LAUTENS: Bombastic broadcaster recalls talk radio heyday

Rafe Mair, astronomically paid battling broadcaster in the balmy days when CKNW styled itself Vancouver’s Top Dog, is in shaky health and thinks he’ll die in 2017.

Mind and speech, he’s as sharp as ever. I assured him he looks fine.

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“I wish I felt as well inside as I look outside,” Rafe replied. He turned 85 on New Year’s Eve, has balance problems probably due to a long-undiagnosed stroke, and uses a walker in his Lions Bay townhouse shared with wife Wendy. An electric scooter at the door gets little use these days.

Rafe would not like the formulaic panhandling-for-pity story reserved for the old or ill, and he won’t get one here. Even less, the definitive account of his riveting life, where the line between his private and public affairs was tremulous. Nor, a study in itself, his aggressive pride in B.C. – a Don Quixote tilting at windmills that sometimes blunted his lance in retaliation. (Such was his contempt for Eastern Canada that he once yielded as far as pronouncing this Ontario-born word-grinder “an honorary British Columbian,” but withdrew it when in my Vancouver Sun column I accidentally wrote kindly of Toronto.)

No, Rafe’s chronicle requires at least three volumes – and his biographer would have to tread carefully quoting him. He is particularly fond of giving vigorous exercise to that vernacular construction translatable as: “Depart, begone, go hence, get thee out of my sight.”

He wore an XXL-size personality and brandished a Napoleonic bravado in attack. (Daring a one-way ticket to Elba?) Always in motion, Rafe kicked up so much dust that his career in the Bill Bennett cabinet – health, environment, constitutional adviser – is almost lost in the memory clouds.

He’s proud of it. His own cryptic list: ‘‘Enabled cottage wineries. Beat back banks. Also fought several environmental battles including Kemano Completion Project, saved Skagit, placed moratorium on uranium, stopped killing of wolves.’’

He praises Bennett, albeit “a prickly bugger, and so am I,” as “a fine, fine guy. … Of course, I left blood on the carpet like everyone else.’’ (“The only thing that I worry about with criticism,” he told me, “is that I might agree with it.” And added: “No one likes to have unpleasant things said about them any more than a baseball player likes to be hit by a 100-mph fast ball, but I, like him, can’t wait to step up to the plate again.”)

Restless, Rafe quit politics. Money was thin. And, to speak ill of the dead: He claims the extravagance of his wife Patti and her failure to file income tax returns for some years landed them in a tax arrears and bank muddle totalling $250,000. He begged, successfully, to pay off each debt at $25 a month.

His first NW talk show, midnight-2 a.m., blossomed, and his salary with it: Initially $80,000, it soared to $125,000 when he reached the coveted 9 a.m.-noon spot. Close friend Fin Anthony, apprised of this intolerable exploitation, said he’d double it and add a $50,000 signing bonus. Anthony returned, confessing failure: He got the $250,000 but ‘‘only” a $40,000 bonus.

This was NW’s bombastic heyday. The station was a wacky zoo of naked ambitions, bruised and bruising egos, stabbings front as well as back, yet dominated by the universally respected Warren Barker. (I omit other names on the ground that they represent actual people and may sue.) Rafe’s audience adored his harsh have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife style of cross-examining politicians, many of whom refused return bouts. And his chocolate Lab Chauncey became part of his radio family.

But some faithful wearied of Rafe’s causes – notably his relentless is-he-on-that-topic-again crusade, allied with activist Alexandra Morton, championing B.C.’s fishery – against the detested fish farms raising Atlantic salmon. And with the territory came envy, gossip, new love. Rafe’s split with then-wife Patti bitterly divided loyalties within NW because she was, and for some time continued as, his producer.

The show closed in 2003 after a running battle with his then boss, starting with a female staffer’s complaint that Rafe had high-handedly ordered her to fetch coffee for him. Rafe denies it. The trigger, he says, was when he took to the mic to scorch NW owner Chorus Entertainment for firing 25 employees. His contract, with perks, was then an eye-popping $455,000.

He declares: ‘‘Everybody fired me. … When asked about my radio career, I reply: ‘I started in my 50th year, was B.C. broadcast performer of the year, received the Michener Award and was twice shortlisted, received the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jack Webster Foundation (and elevation to) the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame – during which time I was fired three times!’”

In our four-hour friendly lunch that grew into this interview – which Rafe had expected – I asked the stock question: What was his worst experience? It was the only time he hesitated. The human, not the career, voice answered: The irreparable loss of his beloved daughter and poet Shawn, 17, killed in a car accident in 1976.

Maybe only old men, one calmly stating he expects to die this year ‘‘uncomplainingly,’’ know that tears are without gender – and don’t reject out of hand the possibility of the unbelievable.

Two people, neither close to him, separately informed Rafe that shortly after her death Shawn had spoken to them. She told them she was happy.

Former Vancouver Sun columnist Trevor Lautens writes every second Friday on politics and life with a West Vancouver bias. rtlautens@gmail.com

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