Story and Photos by Christian J. Stewart (ISN)
December 23, 2013, Victoria, BC (ISN) – Victoria radio personality and sports and news media icon Steve Duffy (CFAX 1070) has been on the air in Victoria for close to 38 years. He recently sat down with ISN to discuss his life, career and the state of media in today’s fast-paced world.
If you dig a little into the background of CFAX 1070’s radio personality Steve Duffy, you would begin to wonder how a lad born in 1953 into a very traditional British family in Coventry, England, with a father who was a designer draftsman and heavily embedded in the aviation industry, would become such an avid sports fan and one of the most recognizable voices in local sports and news radio today.
One might also wonder how that same lad, who moved to Toronto when he was three, so that his father could work on the Avro Arrow project, and then to Montreal, where his dad took a position with Rolls Royce, could now be a die-hard and (almost) life-long Vancouver Canucks fan.
Radio personality Steve Duffy moved to Victoria in 1976 and to CFAX in 2003 where he has established himself as one of the leading sports media personalities in town (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)
Blame that on timing and the fact that Duffy’s formative teenage years were spent in Vancouver, after yet another family move. He simply did not spend enough time in Toronto and was perhaps too young – leaving when he was just 6 years old when the Avro Arrow project and his father’s job was scrapped in 1959 – to get scooped up in the hype that was the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or perhaps his father, who was bitter until his dying day about the collapse of the Arrow project, forbade the young Duffy to even think of anything Toronto related again.
Same thing for Montreal, where after five years of working for Rolls Royce, issues related to the FLQ crisis, including a bomb scare on a major bridge, convinced Duffy’s dad that it was time to leave town and put Montreal and all things related to it, including the beloved Canadiens, behind them.
So they drove cross-country to Calgary and then ultimately on to Vancouver, where Duffy’s father landed a job designing pulp and paper mill machinery, where Duffy attended high school, and where, starting in 1970 when they joined the league, his love affair with the Canucks and of course with radio began.
How did you first get involved and interested in the radio broadcasting field?
“I first got an interest in radio by listening to the old CKLG in Vancouver where Roy Hennessy was my favourite DJ. A friend of mine and I always used to play around pretending to be on radio and one day I think just after we finished school, he got a job for radio in Port Alberni. About a year later he called up and asked if I was still interested as they had an opening. So I went over, made a demo tape, and they hired me and gave me on the job training. It was CJAV in Port Alberni and I was 19-years old. I was probably one of the last in the industry to go that route without having gone through broadcast school – I could not get into BCIT at the time – but being the night time DJ, I had to do everything, so the on the job training was great.”
What next? What brought you to Victoria?
“I was in Alberni for about a year or so and then moved to Courtenay for two-and-a-half years where I was doing the morning show after being there seven months or so. While it was good work, I wanted to expand my horizons – I was a DJ – so started sending out demo reels – and back in those days these were the real reel-to-reel tapes – and I got a call from CKDA in Victoria who were looking for a news person, so I gave my two weeks’ notice in Courtenay and came to Victoria. I started with 1220 CKDA, the big station in town at the time, in the basement of the Douglas Hotel. CFAX 1070 was the competition then. Eventually, “The Q” bought CKDA and turned it into CKXM Country and I went over with that. After eight years at “The Q” I was let go in 2003. I then headed over to England to visit family and try and figure out my options and it was there that I got a call from CFAX asking me if I was interested in a part-time job, which of course I was. Shortly thereafter it changed to a full time gig and here I’ve been happily ever after!”
Do you recall any of the big stories back then that you reported on?
“I remember the Mt. St. Helens eruption, I remember John Lennon’s assassination. In situations like that, it hurts when people you know are in the news in negative light. For example, one time I had to report on the death of Roy Smith, a popular auto racer that I knew well who died in fishing accident. That hit really hard.”
“I also Remember old high school girlfriend that ended up a victim in a love triangle fatality and had to read those names on the air…another when an old girlfriend was killed in a traffic accident. That kind of thing gets tough and can be very personal. You just have to steel through it…most of time you are detached and its people you don’t know, but when it is, you have to stay professional and fight through the personal feelings to get the report out.”
Have you ever broken down on air?
“There were a couple of times I think, when I was speaking about my wife’s health issues, but like I said before, when things hit you personally, you just try and steel through and stay professional about things.”
Can you share with our readers any details on your family life?
“I am married now for nearly 25-years to my current wife who I met in 1986. We have a 20-year old daughter together. I was also previously married seven years to my first wife who I met while living in Courtenay. I have a 32-year old son from that marriage that I stay very close with.”
