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‘Mystical’ businessman Geoff Stirling saw future in TV by Joan Sullivan

Jan 24, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

On Dec. 4, 1976, a Weekend magazine article asked: “Is the world ready for a mystic … with a broadcasting empire and liquid gold in his veins?” The mystic in question was Geoff Stirling and the reference was to an unconventional treatment for arthritis Mr. Stirling said had cured him, but the description aptly suggests both his Midas touch and his image as an enigmatic visionary.

Legend, maverick and pioneer were words frequently applied to Mr. Stirling, who died on Dec. 21 at 92. Indeed, he revolutionized radio and television broadcasting in Newfoundland and Labrador, unifying the province as never before. He had an incredible instinct for predicting the next big thing, from satellite TV to the price of gold.

“He just sees things that other people can’t,” his son Scott told The Globe and Mail’s Report On Business magazine in December, 2004. “He’s not afraid to try something everyone else believes will fail.”

Mr. Stirling wanted to be rich, not out of greed, but because that meant he could be free. He travelled the world and experimented, letting loose his tremendous curiosity on technologies and philosophies.

As a journalist and publisher in his 20s, he would work 24-hour shifts, bank a wealth of copy and fly from Gander to New Orleans or Capri.

Deeply spiritual, he would spend months travelling in India, meet with holy men and religious figures all over the world, fast for 40 days and meditate regularly.

He also wrote In Search of a New Age, a personal treatise whose 16 chapters include guidance on “Mind and Thought” and “Be-Do-Think.” His beliefs could seem quirky. He once hired an executive because he was an Aries.

His business innovations, however, were sharp and prescient, including introducing 24-hour television to North America, bringing colour TV to Newfoundland, putting 24-hour English-language AM radio on the air in Montreal and planting the seeds of music videos by playing footage of rock performances during commercial breaks.

Many of his staff never saw him from one year to the next, but they got used to 4 a.m. phone calls. (“Where are you?” was always their first question.) Sometimes he called because he was watching NTV on satellite and would request a specific piece of programming or a particular visual effect. All Newfoundland would then view what he requested.

“I’m not Howard Hughes, because Howard Hughes is invisible. And I’ll never be invisible,” journalist Alexander Ross quoted Mr. Stirling as saying, in a profile in the early 1970s. Mr. Ross also noted Mr. Stirling’s “mystical quality,” which he shared with some fellow entrepreneurs (including Polaroid’s Edwin Land), who “took an almost existential approach to the process of risk-taking,” and who were even somewhat uninterested in money.

Indeed, Mr. Stirling never kept his business intuitions to himself, for example encouraging his fellow Newfoundlanders to buy gold in the early 1970s, because he felt its price would rise, which it did, from $35 (U.S.) an ounce in 1970 to a peak of $875 (U.S.) in 1980.

Adventuresome and bold, Mr. Stirling was known for his rock-star aura. Part of it was pure genetics, as he was very handsome.

But he also had a certain kind of eccentric charm that made people pay attention, leading him to cross paths with figures such as John Lennon and (almost) Fidel Castro.

Geoffrey William Stirling was born March 22, 1921, to Edgar, a businessman who owned the popular Stirling’s Restaurant on Water Street, and Ethel (Uphill), of Salisbury, England. She had travelled to Newfoundland to visit her twin brother, when her ship, the HMS Bruce, ran aground and the passengers had to walk over the ice floes to reach land. The Stirlings named their first child Bruce. Then came Geoff, Enid and Rex. The boys attended Bishop Feild School in St. John’s and Mr. Stirling also attended Chatham House in Ramsgate, England, for a year.

When he was 14, Mr. Stirling’s mother was killed and his father seriously injured in a car accident on the way home from her birthday party. It was a shocking loss with a terrible parallel, as Mr. Stirling’s daughter Kimberly would also die in a car accident, in 1977, when she was only 19.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Mr. Stirling was a star athlete in track and field, introducing “the western roll” to the high jump. His high-jump record stood for decades and he is in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

He also did a year of pre-law at the University of Tampa. But he was bored.

In the 1940s, as the Newfoundland National Convention debated Newfoundland’s political future, he co-founded, with Ches Crosbie and Don Jamieson, the Economic Union Party, which opposed Confederation and advocated closer ties between Newfoundland and the United States. Their slogan was, “Don’t Sell Your Country for Six Cents a Meal” and Mr. Stirling’s campaign tactics including meeting every U.S. senator.

Despite this early clash with the pro-Confederation stance of then-premier Joseph Smallwood, Mr. Stirling went on to run provincially for his Newfoundland Reform Liberal Party in 1975.

He and Mr. Smallwood were often on different sides politically, but there were also odd convergences between their outlooks and personalities, and they were lifelong friends.

For example, in 1946 Mr. Stirling used $1,000 he had saved working for his father to buy 60 tonnes of newsprint, and founded the Sunday Herald (now The Newfoundland Herald), an American-style tabloid.

Most people, including Mr. Smallwood, told him it wouldn’t work. Mr. Stirling had some experience freelancing with The Chicago Tribune and Time magazine (and writing a sports column for the Daily News while a student at Bishop Feild).

He wrote, printed, sold ads and delivered the paper. The front page headlines of the first issue, dated May 12, read: “Hitler’s Son Alive in Germany,” and “Movie Company May Film National Convention.”

