Writer, Broadcaster

Stuart McLean

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Stuart McLean with a Neumann U-87
Stuart McLean

The Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean may not have been big, but it was small.

That was the show’s motto.

The Vinyl Café debuted in 1994. I was a fan from the beginning. It was a great show. How do I know it was a great show? Because it would trap me in my car long after I’d reached my destination. I just couldn’t stop listening. That was always happening to me with The Vinyl Café. Stuart McLean was one of the biggest celebrities CBC Radio had to offer, and The Vinyl Café one of the best shows. I never let Stuart know I felt that way. Maybe I should have.

 Stuart had been a long-time journalist with CBC Radio. He came to fame with his seven-year stint contributing to Morningside. He created radio magic with Peter Gzowski. Before that he’d contributed documentaries to Sunday Morning. He won an ACTRA award for Best Radio Documentary for contributing to that show’s coverage of the Jonestown massacre. Over time he became a best-selling author and the celebrity host of The Vinyl Cafe. He won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour three times, was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, was a professor emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto and well, you get the idea. But I knew him as the host of The Vinyl Café, both from listening to the show on the air and by working with him in the studio, at least when he wasn’t touring the show around Canada and the United States. 

Our first day working together I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Although I liked his show, I knew nothing about the man. Would he be full of himself? Have a bad temper? Treat me like a piece of the equipment? I was optimistic but prepared for the worst.

Stuart arrived in SFX 3, we greeted one another, and I directed him to the announce booth. He took a seat before the mic. I’d set up a vintage Neumann U-87 microphone for him, one of the best you can get, they go for about $3500 new. Stuart started talking. Then he stopped. He got a funny look on his face. He picked up a pencil and dropped it. The mic picked up the sound of the pencil dropping with exceptional clarity. It was an especially good mic.

U-87 Microphone

I got a bad feeling.

“It sounds weird,” Stuart said. “There’s something wrong with the sound.”

I thought, oh here we go. This guy has a hit show. He’s famous. Famous enough to be a pain in the ass.

Stuart messed with the mic some more, having fun with the sound, dropping pencils, making funny noises, just generally being playful, having a good time. Finally, he accepted the sound of the microphone, and we got down to the business of recording an episode of The Vinyl Cafe. He wasn’t a pain in the ass, and he never turned into one.

The producer of The Vinyl Cafe at this time was David Amer. Stuart had created The Vinyl Café with David. David worked on the show ten years before handing the reins over to Jess Milton. Stuart continued to credit David as the Founding Producer of The Vinyl Cafe for the rest of the show’s run.

David and I often chatted while editing the show. During one such chat he asked me, “How would you like to go out on the road with us? To record the show and do our music pickups?”

“You’d be better off with Greg DeClute for that,” I told him.

That was probably pretty stupid of me. I lacked confidence in my ability to record music at the time. Later, as the recording engineer for Q, I would record on average three bands a week. Still, I don’t regret telling David that. He did approach Greg. Recording music was Greg’s passion. He’d been properly trained for it. He had tons of experience and he was good at it. Greg was the right choice. He accompanied The Vinyl Café on the road for years. I think we can all agree that his music pickups sounded terrific. Greg told me afterward that going on the road with The Vinyl Café had been one of highlights of his career.

But I still got to package the show in the studio.

When David Amer retired, and it became necessary to appoint a new producer to the show, I believed that it should be either me, Greg, or Wayne Richards. We’d been champing at the bit to become producers. Why not save time, money and bother by just getting us to both record and produce the shows we worked on? When I found out that someone by the name of Jess Milton would become the new producer of The Vinyl Café, I was disappointed. Here we go again, I thought. Probably have to teach her everything from the ground up.

I met Jess one evening during a studio taping session. To my dismay, I liked her immediately. Nobody had to teach her anything. She was smart and capable and a perfect production partner for Stuart. She became an instrumental part of the show. For example, on the road, Stuart performed the same live show over and over in multiple towns and cities. This provided Stuart and Jess ample opportunity to refine the show before it was taped for broadcast. Each performance, Jess sat in the audience to track the audience’s responses, noting which of Stuart’s lines elicited the best laughs and which didn’t. Afterward they tweaked the show accordingly and record the refined version for broadcast. 

Stuart and Jess were an unbeatable combination. They were fun to work with and generous to a fault. One night my mother flew up from Prince Edward Island to visit me for a few days. I couldn’t pick her up at the airport because I had to work. I had to voice track Stuart for The Vinyl Cafe. My mother was a big fan of the show. I mentioned all this to Jess as we began to work. She got on the talkback and told Stuart.

“What’s your phone number?” Stuart asked me.

Later, when we were pretty sure my mother had arrived at my place, Stuart called my number. Mom answered.

“Hi Mrs. Mahoney? It’s Stuart McLean. I just wanted to thank you for loaning us your son tonight.”

They had a great chat. My mother was tickled pink.

She got to meet Stuart in person, too, when The Vinyl Café played Summerside, PEI. Jess arranged tickets for my folks. Jess and Stuart were generous with their tickets. They always offered my wife and I (and Greg and Wayne and Anton and their families) tickets for the live Christmas shows in Toronto.  

So yes, Stuart was a nice guy. He wasn’t without sass, though.

One day he arrived in the studio dressed to the nines.

I checked out his sharp new suit, looked down at my ragged jeans with holes in the knees, and said, “Gee, I didn’t know I was supposed to dress up for this gig.”

“Well, you were, asshole,” he told me.

(He was joking, of course.)

Stuart passed away February 15th, 2017, at age 68. It was a blow not just to those of us who knew him, but to everyone who had ever listened to Stuart’s special brand of radio whimsy. It was a privilege to have been able to work with such a man.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Cutress

    Stuart and Jess were certainly class acts. I recorded some shows with them at Whistler Village when they were touring the country with The Vinyl Cafe. Great people to work with. Stuart was always rewriting and fine tuning his script before the show and would come and wish us a good evening before the taping started. His kind is certainly missed on the current edition of CBC Radio. I did the show and got the sweat shirt. An excellent surprise from Jess. ( p.s. Don’t tell GH she gave me the shirt. )

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