but never had a full-time job. It was a new experience, having a regular paycheque.
(Producer, what did that involve?) Well, finding stories, getting them to air. Writing. Editing tape. Directing the show. We had two co-hosts originally, George Jordan and Leslie MacKinnon. George lives here now and Leslie is semi-retired. She’s retired from CBC. She was a national reporter for a long time. Anyway, they were on the noon show. It was a half-hour show called Radio Noon One. The two-hour block between 12 and two was broken up into Radio Noon One, which was 12 to 12:30. And that was all local. Six local stations in the Maritimes had that. Radio Noon Two was from 12:30 till one and it was out of Halifax—like one regional show—and it was hard-core resources, you know, the hog prices, the lobster landings at various ports, all resource industry stuff.
They had two co-hosts in Halifax. And then from one until two was Radio Noon Three. That was an arts program out of Halifax—regional. Jim Bennet was hosting it. Jim’s still alive. Lovely man.
Anyway, I was doing the Saint John Radio Noon One—12 to 12:30—and we jammed a lot in there. We did three original stories a day. And then at one point, they started an afternoon show out of Saint John, a four to six show, so I began producing that.
(Not both?) No. It coincided with the time they decided they would regionalize the whole Radio Noon thing out of Halifax, from 12 to two. So I was then producing the new afternoon show—an urban four to six show—which was fine. Stan Carew was co-hosting with Jacqui Good. But then when Stan went to Halifax, there was a position open, so they hired a fellow who was a good technician in the station until they could interview for a permanent co-host. The first round of interviews didn’t yield an obvious replacement for Stan, who had been very good on-air. Meanwhile, the co-hosting thing was not working out very well. Technically, a genuinely co-hosted show is very tricky. The timing and pacing are of the essence. There has to be good rapport between the hosts and everyone has to be sharp about giving and getting the cues. It wasn’t quite working out. So we hobbled along for a few more months. I decided I’d apply (as host). And surprisingly, I got the job. That’s how I got into hosting. And since I had been producing, I already had an idea and vision of how things were supposed to flow and sound, and how I could execute it. I was co-hosting with Jacqui Good, who was also a good friend. Then she left with her partner for jobs in Winnipeg and I co-hosted with a great guy named Jeff Collins from Newfoundland. The show did really well in Saint John.
And then in 1985—Jennifer and I married in ’84—I was recruited to work in Quebec City. I got the job to host a new afternoon show they were starting up for all the English-speaking communities that weren’t on Montreal Island, from the Ontario border to the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands. So we were in Quebec City from ’85 to ’87, and our son Al was born there in ’87. But professionally, I wasn’t really happy with the situation there. There were some great people, and we keep in touch. I love Quebec City and Quebec culture. But I just felt the CBC station in Quebec City was like the broadcast arm of the English rights group Alliance Quebec. You know, it wasn’t objective enough. It was just a little bit too promotional and I was really uncomfortable with that.
I told you I was hired for the startup of this new afternoon show. I was working as a newsreader on the morning show with Jennifer Fry while they hired a producer and researcher for the new show. But a week or two after I arrived, Jeannette Kelly, who was doing a network show called Radio Active about the music of the French-speaking world, announced she was going on maternity leave. And they asked me if I’d do it. It was a two-hour network show, once a week. Luckily, they hooked me up with a really good, very knowledgeable guy named Jean Beauchesne who was the researcher. But he also was the programmer for the Festival d’Été—the wonderful 10-day summer festival in Quebec City—and he knew a ton about music. He also taught philosophy at one of the junior colleges. Anyway, interesting cat. It was a good pairing. We became great friends. A busy time, you know, doing the five three-hour (afternoon) shows a week plus this two-hour network show that had to be researched, scripted and pre-recorded.
(And you had a general interest in music?) Yeah, always. (You play bass?) Yeah, yeah. Pretty basic, though. (Did you take music lessons as a young person?) Yeah, took piano lessons even though we didn’t have a piano. I used to go after school to practise at the convent of the Sisters of Charity. Then from the convent, I’d go down to the lunch counter and do my homework, have supper and handle the candy counter until nine o’clock. (Costas laughs).
