PETER WARREN
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--- "(for my eyes only")

In Your Face
B.C.’s fiercest radio talk-show host unmasked.

by Noel Hulsman


BC Business, May 2003 issue

 

Peter Warren is waiting for me at the bar, drink in hand. He nods towards a back table. If Hemingway had the El Floridita, and Mordecai Richler, Winnie’s on Crescent Street, this is Warren’s retreat, Panama Jacks – a tropicalthemed sports bar tucked next to the Holiday Inn on the cheap end of Howe Street. Warren’s here every Friday night to watch the fights live on satellite TV. In his 20s he moonlighted briefly as a pro boxer, a sport not all that different from his preferred style of journalism. Now 40 years later, he’s moved from the typewriter to the radio mike, though he remains a scrapper and a master of the duck and weave.

Ask him why, in a bar, he’s drinking milk out of a beer stein, and he dekes. “I just drink milk or wine,” he says, moving on. I notice his hands, scarred and trembling, but later, when I want to ask about them, his body language and his tone warn me away from landing what he views as body blows too close. And just as he can weave, he can also strike. Tough on callers to his weekend radio show who can’t get to the point or who spout ideas that Warren thinks are nonsense, he’s even tougher on guests who try to duck for cover. Nasima Nastoh recently discovered that when she went on the show to discuss her son Hamid, the Surrey teenager who jumped from the Pattullo Bridge. While a mostly sympathetic Warren let her deliver her message about the horrors of bullying, he kept at her until she divulged to the audience where she keeps her son’s suicide note.

It’s a different Warren when the focus is turned around, when it’s my questions that get closer to the bone. His bones. The bravado dissolves, gone too is the expansiveness, the gregariousness. “I’m outta here,” he threatens, pointing to the exit, the direction he’ll walk if the conversation encroaches any further on personal matters.

That Peter Warren can be gruff and intimidating isn’t revelatory to those who listen to him on CKNW every weekend. But less known are the layers of protection in which he wraps himself. Barb, our waitress this day, may know him well enough to know that when he asks for “that regular thing” it means the prawns and pasta dish, and that tonight he’ll be sitting here watching the fights with the same two guys. But tell Barb (or those guys) that tomorrow morning more than 33,000 people will tune in to hear what their buddy has to say and she’d cut you off from the bar.

They have no idea that this genial Brit, perennially in jeans and rumpled shirts, is the longest running radio talk show host in North America. That he’s interviewed more than 16,000 people, including six prime ministers, and that Pierre Trudeau, of all people, considered a round with him to be so harrowing that it was “worse than Question Period on Parliament Hill.”

Warren doesn’t want them to know any of it. “I’m anonymous here,” he says. “That’s what I like.” There’s nothing peculiar about being discreet or wanting privacy, and in other circumstances Peter Warren could just be your average quiet guy … were it not for his marking his arrival on open line radio in Vancouver four years ago by calling B.C. Supreme Court Justice Duncan Shaw a “bonehead” (for his controversial decision on child pornography) and by telling one caller to “stick it in your ear” before hanging up on him. Soon he was calling born-again Christians “the scum of the earth,” and British Columbians were beginning to appreciate why Warren’s Action Line show in Winnipeg, which he hosted for 27 years, was known as the Achtung Line.

“Literally, all I did for the first few weeks when Peter came was field calls from angry listeners,” says Ian Koenigsfest, CKNW’s public affairs director. “People couldn’t believe that this gentle family-owned station would put a Warren on the air.” (One caller became so irate, he threatened to meet Warren in the station’s underground parking lot, and then began stalking him, requiring the station to post a police officer in the studio.)

The narrow bands of radio make it easy to go straight to caricature, skipping past ‘complicated’ or ‘interesting’ in the listener’s mind. Warren is both complicated and interesting, qualities that are often overshadowed by his pugnacious mien and his penchant for that famous bark – “Get on with it” – which he hurls at callers who have the audacity to ask him how’s he’s doing. (Regular listeners know some callers do it just to hear the words; it works.)