You mentioned your wife’s health issues and your own have been an issue lately. Can you share with us how things are now?
“Yes it has been an interesting last few years on the health front for sure. Five years ago, I had quadruple bypass surgery and a year before that, my wife dealt with breast cancer. Fortunately we have both battled back from those issues and I am thankful for that. Now, as many people know, I was recently diagnosed with bladder cancer. I am happy to say that I am battling that as well and things are in remission. I have two more years of treatment and the doctor is keeping a close eye on things, but so far, so good.”
When personal health issues like that crop up, do you report on that? Do you feel that is newsworthy?
“Generally not. My colleague Stephen Andrew – who has also battled health issues – did a short public interest bit on me when my cancer was first diagnosed and hopefully that will be it. I think that you have to try and not to be too self-serving as there is always a fear that people will think you are trying to build ratings on my or someone else’s illness. I think it’s OK to let your listeners know that you, or a friend is suffering and in hospital and if you want to send him a line great. But I think that should be the extent of it. People do ask me on social media how I am doing and I respond but I don’t take it any farther than that.”
Speaking of social media, has that changed what you present on air?
“I don’t think it’s changed what or how we present news on air, but it has changed what people share with the world on social media. And certainly we refer to social media a lot and get a lot of material from social media, especially Tweets, but I don’t think it changes how we present things. We have standards and need to stay professional about things.”
How do you make radio news and sports reports engaging? What is the best way to attract and retain an audience?
“Some of the best advice I ever got was in late 1970 from a fellow named JJ Richards. He used to say, ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously…get the information out, but talk TO people don’t talk AT them. You are talking to ONE person, not talking to a room full of people…it’s not an audience. That one person listening to the radio is usually by themselves, so you are talking only to them, so personalize it, but without being too personal. Make it about them. Make it so they want to hear more and make it interesting for them.'”
“So that’s what I try to do. In sports, I’ll lighten things up as needed and augment with audio clips to not only give listeners the facts, but also give them other things that happen in the game or around the game that they can then talk about. I think that you can joke around more in sports stories and add some personality or creative bent to it…sports is not life and death, it is a game after all, but in news you have to be a bit more careful. It’s very objective and at times, heartbreaking. So most times you need to be serious so that you maintain your credibility.”
Does your delivery change now that the morning radio show is shown on TV?
“Nope. We don’t even look at the cameras or acknowledge them. We act as if they are not there. We are doing a radio show that just happens to be televised.”
How do you have a bad day at work? How do you separate out “bad” things in your life that happen?
“I don’t have a bad day unless I am having mouth trouble where I can’t get a word or two out of my mouth. Seriously though, I love what I do. I get up at 2:15AM every day and I get here at 3:20AM or so and prepare for the 5AM broadcast. People think I am crazy to do that, but it’s what I love. Sure things are not perfect every day and if bad things happen off the air, you have to put that in a different box and just shut it out. That’s “over there” and the whole focus from 3:30AM to 12:30PM is this radio station. When I’m in here it’s all business. You have to shut down all the other stuff, because frankly no one cares. The average listener wants to hear what is going on, not the “woe is me” about my life. And we can’t afford the time to do that anyway. Our format is so tight with news every 15 minutes and all the other bits we do, plus given that we are always updating the copy to keep things current, there is no time for that other stuff.”
From 5:00 AM to 12:30 pm, this is where you will find Steve Duffy, behind the mic in the CFAX 1070 Studio (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)
Is it tough to keep personal opinions out of the news?
“Sometimes, especially if it is a topic that is close to your heart. You just read it in a way that is neutral. I might express an opinion in sports, but news is the sacred cow…there are plenty of talk shows that people can phone in and express their opinions about news stories. And Frank Stafford does his opinion piece every day, and I do my sports comment, but even then, I don’t like to get too controversial. If something ticks me off then I’ll say so in my sports comment, and I might allude to it in a sportscast, but that’s just my opinion. “
Can you say something on air that you know is code and that would only be recognized by a single person?
“There are a couple of things and sometimes I will refer to my daughter in passing but I try to keep family out of it. And with the TV aspect of it now, more people than ever recognize me and come up to me on the street. It’s almost a bit scary…I know it’s part of being a so called “celebrity” but I don’t think of myself as one. I just happen to be a guy that has a job that puts me in front of a few people.”
Have you ever said no to something or a story because of your ethics and morals?
