Farewell, John

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Furlong left an indelible mark on media landscape

He was, without doubt, one of the best radio hosts in the history of broadcasting in this province.

That’s a big statement, I know, but John Furlong was a rare breed. News of his passing overnight hit me this morning like a punch in the gut. I just wasn’t expecting that at all – didn’t even know he was ill.

This is what John Gushue, one of Furlong’s colleagues at CBC, wrote this morning on his Facebook wall:

We are profoundly sad to tell you that our friend John Furlong died overnight after a short bout with cancer. We are heartbroken.

John was 63. He had only recently been diagnosed with cancer, and hosted his last show on Radio Noon on March 3.

During his long career with CBC, John hosted the Fisheries Broadcast between 2005 and 2013; was senior producer of Here & Now; produced the St. John's Morning Show; wrote commentaries for our website; and helped launch the documentary series Soundings in 1994.

John was acerbic, sharp-witted, curious and one of the best interviewers we've ever had. He was passionate about broadcasting, and was at his best in our studios. He spoke his mind, but always respected the opinions of others. We cannot believe he is no longer with us.

- John Gushue

 

There’s a nicely done story about John’s passing at the CBC site.

I first interviewed John for this blog in May of 2007, after the Radio Noon Crosstalk that he was hosting went completely pear-shaped (the topic was abortion). John shot from the hip in that interview, calling it exactly as he saw it.

I spoke with him a number of times over the years and seemed to develop a friendship with him – nothing close, but it was clear that he enjoyed our conversations as much as I did. In one of our last exchanges, we agreed it was time to get together for a coffee and chat. I deeply regret not making that happen in a timely manner.

My typical interviews with John would often start with him saying, “I shouldn’t say this, but -” and then he would proceed to say it anyway. Sometimes he went off the record to vent about something, but most often it was for public use. And he never, ever pulled punches.

That said, John was keenly intelligent, scrupulously fair, intensely curious and fearless to a fault. He presented challenging stories and was not afraid to ask the toughest questions. And he was wickedly funny, with a dry, cutting sense of humour and some beautiful turns of phrase. I don’t think John ever did a bad interview. It just wasn’t in him, to do shoddy work.

What I loved most about John was his unpredictability. You really didn’t know what was going to come out of his mouth and I don’t think he did either, much of the time. He said the funniest things on impulse and it is this trait that kept people listening, wondering what might happen next.

But that’s enough from me. After hearing the news this morning, I invited a number of Furlong’s colleagues at CBC – people who know him far better than me – to say a few words about him. Here are their tributes, collected from phone calls and emails.

Chris O’Neill-Yates (Journalist)

John was senior producer at Here & Now when I started working there in 2002. I didn’t like him at all in the beginning! I was a little afraid of him. He was the kind of guy who, when you pitched a story, he would look at you and go, ‘Nah, Chris, I think that needs a bit more work.’ You very quickly realized that his terse and laconic manner of speaking was all that it took to make you go back and work harder on your story. He was the first one to tell you your story was bad, but also the first to tell you it was good…

I came in as a junior television reporter and over the years became good colleagues and good friends and shared our feelings about stories. He raised the bar high for himself but did the same for all of us. He set the bar high and you tried to reach it because there are some people in this business who have it – it’s in their gut. What John Furlong had you couldn’t teach in journalism school. He had that razor sharp wit and the instinct of a homing pigeon. And he was not afraid to be disagreed with. John could disagree without being disagreeable, and he didn’t mind if people didn’t like what he said.

John Furlong was true to himself and it made him a great, fearless, courageous and humane journalist – because journalists are human beings, too. I was taught by John that it’s all about the story and the people in it. But he was so bloody funny as well. I love India and love Indian food and I don’t know if John was all that adventurous about food, but I remember years ago I brought in some Indian food for my lunch. I put it in the microwave and John was disgusted. He said, ‘What’s that stink? That’s enough to knock a gull off a garbage truck!’

When I came into news I was fresh off the Fisheries Broadcast and knew the fishery really well and always had a head full of fishery stories. But when I’d pitch them to John, he’d go, ‘Nah. I don’t think anyone is gonna want to hear that.’ And we would have fights about fish stories because I felt they were really important and John thought no one would be interested. So imagine what I thought when John became host of the Fisheries Broadcast, and became arguably the best host that show has ever had. He was absolutely fantastic. He really got into it and we had many talks about the fishery after that, and he kind of understood why I was so drawn to it… I joked to him when he took the job, I said, ‘John, I can’t believe you’re going to the Broadcast.’ He asked why. I said, ‘I could never get a fish story past you. Your idea of a fish story would have been Ches’s burning down.’

