Alberta conservative firebrand goes out with guns blazing
It had been planned as a graceful retirement, a capstone on a varied and far-ranging career.
Instead, Dave Rutherford’s colourful radio show came to an unceremonious halt on June 24, just one month before his planned retirement on July 26.
While the exact details of what ended the 64-year-old’s talk show haven’t been officially revealed, Rutherford bluntly stated “don’t criticize the management” in a tweet revealing that some conflict existed between him and his employers, Corus Radio, who took him off the air.
On his last show, Rutherford expressed his “profound disappointment” with Corus Radio for directing its resources to music radio stations during the flood in June instead of CHQR News Talk 770, which broadcasted his show.
As the Bow River began to rise, the station producing News Talk 770 was evacuated in downtown Calgary and then directed its news feed through a sister station in Edmonton, 630 CHED, while music continued to be played on other Corus stations in the city.
“I’m just very upset about it,” protested Rutherford on his show. “Professionally and personally. There are other ways I think information could have been broadcast on 770, but it was not.”
RIGHT ON THE SPOT
“I’ve been to Biloxy, Mississippi to cover Katrina, I’ve been to Bosnia, I’ve been to Rwanda. It’s been incredible.”
– Dave Rutherford, former news radio host
Shortly before being let go from Corus Radio, Dave Rutherford sat down with the Calgary Journal refelcting on his career and his decision to retire.
“I recently saw my age in the paper, and just seeing it in black-and-white made me ask, ‘Oh my gosh, am I that old?” ponders Rutherford. “I really don’t feel old.”
Rutherford’s father, Walt Rutherford, was also a talk radio personality on CJOC in Lethbridge and with Edmonton’s CJCA. “When I was a kid, I had no idea what he did as a living,” remembers Rutherford. “I had no desire to follow in his footsteps, but it turned out I did.”
Rutherford chose to enter news because “I wanted to be the one who told you about things, and to tell you first. I don’t know why that is, if it’s genetics or some Freudian thing, but it goes back to what makes a good newsman.”
Rutherford’s first days behind the microphone were in September 1971, a mere month after Peter Lougheed led Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives to a sweeping win.
Kerri Conner, who has worked as Rutherford’s producer since the mid-90s, refers to radio as “the theatre of the mind,” adding that “it touches people more than possibly any other journalistic medium.
“It’s always been really exciting, there’s that adrenaline that comes with deadlines, of doing something new every single day,” states Conner.
“Sure there are stumbles, but I love being able to create something new every day, and Dave just does a great job with the material.”
Conner claims Rutherford doesn’t script anything – not even his intros or outros. “Our morning meetings are incredibly important in his thought process and how he links things, but everything that you hear is right off the top of his head.”
On hectic days, Conner says the news team frantically hands Rutherford information, and he gets it “right on the spot.”
Over the course of his radio career, Rutherford has travelled around the world, from war zones to disaster areas. “I’ve been to Biloxy, Mississippi to cover Katrina, I’ve been to Bosnia, I’ve been to Rwanda. It’s been incredible.”
One trip which really sticks out in both his mind, and Conner’s, was the Unity Rally in Montreal, during the 1995 Quebec independence referendum.
“It was a couple of days before the rally, and Canadian Airlines was offering incredibly reduced rates to attend the rally,” Conner recalls. “We were in the office, and when we heard this, we realized, ‘We’ve gotta go to that!’”
Rutherford and his team could only get a flight to Toronto, so they rented a car and drove the rest of the way.
“It had Ontario licence plates on it. Yikes,” Rutherford laughs. “There were guys swearing at us and cursing and giving us the finger. It was visceral, it felt almost like another country.”
Back in 1995, the team needed to plug a telephone wire into their equipment to be able to broadcast live. However, their phone line ended up being located on the far side of the plaza. “We were looking at at least 200 metres across this park that we had to get this piece of wire all the way across,” Rutherford recalls.
The team walked the wire straight across the park, and it just reached the media podium — a park, as Rutherford and his team would find, soon to be filled with thousands of Canadians.
“You’re talking about 100,000 people plus media,” says Conner. “That one phone cord was our lifeline to Alberta, and nobody ever stepped on it, nobody pulled it out. It was amazing.”
The wire was not the only hiccup the Rutherford Show experienced. “I was standing on the podium, staring across at this mass of people and the speakers started speaking French.”
A uni-lingual Albertan broadcasting to an audience of Anglophones, Rutherford found himself in a bind. “However, this Francophone from Alberta crawled up and said, ‘Hi Dave!’ and I dragged him onto the platform and he translated the entire thing for us. Everything just came together,” chuckles Rutherford. “And that wire never came out.”
PULSE OF THE PUBLIC
Photo courtesy of the Dave Rutherford ShowWhen he started hosting the Rutherford Show on AM 770, “The West Wants In” was a popular slogan across the province, and Preston Manning’s upstart Reform party was on the verge of electoral breakthrough.
“I go back to an old cartoon, and I go back to a picture of a cow standing over Canada, and the cow’s face is in Alberta, and the udder is over Ontario,” Rutherford laughs. “There may be still some of that thought.”