The paper also broke stories, such as the hourly wage differential between Americans and Newfoundlanders working on the U.S. military bases, which was $4 versus $1.25, because of a decree from the British-appointed Commission of Government, which administered Newfoundland’s affairs from 1933 to 1949.

The Commission responded by passing an order-in-council forbidding anyone to advertise with The Herald.

But the newspaper thrived on circulation. The initial 10,000 press run sold out. Mr. Stirling’s marketing strategies, very much part of this success, were way outside any box; for example, he would drop bundles of Heralds on the ice floes for the seal hunters.

In 1950, he and Mr. Jamieson started CJON radio. In 1955, this became CJON TV (now NTV, “Canada’s Superstation”). Mr. Stirling handled the business end while Mr. Jamieson, later a provincial Liberal Party leader and a member of Pierre Trudeau’s federal cabinet, was the public voice of the nightly “News Cavalcade.”

As Mr. Stirling told The Herald, he expected TV to “take over. It had music, it had sound, it had everything.” Later on, switching to colour was “a big accomplishment” and helped further distinguish it from CBC, the only other channel, which was still black and white. By the late 1960s, he owned five Newfoundland stations, each with its own licence. NTV is the only Canadian station with deals to broadcast both CanWest Global and CTV programming. Its audience share was huge. The newsroom, with its slogan “First with the news in Newfoundland,” held the dominant market share as a source of information.

In the 1960s, when FM radio played easy-listening and light classical music, and car radios didn’t even pick up FM signals (listeners had to buy a special set), Mr. Stirling bought CHOM-FM in Montreal. By 1969, it had become a counterculture rock station, featuring repeated plays of Abbey Road, throws of the I Ching and meditative chants. He called it “tribal radio.”

That year, he interviewed John Lennon at Apple Studios. While vacationing in London with his son Scott, Mr. Stirling introduced himself to the former Beatle by telexing: “I’ve heard your Come Together, so here I am,” from the Londonderry Hotel. “John and Yoko invited us over and we spent two days with them,” Scott wrote in an e-mail. “Geoff invited them to Montreal and when they arrived they had their ‘bed in’ and recorded Give Peace A Chance.”

Five years later, in another adventure, Mr. Stirling and Mr. Smallwood travelled to Cuba for a prearranged meeting with Fidel Castro. The encounter was postponed, however, and instead the two talked by a hotel pool about what would happen at the meeting, which ultimately never took place. The result was Waiting for Fidel (1974, directed by Michael Rubbo), a piece of avant-garde documentary filmmaking said to have inspired Michael Moore.

Although his personal travels and business dealings took him well beyond the borders of Newfoundland (his holdings included AM and FM radio stations in Montreal, Windsor, Ottawa and Arizona), he always had particularly strong opinions when it came to his home province. As for TV programming, Mr. Stirling felt that what Newfoundlanders wanted was American shows, such as The Young and Restless and Survivor. So, when the CRTC insisted NTV produce more Canadian content, he resisted.

“I’m not anti-anything. I’m just pro-Newfoundland,” Mr. Stirling told ROB magazine. “I’m sure that if NTV were sold to a national company, we’d lose our sovereignty, which is the only sovereignty we have right now – television and radio owned by Newfoundlanders.”

But while he played down the importance of Canadian content for his TV stations, he felt strongly that kids need homegrown superheroes. “Canada has no superheroes,” he once told Downhome magazine. “It has the flag and the Mounties. Not that I’m putting down the Mounties. The only thing [young kids have] got now are American superheroes.” So he helped create the graphic novel Atlantis, introducing Captain Atlantis (a.k.a. Captain Newfoundland – another melding of his business instincts, offbeat passions and Newfoundland patriotism), a mascot for NTV. The first issue sold 10,000 copies.

Mr. Stirling, who lived in Arizona and Torbay, just north of St. John’s, was very generous, but quiet about it. In 1988, for example, he helped found the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society, with a grant of $5,000 toward research. Another time, he purchased a specially designed car for a neighbour with a disabled child, with the salesman strictly sworn to secrecy. His philanthropy was constant and thoughtful.

He never stopped championing Newfoundland. He believed it could soar. “Our biggest problem is naiveté and modesty, really,” he told Downhome.

Beyond that, he thought any individual could soar. “You consider that your brain is 97 per cent hydrogen and oxygen and there’s not a cell in your body that’s more than seven years old and the planet, which is travelling at 79,000 miles an hour, is surrounded by 12 miles of hydrogen and oxygen,” he told Downhome. “Therefore, as we put ourselves in context of where we are and what we are, we start to comprehend a lot more of the reality of this life.”

Though he sounded far out at times, Mr. Stirling could also be very straightforward and down to earth.

“I’d like to be remembered as a nice guy who tried to do the best he could, someone who never tried to hurt someone and someone who worked hard,” he told The Herald in 2009.

He added in a later interview, “To me, the first priority was always Newfoundland.” And his life? It was “fascinating.”

Predeceased by his daughter Kimberley, Mr. Stirling leaves his wife of 57 years, Joyce (Cutler), children Scott, Ann, Greg and Shawn, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mr. Stirling’s first wife, Jean Fox Stirling, also survives him.

© Globe and Mail