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Q & A with George Garrett, an intrepid reporter

Last Updated Mar 14, 2019 at 9:51 am PDT

(Source: Harbour Publishing)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – He’s been called “the Walter Cronkite of B.C. Radio” and “the best there was, is, and ever will be” by his peers. He is George Garrett, Vancouver’s most celebrated radio reporter, and he’s out with George Garrett:  Intrepid Reporter, a book detailing his nearly four-and-a-half decades breaking some of the biggest stories in the province’s history.

NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann reached Garrett by phone earlier this week. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

George, what goes through your mind when people call you things like the Walter Cronkite of B.C. radio?

“Well, I’m a little bit embarrassed. I’m humiliated because to put me in the same category as Walter Cronkite, it’s just not right. I think that quote came from a good friend of mine at the Pace Group, Norman Stowe, who told a lot of people during my early retirement years that I was the most trusted man in British Columbia in terms of reporting and he compared me to the Walter Cronkite of British Columbia. But it’s a bit much!”

So many people have looked up you, continue to look up to you, even two decades after your retirement. Who have you admired? Who do you admire?

“[CKNW News Director] Warren Barker would be number one. He was my boss. He did a lot for me. He put me out as an investigative reporter, which meant that I didn’t have to be on any particular assignment and it just made the world of difference so that I had the time to go and look at different things and spend quite a bit of time on one project. Some of my projects I spent a lot of time on fizzled out, just didn’t amount to anything, but he never questioned what I was doing, never asked me ‘How come you haven’t had a story?’ He gave me a complete trust, which was really wonderful.”

Let’s go back to the beginning a bit. Where do you think your curiosity comes from?

“From just being a kid I think, on the farm. I always wanted to know everything about just about everything I looked at, and one incident was the old farmer fixing his farm equipment in the backyard. His housekeeper was my aunt that I was staying [with] for a few days, and I asked so many questions he called his housekeeper and he said, ‘Lucille, get this kid out of here! He asks too many questions!’ That same aunt of mine did say that I talked a lot. She said, ‘I think you’re going to be a preacher because you talk so much!'”

You started with ‘NW back in its early days as a mom-and-pop type operation, back when it was in New Westminster. Your history spans from then all the way to Corus and the move to the Black Tower. It’s an achievement that will never be replicated but I have to ask anyway. How do you manage to spend the bulk of your career, 40-plus years, at the same radio station?

“I was very lucky because they were very competitive, as we all were. CKWX was very competitive, along with CFUN and CJOR. We had competitive talk shows, we had competitive newscasts, so it was a great time to be part of radio. I happened to be with CKNW, I liked the people I worked for, and I think we had a pretty good operation going for a long time.”

In the book, you mention CKMO and CKWX in those early days. Overall, what station do you think gave you the most run for your money?

“I think at times it was ‘WX, especially when you went into the all news format. We were a bit concerned about that and, at times, the competition in news didn’t come so much from other stations, as the competition came from talk show people like Pat Burns on CJOR. That gave ‘NW a real scare and [Jack] Webster later on CJOR. I guess the things we were watching for was talk shows. Even Brian Forst, our great morning man, has said that CKNW’s strength was its newsroom. He said that’s why people tuned in. I think there’s some truth in that. We had a really good operation headed by Warren Barker and John McKitrick and a lot of very fine people who have since gone on to other stations and some, like Terry Schintz, who are still there.”

You may well remember this. In 1957, ‘WX and ‘NW swapped frequencies. Do you remember what was behind this move?

“I remember that when we were 1320 on the dial, we were trying very hard to get what they call a clear channel. We wanted to be lower down on the dial and we wound up at 980. All I remember is there was quite a battle with ‘WX over who got what frequency. But, you know, 1130 is pretty good too, really.”

As someone on the other side of the fence, what were your impressions when ‘WX went from country to all news in 1996?

“I thought it was good for news, even though it was competition for us. I thought it was a service to the public and I must say that, over the 20 years, I’ve listened quite a bit. I’m amazed at how you do it. I know you have a lot of people working in the newsroom but I don’t hear too many goofs. We used to have them at ‘NW. I guess every station has them. But your machine runs so well and you go from one feature to another seamlessly, most of the time. So, I think it’s an important thing for the market to have that and to have it, I think it’s 20 years now, isn’t it?”

23 as of February 8th.

“Wow, that’s quite a record!”

Okay, enough ‘WX questions, I promise! What was your first big scoop? What would you say was that career-making story for you? Or do you think you built your reputation more over time and with a consistent body of work?

