Mr. B


I remarked to a colleague that the City felt emptier following the death of Erica Cherney. Still does.

That emptiness was amplified with the passing of our colleague and friend, John Badham.

John is best known locally for his time with Mike Melnik on the CKRUz morning show – and more recently on SportsTalk Radio Extra 90.5.

But few may remember that when John first arrived in Peterborough, in 1988 I was his first broadcast partner. In the pre-KRUZ days 980 CHEX radio was broadcasting a hit-oriented format not unlike what FRESH is doing now, and I was host of the morning show. We were already in awe that former CTV News and Canada AM anchor Wally Macht was now with us.

And then the other shoe dropped, when I got word we were getting a new hire to read morning news on CHEX 980.

When the name was announced my jaw dropped.

Like many, I had grown up listening to John on CFRB and CFTR, and watched him on the CBC. And even though I had little interest in football, when John was calling an Argos game I had to stop and listen. It was riveting.

Not only was he coming to Peterborough, but I drew the assignment of calling up to his home in Ottawa to record a promo. I can’t recall if it was Dot who answered the phone, or John himself – but I was shaking in my boots. This guy was a legend.

And then he was here – a bit quiet and reserved, at first. He was the new guy after all. He was also trying to get used to the antiquated facilities we had up on TV Hill before we moved downtown in 1999. They were in the throes of building an ultra-modern newsroom at the time, but it was a construction zone when he got here.

But at the same time he seemed friendly, and once you got to know him he proved generous with advice.

Of course, when he opened the microphone, my world stopped. He was masterful. I remember driving home after my first shift with him, in 1988, and pulled the car over to the side of the road to hear the Noon news. His voice, literally filled the car. And not just the voice, either, but the phrasing. How he punctuated words, and the rhythm and cadence he employed.

It is said that Frank Sinatra didn’t possess what some may call a remarkable voice. But what set him apart was his phrasing, and the passion for the song that came through.

John Badham, of course, HAD the voice – but he also had that phrasing and cadence that set him apart from the rest.

It was especially compelling when he called a football game. There was no one better. He is so deserving of his place in the CFL Hall of Fame.

I would soon come off the morning show to go back into management, with John assigned to other morning show hosts. Then, in 1992 101.5 CFMP was re-formatted and was reborn as The WOLF. Mike Melnik, who had arrived from Regina by then, moved upstairs from CFMP to CHEX 980 and began working with John. That fall CHEX flipped to Oldies on the KRUZ, which was quickly followed by the introduction of ‘Hometown Radio,’ and the years-long delight that was ‘Mike and John in the Morning’ blossomed.

You know the rest, as you have heard and enjoyed the results.

Just before his retirement in 2011, John and I were back together again on KRUZ-FM in the afternoons, and the circle closed. His final news broadcast with me was as compelling as his first in 1988, and his sign-off was memorable. I wish I still had it, but while I saved the audio to the hard drive I failed to make an extra copy and it was lost when the audio computer failed.

Of course, John would not be idle for long. He was soon at Extra 90.5, with his own interview show that allowed him the freedom – and the time – to really get to the meat of an issue. He found a brand-new audience there, and he flourished.

He even had me on his show once, to promote one of my books.

My wife Sherrie and I got to know John and Dorothy socially, given that we lived in the same neighborhood. At one point they lived practically across the street, then later a few blocks away in the west end, but never far away. Dot would often be seen walking their dog along our street, and if John were driving by and saw me out raking or something, he would always stop to say hello.

At Christmas we were all part of a neighborhood pub crawl hosted by a fellow neighbor and business owner who piles us all into Canada Coach busses and ferries us around to various locations. John and Dot were a part of that, and invariably the four of us would wind up chatting.

Here are a few stories about John that are unique to me…

JOHN WAS BRIEFLY THE PETES PA ANNOUNCER BEFORE ME

When 980 CKRUz snagged the broadcast contract for the games, we had the opportunity to provide the public address announcer. John was immediately tagged for the role and actually did a few games, but quickly realized that he would not be in a position to remain impartial, as a journalist, if he was working for them too. So I was asked to take over, “just for a few games,” they said. That was in the fall, 1996.

