Well, folks, my final blog post is here, and I saved the absolute best for last. Back in December, during Ryerson’s winter break, I had the honour of interviewing George Stroumboulopoulos. That’s right, I sat down with Canada’s beloved long-time boyfriend.
I grew up watching George on CBC, late at night, when he was the host of The Hour. A late-night talk show that had no boundaries. I remember staying as quiet as possible until my parents fell asleep, only then would I turn on the TV to George’s intro for the night that would always end with him saying “I’m your boyfriend, George Stroumboulopoulos, and this is The Hour.”
I watched his interviews with world leaders, inspiring activists, talented actors, and my favourite musicians. That show holds a special place in a lot of peoples’ hearts, including mine. But enough of me, let’s get back to who we’re really here for.
You might be wondering how I got this interview, I just asked (over Twitter DM’s), and he was gracious enough to grant my request.
All stories have their beginning, that one pivotal moment when your life falls in place. Stroumboulopoulos knew that he loved radio and that he wanted to be in radio, but in a pre-internet world, there weren’t a lot of pathways to figure out how to get there. In those days, you would either talk with your guidance counsellor or get into some version of the family business, George explained that he just “didn’t have any of those options.”
He was about 17 when he worked at a movie theatre in Rexdale and ended up having to go to Humber College’s adult learning centre to get his motorcycle license. He was flipping through the course calendar, saw a course for Radio Broadcasting and said “fuck it” and applied. “That’s exactly how it happened… I didn’t know you could do that.” After he applied, he had what he described as a “10-second interview” with the program heads (much like our RTA interviews), walked out and was convinced he didn’t get in. Ten months later, he received his acceptance letter. The rest is history.
Later, Strombo went on to pursue an internship at a small Kelowna radio station. Not only did he host their night-time radio show, High Voltage, but he was also their station mascot. As a first paid job in the radio industry, I don’t think you could get much better than that. When asked about why he decided to as far as Kelowna, BC, he explained that he “was such a Toronto boy at the time and knew it was important to go away.”
When his internship was coming to an end, George was offered a job at The Fan, a Toronto sports radio station. He knew it was time to go home. After being a technical operator at The Fan as well as an on-air host from 1993-1997, The Edge reached out and offered him a job. “[They] liked the fact that I cared about a lot of things…[They] liked that I was interested in music and politics and sports and the news.”
After hitting his stride at The Edge, Strombo made his transition to MuchMusic as a VJ. While most would have difficulty adjusting from being on the radio to being on national television, that wasn’t the case for George. To him, it all felt the same because he was just being himself. I brought up his one interview with Britney Spears and how it was almost painful to see him bring up real issues like body image and have her brush it off and be oblivious that she was part of the problem. To which he agreed and said, “We were talking about real issues back then… We [MuchMusic VJs] knew young people were watching and we thought it was our responsibility to do right by them.”
After working at MuchMusic from 2000-2009, Stroumboulopoulos went on to host his own late-night talk show on CBC called The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. As companies, MuchMusic and CBC are very different. You would think that they would want George to be more polished, less of a punk rocker, but that wasn’t the case. They wanted him because of who he was and what he brought to the table. “It was more institutionalized in nature,” but the people that brought him on protected him from a lot of issues that other hosts dealt with. The highly successful show was later rebranded to George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and was moved to a different timeslot. As I said previously, the guests on both shows ranged from politicians to Green Day. Nothing was off-limits. An interview that stands out to George is one with Canadian journalist, author, and social activist, June Callwood. Noting “She was terminally ill and wanted to do one last interview before she passed away… I think she passed away a few days after that.” GST aired about 20 minutes of that interview, the rest of it went to her family to have. After a successful 10 year run, The Hour and George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight came to an end.
And so began George’s time as a host on Hockey Night in Canada. “I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I thought it’d be fun… you have to look in the face of death and jump into it anyway.” This was a shocking change to a lot of people, but it enraged fans of Ron MacLean. There was backlash and lots of it. This is what Stroumboulopoulos had to say about it:
“It’s just TV Even though some of that backlash was annoying because I knew some of that was coming from within [at Rogers], but I also knew I didn’t need that at the time… but like, it’s just TV.”
Rogers brought George on because they wanted some change, and they got it. When Stroumboulopoulos was the host of HNIC ratings were going up with women and people under 30, which was the intent. But if you’re not fully committed to change and progress, when it starts to happen, you get scared. Rogers and HNIC became scared and George’s time as their host came to an end. We discussed sports media and sports journalism and why that change scared Rogers so much. Though George admits that this take is controversial, I think it’s worth sharing for some food for thought.
“Sports guys and sports media doesn’t understand Canada. They don’t understand the nation. Not these guys specifically, but in general. They don’t understand Canada in the way that people that spend a lot of time at CBC do. Like we built shows at CBC. I went across that country, and I was in a lot of places other than rinks. We built a talk show in a country that didn’t have one at the time. And it’s not just me, there’s a whole bunch of great producers and writers and thinkers that know how to make things happen, they’re just very rarely in sports. Because sports has a very narrow intention. Sports broadcasters essentially work for the league… You can’t make a change when you do it that way.”
Stroumboulopoulos isn’t bitter about this experience, though, saying, “It didn’t have to last. It had to happen, and it happened. That’s good enough for me.”
The Present (Definitely Not The End)
Today, George is busy with his CBC Radio show, The Strombo Show, and his in house concert series, The House of Strombo. His concert series was born out of MuchMusic not doing anything like this anymore. Strombo believes that “it’s really important for people to get close to the artist they love.” I wholeheartedly agree with this. One of my personal favourite performances was the Arkells back in July 2016. For George having The Cult play in his living room was “pretty meaningful” since they were a favourite of his as a teenager. Still, the John Prine session was on another level. John Prine, a legend upon legends, played at The House of Strombo two Christmases ago. It was emotional for everyone there when John played a beautiful song dedicated to Gordon Lightfoot, who was in attendance. George recalls, “Gord had tears in his eyes, we all had tears in our eyes… it was one of those beautiful moments.”
For future House of Strombo sessions, George would love to have Coldplay, U2, Pearl Jam and Metallica come in the house. But it’s not really who he wants to come in next but rather how he intends to approach the session, “I want Pearl Jam to come in, and I want us to tell no one what we’re doing. I want to have 100 people in here, have it be a surprise, and for the first song and the first song, only I want to tell everyone ‘pull out your phone and start live-streaming’.” Now that would be magic.
When it comes to who George Stroumboulopoulos has interviewed, it would be easier to list the people he hasn’t interviewed. When asked who he would love to sit down and talk with for The Strombo Show, his answer was easy: Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Each of who is iconic in so many ways.
Before I parted ways with the man, the myth, and the legend, I asked him if he had any words of wisdom for students, like myself, that are entering the journalism and entertainment industry, this is what he had to say:
“I don’t know how much wisdom I can give you. But what I can tell you is that most people will tell you not to do this for a living. Most people will tell you it’s impossible to succeed. Most people will tell you it’s one in a million, right? They’re right, who cares? Be the one, and when you become the one, put your arms out a little bit and allow two or three more to come in.”