“No. But I haven’t been put in that position. I know what I feel about everything, and if a sensitive situation or comment came up, I think I would do my best to keep something quiet unless there was a bigger issue. When I hear pro athletes say something outrageous though, that’s when I think these guys should know better…they are getting paid the big dough for this. But it happens so often now, it’s easy to become complacent about it and just let it slide.”
Do you ever get parents e-mailing or phoning you about coaches, ref, or a particular story?
“I usually get e-mails about why I don’t cover certain sports or report certain scores and I usually respond by asking if anyone in the association or with the team has sent me anything. I can’t report scores that I don’t know about. If you send me something, I’ll put it on! I’ll give it a shot. People will phone me up and ask if I can air a certain thing and I say sure! I’d rather air that – a local story – than report on say, the Toronto Raptors.”
How do you tell parents sports is just a game? What would be your message to parents about kids in minor sports?
“There is only one Wayne Gretzky, only one Sidney Crosby. Your kid probably won’t be any of those people. But let them play the sport and have fun. Sports is a three-letter word – FUN. Let them play, you don’t have to be great….just play and enjoy it! I don’t agree with many of the teams and associations these days that say “Oh we don’t have winners”….well of course you do! What’s the point of playing then? You play to win. But try and make it so the sides are equal so it’s competitive and fair.”
Do you have a moment from your career that an athlete did something that really stands out?
“A big one for me was when Ryder Hesjedal won Giro D’Italia last year and then the following year when I was able to co-host the start of Tour de Victoria with him. That was a thrill.”
How did you feel when his drug use issue came up?
“I was devastated. But then I realized that the guy made a stupid mistake 10 years ago and I want to believe him. I don’t think it was to the magnitude of the Lance Armstrong issue, so I want to cut him some slack and believe him.”
When it comes to local athletes like that, is it OK to be easier on them? Or to promote them more?
“I think so. You really get to know them and you praise them. You like to cut them some slack if they do something negative. It’s great to promote our own. To be able to speak to people like Silken Lauman…what a great person to be around. And guys like Simon Whitfield…to see what they have accomplished. That’s when you get emotional and your local pride shows through.”
“And not only athletes, but to promote the bigger events we have here. I loved the Mann Cup here last year, it was a great event even though we lost. And the FIFA U20 Soccer World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in 1994 or the World Curling Championships and Scotties. These to me were sports highlights and they were right here in our own backyard where we got to cover them first hand…what a privilege.”
Do you get excited when National organizations (e.g. Rugby Canada) set up shop here?
“For sure! Especially rugby. I’m a rugby guy, my dad played, I love it. I look forward to World Cup of Rugby more than World Cup of soccer. That was so cool when they established their offices here…to have a National team based here. I think that is the ultimate compliment to the area.”
What would you tell the people up-Island about sports in general?
“The Mid-Island has great sports legacy…the VI Raiders with multiple football championships, the Nanaimo Clippers, Alberni Bulldogs, Cowichan Capitals in hockey, Junior B hockey including in Campbell River…all up and down Island, we have a great base for sports. The Island is also a hotbed for many Olympic athletes and many of us beam with pride when we see an athlete from the Island excel, especially at the Olympics and on the world stage.”
“Whether up-Island or here, I would strongly tell people to get out and support your local athletes. I think people on the Island, because of our geographical limitations, have to look for their sports fix locally. That’s often a good thing, especially for local athletes because they get the support and the financial backing from that support, which helps them develop. If you like sports, there is no shortage of what you can do here on the Island. You have UVic, Camosun, VIU, minor sports, minor pro sports, Junior sports…there is no shortage…support your local team whatever it is.”
Do you think Victoria could support a professional team in any sport?
“No. I remember people saying a few years back that if you bring back the WHL, we will fill that arena every night. Well I was at the Royals game on Friday night and they announced the attendance at 4,000 or so and I bet there were actually more like 2,800 there in a building that seats 7,000. So how do we support a pro team if we can’t even get solid support for something like major junior?”
Can Nanaimo Support a WHL team?
“Possibly. I think it would set up a great rivalry with Victoria and Vancouver…you would have the Bermuda Triangle of major junior hockey.”
Finally, what do you want folks to know about Steve Duffy?
“That I am good! I am healthy. My wife is healthy. I am here for the long term. I’m not going anywhere because I haven’t ticked nearly enough people off yet! Not that I am the kind of guy to go out of my way to do that! The best move I ever made was coming here to Victoria in 1976. I’ve loved it and never had any urge to move. I love the lifestyle, I love the community, I love sports, especially local sports.”
“I feel like there are a lot of stories left to tell in that regard and I want to be around to tell them.”