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Stuart McLean: Creator of The Vinyl Café wove beguiling tales

Broadcaster and best-selling author Stuart McLean is photographed during an interview in his Toronto home in Nov, 2012. His CBC radio program Vinyl Cafe charmed millions during its 22 years on air. is a listener favorite while his books are best sellers in their own right. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The inspiration for the show that brought Stuart McLean into people's lives and homes and hearts each week came, he said, "like a bolt from the blue."

It was the late 1980s, and Mr. McLean was a regular contributor to and fill-in host on Morningside, the three-hour CBC Radio chat fest presided over by Peter Gzowski. David Amer, a music producer for the show, whose selections were frequently and frustratingly foreshortened when the voluble Mr. Gzowski would run over his allotted interview time, asked Mr. McLean if he would like to do a music show with him.

"I said I'd be delighted to work with you, but it should have more than just music and introductions, it should have a conceit, and I just laid it out right there, right in front of him. It just came out of nowhere," Mr. McLean recalled in a 2013 interview with Kevin Caners, a Toronto broadcaster. "I said, 'We should write about a guy who has a second-hand record store and that would be why he's talking about music, because he's going through his record collection.'"

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The show would be called The Vinyl Café, and though it took until 1994 before it made it to air as a summer series, over the subsequent 22 years Mr. McLean would beguile millions of listeners every weekend with live music, essays, and his folksy, family-friendly tales of that record store owner, Dave; his forbearing wife, Morley; their children, Sam and Stephanie; and their friends and neighbours.

At first, the show was recorded in studio, but as its popularity grew Mr. McLean took it on the road across the country for up to 100 live performances a year, finding inspiration for his stories in the small towns he visited.

"I think the reason he was so good at telling our stories as Canadians is that he was a tremendously good listener," said Jess Milton, who served as the show's executive producer for 12 years. "I want to say he was a mirror and he reflected us back to ourselves. But he was more than that; he was a conduit. He allowed our stories as Canadians to just pass right through him and in doing so, he really connected us – to our country, to each other and to ourselves."

The Vinyl Café went on hiatus in November, 2015, when Mr. McLean told listeners he was being treated for melanoma. He died Wednesday at the age of 68.

Andrew Stuart McLean was born April 19, 1948, in Montreal, the eldest of three children of Andrew and Patricia McLean, Australian immigrants who had settled in Montreal after the Second World War. He was an awkward underdog of a kid who was more interested in stories than studies.

"I would lie in bed at night and listen to rock and roll on the radio," Mr. McLean said in a 2011 interview that aired on CBC. "I was not a confident boy and I didn't really believe in myself and didn't really connect with the world. …And it was through the radio that I found some sort of community to belong to."

And he loved to perform. Mr. McLean's younger brother, Alistair, recalls Stuart at about age nine making a surprise appearance while their parents were entertaining guests from their father's head office in London, England.

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"He popped up from behind the curtains in the living room and started to give sort of a speech, much like a minister, and then passed around a little plate for collection," Alistair recalled on Thursday on CBC Radio's Vancouver morning show.

His natural way with an audience found an outlet as a camp counsellor and, after he graduated with a B.A. from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University), as a manager of political campaigns, including the former CBC journalist Nick Auf der Maur's successful run for Montreal city council in 1974.

Buoyed with confidence after the campaign, Mr. McLean took a proposal for a television documentary about cross-country skiing to the CBC-TV show Take 30, which accepted it.

He also snagged freelance work as a researcher on CBC Radio's national call-in program Cross Country Checkup, which led to a job in Toronto at the radio network's flagship news magazine, Sunday Morning.

Led by executive producer Mark Starowicz, the show's merry band of producers – most in their late 20s or early 30s, fuelled by equal parts raw enthusiasm and experience – would fly to various places around the world on a Tuesday night, spend three days reporting a story, return home and edit for 24 hours, and then stumble home at dawn shortly before their 12-minute pieces went to air on Sunday.

"It was intense, full of camaraderie," Mr. McLean told Mr. Caners, in an episode of the podcast Broadcasting Canada. "It was before The Globe was national, it was before the national news was at 10, and before Maclean's magazine was weekly, so if people lived in Regina, they were hungry for information, they didn't have access to it, and we thought we were giving them the world. We were; it was a great show. And there I was in the centre of all that, living my dream: Boy Reporter."

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More to the point, Mr. McLean realized he could be good at something. "The light went on and I learned, all you have to do to be excellent is to try hard. To care. To do it again and again. If someone had taught me that in grade seven, I wouldn't have had to flunk grade 11. I didn't know that then. As everybody always says, it's not brilliance, it's just sweat."