“Well, I built trust with the police which helped a lot when stories like the [Clifford] Olson murders came along. That’s probably one of the bigger stories that I’ve covered, because I did have a tip early on when Olson was still at large and there was a lot of concern. I had approval from my boss, Warren Barker, to say that it might be a serial killing. I had some advice from veteran police that I knew that it sounded like a serial killer. I knew it would cause a lot of consternation in the community, a lot of alarm. But, at the same time, I thought we had an obligation to let the community know that there could indeed be a serial killer operating, and that there was. So, we ran that and that caused a lot of news magazines and television networks to attend news conferences that the RCMP were calling every day. On the third day, I think it was, I noticed there was something different about the body language of the superintendent, Bruce Northrup. I knew him very well. The way he answered a question made me think, ‘He’s holding something back.’ So I ran back to listen to the tape again to see what the question was. The question was: ‘Could killers still be in this area?’ Bruce’s response led me to think that there’s something up. So I phoned my contact and I said, ‘What’s up? Another body or an arrest?’ And he said, ‘An arrest this morning on Vancouver Island.’ I called Bruce Northrup again, the superintendent, who wouldn’t quite confirm it, but I knew that we were on the right track. It turned out to be correct.

“There was one other element to that story and that was I did get a tip that the RCMP were paying Olson $10,000 to find bodies, which is anathema to any police officer. They really disliked Olson because he was smoking cigars and giving his lawyer instructions about how he wanted it done and so on. So, I held that story but I verified it by phoning the prosecutor at home, John Hall, now an appeal court judge, or he was, and I asked him about the $10,000 and all he said was, ‘George, I think I’d put that on the back burner for now.’ Which means don’t use it. We kept it until the Olson guilty plea came and John Hall walked by my desk in the courthouse and he said, ‘You can take that matter off the back burner now’ meaning [I] could use it. So, that’s an incident I think where trust really worked. I would consider that one of my better stories.”

Was there a favourite interview you’ve had?

“I had an incident down in Los Angeles that wasn’t an interview. I started out doing a report for the Bill Good Show in the noon hour. I was approached by four guys who wanted the keys to my rental car and I wouldn’t give them up. So, they grabbed the phone and hung it up and grabbed my microphone and ripped it out of the cord. And then they forced me into a doorway and smacked me in the in the nose and they broke my jaw. That was quite an experience and that’s one I’ll remember for a long time.”

And this was during the [Los Angeles] riots in 1992?

“Yes, the Rodney King riots in ’92. And then I wanted to go back three years later for the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case and my then-boss was Gord Macdonald said, ‘You’re not going because it’s too dangerous.’ But I already had my flight booked and I had the arrangement to have a bulletproof vest from the Vancouver Police Department, I was alone, and I was ready to go. He said, ‘You’re NOT going.’ Then I found out that BCTV, as it then was, was going down. So, I said I’ll go with them and I’ll be safe. He said, ‘As long as you give me your word that you won’t abandon them, you have to stick with them all the time.’ When I got down there I ditched them, of course, and went to do interviews! So it worked out okay though!”

The book isn’t just about your professional life, you also delve quite a bit into the personal. Many folks may not be aware that you lost a son just as he was starting a radio career of his own. Can you talk about that a little bit? 

“Yes, my son Ken followed my footsteps in the sense that he went to BCIT and graduated from there. He was hired for a radio station up in Fort St. John, hired as an announcer, then he became a salesman, and then the owner, Gene Daniel, really liked him and he promoted him to manager of that station and the satellite station further north in Fort Nelson. He was doing very well. He was 24-years-old and he and his girlfriend were living in Fort St. John and they decided to go for a celebration of their engagement in early May in 1987. The canoe overturned. Although they were wearing life jackets, Ken died because he got hypothermia. He kept pushing Shelly, his girlfriend, up on the overturned canoe and saved her life. But he died because of hypothermia. Very sad day in my life.”

For those who have followed your career, George, and you mentioned this earlier, one of your hallmarks is your myriad contacts, your huge contact book. How did you come to develop those sources?

“I think it just happened over time because I started working the 4 a.m. to midnight shift at the police station. A lot of media people say, ‘Oh, the cop shop beat is the bottom of the ladder.’ I never thought that. I made friends with a lot of policemen and over the years I got a lot of contacts. Then I followed politicians, right from the time they were on the school board or park board, city council, and up into provincial and federal [politics], got to know them, and I would get their numbers just as a matter of course in dealing with them. I kept them in what was called a Casio, an electronic thing. I could dial up a lot of numbers and I would get calls once in a while from somebody in the media and they’d say, ‘Do you have Bill Bennett’s home number in Kelowna?’ Yes I do. ‘Could I have it?’ No, you may not!  I would only give them out if it was really important for somebody I thought I should do a favour for.”

