Canada’s most popular story teller visits with The Montrealer to discuss his path to becoming an
award-winning humorist, author and broadcaster

It’s along way from his boyhood years in Montreal West to becoming a household favourite in hundreds of thousands of Canadian households. It’s a journey that has taken Stuart from Camp Kanawana, to Concordia, Dawson College, to the late Nick Auf der Maur’s inner circle. Then it was on to producing radio documentaries for CBC Radio, guest host and colleague of Peter Gzowski on Morningside, and teaching broadcast journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto.

His documentaries, books and performances have won critical acclaim.

“I had a small town up bringing in a big city. As a boy growing up in Montreal West in the 50’s – we didn’t even lock our doors.” Stuart continues; “This is where I formed my sense of community.”

“I went to Elizabeth Ballantyne School and then to Lower Canada College for high school. LCC was a place where I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t particularly athletic, and sport was a major part of the school life. I also didn’t fit in as a “brain” with the really smart kids. This is where I felt the pain of not belonging – of being a bit of a spectator.”

Commenting on the imaginary Sam, Dave and Morley’s son, Stuart philosophizes; “The little boy Sam has a longing to be part of it all – but he’s not quite there yet…. I guess there’s some of me in Sam’s character.”

“We had a cottage in St-Anne des Lacs, and I enjoyed a kind of Huck Finn existence during the summers from age 11 through 15. I went out in the morning and we’d swim, go boating and get into all kinds of adventures; not returning until suppertime.”

“Radio was an important medium in Montreal when I was growing up, with people like Dave Boxer at CFCF, Roger Scott and George Morris at CKGM, Dean Hagopian at CFOX and of course the big station was CJAD.” Stuart continues; I used to listen to Joey Reynolds who was broadcasting rock ‘n’ roll on WKBW in Buffalo, and he had a huge following here. In fact – I was recently a guest on his overnight show in New York, I was supposed to be on for about 30 minutes to promote one of my books – but we started reminiscing and at 3am I was still on the air with him.”
Stuart went on to what was then Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) and after graduation, he hitchhiked across the country. During the summer months, Stuart worked as a camp counsellor. “I began pulling my adult self together at Camp Kanawana, and I benefited greatly from my camp experiences.”

After graduation, Stuart worked at Dawson College in the Student Services department, advising students on academic and developmental choices. However, he had a lifelong passion for politics and writing, and after three years left Dawson to work as Nick Auf Der Maur’s campaign manager during Nick’s first successful campaign for a seat on the Montreal City Council. “Nick was also a columnist for The Gazette, and I got to know a lot of his writer and broadcast friends.” Stuart became a freelancer and started getting regular assignments to produce radio documentaries for Sunday Morning.

In 1979 Stuart won an ACTRA Award for Best Radio Documentary for his documentary on the Jonestown massacre. “Working on Sunday Morning was a great experience – working with some of the wonderful producers. However, two years later I was fired from the show over a disagreement with the Executive producer about the direction of the show.”

Stuart then began teaching broadcast journalism at Ryerson, known as one of the best journalism schools in Canada. Shortly after departing from Sunday Morning, he began to contribute to Morningside and eventually worked as a guest host. “There were many people who did most of the research and preparation – so that when Peter and I went on air it all sounded calm and organized. Very often we were in different cities and studios, but he could make it sound like we were in his living room.”

The Vinyl Café began in 1994, with Stuart bringing to life the characters of Dave, Morley, their children Stephanie and Sam, and their dog Arthur. Dave is the owner of the world’s smallest record store, where the motto is “We may not be big, but we’re small.”

“I’m telling stories about a family who is trying to do the right thing. The fact that people want to gather around these stories really pleases me.” Stuart continues; “Good poetry is supposed to take you closer to the truth, and that’s what I try to do with my stories. It’s all done with a wink and a smile…”

In many professions, experience makes the work come a little easier – but not necessarily for a story teller. In answering a question about the quality of his work, Stuart somewhat wistfully comments; “Yes – every once in a while you write one that is better – one that stands out a little from the rest. Experience makes things harder, because you keep raising the bar on the quality of your own work. There’s a struggle to make it great.”