Mr. McLean could do serious journalism, but he found himself repeatedly pulled to the quirky outsiders, those who, back then, rarely seemed to merit the spotlight: a man who would replay NHL games in the miniature replica of a hockey arena he had built in his attic; a photographer who specialized in bovine auction portraiture. While Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion was a model for The Vinyl Café, this week Mr. Starowicz noted that Mr. McLean pioneered his own sound in his appearances with Mr. Gzowski.

"Stuart would bring in a report from some part of Canada, and he'd say, 'Meet this lady I spoke to in Corner Brook.' It was that kind of soft dialogue, which was unique at the time. Radiolab and programs like that do it routinely now."

If he seemed easygoing on-air, though, Mr. McLean was hard on himself.

In a 2006 profile published in Toronto Life, author Trevor Cole channelled Mr. McLean telling a journalist about the dissolution of his marriage. He said his ex-wife, Linda Read "used to call my work the other woman. But there are plenty of people who work as hard as I do who have successful marriages, so – who knows?" He added that, "relationships are a complicated business. I don't understand what happened myself. I see it as a huge failure, the big failure of my life, that my marriage didn't succeed. And I feel sad about that."

As news of Mr. McLean's death spread, the Internet quickly became flooded with Canadians' memories of their favourite Vinyl Café stories. The reaction underlined how, even in the current era of ever-fragmenting audiences, his show and its multi-generational appeal brought families closer together.

Fans recalled how they had sat in parked cars in driveways across the nation, unable to get out until they learned whether Dave had made things right with Morley after some household disaster, such as messing up the roasting of the Christmas turkey.

That story especially "sort of took on a life of its own that neither one of us would have predicted," says Meg Masters, whom Mr. McLean called his "long-suffering" story editor. "Every Christmas when it was time to write the new Christmas story, it was like, 'Oh my God.' There's always going to be a Christmas story and it's always going to be measured against Dave Cooks the Turkey. So it was a bit of a burden at times, because how do you match that when everybody feels so strongly about it?"

For many years, Mr. McLean also taught broadcast journalism at what is now Ryerson University.

Chris Epp, a reporter and anchor with CTV Calgary, recalls learning a crucial lesson early in Mr. McLean's radio documentary class. A student flew in late, clearly upset. Mr. McLean asked if she was okay. She said she was. He pressed. What happened? Family stuff, she said. He drew the story out of her, prodding her along with simple, short questions: "What happened? Well, why? Then what happened?," Mr. Epp recalls. "He did it in such a non-threatening way. There's a way to ask very personal questions in a non-invasive way that prompts people to want to share."

Mr. Epp says the lesson has stuck with him. "I hear his voice in my head," he says. Especially going into very difficult interviews – a family of a murder or car-crash victim, for instance, he conjures those questions: "What happened? Then what?"

In 2011, Mr. McLean was named an officer of the Order of Canada "for his contributions to Canadian culture as a storyteller and broadcaster, as well as for his many charitable activities." He won three Stephen Leacock Memorial Medals, and received an additional nomination, for four of the 10 Vinyl Café books he wrote.

He was married for more than 20 years to Ms. Read, a Toronto potter with whom he raised their two sons, Andrew and Robert, and Ms. Read's son from a previous marriage, Chris Trowbridge. While on vacation about seven years ago, Mr. McLean met an American woman, Amy Gayle. Though she continued to live in the United States, they shared their summers at a home in Quebec. He leaves his brother Alistair, his sister, Stephanie, and their families.

In addition to stories, The Vinyl Café was also very much about music. With his trademark intonation, Mr. McLean would welcome performers such as Reid Jamieson or Hawksley Workman onto the Vinyl Café stage.

Musician Luke Doucet grew up in a CBC household in Winnipeg – the family had no TV. The radio was always on and Mr. Doucet was raised on the voices of Mr. McLean and other radio hosts. He was thrilled when he and his wife, Melissa McClelland, were invited to tour with The Vinyl Café a few years ago, just before they established themselves as Whitehorse.

"He was a very encouraging person. He would stand at the side of the stage and he would watch and he would listen to the lyrics and he would ask questions about what we were singing," Mr. Doucet says.

When Mr. Doucet and Ms. McClelland learned of Mr. McLean's death on Wednesday, their first reaction was to play Night Owls, a favourite of Mr. McLean's, who loved the lyrics.

"You toss and you turn / You live and you learn / Just when you thought you had it in your grasp it flew away," the song goes. They used an iPhone to record themselves performing the song, and posted it to Facebook.

"I didn't know how else to process it," Mr. Doucet says. "So we played some music, that's what we did."

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About the Authors
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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