RIP: Dick Smyth, News Broadcaster Extraordinaire
Dick passed away at a hospice in Huntsville, Ontario this past weekend, but during his 86 years on earth, Dick packed in a whole lot of living.
By Doug Thompson
“And here’s how things look to Dick Smyth this morning…”
Dick Smyth is a broadcasting legend. That’s not a boast, but a simple statement of fact. Dick did it all. Award-winning radio news and commentary over six decades, television commentary, even a book published in 1984 by McClelland & Stewart with many of Dick’s favourite commentaries. So many accomplishments.
He passed away at a hospice in Huntsville, Ontario this past weekend, but during his 86 years on earth, Dick packed in a whole lot of living.
This is a tribute to Dick Smyth the man, the broadcaster, the News Director, the mentor and the impact and influence he had on radio news and broadcasters from across North America. One important insight into Smyths’ philosophy on radio news comes from former CHUM news staffer Bob Hodge. “When I was in the newsroom in about 1975, He told me newspapers send out a camera to record events. He told me radio stations send out reporters to ‘paint a picture’.”
And what pictures Dick could paint with his words. That was especially true during the 1967 Detroit race riots. Smyth was News Director at CKLW in Windsor then and was one of only a handful of Canadian reporters who repeatedly crossed the Canada/US. border to report on the riots. He won awards for those reports. “My most vivid recollection was being in the middle of a firefight…rockets and bazookas being fired over our heads. A police officer with his carbine at the ready telling us to stay down. I remember distinctly being on 12th street in Detroit, and it was just a mass of flames. It was something I’ve never been able to forget. It was like a war zone. I said in one report, ‘How can a city do this to itself?’“
After 13 successful years at CKLW, he left Windsor for Toronto as News Director at CHUM. His morning newscasts and 8 AM commentary became ‘appointment radio’. One of Dick’s co-workers in the CHUM newsroom was the late Mike Cleaver. “In those days, Dick smoked a pipe, constantly. The newsroom was covered with pipe tobacco, pipe ashes and the air was always thick with pipe and cigarette smoke as Richard Scott also chain-smoked for the entire time he was there. Smyth would often knock out his pipe into one of the giant waste paper baskets that held all that used teletype paper and carbons before going into the booth to deliver his newscasts. Often this would result in a roaring blaze, with flames leaping to the ceiling.The fire extinguishers in the newsroom were constantly being refilled because of this.”
Even though he worked for radio stations that played contemporary music for much of his career, Dick was an opera fan. A HUGE opera fan. That lack of familiarity with pop music may have been why one morning at CHUM as he ended the news, he introduced the opening song of the hour as being from twenty-two Top (aka ZZ Top).
In 1987, after nearly 18 years at CHUM, Dick left for CFTR, then still a contemporary music station. On June 7, 1993, Rogers threw the music out the window in favour of all news. He was the first newscaster heard on 680 News. But news 24 hours a day was no longer just a 5 to 8 minute newscast once or twice an hour. Joe Snider was in the Rogers newsroom that first morning. “On Day One, I’ll never forget Dick pushing the studio door open to shout, ‘I need more news!’.
And lest we forget, there was Dick’s legendary temper. Yes, he threw things. Typewriters, ashtrays, microphones, tape carts, staplers, basically anything not nailed down. Dick was a man of deep passion. When things went wrong, as they sometimes did, Dick would blow off steam by throwing things. Mike Cleaver recalled Dick’s typewriter throwing era: “The original news studio door bears the dent where a Royal manual typewriter bought it in a particularly violent fit of pique. When we got electric typewriters, Fred Ennis, one of the best shit disturbers of all time, marked out a circle on the floor around each desk with yellow tape. That’s how far Smyth could throw the machine with the cord plugged in, a sort of a no man’s land.”
Years later, Dick reflected on the stress of decades on morning radio. “I’ve mellowed a great deal. I’ve definitely mellowed. I still get irritated, but when things start getting stressful, I run away from it. I don’t think I realized until I retired that I didn’t have a proper night’s sleep for 40 years working morning radio. At one point I was getting up at two thirty in the morning. I mean, that’s ridiculous.”
Dick Smyth was a friend, mentor and boss to many in Canadian broadcasting during his many decades in news. He was often outspoken and occasionally controversial. But he always had the right turn of phrase. So, it only seems fitting that the final words on Dick Smyth’s life come from the man himself.
“I’ve always been a DIY guy. So I have written my own obituary.
It was a good run. I hated being in my eighties but at the same time I was grateful for getting that far when so many of my contemporaries did not.
I had a long and happy marriage to Marnie. Scorpio and Aries are a bad combination but despite a few bumps and totally different personalities, we made it for over 60 years.We produced three wonderful daughters (“The Smyth Babes” as the late Tom Rivers called them). Dawn Marie gave us two stunning and smart granddaughters. I had a long and successful career in Radio, TV and print. We then enjoyed more than twenty great years of retirement in our beloved Muskoka.
We travelled to six of the seven continents (Never made it to Antarctica). On one trip I circled the world in twelve days, doing a nightly feature on CITY-TV. Marnie and I were everywhere in Canada except Nunavut and in perhaps half the U.S. states. My work allowed me to meet or interview everybody from Jimmy Hoffa to Queen Elizabeth.
I was born in Montreal on April 6, 1934, raised a Catholic and educated by the Jesuits of whom it is said they will make you either a priest or an atheist. I ended up an angry agnostic with hearty contempt and disdain for all organized religions and the chaos, strife, prejudice, lies, suffering, hatred, injustice, evil, hypocrisy and absurdities they all produce. So there is no need for prayers. Remember me with a stiff dark rum or a double scotch on the rocks.
I was an agnostic rather than an atheist because there obviously is some design and purpose to the universe. I don’t believe in an afterlife yet have toyed with the purpose of life and the mystery of death. Reincarnation? Ghosts? Something no one has even conceived? Atheists categorically deny the existence of god. (The lower case “g” is deliberate.). We agnostics (from the Greek “don’t know”) say that there is no way we can figure it all out. I hope that by the time you read this, my curiosity will have been assuaged.
Not too many regrets... wish I had learned to fly, to speak Italian, and to play the piano.
I’ve had many great friends, intriguing colleagues, outstanding bosses, interesting acquaintances and only two mortal enemies.”
(Who might they have been?)