More than 350 people filled Knox Presbyterian Church Friday, to hear Lloyd Robertson talk about the kind of life it’s been, say festival organizers.
“For a slightly lapsed Presbyterian, this is an intimidating place to be,” said Robertson before diving into a discussion of his autobiography.
Robertson shared stories from his new book The Kind of Life It’s Been and answered questions from event host CBC radio’s Laurence Wall, for a packed Ottawa Writers Festival audience. Wall introduced Robertson as the anchor with the longest running career of any news anchor in history
Robertson retired his seat at CTV’s lead news desk in September 2011, after 35 years. Prior to that he spent 6 years as the anchor of The National on CBC. He now co-hosts W5, CTV’s magazine news show.
For 41 years Canadians turned to Robertson for coverage of important events of the day, but knew little of his journey to the anchor’s seat. In his book –titled after his signature sign-off phrase “and that’s the kind of day it’s been”– Robertson reveals the story of a boy from Stratford, Ont. with a dreary home life and a striking baritone voice, who escaped into the excitement and endless possibilities of radio.
Robertson gave Friday’s Writers Festival audience a privileged look at his life, sharing the lessons he learned and the barriers he over came.
As Robertson grew up, his father was sick with a number of stomach conditions and was frequently ill. His is mother suffered from serious mental illness and eventually underwent a lobotomy. As a child Robertson witnessed his mother’s illness and those of other patients at the hospitals where she spent much of his youth, he said.
“All this left me with a life long commitment to try to help in every way possible to uncover the mysteries of mental illness,” said Robertson.
He says his love of radio started when he heard announcers broadcasting live in the middle of a parade welcoming soldiers home from WWII.
“I was transformed into another world at that point… I then became a radio groupie,” said Robertson who was 12 years old at the time.
“Radio opened up a world of imagination for me, but it was also an escape. It was an escape from where I was,” said Robertson.
He described learning the voices of all the local radio hosts and hanging around their studio as often as he could, until eventually getting an on air job.
Robertson told Wall and the Writers Festival audience how he went from a teenager forcing his way onto local radio, to the anchor of CBC’s The National. “I think I became the kind of person I am because of my experiences at the CBC. The CBC to me was like getting a liberal arts degree,” said Robertson who graduated high school, but never attended a post secondary institution.
CBC –or as Robertson calls it in his book: “Mother Corp.” was where he learned how to use the new medium of television, and where he rose to be a lead anchor. But because of union rules, Robertson was not able to act as a journalist and write his own stories.
He says he moved to CTV in 1976 because they told him “come over here, you can do everything.” Robertson said he felt loyal to the public broadcaster and believed in it, but knew that he would not advance in his career if he stayed there. After six years as anchor of The National, Robertson moved to CTV where he would become the chief anchor and senior editor of CTV’s evening news.
Wall presented the magnitude of Robertson’s career with a list of some of the major events he covered, including the opening of Expo 67, both Quebec referendums, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the construction and fall of the Berlin wall, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Robertson described covering major events like these –recalling his coverage of the first moon landing– as significant to him because he was helping shape moments in history for the Canadian audience.
Robertson’s career was spent in news, but he revealed a chance he had at a career in politics. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in offered him a senate seat in 2003. Robertson said he was troubled by the impact a partisan position would have on his reputation as a journalist. “I ended up saying ‘no thank you’ because I really thought that after all those years and that long commitment to independence and journalism that I really couldn’t and I don’t regret that,” said Robertson.
Robertson held his job as anchor until he chose to retire last year at age 77. “I wanted to go out on top. My heroes were always people who left at their peak…I wanted to get out when everything was intact. The voice was still intact,” he said, adding jokingly “and the looks reasonably intact.”
When asked about the future of mainstream media in the face of the online world, Robertson responded “the urge to know what is really going on will always be there and that is where the mainstream news come in.”
After about an hour discussing the kind of life it’s been, Wall had Robertson wrap up the event by handing him a script from which he read “and that’s the kind of day it’s been. I’m Lloyd Robertson, for the Ottawa Writers Festival, goodnight.”