The view from the anchor chair: Lloyd Robertson on his life
Published Saturday, October 13, 2012 8:00PM EDT
Lloyd Robertson spent more than four decades telling other people’s stories without thinking anyone would be interested in his own.
The longest-serving national TV news anchor in Canadian history had a “front-row seat” to nearly every major event of the modern era, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, and the 9-11 attacks.
He’s interviewed a succession of prime ministers, from Lester B. Pearson to Stephen Harper, members of the Royal Family, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and an impressive roster of other historic figures.
Both the Conservative and Liberal parties have tried to woo him into the world of politics over the years, and there was even an offer of a Senate seat – all rebuffed.
But whenever one of his colleagues suggested he write a book about his 41 years in the anchor chair, first at CBC and then CTV, Robertson simply shook his head.
“For a long time I paid no attention to it,” the face of CTV National News for 35 years said in an interview. “Then I thought: Who would be interested anyway?”
Robertson, 78, eventually decided to give it a try, telling himself that he was writing just another story about “a person who just happens to be me.”
The result is a revealing memoir, The Kind of Life It’s Been, which goes on sale Oct. 16.
From his early start at a local radio station in his hometown of Stratford, Ont., to becoming one of the most recognizable voices in Canadian broadcasting and a recipient of the Order of Canada, Robertson’s book details the pivotal moments of his lustrous career and private life.
Although he passed the National News torch to Lisa LaFlamme in September 2011, Robertson continues hosting and reporting for CTV’s current affairs program, W5. Writing The Kind of Life It’s Been – a nod to his famous nightly signoff, “And that’s the kind of day it’s been” – took up much of his time last year.
Growing up in a working-class family as the youngest of his father’s 10 children – eight of them from a previous marriage – Robertson was mesmerized by the world of radio and the escape it offered.
His father George, a machinist’s helper at the Canadian National Railway’s repair shops in Stratford, was raising his youngest son in his 60s, when his health was beginning to decline.
Robertson’s mother Lilly suffered from devastating mental health disorders and was frequently in psychiatric institutions. As a last resort, doctors suggested she undergo a lobotomy, a mainstream procedure in the 1940s that has since been discredited as inhumane.
The lobotomy helped stabilize Lilly’s unpredictable mood swings and obsessive-compulsive behaviour, but “flat-lined her emotionally,” Robertson said.
He was 14 years old at the time.
“She has haunted me all of my life,” Robertson said. “When you’re the child of a mentally ill patient, you’re always looking for something in yourself.”
At a time when mentally ill people were “treated as subhuman,” Robertson said his father understood “that this was an illness like all other illnesses and he really talked to me about that.”
“I could not accept that until later in life,” Robertson said. “And gradually…I really developed a sense of compassion for her.”
But growing up, Robertson never discussed his mother’s struggles.
Instead, he hung out at the local radio station as a youngster until the manager told him to leave because the announcers wanted to bring in their girlfriends and throw back a few beers. A few years later, as a teenager, Robertson was invited back for his first gig as a radio operator.
“I always had a fascination with radio because radio would transport me into a world of the imagination,” he said. “You had that sense that this was a huge world that you could inhabit, which was much brighter and better than the world you lived in every day.”
“So when I got the chance to be a part of it -- wow, I chased that flag.”
In front of the camera and in focus
A couple of other radio jobs, including one as an announcer for the CBC in Windsor, Ont., followed, allowing Robertson to hone his skills and soak up the knowledge from veterans in the business.
A new medium -- television -- started popping up in Canadian households and Robertson quickly learned how to merge his distinctive radio voice with an on-camera persona.
“I always observed other people doing these things…and I would try to adapt to my style the techniques I learned from them,” he said.
It took some time to get used to the “ruddy” TV makeup and the hot studio lights that melted it off his face, but Robertson was soon developing his own rapport with viewers.
“In news…you had to kind of be the best at what you were on the air,” he said. “But you couldn’t be anyone else. You couldn’t be an actor, because the audience would catch on to that.”
Robertson moved to Toronto in 1962 to work at the hub of CBC operations and eventually began reading the nightly national news.
By then, he was married to his high school sweetheart Nancy, and the couple had started a family that would eventually include four daughters, including a set of twins.
But while his family life was flourishing, Robertson found himself entangled in what he called a“Byzantine bureaucratic structure” at the CBC.
Union rules prevented news readers from writing and editing broadcast copy – something Robertson believed was necessary for a well-rounded journalist. His requests for more editorial input over the years were rejected.
Combined with an “ugly” CBC strike in 1972 that further poisoned the work environment, Robertson began to unravel. He was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion and spent a day at a mental health facility, where he briefly believed that his mother’s genes had finally caught up with him.
Robertson said that terrifying thought motivated him to work through his issues and get better before anyone barely noticed that something was amiss.
But strife at the CBC continued. When Robertson was offered the opportunity to co-host CTV National News with Harvey Kirck, he took the job after much soul-searching.
A fresh beginning at CTV News
Robertson began a new chapter of his career with CTV in 1976, eventually becoming the chief anchor and senior editor of the top-rated nightly newscast, which allowed him to write and make daily editorial decisions.
Despite his troubles at the CBC, Robertson makes it clear in his book that the national broadcaster is an integral part of Canadian identity and an important player in the business.
Throughout the years, Robertson has witnessed seismic changes in the media landscape.
When he first started out, newsrooms were all-boys clubs and female voices were not deemed authoritative enough to deliver the news.
Robertson never believed that gender had anything to do with journalistic ability and welcomed female trailblazers in the field such as Pamela Wallin and Sandie Rinaldo.
“It’s about who is capable, dedicated and smart,” he said.
Robertson also notes the emergence of the “500-channel universe” and proliferation of social media networks that now serve as news feeds for a new generation of information consumers.
Twitter and Facebook may be valuable tools for reporters, but the fundamentals of journalism have not changed, Robertson said.
“There will always be a role for traditional media…and impartial storytellers,” he said.
Since hosting his last newscast, Robertson has had the occasional urge to jump back into his old chair.
Although he misses his colleagues and, sometimes, the rhythm of a busy news day, “I don’t miss being there at 11 o’clock every night,” he said.
“What’s nice now is going home and saying: ‘Oh, I can go to bed and watch the news.’”