Talk to his colleagues though, and you’ll hear no tales of bombast or whispers of grandstanding; rather they speak of his quietness and kindness, about the bookish, private Peter Warren, the man at Panama Jacks who would sooner walk away than reveal too much. “He’s extremely loyal,” says Dr. Art Hister, host of CKNW’s House Calls, “but he’s the kind of guy, that if you met him at a party, he’d be the one in the corner with a cigarette not talking to anybody.” Warren’s office at CKNW is a modest, glass-walled space that he shares with Bill Good. Nineteen floors below, Howe and Georgia intersect, and though the views from here are spectacular, they’re on Good’s side of the office. So too are the family snapshots and mementoes of stardom – the photos with Bill Clinton, with Rudolph Giuliani. Above Warren’s desk hang only a few mildewed, yellowed newspaper clippings, a cartoon, some scraps. Nothing to suggest, for instance, that he’s been married to the same woman, retired CBC radio producer Gabrielle Rogg, for 22 years, that he has three sons, or that he’s been a journalist for 47 of his 61 years.

What is known about him in the station is his prodigious work ethic and his dogged won’t-be-shaken pursuit of a story, especially if it involves the disparaged or wrongly accused – as he sees it. He was barely on the air in Vancouver before launching a very noisy – and at that point, lonely – investigation into the missing women of the Downtown Eastside. He got psychics, sniffer dogs and private dicks involved and brought them into the studio to talk about their findings. That few in the media or police and even fewer in the community appeared interested in these women constrained Warren not an inch. “It wasn’t even a consideration,” he says, looking back.

In Winnipeg he hammered against the wrongful murder conviction of Thomas Sophonow with the same intensity, returning to it like a worry-stone, and prepping for each story on the subject as if he was Sophonow’s defence lawyer. (“If you think Rafe goes on about salmon farming…” he says.) His stamina remains legendary. While most radio hosts arrive two, occasionally three, hours before their show airs, Warren readies for his Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. start before 6 a.m. That’s only a slight drop from his Winnipeg days, when he’d routinely turn up “with his notes and his research piled from his chin to his chest” in the middle of the night, according to CJOB news director Vic Grant.

“Nobody was better prepared than Peter Warren,” says Grant, “nobody.”

That commitment has paid significant dividends for CKNW. When Warren ‘retired’ to Victoria from Winnipeg in 1998, the station’s midday audience was hovering in the 15,000-range on weekends. Since signing on at CKNW and taking over the 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. slot, Warren has more than doubled listeners to 33,300. Well worth the price of putting him up each weekend, after the floatplane from Victoria touches down in Vancouver’s harbor on Friday afternoons.

In his studio on this sunday in december, three minutes before his show starts, Warren leans back, hands behind his head, and waits for his guest, former Musqueam chief Gail Sparrow, to arrive. He bears little resemblance to the man who will soon be heard on the air. Now, he is soft-spoken and gently inquisitive, carefully listening to the answers he seeks from his visitor from BCBusiness. (So carefully, in fact, he can recall details of my family more than six weeks later.) The contrast between the public showman and the private introvert is common in the radio business, but with Warren the duality seems especially acute. “He’s a sweetheart of a guy, a lovely person,” says Art Hister, “which is what nobody would believe.”

Off the air, the only hint of his famous impatience arises when the digital read-out has clicked down to 1:30 seconds, and there’s still no sign of Sparrow. Warren’s producer scrambles to find her and is saved when she bustles in just as the show’s intro begins.

(What would he have done without a guest? “Dog shit on the street,” he says with a cackle. “It could be a sunny Saturday afternoon in the summer, nobody’s listening to the radio … you start talking about dog shit and the phone board will light up, guaranteed, dog lovers, dog haters, you name it.”)

Sparrow is here to discuss ‘native nepotism’ and she tells stories of Las Vegas junkets and chiefs showering $90,000-ayear jobs on their uncles and cousins and kids. As she talks, Warren keeps drilling down, pressing her for more evidence, more examples. This time, he’s the prosecutor, and as the segment wears on, he grows increasingly incensed and begins berating an unnamed local chief who ducked requests to appear on the air.

Yet he remains balanced, eagerly concurring with a caller who notes that you need only look at the federal Liberals to know that nepotism is not confined to aboriginal leaders. It’s a different Warren though, five minutes later, when a caller wants to second that point. “That’s not the topic,” he snaps. He’s fair, yes, but he’s not going to be pushed off a story.

The discussion continues for almost an hour. It’s informative, lively radio, interrupted only occasionally by callers like the woman in Edmonton, complaining extraterrestrials are talking to her again.

“You called last week,” snorts Warren.

