The surprising off-air lives of on-air people

Andy Barrie by Gary Gould The grandfatherly on-air Peter Gzowski was an act. Joan Rivers carefully crafted her sarcastic and cruel on-air persona. Former long-time CBC Radio host Andy Barrie reviews
two new offerings – a biography and documentary – that try to bridge the
gap between on-air audience expectation and off-air reality.

I’m not sure Peter Gzowski ever interviewed Joan Rivers; I somehow doubt it. Her brand of sexual candor and his discomfort with same would have seen the pitch strike out in a second. But the arrival of a documentary about her and a biography about him suggests that, in private at least, they might have reached a real understanding. In common, their careers required them to play the most difficult part of all: themselves. Rivers’ greatest disappointment, she tells us at the end of the film, is that she’s never been given the credit she feels she deserves for her acting ability. This might come as a shock to those who saw her as stand-up comedian, while she clearly saw herself as an actress: a hardworking, disciplined performer named Joan Rivers, who  built a career playing the part of a self-absorbed, hyper-critical and frequently foul-mouthed harridan of the same name.

As the Rivers doc, A Piece of Work, draws to a close, we who dismissed the Rivers character as just that have come to understand the film’s title in a different way. The ‘piece of work’ is the astoundingly demanding career that has allowed her, as a brutally hard-working bread-winner, to support a close and extended family (and pay for, it must be said, a garishly excessive lifestyle; compensation, maybe, for the hell-hole dives she’s worked in).

If the movie leaves us thinking more of Rivers, Rae Fleming’s Peter Gzowski: A Biography will probably leave his listeners thinking less of Gzowski. The genial persona he projected on-air was no less a performance, we’re told, than Rivers’. While he seemed a pater familias to a nation, Fleming makes Gzowski out to be a distant and difficult father to his own children (a conclusion the five children he brought up strongly contest). The soul of accommodation and understanding interviewing on-air guests, when the mic was off, they remember, he was uninterested and unreachable. One could go on, but the point’s made, and remade endlessly through a book that reads more like a disappointed fan’s notes than biography.

At the heart of both these disconnects is the failure to understand the divide between the performer and the eponymous part s/he plays. Peter, unlike Joan Rivers, isn’t here to tell us, straight to camera, what he makes of all the shock and dismay that have supposedly greeted these revelations. I’d like to think he would have shrugged one of his famous shrugs and said, “So? Have you never heard of the magic of radio? Did you imagine they set forest fires in the studio rather than create the sound effect of crinkling cellophane next to the microphone? What you heard was me playing the part -a part- of me. I was no more that person off-air than Christopher Plummer is Prospero off-stage”.

Having spent a long career in radio playing myself, I hardly want to suggest a huge divide exists between all of our on- and off-air selves. But “television, without the pictures” as radio was once called is so much more, rather than less, to its listeners than television. The first radios were monster pieces of furniture, appropriate only for the living room. Listened-to by a whole family at once, the line between performer and audience was as clear as the footlights on a stage. But shrinking technology allowed the solitary listener, in his car, in her bedroom, to share personal space with a now (after the big variety shows decamped to TV) solitary voice only inches away, extending an invitation to an intimate bond that, of course, went only one way.

When I experienced serious personal losses in my family, I was both humbled and astounded by the intimacy expressed in the flood of listener mail that came my way. And, not a little alarmed at how I could possibly reciprocate in kind. I hope those people who never received the kind of personal response from me they might have expected will not think the less of me for not being as close to all of them as so many of them felt close to me. I hope, too, that Peter’s many devoted listeners will feel no less attached to his memory, because the man who played himself on the radio just happened to be a deeply complex human being.

Photo of Andy Barrie by Gary Gould.

Andy Barrie recently retired as the host, for fifteen years, of CBC Radio Toronto’s Metro Morning. He’s traded the studio for a classroom as a Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Ryerson University.