(Was that a deferential thing? Were you told you were going to lessons?) No, I was interested. You know, a lot of friends were taking piano lessons. I always enjoyed learning music. And then I was in school choirs in junior high right through high school. In the high school band I took up saxophone.
And I didn’t mention the jukebox at Nick’s Coffee Counter. There was a completely mixed bag of stuff on there. Everything from pop music to the birth of rock and roll, old-time country music—Kitty Wells—and even some classical pieces. (How often would they get played?) The classical? Mmm, now and then, now and then.
The guy came in—Joe Stephens, nice guy—and changed the 45s every couple of weeks, and I was always interested in the B sides. I knew what the hits were. But some of the flip sides, they intrigued me. (And you or your father would have no influence on what records they had?) No, I would ask Joe, and I’d make some requests. He’d get things from time to time if he could—a new Elvis or something, new Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis.
(And did you play in any rock bands as a young person?) No. That came much later. I was in the school band made up of students from three high schools. We had a concert band. It was fun. We did some annual band trips. We went over to Maine in early June, up to northern Maine towns. They had marching bands in uniforms. We were the only band that played sitting down.
(So you were in Quebec City and you weren’t too comfortable with the atmosphere?) Well, its relation to the anglophone lobby group Alliance Quebec specifically. The guy working on the morning show was clearly grooming himself for the position of president using his on-air presence to buff up his brand. And to nobody’s—not to my surprise for sure—he ran for it and became president of Alliance Quebec. Absolutely, their issues should be covered. But the way they were covered—uncritically—irked me.
So I made a call to Halifax to see if anything was opening up. Turned out there were several openings in ’87 because people were retiring. So I was hired here and went to work on the noon show with Elizabeth Haines. It was a two-hour regional show. The first hour was mainly resource industries, and the second hour was just becoming the full-time phone-in.
(Why was it Halifax you were interested in?) Well, it was a regional centre. There was lots going on at CBC Halifax, lots of radio programming. My wife Jennifer is from Nova Scotia. She’s originally from Brookfield—near Truro—and her parents, Turk and Vera, were here in Dartmouth. I had met her when she was working in Saint John for ATV. Unlike me, she went to journalism school. She wrote for The Barometer right out of high school. She went to King’s and then took the one-year journalism program at Carleton. After Carleton, she went to Calgary. She worked for a TV station out there, which was not the direction she was heading in at all. But it was a job. And then she got hired in Saint John, which is where I met her. As I say, her family was here. They hadn’t seen much of her for several years. She has a big extended family. Her aunts and uncles and cousins, they’re all pretty much in Nova Scotia. You know, we had lived in Saint John for a few years, and then we were in Quebec, and it was good to get back home in the Maritimes.
(And was it called Maritime Noon then?) No, it was still called Radio Noon. But I remember we had a little contest to name it. Anyway, someone—a blind woman from Yarmouth, I believe—came up with Maritime Noon. It seemed to make sense. Said it all.
(It wasn’t a new format?) No. As I say, I think they’d been kind of experimenting with the second hour phone-in or expanding it. And they already had some people who became regulars and who are still on—people like Marjorie Willison and Bob Bancroft.
(Did you get any feedback on how you were doing as host?) The ratings were doing well. Hate to sound like Donald Trump, but the ratings were improving. (Laughter). I don’t know how much of it was due to me, though. We had a good team. That was the main thing. We had correspondents in each of the three provinces who contributed and were doing original stories. We used to have two people in P.E.I., but Mac Campbell—the late Mac Campbell—was the fisheries expert for the region and he really covered the three Maritime provinces on all fisheries issues. Very, very knowledgeable. And John Jeffries at the time was doing the agricultural side of things in P.E.I. Then we had a guy in Fredericton, David Malcolm, who would do all the resource industries—it didn’t have to be resources, he could do other issues—in New Brunswick. And we had someone up in Sydney, different people over the years.
And then they decided that they didn’t want to do a co-hosted show anymore. They wanted me to anchor the show and Elizabeth to be a mainland Nova Scotia correspondent. And then they got her to become the Sydney correspondent. So she moved up there. The way it evolved was that we had one correspondent in each province.