Speaking of favours, you have the reputation of being a “gentleman reporter,” not just by the people you’ve interviewed, but by your fellow newsmen and women. How did you come to come up with that philosophy of sharing tape and extending other courtesies in what, as you said was, especially back then, a cutthroat business?

“I think it’s because I got burned myself by not preparing properly! I was pretty young, very new to CKNW, and I was assigned to interview Field Marshal Montgomery, among other reporters. It was a bit of an interview of a lot of reporters, but it was out at the Lieutenant Governor’s house at the University of B.C. and I was new to the area and I got the wrong directions. I wound up so late that I missed the whole news conference. I just heard the English voice of Field Marshal Montgomery saying, ‘Thank you gentlemen and good bye!’ So, I knew I had missed it all and if I’d known the reporters then, I would have asked for some tape, and I would have got it, but I didn’t know anyone then. So, I vowed that if I ever got in a situation where I had lots of tape and everybody else is going to get the same thing, if somebody is late why not help them out and give them give them a clip of your tape. The listener wouldn’t know the difference, really, where the tape came from. Sometimes that worked and sometimes I got help from others too.

The book also shows your mischievous side, or your mischievous streak, if you will pardon the pun. Tell me about the time you interviewed members of a nudist camp in Surrey!

“Well, I took my poor wife Joan out for a drive and I didn’t tell her that I’d already arranged with a photographer to be there to take discreet pictures. I had made an arrangement to do an interview in this camp and as I arrived I said, ‘Oh, by the way, Joan, I just have to go into a nudist camp here for a few minutes. Would you like to come in?’  She said no and she sat in the car. She was not very happy. One of the conditions of doing the interview was that I had to strip. But the person said, ‘You could leave your shirt on as long as you undo the buttons.’ So, I did that, went in, did the interview with several people. I had the picture taken with a little girl on my knee, very discreet, certainly in good taste. Then we left with Joan being very unhappy with me. But it wasn’t the first time!”

You’ve been retired now for 20 years, yet you still have plenty to teach the rest of us about the craft. What is your opinion on the state of journalism today?

“I think it’s a tougher time for reporters now than when I worked. For one thing, as I understand it, radio reporters have to do the radio piece, the audio, and then they have to do a website presentation which includes a video, either still photos or moving video. That’s an extra burden for the reporter. I think the job has become a lot more complicated. I know now there are video journalists, which I could never have done. The overall state of journalism, I think, is pretty good. Journalists are facing a lot of challenges and I think they meet them. The coverage is really good in Canada and the United States. In the States they’re fighting off the Donald Trump view of fake media. And, of course, there is the terrible media that is called media going on social websites, not professionally done, and not censored at all, not properly managed. I think there are many many factors that reporters are dealing with. The most serious one of all is the danger that reporters face. I believe there are 1,170-some journalists who’ve been killed in the last 27 years. When I read that stat, I was totally shocked and, more and more, I think they’re being killed all the time or some are put in jail. It’s a dangerous profession and there are a lot of people that are doing it well. Yet if somebody asked me, ‘Should I try to go into journalism?’ I would say absolutely. It’s the best job in the world!”

Having said all that, George, do you miss it at all? Are there any stories out there you could sink your teeth into now?

“I love the one in Victoria. I’d love to have a few pieces of that story of what those two top officials are accused of doing. I just can’t believe that was going on. That’s one story I’d like to have had or be a part of. If I were to try to do the job now that I did many years ago, it would be pretty difficult. If you look at Kim Bolan at the Vancouver Sun, who I think is the best crime reporter we’ve ever had in this market, she has so many contacts it would be impossible to match her. She did tell me, in fact, when she was a kid on the beat or on the desk years ago, that the desk listened to CKNW and they would say, ‘Garrett’s got this. Can you match it?’ I love to hear that!”

So, like we mentioned, you’ve been retired now for some time, but you still keep busy. From time to time, we get to talk to you about the volunteer cancer drivers. How did that come about?

“That’s because I have been a cancer driver for the Canadian Cancer Society since before my wife came down with Alzheimer’s, which was in 2010. I just continue driving for them. In 2015, they decided they would discontinue the whole service and two of the fellows that I drove with decided they would start their own organization to help cancer patients who were frantic about how they would go to treatment. They did start the Volunteer Cancer Drivers. They called me in because of my media contacts and we got going and I’m now the vice president in charge of fundraising and I do quite a bit of media contact as well.”

George, thank you so much for doing this. And thank you for putting your story down on paper for many reporters, years from now, to enjoy as well.

“All right. I appreciate the interest. It’s very nice of you!”

George Garrett: Intrepid Reporter is available from Harbour Publishing.