THE DAY HE RECORDED HIS ICONIC VOICEOVERS FOR THE WOLF

A few of us piled into a car late one afternoon in either the Fall of 1991 or early January, 1992 and drove to a recording studio in Toronto. There was myself, Program Director Bob Harris, incoming WOLF morning man Mike Cooper, John and perhaps one other. John had worked his regular shift that morning and had tried to catch a cat nap before the trip to Toronto, but I can’t recall if he got much rest. He seemed weary, but always up for the challenge.

At the studio, he in an isolation booth and the rest of us in the control room with the engineers, he would roll through the script. He always took direction well and usually gave them what they wanted on the first take. Of course, the production elements would be added later.

And then he came to one sentence and just owned it, ‘basso profundo.’ The engineers looked at one another. John hit the intercom and said, “was that okay?”

“Okay? OKAY?” they replied. “That one stands on its own. No production elements needed, nothing. That, sir, is a work of art.”

John just smiled meekly and said thank you. All in a day’s work.

THE FLOOD OF 2004

Mike Melnik was off that day, and I was filling in. And like most early-morning workers, coming downtown that day, I drove into a wall of water. As I later described in a story I penned for the Toronto Star, King Street was a raging torrent of water running in an easterly flow towards the river. Unable to get into the building through the front entrance, I had to fight against the current, hanging onto parking meters to get to the driveway that would lead me to the back entrance which was, for the moment above water.

That’s when I saw John, standing by Jackson Square under an overhang, his pant legs rolled up, with his lunch Dot had packed for him in one hand and dragging on a cigarette with the other, surveying the unfolding crisis and wondering how he was going to get into the building.

I waved at him, motioned him over and together we got in the back way to find studios under six inches of water – up past our ankles. The phones were out, and we couldn’t even verify for the longest time if we were even on the air. We had to assume we were.

Thus, at 6am we began an attempt at describing that to which we were witnesses, informing the community about the crisis as it was unfolding, support emergency services. John was a thoroughbred at 67 years of age. He led the broadcast. I was just a bystander, really. Badham took charge and he was magnificent.

He also – as he always did – maintained his sense of humour, even in a crisis. At one point he looked out, as a river of water continued to rush along George Street early in the broadcast, to see a fellow waiting on the bench at the bus stop in front of our studios, waiting for a bus that would never come. John’s reaction was priceless.

Family came first, and you hear that from others. Friends and relationships came first, too. His community, and the issues that drove his community forward or, as the case may be, backward. Broadcasting was a job, which he did well and I’m sure he was proud to do it well, felt privileged to have the gifts bestowed upon him.

But he didn’t buy into his own press, and anything that appeared even remotely as ego was, in fact, a simple craving to be involved, to be part of the discussion and sometimes to lead it.

That’s rare, as in this business you meet people who have but a tiny fraction of John’s ability and yet present massive egos that border on the extreme.

In contrast, John had all the talent and credentials, but came across to others as just a regular guy who liked nothing better than to sit with a colleague or a friend over a coffee or a beer and talk sports, or chat about, well – stuff.

Too many broadcasters become what they do.

John, whether the mic was on, or off, never stopped being who he was: Generous. Involved. Engaged. Prepared (one of the most well-read individuals I have ever known). Just the guy next door who also happened to be in broadcasting. Yes, he took that seriously, and used it to communicate commentary and debate. To enlighten. At times, to stir the pot. But never taken lightly, and always with complete fairness and balance. You would know his opinion, but he was always careful to also highlight the opposing view, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with it.

He never held a grudge, even in view of some disagreements he and I had over the years (which, in hindsight, were completely due to my own ineptness). And I never found him to be pretentious. While he cherished the pulpit he was given to inform, or to expound on his views and allow guests to do the same – and he never backed away from the chance to quarterback a program – it was never, ever about him.

