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REX APPEAL

How many newfies does it take to host a national call-in show, inflame the nation with mall-screen soliloquies, produce incisive documentaries and still read six hours a day? Just one.

by Newfoundlander Abroad Miriam Mesbah

Among the posters that adorn the walls at CBC radio's Morningside studio in Toronto hangs one that depicts dozens of colourful pairs of woolen mittens. They're formally displayed on an old wooden rod, but there's something distinctively homemade about the way they hang. The muted shades of red, blue and grey blend together as the limp, rounded thumbs dangle in the breeze. The label below reads "Hand-knit in Newfoundland."

In a plush office chair beneath the picture sits Rex Murphy, 48, another Newfoundland export who has found his way into the CBC's posh Toronto headquarters. Although he's dressed in a well cut, dark grey suit and a simple, understated tie, Murphy still looks like a cross between Homer Simpson and Jean Chretien. His thinning hair springs on end as if he has just come in from one of those windy Newfoundland days, and his pale blue eyes adjust their shape with every word he speaks. His voice has a nasal quality, like Preston Manning without the whine, and he pronounces his words thoughtfully, emphasizing each with a hint of an Irish background--each of of his wurds has carracttoor. Altogether, he's the antithesis of Peter Mansbridge, Bill Cameron and the other high profile on-air personalities, with their standard CBC smiles and central Canadian dialects. As they say in Newfoundland, "You can take the boy out of the bay, but you can't take the bay out of the boy."

On this Sunday afternoon in late October ('96), Murphy is preparing for Cross Country Checkup's 30th anniversary show. He earned the host's seat in 1994, "the last of a long line of rogues," as he puts it, after a one-time stint as a guest host. The show's topic is whether there is a chill on free speech at Canadian universities. Fittingly, about the time that Cross Country Checkup debuted, Murphy first gained national attention while still a university student in Newfoundland. When the Memorial University student council president was unable to make a speaking engagement in Lennoxville, Quebec, Murphy, a fellow council member, filled in. In a provocative speech that was covered by the national papers, he characterized Newfoundland's recent announcement of free tuition for first year university students as a sham, saying that students did not really receive a free education, and called Premier Joey Smallwood's governing style dictatorial.

Smallwood, who despised being upstaged, was furious. In a televised news conference, he told the headstrong youth not to come home. But upon his return, Murphy was elected student council president and the union boldly ran an advertisement in The Evening Telegram condemning the provincial Liberals. In a province where people treat politics like a sport, the premier grappling with an undergraduate was as entertaining as the Saturday night wrestling matches common in community halls across the province.

After student protests continued, the government eventually caved, offering free tuition to all, including those at the graduate level; students from St. John's also received a monthly $50 living allowance while those from the outports got $100. This was the beginning of what would be an ongoing rivalry between the two men. Just as Smallwood was almost universally known as "Joey," Murphy became simply "Rex" to his fellow Newfoundlanders. Now, with his national exposure on the CBC, Canadians across the country are also getting to know the boy from the bay on a first-name basis.

If you're a CBC watcher or listener, it's hard not to encounter the irreverent, passionate Murphy. Besides hosting Cross Country Checkup, the only national radio call-in show in Canada, he's a weekly commentator on The National and on CBC Stereo's pop culture program Definitely not the Opera. In addition, he occasionally appears as a panelist on the program The Editors, a Newsworld program that examines how journalists cover issues and current affairs. In what's left of his spare time, he works on television documentaries for The National's magazine segment.

While Murphy is certainly a talented speaker, the question remains: how did this sharp-tongued guy from the tiny fishing community of Freshwater, Placentia Bay, make it to the national airwaves? The CBC prides itself on delivering politically correct, objective reports to Canadian households while Murphy is at his best when he is sarcastic, clever and biting.

Murphy's appeal stems from his ability to be so typical and yet unfamiliar at the same time. He has the irreverent Newfoundland sense of humour and delivery, reminiscent of the This Hour Has 22 Minutes crowd, who also rely on east-coast wit. Like his fellow Newfoundlanders, he loves debating politics and has an ability to consider the topic on a number of different levels: its importance, humour and outright stupidity. The use of allusion and examples in his narratives is also common on the Rock, especially at kitchen parties where storytelling skills are often honed over tea and biscuits.

But despite these down-home qualities, Murphy is not your average Newfoundlander. Canada's newest province is known for its colorful dialect and language, but Murphy's vocabulary would challenge even the country's most accomplished lexicographers, and the polysyllabic phrases that roll off his tongue during one of his National commentaries are just as likely to be heard in a casual conversation. While he is a proud Newfoundlander, he also has an unsentimental clarity about his home province: "Newfoundland is remote, isolated, backward, cursed with the most desperate, heartbreaking climate on the globe," he noted in a 1994 documentary. "It has no soil, its trees are dwarfs, we have fog for ozone. Our politics is incompetent mischief punctuated by outright corruption. It's bare and stark and bleak, yet affection for Newfoundland is stronger than a chemical dependency."

