Visiting yesterday’s innovators in Toronto

I was thrilled to be in the storefront studio of CityTV yesterday because I’ve long admired its innovations in local TV and news. Back in 1993, I worked on a plan for a local cable news channel (it was ruined by the cable people) and was inspired by CityTV to propose a storefront studio of a different sort – in a mall – and cameras all around the market to capture video of the people.

Moses Znaimer, the visionary who created CityTV, sold out and left long ago. Now City is just a tenant in its old building, which has been taken over by a competitor, and soon it will move off of once-hip Queen Street. Back in the day, the entire building and the sidewalk in front were CityTV’s studio for its incredibly diverse – far more than the loaves of white bread that populate American TV – and terribly hip and young staff. This, too, was show biz, but it was less packaged and plastic than the TV I was used to, the TV we still have. Broadcast professionals – what a deadly title – sniffed at Znaimer when he made his TV because he broke all their rules. But later those TV people stole many of his ideas and his TV lives on and it’s still popular.

At the building, I was saddened to see the Speakers Corner video booth that had inspired me to suggest cameras everywhere was gone. People used to go in there, drop a dollar in the slot, and make videos that the station used on air: proposals, jokes, songs, political statements, rants, anything. It gave the pop a vox and I loved it. Now it is a blank metal wall.

speakers corner gone

But then I realized that the Speakers Corner, too, has been obsoleted by the internet. On YouTube, we all have our booths now, eh? We’re all breaking the tired conventions of television professionals.

I got to hang out in the studio with the crew, who regaled me with stories of the glory days. It turns out, you didn’t have to put a coin in the slot to turn on the Speakers Corner camera; it was always on. And it captured, well, lots of life – much of it on a tape that’s still hanging around somewhere, they say. One of the guys told me the booth would have to get one helluva good scrubbing before he’d go in.

Someone else told me about working at a radio station where a reporter who’d fallen out of favor was assigned to the traffic copter even though he was deathly afraid of flying. He shouted Ohmygod! a lot. Oh, for WKRP.

I enjoyed their nostalgia. It reminded me of conversations I’ve been having with newspaper people about their good old days, which they know won’t return. Yesterday, I also shared my own story from the day with Toronto newspaper people: the strangest job interview of my career.

My wife and I have long loved Toronto and we tried to move there a few times. On our last attempt, I was offered a job to redo the weekend edition of the then free-standing Financial Post. In the process, I had two interviews with Doug Creighton, the legendary founder of the Sun newspapers who then also ran the FP. The morning interview was a delight. I was to go back for the afternoon. “Oh, no,” people at the paper said, “not the afternoon.” Mr. Creighton had the classic newsman’s lunch, you see. It was worse than that: The lunches tended to go on all afternoon and I didn’t meet him until dinnertime – in a dark, velvet-walled old steakhouse – and more than once, he fell asleep. I still hope it was the scotch, not me. The folks in Toronto love the story because they also loved him.

When Creighton’s paper, the Telegram, folded in 19tk, he stood on the desk and led staff from it to the offices of the new paper he was founding, the Sun. It was a bad-ass tab in a staid media market that also sniffed at him and for quite some time, it was a roaring success, expanding to other cities across Canada. Creighton was ousted from the company and he died bitter about it. Today, journalists in the city told me, the Sun is in trouble, beaten down by free tabs.

The point of this is not to lament good days gone. It’s to focus on how two innovators, Znaimer and Creighton, in their time had the balls to walk down the street, break old conventions, compete with sacred cows, invent something new, and find success for a very long time. What we need today is not nostalgia about their exploits. We need more Znaimers and Creightons.

And we have them. Look at the web. It’s thick with Moses and Dougs who don’t give a damn if the old media professionals sniff at them.