Since then, politics in Canada has gone through a seismic shift — the rise of the Conservative Party of Canada, the demise of Liberals, historically referred to as Canada’s ‘natural governing party,’ and the unexpected turmoil in Alberta’s provincial politics thanks to the insurgent Wildrose Party.
“Canadians finally got around to economic stewardship as a political reality,” says Rutherford.
Rutherford attributes the actions of Manning and his fiscal sparring partner, Liberal finance minister Paul Martin, to creating a “mindset shift” among Canadians.
“It was amazing to see, back in ’93, [Premier Ralph] Klein and [Liberal leader Laurence] Decore, both leaders talking about cuts,” recalls Rutherford.”Now, it’s become something we expect.”
In the years since, some in the media see Rutherford as an informal voice of Alberta — a man with his finger on the pulse of the province’s populace.
“He’s one of the few journalists who has a real rapport with Stephen Harper, which is fairly unusual.”
– Richard Sutherland, professor of policy studies, Mount Royal University
“It wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago,” Rutherford notes. “It’s been an evolution. Only in the past five years or so has some of the media really begun to look at Alberta differently and maybe appreciate what we say more than the oil we pump. I better now reflect what the audience feels than when I started out. I’m closer now to the pulse of the public than maybe some politicians.”
“There’s no mistaking his political beliefs,” said Richard Sutherland, a professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University who specializes in media and politics. “Though the rise of the Wildrose may have complicated things, he has been a staunch Progressive Conservative, in the Alberta sense, for years.”
Sutherland recalls listening to a show years ago where Rutherford was interviewing a Liberal critic, and the Progressive Conservative minister phoned in and “pre-empted the whole show.”
Sutherland alleges, “It wasn’t exactly objective, fair, and balanced, but he had those connections, and he had that respect within those circles. He’s one of the few journalists who has a real rapport with Stephen Harper, which is fairly unusual.”
Rutherford admits this connection hasn’t always been there. “When I started out, I wasn’t really certain about the principles that I believed in.” But three hours of air time on a daily basis and being challenged by his audience helped Rutherford discover his own “comfort zone” of beliefs.
“It was a public evolution, in a way, of what I believed in. And once I got very comfortable with that, I just carried it through, and that formed my basis for a lot of my discussion.”
Reflecting on those strong beliefs, Connor feels it made Rutherford “very genuine, and very authentic,” adding “the guy you know on the air is that guy in real life.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s strident,” adds Conner. “He is open to different opinions, different people, different kinds of conversations, and that maybe doesn’t come across in the radio in the day-to-day experience.”
NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY
On account of political beliefs and outspoken nature, Rutherford has been at the center of controversies numerous times before. His most recent feud has been with Alison Redford’s provincial government.
“The premier and I disagree on a lot of things,” Rutherford claims. “They’re the progressives of the Progressive Conservatives, the conservatives have all moved over to the Wildrose.”
“We’ve had this kind of running battle. She’d ignore the show, I’d criticize her, and then the communications department of the premier’s office would take shots at me, back-and-forth and back-and-forth.”
Until the last few years, Sutherland said that Rutherford provided the Progressive Conservative government with “a fairly sympathetic context in which to communicate.”
“For a long time that context worked, and he had access to ministers, but now that door’s been shut in his face.”
However, a chance encounter at the Prime Minister’s barbecue at Heritage Park in 2012 resulted in a hug and an offer for coffee from the premier.
“Some people at my table were terrified, wondering what would happen,” says Rutherford about the situation. “But the premier opened her arms wide. And so we’re embracing underneath this spotlight in the middle of a tent filled with a thousand conservatives. It was amazing.”
Although Rutherford says, “We’ve never had the coffee.”
“His career’s been an interesting one,” affirms Sutherland. “He’s definitely an Alberta phenomena. I don’t know if he’s that exportable.”
Within the province, however, Sutherland sees him as “fairly unassailable,” adding, “Rutherford, and QR 770, really owns their audience.”
At the same time, Sutherland points out that the talk radio format, which dominates American airwaves, doesn’t have a strong audience in Canada. He also sees that audience becoming smaller and less valuable.
“It’s interesting to see some of the discussion around his retirement being the station changing direction. It shows that the demographics of Alberta may be beginning to shift politically, and there’s probably more lucrative things QR can do with that media property.”
“I don’t think, in my business, most people start out to build a legacy,” says Rutherford. “I do the job, I tell the story, I want to inform people about things.”
Conner says that while the end was fast approaching, she was excited for what the future might hold for Rutherford. “He is such a young and active guy. He’s not one of those guys who will retire and put his feet up.”
While rumours recently swirled around about a potential run for mayor, including a grassroots “Draft Rutherford” campaign, Rutherford recently quashed them, telling the Calgary Sun that he was “never running for mayor.”
As for now, Rutherford is being contacted by listeners who he has touched over his years on the radio, many of whom he says are thankful for “teaching them so much.”
He reveals, “That’s very gratifying. I’m glad I was a journalist, but I think I might like, in another life, to be in a classroom, maybe teaching political science or social studies.” With that, he leans back and laughs, “Maybe next time.”