“I did not, I, um…”

“Yes you did, and I’m going to tell you what I told you last week: Go stand on your porch and put metal pots to your ears. You won’t hear them.” Click.

Yes, Warren is impatient and often harsh with the dingbats and cranks – as he sees them, anyway – who call up, though when he’s reminiscing, it’s the eccentrics he recalls with warmth. The interview with the stuttering president of a stuttering association, who was still a virgin in middle age, brings forth a long and touching anecdote. His four interviews with Chretien? “Him, yeah, I’ve talked to him.”

The politicians make nice milestones, and the photos on his website of him with Trudeau, Diefenbaker, Chretien and Kim Campbell underscore his pride, but his appeal has always been in his willingness to venture into the shadows to retrieve stories others have deemed either too grisly or too self-inflicted to warrant sympathy. In Vancouver he set the tone early with his focus on Vancouver’s missing women, before they became a cause célèbre. And while no one survives in radio without a shtick, with Warren the caring is real. When a CKNW employee developed a cocaine habit and left the station, it was Warren who took him under his wing, taking him to boxing matches, and inviting him to his Victoria home, to the consternation of his wife. (To Warren this is work best unsung; he didn’t offer this story, and wouldn’t expand on it.)

This morning there would be only one “Get on with it” – to Roger from Saskatchewan. “People know by now,” he says, explaining that he could squeeze five more calls into the time it would take to recite, again and again, yes, thanks, he’s fine. Rafe Mair, Bill Good and Dan Russell may tolerate it; he won’t. “I never got asked it in Winnipeg; I had [the audience] trained,” he says, wistfully.

it was in winnipeg where warren’s attack-dog persona first surfaced and where it often ran roughshod over just about anyone. “He would go after sacred cows,” says VSO conductor Bramwell Tovey, who spent 12 years with the Winnipeg Symphony before moving west. “He wasn’t afraid to take on people with reputations, to probe and check if they deserved those reputations.”

Warren holds a deep and abiding hatred of hubris and pretension, and to this day he froths at the slightest hint of elitism. Mention the CBC and the air turns blue. Peter Gzowski, the Canadian icon? “An asshole.” The rest: a cadre of “lackadaisical intelligentsia”. That his wife made her career among that crowd, tempers him not a whit. “You take half the topics Gzowski talked about, or [those Rex Murphy does] on Cross Country Checkup,” he says, “plunk them on a table at Panama Jacks, at lunchtime, and 90 per cent of the people there wouldn’t know what you were talking about.” Adding, “You think CBC gives a damn what Joe Sixpack thinks?”

It’s not surprising then that Tovey recalls being “absolutely terrified” in Winnipeg when Warren summoned him to appear on Action Line. Lash out Warren did, but this time it was the corporate giants, with their we-support-thecommunity rhetoric and their paltry donations, who felt the sting. “Within 10 minutes one of the biggest banks in town was on the phone,” says Tovey. “It was unbelievable.” With the right hook of a Rafe Mair, and the reach of a Tony Parsons, in Winnipeg he possessed agenda-setting clout. It was a power Warren paid for, however, with his privacy. “You can’t go have a birthday or anniversary dinner, you can’t go out with your wife without someone wanting an autograph … and you can’t say f… off.” The novelty of being famous, he laments, “wore off after about four days.” His reticence today to reveal too much of himself is in no small measure a legacy of those days.

Yet clout is the currency of the public figure, and Warren’s stature meant few politicians or VIPs could come to town without facing him. And if they needed to be roughed up, he obliged, a lesson then-prime minister John Turner learned to his considerable embarrassment in 1984 when he pulled out cue cards to answer questions, first on agriculture, then immigration, then finance. “It was disgusting, absolutely disgusting,” says Warren. Skewering him, he called Turner on it and watched while the prime minister went crimson.

(It’s no surprise that Turner’s predecessor, Brian Mulroney, would be the first PM since Lester Pearson to refuse to appear on the show.)

As the son of a nuclear reactor salesman, it’s tempting to say he comes by his explosiveness naturally. Or maybe it’s the outcome of being the eldest of three boys, growing up in London in the 1940s. He was an indifferent student; the highlight of his academic career being spray painting “Clogs must go” – a reference to his headmaster – across the stage the evening before convocation. His friends’ convocation, that is; he would never actually graduate.