(Sounds like there was quite a bit of emphasis on resources at that time.) Oh, there was. You know, the urban issues get covered to death in the morning and afternoon shows. They really don’t get out in the field much. We just didn’t want to do redundant stuff.
You use your human resources to work on longer-term things, so they don’t necessarily have to have something up every day. We chased interviews that I would do in Halifax, of course, but the correspondents were getting great original pieces from the field. Short radio documentaries or what we call ‘talk-tapes,’ where they would be in their studio, talk with me and introduce clips of interviews they’d done with people involved on various sides of a story.
And the regional format is a great platform. Let’s say our New Brunswick correspondent did something on an innovative health program in that province. Well, the other two from Nova Scotia and P.E.I. would chip in because they’re in different jurisdictions. They’d compare and contrast and write up something for their colleague so the regional audience would get an overview. And that generated audience feedback. Because there’s a lot more in common in the three provinces than what separates us, I think. It was good.
A regional show makes a lot of sense because the populations are what they are in the Maritimes. When you pool them in a regional show, you have a big enough potential audience to draw for the phone-in. Private radio stations started having local phone-ins because they’re cheap to do. But you’ve only got a portion of the radio audience in one town, and the rest of the people might be listening to music on other stations. The competition in a local market doesn’t really leave many people for your phone-in. So the privates would get the same people calling every day. And there are some people who feel their opinion is important about everything. (Costas laughs). These would be men. Certain men. That’s what kills local phone-in shows. And they’re open line very often. They’re not focused. Ours were always focused on a topic. So that forced you to think about it before you called.
(Talking about your format, there was always an expert, someone on?) There was always a guest. It was never just me with an open line. Always a guest. (With their theme or their expertise?) Yeah, yeah. And, you know, someone might have a new book out. It was usually non-fiction, because non-fiction would be about a theme or topic which people might be familiar with. As opposed to fiction—which I love—but people would not have read the book. It’s new, so they couldn’t call in with their comments about the story or characters, could they? The exception was Timothy Findley. Whenever he had a new novel, he loved doing phone-ins. He had a following because he had quite a number of books out by that time, so he always stopped in. He was originally trained as an actor and he loved the high-wire act of fielding questions. (And he would do that when?) Whenever he was in Halifax. He’d come and do our phone-in show. And (the show) eventually got a very good reputation with publishers because it was a structured phone-in. We never had to state any rules or anything. Over time, people got the idea that this is not a show where you call in with half-baked ideas and rant. Sorry, yeah, you might once but …
(Would you gently train people or not so gently?) You know, they listened. Radio has listeners. They listen to the tone of a show. They pick up on it. I was fortunate to have a long string of good producers who built on what we had. Good content is the key. A range of content. Radio for grown-ups.
(Was that a conscious thing on your part?) Well, I think the whole show’s premise was that this was a place to discuss things. I’m not a shock jock. (Costas laughs). Never could be. Not interested. I was always interested in the long game, building an audience and being known as someone who was fair with guests, but still able to ask reasonable questions on behalf of the audience. There would be interviews, say, in the first hour. I’d be doing interviews along with the reports of the correspondents. And over time, people figure you out. They have their idea of who you are and they become part of it … very much part of the show’s culture.
People seemed to like what we were doing. And it wasn’t just me. It’s a team. We had a producer, an associate producer and our correspondents, and it worked really well. Of course, there was turnover over the years. I was there 23 years on Maritime Noon. But even through different producers, there was a real continuity there in approach. I mean, we’d try different things, make slight changes to the show, tweaks. But it was good.
And then when they axed our correspondents and told us we were going to have two staff—a producer and I in Halifax, and a shared technician—for a one-hour show for the region, that was that. (Costas laughs). That’s not living up to the CBC mandate. You can’t reflect the region to itself with two people sitting at desks in Halifax. It cannot be done—sorry—you have to have people out there dedicated to going out and getting stories in all three provinces.
(How long would that have been before you retired?) Oh, I retired the next year. I agreed to stay on until this one-hour format came in. My producer Deborah Woolway and I were there. And it was just terrible because we both had this institutional memory of the show—what it was, what it did, what it had accomplished. It was a successful program and we had built an audience. And then to do this. I felt it was dishonest to be picking up a paycheque because we weren’t fulfilling the CBC’s mandate.
