Jeff Gilhooly reflects on an eventful career
June 13, 2011 – When Jeff Gilhooly dropped his prostate cancer bombshell on April 13, he let slip another important bit of news: he was planning to retire soon.
This was no life-threatening medical condition, but, for the thousands of "Morning Show" listeners, it was a bit of a shock. Indeed, since taking over as host 10 years ago, Jeff has become the voice of the "Morning Show". It’s hard to imagine the program without him.
Funnily enough, Jeff had similar qualms when taking on the role, back in 2001.
“When the previous host, Jim Brown, left to work in Calgary, it left a big hole here,” Jeff said. “At first, nobody inside (the local operation) wanted the job. They didn’t. It was a big role to fill. But (then regional director) Diane Humber and I talked about it, and I agreed to do it, and committed to two years. And it’s been 10 years now.”
Indeed it has. Jeff did fill those shoes, and made the show his own. He also carried the show through a period of steady growth, culminating with a 26 share in the fall BBM ratings, the second highest-rated show in the province in that time slot. In other words, 26 percent of the listening audience was tuned in to the "Morning Show", second to one other station.
Now, Jeff can’t take all the credit for the success of the "Morning Show" – CBC NL has worked hard on various fronts to improve the show – but he did play a key role, no question about it. Jeff’s calm, mellifluous vocal style is ideal for the morning time slot. He can be tough when interviewing politicians, but also has a light touch that works well with humorous subjects. You can hear the smile in his voice, an important skill for a radio announcer. He can switch gears smoothly, as stories progress from tragic to funny to controversial, and I’ve never heard him do a bad interview (at least, not one that was his fault).
Yes, Jeff is a seasoned professional, leaving on a high note at the peak of a career; a career that started in London in 1974, after graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario. Jeff worked as news director of CFPL Radio in London, a position he held for eight years, before serving for four years with Canadian Forces Radio in Lahr, Germany.
After that, he moved to St. John’s, to host “On the Go”, the province-wide afternoon show on CBC Radio. Jeff sat in that chair for 11 years, then moved into the "Morning Show" seat a decade ago, in 2001.
Looking back, Jeff’s favourite broadcasting memories happened during his “On the Go” years.
“In my heart, those are still the fondest memories I have.” He said. "That’s because I was able to travel. I don’t do any travel for the 'Morning Show' – we hardly do any remotes, even. But 'On the Go'… I was talking to my wife about this just yesterday, and the only part of the province I haven’t been to is Western Labrador. I’ve been to every other community in the province… So how lucky can you be to live in a place like this, and be able to travel, meet and talk to people. I still think that’s where some of my best work went down, talking to real people about their real personal train wrecks… The sense that you’re opening the mic and broadcasting to everywhere in the province, I found it very comforting.”
Jeff covered the entire spectrum of stories and was there for the cod moratorium, so this alone would account for numerous stories of personal loss, or “train wrecks.” And the people of this province are the most open and articulate he has ever encountered.
“It’s hard sometimes to get people to talk about an emotional experience they’ve had. But in Newfoundland and Labrador, when you get some people talking, boy… We talk a lot about literacy (problems) here, but I find there are different kinds of literacy. The verbal literacy is incredible here. They may be the most verbally literate people anywhere. So for a radio guy, that’s just a jewel. And they all have an opinion! So all of that combined was great.”
Jeff added that his time on the “Morning Show” was also enjoyable, despite the challenge of getting up so early every workday. “Yeah, I was up every day at 4:00 am. But you get used to that. And now, even when I’m not working, I’m still up earlier than I should be. But I enjoyed many aspects of the 'Morning Show' too. It has a much higher profile here in the most densely populated part of the province, and is an important program, for sure.”
Of course, “On the Go” doesn’t do nearly as many on-location stories now as it did back then, due to cutbacks at CBC. “That’s exactly what happened: budget cuts,” Jeff said “I don’t want to make the interview too ‘down’ but cutbacks have had a tremendous effect on what we do and how we do it. Sometimes I wonder how we get the product out that we do, given the resources we had 20 years ago.”