When he retired from Corus, he didn’t want a party. Or even a lunch. On his last day, following his initial year of ‘semi-retirement,' he simply came in to do his shift, as he always did. When it was over he walked through the studios, shook everyone’s hand, grabbed his coat and cap and trotted out the back entrance as he always did with no fanfare, with complete humility.

When I was over to the house last year I got the chance to see some of his clippings and awards down in the basement – not on John’s urging, but on Dot’s.

And we had all been urging John to write that book about his stellar career, the places to which he had travelled and the people he has interviewed, from Mohammed Ali to Wilt Chamberlain.

But he never did. And that’s because, I believe, John had no interest in telling his own story. The master storyteller was more intent, and interested in telling other people’s stories, or the story of his community – a story he told again and again, on the microphone, every single day. And he was just as comfortable quarterbacking a Grey Cup broadcast, as he was serving as in-house announcer for the local Wire Awards.

He thrived on the thrust, and parry of debate. His participation, and appearances on the Cogeco round table for so many years, is the stuff of legend, as are his collection of ‘Strictly Personal’ commentaries. He wasn’t just playing the part of a panelist. He truly cared about the community, and never strayed far from a platform that was the most appropriate for him to influence and spur much-needed and welcome debate in his adopted community of Peterborough.

I regret not reaching out to him sooner.

I called him shortly after hearing the news about his cancer and promised we would get together soon, after things slowed down a bit. There were so many medical appointments he had to get to. Also to collect his lifetime achievement award in Toronto, and not too long after that, the Grey Cup game.

But I discovered to my horror that he wasn’t well enough to attend either of those events in person, such was the speed at which the cancer had progressed. I found him at home, less than a week before he died, bedridden. Awake, watching Dr. Oz on television. We had a brief visit. I had brought some flowers Sherrie put together, who was too ill herself to come in person. The arrangement appeared to brighten, a little bit, what was otherwise a dark time. One of the last things he said to me was, “Thanks for the flowers – I like flowers.”

I called over on the weekend, spoke to their son Paul, and sounded like there was a houseful of people. The family was all there, and “Dad is having a good day,” Paul said on Sunday. I called Dot on Monday, no change in John. Meanwhile I set to work configuring a digital radio I have here, bookmarking various sports and nostalgia stations – with a special preset for one of the radio stations in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where he grew up. I thought he would enjoy listening to what was going on ‘back home.’

I had planned to take it over Tuesday, but work commitments got in the way. “Wednesday,” I thought.

Wednesday morning I called the house and got no answer. That was not a good sign. I found out later that day he had been moved back to the hospital, to which I drove after my airshift to find Dot, Cheryl, Shawna and Dan, with John heavily sedated. Graham Hart had just come in from Nova Scotia.

There were carolers out in the hallway, attempting to inject some Yuletide cheer in an otherwise sad and distressing time for all concerned. It was bittersweet. I promised Dot I would come in the next night after the Petes game to see how John was doing – perhaps to catch him awake, although I had a heavy feeling the end was near.

That last visit never happened. John passed away just before noon the next day.

This, I guess, serves as my eulogy to my friend, which I offer here because I would not hold it together at his Celebration of Life. As it is, tears are streaming down my face even now. I don’t mind telling you I am an absolute wreck.

I didn’t know what to make of this larger-than-life broadcast icon when he first hit town nearly 30 years ago.

What I have learned over the ensuing years is that John Badham was a man who put family first, embraced his community, was loyal to his friends and brought balance to both his profession and his approach to life. He was generous to his colleagues, patient with the newbies, and served as a teacher and a mentor to so many of us.

John was a man who never became obsessed with his own professional experiences, successes or attributes – which as we all know, were substantial. Instead, what he embraced were those things that remain, truly, the tenets and hallmarks of a balanced and generous life: family, friends, community. Humility.

A life well-lived, with a legacy that will live on for decades to come.

You have taught me so much, sir.

Thank you, partner – for your friendship over the years, for your kindness, your patience.

For the privilege of knowing you.