(And you weren’t going out on a high note career-wise.) Yeah. On a personal level, it was not gratifying at all. We seemed to alternate. You know, you’d be so depressed about it, what was going on and what you were being reminded of what you couldn’t do. So you’d try to cheer up the person who was feeling low. It was pretty dismal. It was really awful.
(What year did you retire?) I retired in 2010. And my producer, Deborah—who’s eight or nine years younger than me and a great journalist—retired within a few months, too. She really didn’t like it.
(So that was during the Harper years.) Well, it didn’t have to do with Harper so much. In fact, there had been cutbacks ever since I was hired at the CBC. (Costas laughs). I was hired in ’78. I was just remembering a particular incident when the director of New Brunswick—of radio and TV—called a closed-circuit meeting with the three stations in early December. And he said, ‘Don’t go overboard buying presents this Christmas. Don’t buy a car. Certainly don’t buy a house.’ That’s how he opened. That was in the early ’80s and it continued. There were big cuts during the Chrétien years and not just at the CBC. There were cuts to all kinds of public things. So that’s all I knew. My whole career, there were cuts to the CBC.
But this was of a different order. There was the guy who was head of the CBC at the time, this megalomaniac called Richard Stursberg. Really offensive person. You know, it was all about TV and ratings and he basically hounded the director of radio out of her job. Radio didn’t bring in ad revenue, so he considered it a liability. He was apparently very abusive towards her at meetings. She left and then he took over radio budgets.
So, they basically just siphoned the gas out of the tank of radio. And they put all their eggs in the basket of TV ratings. That’s when you started getting all the reality shows. And this was the period when this guy hired Jian Ghomeshi, who was a fellow megalomaniac, and going after the big American market. The morning show hooked up with PRI (Public Radio International) in the States and the content shifted. And it’s still that way. Tom Power (host of the CBC national morning show Q) is a good guy and a good interviewer, especially with musicians. But I don’t know whether I’m in Kansas or where the hell I am when I listen to that show, with all the concentration on pop culture.
The shift that occurred then, it was a real cultural shift within CBC. It was not a good one. It doesn’t follow the mandate. It’s not delivering to Canadians. (Do you ever get a sense that changes like that could be reversed or would be reversed?) I’ll believe it when I hear it. I think The Current is doing excellent work. Cross Country Checkup is pretty good.
But is it radio for adults or not? Or is it all pop culture all the time? Or recycling podcasts instead of doing original work? Is it all these self-absorbed first-person things instead of getting out into communities and finding out the stories of people you’ve never met before and sharing those?
You gotta get out of the building. You have to get out of the city sometimes or dig more deeply in the city and not just have the media following each other on a couple of obvious stories. Who’s doing the original stuff? It’s like why go out to a club if the only bands are doing covers of hits? If you were never going to hear another local band that was doing original stuff, would you go to a club? I wouldn’t.
(Your approach to hosting is to keep yourself out of it as much as possible other than to move things along. Where did that come from?) I found it worked. It’s always about the content. It’s ridiculous the prominence you get if you’re on-air as a host. Basically, I was a civil servant. I happened to be on-air on radio. But I was doing a job. And the job was to talk to people about things that had happened to them or things they knew a lot about and share that with the audience and ask questions that a reasonably intelligent person listening might ask. That’s all. You’re working on their behalf. You’re working for the audience.
I was on every day. Why would I blather about myself? The person you’re talking to—it might be the only time they’re ever on the radio because of the circumstances of the story. It’ll certainly be memorable for them. Very often people are nervous—even if it’s something they know about. The host’s job is just to make them comfortable, conduct the interview, get the information out. That’s it.
I finally talked CBC, at one point, into letting me develop a course for radio hosts. Because there’s this feeling that people are born—not made—as hosts. Which is ridiculous. It’s a trade. There are a lot of things you really do need to know and need to think about if you’re going to be a host. If you’re an egomaniac who just wants to be on-air—whether it’s radio or TV—that’s another thing, that’s what drives you. But you’re supposed to be serving the whole audience.
The course was mostly for people who would be filling in as hosts for the first time, say, in the summer when the regular hosts are away. Management might get someone from the newsroom or someone who’d been a researcher or whom they thought might be acceptable on air. The people on the course seemed to be happy to stop and think about this thing they were going to do, instead of just trying to replicate whatever the host they knew had been doing.