By then he was working on Fleet Street as a boxing reporter, a job that proved more fulfilling than attending classes. A quick study, before he was 18, he was reporting on title fights at Royal Albert Hall. It was amid that egalitarian mix of mobsters and dockhands, that two enduring passions emerged – a devotion to the sport, and his absolute loathing of elitism. Without the right school tie and the proper accent, he concluded he would never advance beyond ghost writing articles for the star columnists, who were off covering fights in New York and Chicago.

Wanting a way out, Warren looked to Toronto, a destination partly influenced by the presence of Fleet Street titan Roy Thomson, who grew up in Toronto. Though as a cub reporter Warren could hardly have been further out of Thomson’s orbit, for a week he bombarded the man’s office with calls, before eventually storming into his marbled lobby, demanding a meeting. Mercifully for Warren, this was in an age before security guards. Stirred by the racket, Thomson stepped from his office and into Warren’s grasp. “I told him: ‘I’m going to Canada, you’re a Canadian, I’m a journalist, I want 10 minutes of your time’.” He got 30.

“When I look back [at that] now,” he says, “God, it was absolutely ludicrous.”

Within two months, Warren was in Toronto – an 18-year-old by himself, with 40 bucks in his pocket and a few phone numbers from Thomson. He would eventually wend his way from St. John to Hong Kong to Mexico to Winnipeg where he joined the nowdefunct Winnipeg Tribune. As the audience grew for his incisive reporting and stick-up-for-the-little-guy stances, radio came calling. It was an easy choice, he says. “Radio’s appeal is its immediacy. I didn’t have to sit down in front of a Remington [typewriter] and bang out a column for tomorrow.”

The immediacy of radio was certainly evident on December 30, 1998, when Warren first went live from the top of Vancouver’s TD Tower. Ostensibly he had moved West to retire, but after three weeks in Victoria, he needed back in the game, at least on the weekends. (“Open line radio is better than sex,” he would quip during his final show in Winnipeg, a line that would find its way into the national dailies, and Warren into his wife’s doghouse.)

His reception in Vancouver was only marginally warmer, first among his new audience – remember the offended born-agains and the maniacal stalker? – and then among his new colleagues. Some egos were feeling a tad bruised. Rafe Mair is said to have chafed at the prospect of being upstaged by the veteran firebrand. After all, did CKNW really need two gruff crusaders? (Pushed to comment, a testy Mair swats down those rumors … sort of – “In my entire career, I’ve never worried about anyone below me” – and then demurs to comment further because “I’ve never heard Peter broadcast, except very, very briefly from time to time.”)

Public affairs director Ian Koenigsfest recalls having to remind Warren frequently about the more delicate sensitivities of the West Coast. “At first he listened well,” says Koenigsfest, “but he didn’t always remember what we discussed.” Eventually it sunk in though, and he adds that, “He’s come to understand the boundaries.”

And Vancouver has come to understand Warren, at least the Warren who’s on the air every weekend. The real man behind the mike remains more of an enigma. As his closest friend at the station, Art Hister feels comfortable enough to chide his work (“What he chooses to do for material is not what I’d do … but that’s Peter”) yet even he struggles to define what makes his friend tick. What can explain the thick walls that seem to surround Warren? Hister can only agree with, not explain, the observation: “There’s a sadness about Peter,” he says. “There’s no question about that.”

The sadness is there. It’s there most acutely when he’s gently prodded to confront the subject of his children. This is painful terrain, yet it’s turf Warren wouldn’t shy away from if the roles here were reversed. He offers that two of his sons live in Winnipeg, and one is a real estate developer in Vancouver. No names provided. There are grandchildren, yes. Then he begs off. There are rips being mended here, quiet efforts in the works. This Christmas was the first time he received a card from a grandchild in Winnipeg. He doesn’t wish to say anything that risks it being the last card. And ever the radio host, Warren deftly segues into a new subject, to the story of a close friend who fell out with his brother. For more than 25 years they didn’t speak, until out of the blue, his friend called his brother and took him fishing.

Not six months later, the brother was dead, killed by a heart attack. “He said to me: ‘Thank God, thank God, I seized the moment.’ ”

The story speaks to Warren’s heart, and obliquely, to his life. In the telling, he’s protected, yet its theme is deeply personal and universal.

“I was so moved,” he says, “I asked him if I could use it on the air. I want to hear other peoples’ stories and I bet you they’ll come right out of the woodwork.”