Bob Spence left

with Nisga leader, Eric Grandison



Bob Spence - Host/interviewer Vancouver Show CKVU-TV Vancouver late 1970s-early 1980s; host Early Edition CBC Vancouver; talk show host CJOR Vancouver mid 1980s; facilitator Centre for Executive and Management Development Vancouver late 1990s.  Died
September 25, 2001 at age 53.






DIED: Robert (Bob) Spence, 53, a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker; after a brief illness, in Vancouver. Born in Kitsilano, B.C., he started writing for the Sunday Times of London, covering wars in Cyprus and the Middle East. Returning to Canada, he worked for CBC's Cross Country Checkup and As It Happens. He also hosted morning radio shows in Edmonton and Vancouver for the CBC from 1977 to 1988. He then worked as a television host on Vancouver's CKVU. He left TV to become a partner in Kicking Horse Productions, a film company. He was a spokesman for the Nisga'a nation.





 "He was certainly one of the brightest guys I ever worked with," Larry Langley said. "Clever, thoughtful, he cared about people. Bob Spence was a remarkable guy who lived life to the fullest."





1993 Edmonton Journal



A colleague and I were more or less earnestly discussing the state of the media around town last week, the problems at ACCESS TV, CBC, CFRN. The conversation eventually turned to the salad days of Edmonton broadcasting - if indeed they ever existed.


Wonder what ever happened to Bob Spence, who hosted the old Come Alive program on ACCESS and Edmonton A.M. on CBC radio in the late '70s, my co-worker mused.


Could it be the maudlin whining of the chronologically challenged? Things just seemed better on the local boxes then, livelier, gutsier, more inspired. And Spence was a part of those times in Edmonton, a big, loud, smart lug who blew in from Vancouver, made a big noise and, uh . . . left.


Cosmic? Two days later my old crony Spence is on the line, intoning in the familiar basso that he'd be in town Sunday for a couple of days.


The occasion of the visit is a local workshop he's conducting to an audience of certain federal government bureaucrats who do not wish to be identified.


Spence, whose career profile in journalism seemed right out of Central Casting, has ended up on what some (not him!) might consider to be the other side of the big fence.


These days, rather than saute cabinet ministers, Indian chiefs or forestry execs, Spence teaches these same would-be victims how to avoid the roaster.


Notwithstanding the track record, he says he'll "never be a broadcaster again." Ever.


The road from cub to consultant is a long and winding affair, not unlike the byways of the West Kootenay the 45-year-old repairs to whenever possible.


Born in Vancouver, Spence did Kitsilano High 90210 and eventually UBC, growing up in the same Point Grey house he resides in today.


Wee Robbie was a big reader, moving from Hemingway to Kerouac to Farley Mowat to I.F. Stone. Picking up a poli-sci degree at the big school up the street, he managed to taste something of Vancouver's vaunted '60s culture before heading off to grad school at the London School of Economics.


Along the way there have been stints as a DJ at a Granville Island nightclub, tenure as the foreign affairs desk at the Georgia Strait, covering the Portuguese revolution for the Sunday Times, work for the British Consumers Association among other diversions. Covering two UN conferences in San Francisco and Vancouver in '76 for the Times, Spence decided to stay home.


In fairly short order, he nailed a job hosting ACCESS TV's then-flagship morning show Come Alive in Edmonton. It's a pleasant memory, as was his subsequent move to CBC 1040 as host of its morning drive show when cutbacks felled Come Alive.


"It was a fabulous experience. So many film-makers got their start at ACCESS; practically the whole establishment in the West worked there. We'd go to Medicine Hat for a week and come back with five documentaries - it was amazing.


"I've always had a special feeling for this place. It may not be a popular view, but I still contend that there is a cultural maturity and certainty in Alberta that still hasn't occurred in Vancouver.


"At CBC, working with people like Jay Mowat, Roger Bill, Eric Moncur and Dolares McFarland was great. I mean, management at that time just handed us a radio program. We broke stories, we raised hell, informed people - and rose in the ratings to second place. The same thing happened when I moved back to Vancouver and did the same format there. There is an audience for real journalism - I think we were doing the most important current affairs programming around back then."


Never short on opinions, Spence pronounces the current era as dark times for electronic media, especially at CBC-TV.


"I've got so I just can't watch (CBC Prime Time News) anymore. The whole `happification' of news, of target marketing, the idea of `you tell us what you want and we'll deliver' is a complete abdication of journalistic responsibility. Gutless,bonehead management has become the order of the day. . . . We have an audience that has been de-sensitized with stuff like Cops and Rescue 911. And we all know that the bottom line, that business dominates the newsroom. We have no standards in Canada.


"When I was at CJOR (talk radio in Vancouver) I wanted to do stories on South Moresby, the Valhalla wilderness area, the annual allowable cut. They wanted me to interview American fortune tellers and psychics, what I call New Age Gynecology radio. I was fired.