Again, I would reinforce that it’s not about you. You’re going to be well-known regardless. They’ll know your name. You don’t have to tell them what your favourite hockey team is, how cute your kids are, the witty thing your friend said, whether you’re straight or gay, whether you have a cat or a dog—any of that stuff—because it makes you too particular. The listeners start to put these personal revelations together. It’s like a mosaic. For instance, they figure, ‘Oh yeah, so your favourite hockey team is this.’ That means the people out there who have 19 other favourite teams really don’t like yours, so they don’t think you’re going to give them a fair shake. Or, more seriously, if you’re going on about your kids and how wonderful it is having them—a big event and all that kind of stuff—what about the couples struggling to try to have a child at home? Do they need to hear about that? And will they think that they will get a fair shake or that you will empathize with them when you’re interviewing them about this thing that’s very critical in their lives?
It’s true what McLuhan said about radio—it’s the ‘hot’ medium in the sense that listeners are very engaged. They’ve only got your voice to go on. They don’t know what you look like. If you start painting the picture for them, they won’t necessarily get a good likeness, but they will form an impression of who you are.
But if you’re not giving a lot about yourself—if your talk is all about the subject matter—that’s where they tend to focus. Then they’re judging you on, say, are you fair, are you asking good questions. Basically, the matters of the trade. I think that’s what matters for a radio host, especially if you want to be at it for a good long time and create a show that people want to be on or know that it’ll be a good experience when they listen. Or if it’s an accountability interview, you won’t be out there leading the crowd with pitchforks about a particular issue. You know, you’ll listen to all sides of it and you’ll ask challenging questions.
(You have a distinct speaking voice.) Well, it’s distinct because I was on the air. You’re conscious of it on air—modulating your voice, and so on. You can’t be shouting into the microphone. (Costas laughs). You can play with voice it to a certain extent. It depends on the circumstances.
(But would you have access to old tape? Would you be able to hear yourself back in the ’70s?) Oh yeah, there are some old cassettes down there in the basement rotting away. (Would you sound different? Would that have changed?) Not a whole lot. I’m older so the register’s a little lower. That’s about it. You know, when Peter Gzowski started, was that a radio voice? No. But because he was on the radio, that became a radio voice. People define it based on who they hear. For a long time, women were not prominent as hosts because they weren’t deemed to have radio voices. Well, now we have plenty of female hosts and commentators, so it’s all normalized. It’s great. Listeners will decide which voices or personalities they like. That’s always subjective.
(Can you tell me how you got into the spices?) I’ve been going up to Montreal for more than 50 years—ever since Expo ’67. My eldest guy, Nick, is a very good cook. And I noticed he had this brand of spices in distinctive cans. Épices de Cru in French. Spicetrekkers in English. He took me up to the Jean-Talon Market where he bought them. I originally bought a few spices and blends I was familiar with, like Madras Curry and Herbes de Provence. I really liked them. And then on other trips, I started getting blends I’d never heard of before. And they had a good website with recipes. Now these are whole spices. You have to grind them yourself. It was so different from the ground spices, which, God knows, have been knocking around through middlemen for three or four years before they show up in some generic packaging. It was a world of difference in flavour. And they had spices in kits and I would get them as gifts for friends.
So I was familiar with their products. About the second day I was retired—since I had no plan—I wrote them a letter and I said, ‘I really love your products. I got to know them when I was up visiting the kids. Have you ever considered selling them out East?’ So they wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for writing a letter. We don’t get many letters anymore. But the answer to your question is, no, we’ve never considered selling spices out East. But next time you’re visiting your children, let’s get together and talk.’
So we did. It’s a couple, Philippe and Ethné de Vienne. Really interesting couple. He’s a Montrealer. I think his parents were from France, but he grew up in Montreal. She’s from Trinidad. They met at college and got married and they had a catering business. He was trained as a chef and then they got into a catering business. And she was a model in her 20s after college. She was actually getting modelling gigs and he would go along with her sometimes to these exotic locations and he’d go to the market and check things out. Always interested in the foods. And he worked in Mexico for a while too—Oaxaca—and they started making their own blends and then making blends for other people in the food industry that they knew.