But the Furlong that people didn’t see was just so thoughtful and compassionate. I was off last year on sabbatical so I got to hear Radio Noon a lot, and I remember the day they were talking about mental health and addictions, and he talked about his own battles with addictions. I wrote an email to him, saying ‘John, that was absolutely unbelievable what you did. We can be this person on the air but ultimately we have to be human, and what you did today was so courageous. You shared part of yourself, your deepest, darkest secrets with the public on the airwaves. It’s not just good journalism, it humanizes you. You just humanized yourself today.’ I was just so proud of him. And he thanked me and said ‘That means so much coming from you, a journalist who I respect and admire.’ That meant more to me than any journalism award I’ve ever gotten. When you come into this business and meet someone who you are so intimidated by, and then reach a point in your career where that person is telling you they also admire you, that to me was just huge.

He was so caring, but shy and unassuming. People didn’t get the fact that John was also a very shy person. He was a man of few words. On the air you have to talk – and John wouldn’t just sit there and be silent, he had plenty to say – but he wasn’t a chatty guy. He’d speak when spoken to. John would speak if he had something to say and if he didn’t, he didn’t speak. His feedback was given in very few words. He didn’t belabor things. He was head down, hard working, and John could accomplish in a few words what it would take others tomes to say. His brain was wired in such a way that the one-liners were just remarkable. I remember one time, someone was crapping on St. John’s and John is the west end townie, a dyed-in-the-wool corner boy, and John’s comment was, ‘Well, b’y, if you don’t like St. John’s you don’t like life.’ I would apply that to John Furlong today: if you didn’t like John Furlong, you didn’t like life. Because he gave us some great moments. And the world is a little less saucy today.

John didn’t kowtow to anybody. And you knew if John praised something you did, you knew he meant it. There was not a disingenuous bone in his body. There is not a man in the world who possessed less artifice. He was the genuine article. It’s a really sad day here, the saddest I remember at CBC. My father used to say, ‘There is a difference between being well-known and well-loved.’ John Furlong was both. 

Ted Blades (Host, On The Go)

I worked with John on and off since I started with CBC in St. John’s in 1985. He was one of the first people I worked for. A lot of people found him intimidating. I didn’t, but maybe that was part of my nature. He could be blunt, but it was always for a good cause. I started as a freelancer and he was the network producer, and within a year or so I started working on the Morning Show and shortly after he became the producer of that show, so we worked quite closely for a few years. And we’ve worked collegially ever since then. We kind of rounded back together here towards the end when he was on the Fisheries Broadcast, in the middle of On the Go.

He was always interested in good radio and could be blunt about it. If your story was boring or your facts weren’t right or there were assumptions to be questioned, he never shied away from that kind of thing. He also knew the entertainment value of radio. I remember once I prepared a short documentary that was supposed to go on the show that day, and it never aired. I didn’t know why. When I get to work, there’s the tape on my desk with a little note on it that said, ‘This story is not nearly as boring as your delivery. Do it again.’ So I did it again, he said ‘That’s better,’ it was on the next day and it was better. There was praise and criticism in his note at the same time. That was him.

He was funnier in person (than on the radio). Most of the stories I can’t tell on the radio and I can’t tell you. They are politically incorrect or you just had to be there. But they were darkly, smartly funny. There’s an essay he posted last year about being a Newfoundlander that is really worth the read. He was terribly funny in person, and a lot of the time that humour was used to be funny, some of it was in a spirit of making us better, and some of it was because he was a troublemaker and he liked doing it. I have no problem with that because I’m a troublemaker too. He would puncture the balloons of complacency and accepted wisdom, whether it was shamelessly supporting the seal hunt, or is Newfoundland nationalism a good thing? Any assumption you had about how the world worked, if he saw a hole in that he would gladly stick a pin in that balloon. He could offend people but at the same time, there was often an uncomfortable kernel of truth in there.

There is one story I can tell. I was the associate producer of the Morning Show and there was some new thing that John wanted to do on the show. The rest of us thought it was a bad idea and didn’t want to do it. John said, ‘Well, we’re going to do it anyway.’ Somebody said, ‘Can’t we have a say in this?’ So John said, ‘Alright, let’s have a vote.’ He said ‘All against, say nay.’ So we all went ‘nay.’ Then he said, ‘All in favour, say aye.’ And he said ‘aye’ and there was the perfect pause before he said, ‘The ayes have it.’ And somebody said, ‘Hang on a minute! You lost the vote!’ And John said, ‘If you think the Morning Show is a democracy I don’t know where you’ve been working. I’m the captain of this ship and that’s how it works.’ And it was true. There needed to be a leader.