Murphy is the second of five children (two brothers and two sisters) of Harry and Marie Murphy, both now deceased. He was born in Carbonear, a historic fishing and commercial community 65 miles west of St. John's and was raised in a traditional Catholic home. When Rex was 10, his father got a job working as a cook for the Americans at the Argentia Military Base, and the family moved to the nearby community of Freshwater.

He skipped two grades in primary school ("Grade one and either two or three. I never did find that out from Marie"). He finished high school at 15 and completed a BA in English at Memorial University by the time he was 19. As an undergraduate, Murphy became student council president in 1965 and led a group of politically active council members that included a young Brian Peckford. (A few years later, at a local radio station, he would also work with a 20-year-old Brian Tobin, who was hired to do odd jobs.) Murphy was named to the John Lewis Paton Society, an honour given to the brightest students, and was on the debating team, was chair of the student union building committee and participated in the student parliament. His active involvement in campus life was the start of a lifelong passion for politics. In 1968, he left to study law at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and later returned to Newfoundland to enroll in a master's program in English, but he didn't finish. "I wrote the thesis on 17th-century poetry," recalls Murphy, "and I have revised it several times since then, except for the footnotes, and the footnotes killed me--I never did get around to that."

Now in his early 20s, Murphy taught English and cultural studies to American children and teenagers at the Argentia base, then moved to St. John's the following summer to "mess around." This included lending a hand for an hour and a half one afternoon in the newsroom of VOCM radio, a privately owned station known for its connection with the average working-class listener--it's rumoured throughout Newfoundland communities that the station's call letters stand for "voice of the common man."

News director Elmer Harris, who had heard of Murphy when he was a student leader, was so impressed that he hired him to write daily five-minute editorials as well do some reporting. "He could pick up on the mood of the public and be able to tap into that," says Harris today. "I hired him because of his vocabulary and his ability to twist a phrase." The editorials were actually broadcast by the station manager, Bill Williamson, but while the messenger had the golden voice, it was the message that got the people's attention. Murphy's editorials on the decline and fall of the Smallwood era in the spring of 1972 were so well received that they were made into 45 rpm records and sold across the province.

"Now, Joseph, having kept watch over his people for three years and twenty, shepherding his flock and fleecing that of the others, grew weary," the first one began. "'The people are not content with me, my spirit falters and my forces are much diminished. My house is not my house, behold [Frank] Moores and his rebels mount the steps.'

"There shall be defections and rumours of defections, and there shall come a time when they shall say Frank shall be overthrown, but be of good faith for the government is with him. To him is the civil service, the Twin Otter and the Chrysler Imperial. Nor is this all, for there have been polls and the polls are with him... and the first born of every house, having passed his eighteenth year, taking heed, applied to their cars the bumper sticker, 'I voted Tory. The time has come."'

Murphy got the chance to front for himself when Harris asked him to fill in as a host for the station's call-in show (the experiment was short-lived, since the program went to air at 9 a.m. and Murphy was admittedly not a morning person). Soon after, he was offered a position as political commentator and interviewer by the local CBC TV outlet. The station had just introduced Here and Now, a daily supper-hour news and current-affairs program that was broadcast throughout both Newfoundland and Labrador; Robin Taylor, the program's producer, was searching for a strong interviewer.

"He's a fierce debater," says Taylor, who became a close friend. "He never intends to pursue anybody maliciously, but when it came to interviewing politicians, he could be quite devastating." During his 10 years, on and off, at Here and Now, Murphy took on premiers, labour leaders and other newsmakers. Once the camera was on, Murphy became a fearless interviewer who got to the heart of issues, sometimes leaving his interviewees gasping for words. Here and Now's former executive producer, Bob Wakeham, recalls an interview Murphy did two years ago on a special segment of the program entitled "Rex." He was talking with an environmentalist about the east-coast seal fishery and completely discredited the antisealing supporter. "I've seen the people whom he's carved up," says Wakeham. "It's more with a scalpel than a sledgehammer and sometimes they were unaware he was slicing them up."

After nearly a decade of ranting about Newfoundland society and interviewing "everyone that could be interviewed at the time," Murphy flirted with the "mainland" media. He moved to Toronto in 1974 to work on Up Canada, a current-affairs television program that took a hard-edged but satirical look at issues. The humourous skits surrounded a serious centre segment, almost a 22 Minutes ahead of its time. On one occasion, Murphy dressed as an angel and dangled from a rope in a piece about the celebration of the birth of the founder of Eaton's. When the show was cancelled after two seasons, he returned to Newfoundland and the local CBC.