"CBC-TV should be completely destroyed and re-constructed without hiring any (management) back. That might save it, because (the current regime) has rendered it completely irrelevant at a time when we need it the most."


One of the rare times the former employee has agreed with the Toronto suits is in the recent matter of l'affaire The Valour and the Horror.


"I've got an extensive library of Canadian military history and have followed it since I was a kid. And I'll you I support the ombudsman's report. This was a sloppy job, bad history, a perversion of events. Our veterans deserve better."


Much sunnier, apparently, is his own current work as a small-scale, if generally satisfied consultant. The client list is diverse, expanding, and somehow, Spence finds the notions of conflict resolution and consensus building a tad more fulfilling than the ratings and rantings of TV/radio circa 1993.


"I'm really just helping people and organizations to tell their own stories. I never counsel anyone to lie and I've turned down big money from all three parties to become a spin doctor. The question is, is public policy better served by people who are prepared or unprepared. It's interesting work."




2001 - Vancouver Sun


 Down the spindly, car-choked streets around the Vancouver General Hospital they come, shiny red fire trucks en route to the Willow Pavilion.


They weave their way beneath a canopy of trees and grind to a stop. Firefighters, big guys in belts and boots, hop out and clomp down the hospital-clean corridors of the palliative care unit to Room 351.


They are coming to see Bob Spence, a 53-year-old journalist, advocate for the Nisga'a treaty, filmmaker, media trainer and friend of firefighters. Such a friend that firefighters say he probably got closer to them than any other civilian in the city's history.


He was their kid, really. It was the guys in No. 12 fire hall in Kitsilano who helped raise him in the 1950s and 1960s.


That was back in the days when much of the world was grounded on bedrock beliefs, like the one about a boy needing a dad.


Spence didn't have one. His father, a Vancouver police officer, died when he was 11. His mother went to work and the boys at Fire Hall No. 12 at Balaclava and Eighth near his home kind of adopted the scrawny kid, largely out of deference to his father who they knew not just as a police officer but through the men's clubs of the day, the Freemasons and the Shriners. "Bobby," they thought, could be a real handful, so they decided to take a hand in raising him.


When the boy grew up to be a man, he became a scholar at the University of Exeter in England and at the London School of Economics and then a big-city journalist. He covered wars, interviewing bigwigs on CBC radio shows like Cross Country Checkup and As It Happens, hosting morning radio shows in Edmonton and Vancouver (CBC:1977-1988), working in Vancouver at what was then CKVU television and is now Global (1981-1983) and then CJOR radio (1983-1986). With his big roaring laugh, he had a wit, a knack for storytelling, a sense of history and a love of the little guy, all of which had their seeds in the gritty fire hall.


When word got out last spring that "Bobby" was seriously ill with cancer, the pilgrimage from fire hall to bedside began. They came, bearing firemen's hats, cards, pictures and stories of the way things were.


They came on a Tuesday morning when Spence, with his wife Anne close by, was visited by a reporter, his ubiquitous pack of Player's Light cigarettes perched on his rickety knees.


Ah, the stories. Sometimes, he would tell them with the clarity of the North Shore mountain line etched into a summer sky; sometimes a gentle fog would descend, clouding his memory.


Stories about how he used to close the big doors at No. 12 after the crews left on a mission, how he would start a big urn of coffee for their return. One firefighter instilled in him a life-long love of history; another taught him how to box in the basement of the grand old building. With that trademark laugh, a little gravelly now, he told how the men had to keep him hidden from the chief the time he got a bloody nose in a basement boxing bout.


"I love them," he said between puffs. "I will never be able to pay them back."


Retired firefighter Bill Hadley can still see Spence as a kid pedalling over to the fire station on his bike. Hadley was at No. 12 during Spence's growing-up years. Then when Spence became a teenager, he babysat Hadley's kids. They called him "Uncle Bobby."


Hadley said the special relationship firefighters developed with Spence probably couldn't happen today. "Those were the days when kids used to come over to look at the rigs holding their daddy's hand. The job has changed so much. And it's more like a me, me, me society."


As a kid, Spence did his part, too. He became a kind of mascot around the fire hall and a gopher, fetching smokes and candy bars and even groceries for the firefighters when they worked long Saturday shifts.


"They used to sic me on this firefighter who would talk too much. Man, could he yak, normally about bullshit."


They used to check his report cards at the fire hall. Smart kid. Don't be a firefighter, they told him. Be a lawyer so you can handle our divorces or a doctor so you can handle our prostate problems, they would joke with him. Firefighters, he says, are earthy, a little crude and very direct with each other. Then they'd chase him to the boot locker to do his homework.


There was this time he badly injured his knee playing rugby and football in high school. The firefighters ministered to him at the hall with the softness of suburban dads.


Ah, the stories.


When he turned 16, they had a party at the hall, gave him a pen- and-pencil set and a kick in the rear. "From now on, you will not take a dime from your mother," they told him, and they helped him to find odd jobs, including one driving an ambulance. Mostly, it seems, he transported dead bodies.