Jeff’s favourite type of interview on both programs was with expats from this province, who have distinguished themselves in some way in another part of the world.
“We always say there are Newfoundlanders and Labradorians everywhere in the world, and it was great putting them on the program, asking how they ended up where they were. They all had a certain electricity to them. I really enjoyed pulling information out of them, and of course, inevitably they all had family back home. And they’d all ask ‘When is this going to be on, so I can call my mom and tell her.’ I remember one guy, a Dr. Earle who was a surgeon in Texas, who won the Texas Holdem Tournament in Las Vegas. He was a tremendous guy – what a character. It’s like he wasn’t in Texas at all – it was like he just walked off the wharf in Bay Roberts or something. He talked about his win, but then the other thing he wanted to talk about was the demise of the Newfoundland cod trap. You never knew what was going to come out of it. Those were the things that made the job interesting and enjoyable.”
Jeff’s weirdest experience happened in 1994 when his name – which is not exactly a common one – burst onto the international airwaves, in connection with an assault case. The perpetrator was Jeff Gillooly – spelled slightly differently but pronounced the same – who conspired with his figure skater wife, Tonya Harding, to injure competitor, Nancy Kerrigan.
“I remember starting the program that day, saying, ‘Across Newfoundland and Labrador, this is ‘On the Go’. I’m Jeff Gilhooly in St. John’s. And that’s Jeff with one ‘L’. And that evening, I ran into a doctor friend… who was driving his car when he heard that, and very nearly put the car sideways.”
However, the news is not always upbeat or funny. Accidents, tragedies and disasters are a common part of the headlines every day, and Jeff has covered his share of them. However, it is the March 2009 crash of Cougar Flight 491 that was seared most indelibly in his memory. The “Morning Show” intersected with that tragedy at a most difficult point; just moments before the changeover, from a search and rescue mission to a recovery operation. It was the transition point, from hope to despair, and the show had to follow a delicate balancing act.
“I remember getting up earlier than usual that morning, and just driving around. I could feel it – the mood was so dark, and the atmosphere so heavy. We knew inside the media that there was only one survivor, but we couldn’t broadcast that. I knew I was going to have go on (the air) with this in mind. Well, I stopped at the Tim Horton’s drive through window. The girl there knew me, and I will never forget this: she said, ‘Oh, Jeff, have they found any more of them?’ I paused for a second, wondering if I should tell her the truth. But I couldn’t. I said, ‘Not that I know of. I’m going in now to find out.’ Well, we did go on, and I think it was one of our best shows ever, that morning; at least, in the way that we handled it. There were so many questions to be asked, so many angles to take, and we had to approach each one with a different layer of sensitivity.”
I asked Jeff how he manages to cover such tragic situations without getting choked up with emotion.
“I wouldn’t say that I haven’t choked up a few times. To me, my philosophy is that I am talking to one set of ears – not thousands of people – and that seems to work for me. But it’s difficult sometimes. There’s no question, when you get loss of life or a really difficult health situation involving a child, it’s hard… It’s hard to press people that way, when you need to pull more information out, when you know the audience wants to know more. You have to know how far you can go, and be sensitive to the person’s reaction. I guess you build that over the years, with experience.”
Before his cancer diagnosis, Jeff had negotiated a September retirement, meaning he would vacate the host’s chair in the summer, allowing his replacement to launch the new fall season.
“I’m afraid it’s going to look like ‘Oh, he got sick and decided to retire,’ but that’s not the case,” Jeff said. “My retirement was in the works for a long time before I got sick.”
Now, his return to the airwaves will depend on the next medical test, in which the PSA level in his blood will have to drop to zero. (See part 1, “On the Mend”, for more on this.)
“It looks now like I’m aiming to get back for the last two weeks in July,” he said. “There’s a lot of reminiscing and things I can do in that final week or two. And that’s the best time of year to do that sort of thing, because you’re into the summer season and it’s just a slower time (for breaking news). Now, if the test comes back and the news is negative, but I am still improving (PSA level is dropping, not rising) I might come back on anyway, and start the radiation sometime in August. Because I really do want to come back to say goodbye.”