But despite his interest in political commentary, he also longed to be in the game himself. "It's a fever that gets in your blood," he admits. "Some people get it worse than others. I think I've had it all my life." In 1981, Murphy won the federal nomination for the Conservatives in St. John's, but after Trudeau delayed the election for a year, Murphy gave up and went to work as an assistant to provincial Tory leader Frank Moores. In 1985, he tried again at the provincial level, this time running for the Liberal seat in Placentia. After losing by 70 votes, he took on a research position with the Liberals that involved helping party members prepare for question period in the House of Assembly.

Murphy believes his two years away from the industry were crucial in helping him become a better political commentator. "I would put a law in place that anyone who does political journalism should be sent to another jurisdiction to work for six months with a real political party," he says. "I got the cleanest insight on a trust level of how a party functions. When you're working for a political party, you're privy to things you wouldn't see as a journalist. The gap between journalists and politicians is immense. Journalists think they know politicians but they don't. They know about 70 percent of the game, while politicians have no idea what journalists really do."

In 1987, Murphy returned once more to the CBC in St. John's and continued doing commentaries and documentaries as well as the odd piece for The Journal. He freelanced there until 1994, when Cross Country Checkup came along.

Murphy says he approaches each topic by focusing hard on what he thinks about any given issue. "I make it a rigorous exercise to figure out what bothers me about this or pleases me about that." He avoids scientific subjects because he feels he does not know enough to offer credible commentaries and won't delve into gossip or people's personal lives because he says it's counterproductive to a good debate. He has no specific research technique except for paying close attention to what's happening and reading as much as he can about issues.

His passion for reading, especially the classics, began in Grade six. Murphy still has a voracious appetite for books and spends a lot of time frequenting bookstores in Toronto. He says he tries to read about six hours a day (recent books included The Special Cambridge Edition of Milton and Harold Bloom's The Great Canon

Murphy also loves poetry and classical music. Former crime reporter and longtime friend Mike Critch called him the "intellectual in residence" when they worked together at VOCM. He says the pair would spend many evenings drinking rum and listening to records. "Rex would arrive on the scene with his precious Yeats records. I had a small phonograph and we would sit and listen for hours and drive my wife stark raving mad." Murphy loves music so much that when he was 13, he taught himself to play classical piano after sending away for a home-study course.

He admits that speaking to a national audience is challenging because he is not as familiar with the viewers and listeners as he was on the Rock. The inside jokes and nuances that are funny on the east coast are lost in the west, and he finds easterners are better able to appreciate politics on a number of different levels. At The National, Murphy still has the freedom to comment on what he likes, as he did in Newfoundland, but he now has a bigger congregation to address, which in a sense limits what he can talk about. He is also serious about being accurate, as much as commentary can be accurate. "It's important to say what you think is involved in a situation so people have a clear read," he says. "They might agree or disagree, but it helps distill the discussion to the points that count."

"He has a marvelous way with words; he isn't short of an opinion or two; he's witty and he talks funny," Chris Cobb wrote in an Ottawa Citizen article in 1994. Greg Quill, The Toronto Star's television critic, believes those who think Murphy overuses the language envy his talent. "I love the guy. He could be Canada's Larry King. He's an extremely bright man and he knows exactly the right words to use. That is pure communication to me."

Murphy's ability to communicate his opinions has national audiences listening. The National's executive producer, Tony Burman, says while the show doesn't have specific figures on Murphy's effect on audience share, CBC has noticed a sizable increase in phone calls, faxes and letters since he's been doing the regular Wednesday night rants. Some have been negative, but most are highly supportive. "We've learned he has a loyal audience," says Burman, "and people get annoyed with us when we, for whatever reason, haven't put him on Wednesday nights." According to Susan Mahoney, Cross Country Checkup's ratings have increased two share points since Murphy joined the show, vaulting the audience from 220,000 to 350,000. The amount of mail has also progressively increased, and while she attributes part of this to an earlier time slot and the creation of an e-mail address, a good deal of the mail indicates that while listeners don't always agree with Murphy, they appreciate his approach to issues.

Whatever the CBC has in store for Murphy, it's evident that he continues to attract a loyal and equally vocal audience. Murphy says he still enjoys doing political commentaries and documentary work but admits he's toying with the idea of--what else?--writing a book someday. But whether or not you appreciate his style of journalism, Murphy has displayed a certain quiet courage over the years, not unlike that of his forefathers who, for centuries, braved the icy North Atlantic. He chose a life as a professional freelancer in a province where getting full-time work is second only to winning the lottery and voiced his opinions in a place where conformity is encouraged and anonymity is impossible. And after two decades of ranting, he still has that spark that causes heated response from his audience. Murphy has always gone against the tide. Now it looks as if the boy has also gone beyond the bay.