Then they decided they’d go into the spice business and they got a retail outlet, this place in the Jean-Talon Market. And it took off. At the time I went up to meet with them in the fall of 2010, I was really thinking of just representing them. And then I thought, ‘A lot of people don’t use whole spices and grinding them. Maybe they need a little hand-holding.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I have this background selling stuff to people across a counter and maintaining inventories and making bank deposits and all that. So yeah, I could give that a try.’ And I wanted to do something completely different. I didn’t want to go looking for other kinds of radio work. It was funny, my identity was never based on being on radio at all.
I decided while I was up there, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ So I got the initial order and shipped it down. And within a couple of weeks—by December—I was selling spices at the Brewery Market. And I had a lot of help from my friend and neighbour Ruth, who has a background in library sciences among other things. She’s retired, so she had time and she really pitched in a lot more than I expected. I thought she was just helping to get me started, which was great. But she came with me to the market every Saturday and sold spices for the whole first year. And as I found out, she’s a great saleswoman.
(You don’t do the spices anymore?) No, I wound that up selling at the market at the end of 2016. I kind of wanted my weekends back. I hoped by that time a market for the spices had been established here—in Halifax at least. I told people where they could go to get them.
(So, no problem filling your time now?) I don’t have enough time. (Costas laughs). I audition for voice-over work now. There’s a site that’s a broker between people who want audio work done and people who’ll do it. So I started doing that in 2017. You sign up and get set up technically with a microphone and a recording interface with your laptop. You know, I’ll do ‘middle-aged senior citizen.’ And it could be anything—documentaries, an ad, an internal presentation, an awards ceremony, just about anything. (And it could be anywhere?) Anywhere in the world. The company is based in London, Ontario but they’re international. My friend Doug Barron—he plays drums in our band, the BBQ Kings—has been at this for a long time, so he’s built up a clientele. I’m a newbie. And I’ve just started doing a podcast for Nimbus Publishing called Book Me!—interviews with Atlantic Canadian authors and illustrators and anyone involved in publishing.
(Did you want to discuss the kids a little bit?) Nick is the eldest, born in ’74. And Al was born in 1987 when we were in Quebec City, just a few months before we moved here. And Maria was born in 1991.
Nick is a server in Montreal. He’s been up there since 1993. He’d worked in the restaurant trade here a bit after high school school. But he’s a professional waiter and a very good cook. They’re as thick as thieves, the three of them. It’s hilarious. They love taking the piss out of us. The more they can tease, the better it is.
(And Maria, what’s she doing in Toronto?) She’s a copywriter with an ad agency. That’s all she was really interested in. She’s very involved in music. She’s in a women’s choir called Cantala and they went to New York in April of 2018. There’s a guy called Eric Whitacre. He’s a big choral composer, you know, the Sting figure. Gorgeous blonde hair, just a little bit of stubble, a very engaging guy. Very down-to-earth, too, as it turns out. But he’s quite a dramatic-looking character. He’s built up quite a repertoire of choral music. Anyway, her choir was selected. Choirs auditioned from all over North America. He assembled 250 voice choirs for the first and second half of his program at the Lincoln Center. Jennifer and I and Nick went down to be supportive. It was quite something. My first trip to New York and it was a fantastic, fantastic program. Very, very entertaining.
(With you and Jennifer in journalism, none of them dabbled in that at all?) No. And they received no encouragement. (Costas laughs).
They all love music. They’re all good writers. They all love to dance and goof around together. Al got an undergraduate degree in percussion at McGill. He graduated in 2009. He got his nursing degree in 2018—so now he’s a nurse. But he’s played in a reserves band in Montreal—Les Fusiliers de Montréal—for quite a while. That’s where he met his partner, Myriam. She plays euphonium. He’s moved up in the ranks and he’s now a sergeant in the reserves and still playing.
He was doing a lot of refereeing of basketball games, too. Al’s always had a knack for making money from the things he likes to do. He loved basketball, but instead of deluding himself thinking he was going to the NBA, he started refereeing back in high school and he got up to a fairly high level with the junior college games in Montreal.