I remember in the early days working with him on the Morning Show, when Peter Miller was host, and we did so much coverage of Mount Cashel, and the brothers and the priests. John felt it was so important to do that, as a townie Catholic and a guy who had lived at Mount Cashel. His parents died when he was 15 and he and his brother – Jim Furlong, from NTV – they spent a year or so at Mount Cashel. Nothing happened to them but they were in there, and John knew that place and that story. The cause of getting to the truth of the story and getting justice, while puncturing the view that Newfoundlanders collectively had of the church’s sanctity, was something he was keenly interested in doing because it was a balloon that needed to be busted.

There was a time when I started out here when I was proud to say everything I know about radio I learned from him. He used to say, ‘There are three rules: make them laugh, make them cry, and make them wait.’ Which meant if you have a good story, promo it early in the show.

He got in trouble often for things he said on the radio. But that was him. He was acerbic. Look up the word acerbic in the dictionary and there are about 35 words that follow it, and almost every one except ‘cruel’ is him.

I watched him grow over the last 30 years. He was a Catholic townie with a small, blinkered view of the world. I saw growth in him as a person who would open himself up to the world. His third wife, Gerri, was a big help. I know that he valued the gifts she had given him as far as opening him up to the rest of the world.

Ted and I spoke a little more about the various tributes that would air that day, including the entire 90 minutes of Radio Noon and 30 minutes of the Fisheries Broadcast devoted almost exclusively to John, along with a good chunk of the Morning Show.

I had somebody come to me today and say, ‘I know a recently-deceased CBC host who wouldn’t make much of this today.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’ John would be going, ‘Why are we spending so much time talking about him? If he was somebody from outside the CBC who died, would we be spending all this time talking about him? Probably not. So we shouldn’t do it about him.’ That’s what he would say. And you need that; you need that cranky dissent in the corner. The devil’s advocate, that’s who he was. 

Todd O’Brien (producer / journalist)

Every morning I’d come in, John would be at his desk. Already, by 9 am he had a couple of ideas. And they were good. He didn't want to follow the news, he wanted original takes on issues, to be the blade.

He loved the uncomfortable, of prying into things that made people or audiences uncomfortable. He asked the questions most people wouldn't ask. You just knew, depending on the topic and guest, that he was going to ask that uncomfortable question. But I never saw anyone being offended.

He had a softness lingering on the outer skin of his question. He really just wanted to know.

John wanted to become the flagship for CBC Radio. He was serious about trying to outdo the Morning Show. I admired his drive and determination. And, I'll remember him best for his wit. Politically incorrect big time. Like the court jester, he called it. I always say the comedian is the smartest person in the room. He was not afraid.

And finally John loved his wife Gerri so much. I always thought that was pretty sweet. The flags are at half-mast outside the CBC today for a former cabinet minister. We thought it appropriate as well in John's passing. If he was here he’d get a kick out it. 

He'll be missed.

David Zelcer (retired journalist)

John was my boss for awhile when he was the Senior Producer for Here and Now. We both spoke Gruff. So conversations were usually short and to the point. I remember flying into Fogo Island once because the crowd from Joe Batt's Arm had blocked the road and were holding the crowd from the town of Fogo hostage. There was a lot of anger over the location for a new hospital. Fogo wanted it rebuilt in their town. Joe Batt's wanted it in the centre of the island. Ed Kennedy and I did our interviews and then went to drive to Fogo to get the other side. Oh no... we were told. You can’t interview anyone from Fogo. ‘You take our interviews and fly back to Gander and tell our side of the story,’ they said. I walked to a phone in a convenience store and called John. I thought he was going to have a stroke when I told him what was happening.’ You get down to Fogo and get the other side of that story!’ he said. We refused to budge and eventually were allowed through the picket line and down to Fogo. That’s pretty much John in a nutshell.

We had a nice mutual admiration society going after he left Here and Now. We’d share ideas on occasion and work things out for each other over the phone. I’d phone him for advice and contacts and he’d do the same. We always saw eye to eye on everything. It was very unusual in this business. My last conversation with John was our live interview the day I retired. How fitting is that? I was worried about being interviewed by John on my last day... but he was fabulous! Warm... genuine. Himself.

One thing that always stayed with me... something I still repeat to young journalists... especially when interviewing someone who is not being forthcoming. John used to say the questions are more important than the answers in some situations.

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