Boys grow up. They leave their childish ways. But Spence never forgot these guys. He had developed a special appreciation for this breed of worker whose job takes them to the front lines of hell. Inside him was a fire burning bright.


An intellectual with an anti-intellectual streak, he got a master's degree, was part way through a doctorate degree when he abandoned it and headed into life as a peripatetic contract worker in the media. Starting with the Sunday Times of London, he covered wars in places like Portugal, Cypress and the Middle East. "Wherever I went, I tried to go to the fire hall."


When he returned to Canada, he cobbled together a career moving through a number of high-profile radio and television jobs, including a brief one that had him flying into Montreal weekends and bunking in with the daughter of Quebec nationalist politician Gerard Pelletier so he could host Cross Country Checkup from that city. After hosting morning CBC radio shows in Edmonton and Vancouver, he worked as a television host on CKVU's Vancouver Show with Laurier Lapierre, Pia Shandel and later, Wayne Cox.


Sitting in a wheelchair, greeting doctors and nurses as they walked past, he cheerfully chirped, too, about his screw-ups, like the time he froze-up for 90 seconds while hosting Cross Country Checkup ("That was my last check-up."), about his battles with the broadcast brass and of his aversion to all this "affirmative action, feminist stuff" that was working its way into the CBC.


About 10 years ago, he left television and became a media trainer through a company called Kicking Horse Productions. Finally, he wound up being a point man for the Nisga'a in the days leading up to the signing of their landmark treaty, travelling up north and to Ottawa, helping the Indian band to craft their message and to explain the finer details of the treaty to the media, lawyers and politicians.


Robb Lucy, now a communications strategist for young companies, met Spence in the late 1970s when the two were working for the CBC in Edmonton and the latter was a co-host of the morning show.


"I still get comments from people up in Edmonton saying he was the best host they had up there in Alberta," said Lucy. "He was such a great perceptive Mr. Interrogator. He knew what to ask, when to ask it and when to leave the pause. He has a great sense of humour."


As a journalist, Spence had this ability to bring complex things together and a creative spark that, once lit, would keep burning for hours, Lucy said. "He covered both sides of the pendulum from the soft spiritual to hard journalism."


Larry Langley, an Edmonton city councillor who co-hosted the CBC morning show with Spence for three years beginning in late 1970s, said that of his 30 years in broadcast journalism, those three years were the best.


He and Spence floundered at first. But he recalls coming in one morning at 6 a.m. three months into the job, turning on the microphone and "I swear you could almost hear a click. From that moment on, he knew what he wanted from me and I knew what I wanted from him."


Spence, he said, was "the brains" while he was the "announcer." Spence did all the economic and political interviews and he was good at it. "When he got into something, he hung onto it like a terrier."


They had decidedly different personal lives. "He used to call me this prematurely greying father of four." Spence, who was a bit of a roue, "was a 30-year-old being a 22-year-old."


With a laugh, Langley recalled one morning when Spence asked him if he could carry the show from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., confessing he hadn't been home the night before and needed to catch a little sleep.


Others saw more of his creative side. From his home in Kaslo in the West Kootenays, Pete White, president of the Writers Guild of Canada, which is the voice of screenwriters in the country, said he and Spence were first drawn together by their love of music. At that point, White was a young songwriter. Their interests kept dovetailing. White became a screenwriter and Spence got into making films.


But White said Spence was always a writer first. "He's a great talker, a great storyteller. He can wax eloquent on any subject and never lose his way. He has been an inspiration for me in how you greet life." With Spence, it was always with tremendous enthusiasm, he said.


White said Spence had the potential of having a great career in journalism and political science but it was never fully realized because he didn't like fame.


Spence himself said that he was never comfortable with his name in the limelight and that he made a strategic mistake at one point in his broadcast career by choosing Vancouver over Toronto.


The erudite journalist never stopped speaking up for firefighters. Having a scanner at home that picked up their calls, he would often head out to fires. For him, they were social occasions, a chance to see his old buddies and to set the odd cranky taxpayer straight:


How do you know there are too many fire trucks? How do they know how many to send until they get here? They can always turn back if they aren't needed. They need lots of cover for an alarm. They need your support.


"He is such a dear friend," said Captain Rob Jones-Cook, who handles public relations for the department. He credits Spence with teaching him how to do his job.


According to Lucy and White, Spence was always drawn to the working man, having a strong interest in the Wobblies, the torchbearers for the modern labour movement, in the Winnipeg general strike and in soldiers and war vets. In the interview, Spence gave clues as to why.


In what he described as a watershed moment in his career, he refused to cross an electricians' picket line at CBC because his father would have been ashamed of him. "He would have rolled over in his grave." As for the interest in soldiers and the military, he said many of the firefighters at Station 12 were war vets who had been redeployed there.


These were the men who had helped to turn a boy into a man. A fire burning bright.


BC Radio History