Myriam’s a teacher. She teaches at a school for profoundly handicapped children and it’s in the public system. It’s not a private school. Very interesting, a different approach. But she’s a music teacher, not a music therapist. She deals with each individual kid and finds what in music interests them. It might be beating on something or it might be singing or whatever, and she sort of crafts something for that kid to do and works with them. There have been a lot of breakthroughs. It’s a very different model. Here, we have full-on integration in the regular school system and a lot of teachers and even parents had issues with that. They have integration in a lot of the public schools, too, in Montreal. But this is a stand-alone school in the public system. It’s really interesting stuff.
And they got involved in sports, Al and Maria. We’re here in Dartmouth, within a block of Lake Banook. So Al got into kayaking and Maria got into canoeing. And they both did very well. But that’s damn hard work. Down there at six in the morning, paddling. And training year-round. They played other sports too. Al played basketball and Maria played soccer. But they both got into paddling and, good God, the training. The weight training, the fitness, the running, and then the competitions.
Al and his partner, they won a national event one time. Set a Canadian record. His partner—who was a better paddler than he was—was the golden boy. Literally, he looked like this young Robert Redford and he had it all. He was doing very well academically in science. Of course, at that level, you’re training in the winter. You go down to train in Florida. His father went to wake him up to catch the plane. He was dead. Some congenital heart thing. And it really just shattered that whole cohort. (What was his name?) Mike Schaus. And it was just a few months before Al graduated. When Al did his senior recital for his music degree at McGill, he dedicated it to Mike.
And then Maria was in canoeing. The other thing is, both men’s and women’s kayak are Olympic events. Men’s canoe is an Olympic event. But women’s canoe is not. (Costas laughs). So she was determined to go as far as she could and to promote women in canoe. She and another gal here in Dartmouth—Jenna Marks—qualified to compete for Canada in all these other events in the C-2—the two-person canoe. And a week after she graduated from Grade 12, they were in Rio for the Pan American Games, and they won. Then they had the world juniors on Lake Banook. They won for Canada on that. Jenna has gone into filmmaking in animation. So they competed at a really elite level.
But Maria made a decision. She knew what was involved if she wanted to continue competing … that incredible amount of training. She just wanted to get on with her life. So she does some coaching, some training of dragon boaters now, which is different.
(When you were in your teens and getting ready to go to university, working at the lunch counter, that wasn’t in the cards from your parents?) I had no idea what to do. My father wanted me to be a doctor. A lot of immigrants want their kids to be doctors. But I wasn’t interested in being a doctor. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to go on to university. So just drifted into it.
(But from their point of view, there was no way you were going to take over the business?) No. And it was funny, when I was producing the radio show, my father couldn’t really get a handle on what I was doing. Producing was kind of hard to explain. When I got on air, then it was fine. Then he got it, you know, what I was doing. Now you’re on air.
(Was there some pride there?) Yeah, I think so. Because it was recognizable. (Would he say anything or was it just kind of understood?) Oh yeah, he said, ‘I heard you on the radio the other morning.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, Dad, I’m on in the afternoon.’ ‘No, no. I heard you, I heard you.’ ‘No, I’m not on in the morning.’ He thought it was me. (Costas laughs). I said, ‘I don’t think they replayed anything from the afternoon.’ He might have been half-listening and they mentioned the name as a promo for the afternoon or something.
But, you know, when people would tell him that they heard me or something, that would register with him. That mattered. But it was just expected that we do well and apply ourselves at school. Basically, we were kind of lower middle-class economic status and I never dared to dream about being a doctor or a lawyer or anything. I always assumed that was sort of in families—families of doctors or dentists or lawyers. It never crossed my mind that I could do that. (Would that have changed when you started university?) Not really. I was in university then, taking physics, then English. You’re in the middle of all that. A lot of it is the social whirl and your classes and studies. But again, anything else—like a profession—seemed so remote.
(You kind of drifted into things and eventually landed a position which makes you known regionally. Does that say that sometimes we’re too focused on what kids should do straight out of school?) Yes. I’m not one of these ‘follow your dreams’ people at all. I’m just so tired of hearing that. Go out and do something you’re interested in. But do it. You really do have to apply yourself. It’s not just because you want to be something. You have to work at it.