Stuart has been able to keep the stories on The Vinyl Café fresh. “I made the decision early on to age the characters – to let them move forward in their own lives. I didn’t know it at the time – but it turned out to be a really good decision. The characters are very real to me – and it seems natural to let then age.”

The show also provides an opportunity for Canadian musical talent to be showcased on a national radio show. “We try to shine a light on as many Canadian musicians as we can.” This was made easier when The Vinyl Café began touring across the country.

The first shows outside the CBC studios were done in 1998. “We did two of them that year – me, the piano player, the guitar player and a van. It’s been an organic growth since then, more like an evolution.” Stuart continues; “We didn’t have a business plan or a strategy for the development of the concerts. It was more like we’d agree to try something – see how it worked – and then go on from there. We tried a large concert and it worked wonderfully.”

The Vinyl Café now does three tours of three weeks duration in the spring, fall and in December for the Christmas shows. The Vinyl Café sets up wherever there’s an auditorium. The changes in geography enable the show’s producers to seek out local talent to perform in local area shows; giving the musicians and singers a national audience.

Unfortunately, the time spent travelling during the day, the rehearsals and sound checks; don’t leave time for Stuart to get out and soak up any local flavour. However, the audience rapport is important and useful. “Sometime when I’m working on a new story, I know that there’s something that’s not quite right – something that’s not clicking. The audience becomes a collaborator. With the help of the audience, just by reading it and feeling their reaction – I know what adjustments need to be made.”

Live broadcasts can lead to moments of surprise – where the script goes out the window and Stuart needs to improvise, calling on his years of experience as a broadcaster, journalist and his own humanity. On one occasion, when calling a contest winner, Stuart got a wrong number and spoke to a Kyle, the teenager in the home he had inadvertently called. “When I asked what was going on his life, he got real on me – telling me that he was unhappy – that his parents were separating and that he would be moving to another town, leaving behind his friends and one parent.” Stuart spoke to the young man, offering encouragement and compassion. Although unintentional, it was a poignant moment that touched the listeners.

Another time, while attempting to reach the winner of a Christmas Contest, the would-be winner was speaking on the telephone for a very long time. The ingenious telephone operator suggested ordering a pizza delivery. Finally they contacted the next door neighbour who was able to get the winner off the phone and accept Stuart’s call.

Stuart is a passionate Canadian and eloquent in his descriptions. “I have a huge respect for the Canadian experiment. We have different cultures co-existing – and we have come up with the magnificent solutions that form the Canadian collective.” Continuing on what is obviously a favourite topic, he states; “Yes – we have frictions – but we’ve used that difficulty to create something greater. I came to learn that growing up in Montreal you’re living on the fault line – aware of the richness of the two cultures. With the French and English cultures, Montreal is the crucible of Canada.”

“I think we’ve been well-served by our politicians. We led in the abolition of the death penalty. We have Medicare thanks to Tommy Douglas pushing the Liberals, and so many other progressive social policies that make life better. And we’ve done this in spite of our geography.”

“When we’re on tour, every day revolves around the performance. You have to focus and be your best for 8 o’clock at night when the stage lights go on. That’s when all the preparation, the travel, the work of all the people on the show comes together… “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m Stuart McLean and this is The Vinyl Café. Thank you for coming.”

The Vinyl Café is aired on CBC Radio One at 12:05 on Sundays, and at 10:05 on Radio Two on Saturdays.

Stuart Mclean’s books and awards

Writers write, and Stuart is the author of several best-selling books, including: Welcome Home: Travels in Small Town Canada (chosen by The Canadian Author’s Association as the best non-fiction book of 1993) and When We Were Young. The Vinyl Café series have all become Canadian best-sellers; Stories from the Vinyl Café, Home from the Vinyl Café, Vinyl Café Unplugged, Vinyl Café Diaries, and Secrets from the Vinyl Café. The first two books received The Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. Stuart has sold over 1 million books in Canada – a significant achievement.

Stuart retired from Ryerson where he was the Director of the broadcast division of The School of Journalism and he is now a Professor Emeritus. In 1993 Trent University named him the first Rooke Fellow for Teaching, Writing and Research. He has also been honoured by: Nipissing University, EdD (H): University of Windsor, Lld; and is a Col (Hon) of the 8th Maintenance Squadron at 8 Wing, Trenton.

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