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Meisner

Posted on 2 April 2015

Word this morning that Ben Meisner, legendary broadcaster, has died. As a longtime journalist, he was known for his no-holds-barred interviews, tough questions, and his signature line, delivered in his perfect, old-school radio voice: “I’m Meisner, and that’s one man’s opinion.”

The first I knew of Meisner was when I was a kid, and he was the owner of the business Crazy Willys here in Prince George. He’d show up during my Saturday morning cartoons, in commercials for the deals. I didn’t get a good sense of who he was as a journalist until years later, when I was an intern working in the B.C. legislature.

I was in government caucus communications. Gordon Campbell was still the premier. Some years earlier, as the host of a talk radio show on the now defunct 550 AM in Prince George, Meisner had Campbell on to talk BC Rail.

I didn’t hear the interview myself, but it had grown to the stuff of local legend. Meisner wouldn’t let Campbell off on why he sold the railway. He kept questioning him, rather than moving on to the next subject. Or so I heard.

There are a number of versions of the story about what happened next. In one, the station owner in Vancouver became so enraged about the interview that he personally flew to Prince George to fire Meisner. This is probably not true. This is where the “legendary” status comes from. There are legends around the guy.

Either way, not so long after this interview Meisner was off the air, and the two events became conflated.

He resurfaced, of course. He started the website 250 News in the early days of the internet-as-a new-source, and started broadcasting on community radio. That’s where he was when I started my internship.

So anyways, in government communications there was a job called media monitoring. Tracking what people are saying about the B.C. government. There were only about four or five columnists that the government cared about, because of their ability to influence public decision. All of them were in either Victoria or Vancouver. All of them but one, that is: Ben Meisner.

* * *

I didn’t actually meet Meisner until I started working at CBC. It was on Campbell’s last visit here as premier.

Funny thing is, they acted more like old friends than people who had very publicly sparred. This was a pattern I would see a few times. Despite often being the one to most hold people’s feet to the fire, Meisner was also the one they would chat and laugh with. That’s a tough thing to do.

I got to know Meisner later. When he heard something he liked on CBC, he would reward us with a visit to the office and an invitation for coffee. He would put his face against the glass door, and peer in with a smile. “What’ll ya have, bud?”

Waiting in line, there were always friends and people he’d helped. “Hi there, old-timer!” he’d exclaim.

About three years ago, he ended his radio show. Shortly after, he told us what motivated him. As he told it, he was in the office but the station manager didn’t know it. Ben overheard him talking about what would happen if he stopped broadcasting. “He’ll never quit!” said the station manager. So he did.

Of course, he couldn’t stay away. He came back to the airwaves last year in order to interview every last candidate running in the municipal election. That’s the thing about him. He was absolutely driven by the chase of the story. He always had some investigation on the go. “Oh, let me tell you,” he’d say slyly. Always some new scoop or tip.

“It’s not about the money, it’s never about the money,” he’d say. It was about the story.

When I took the job as producer of the local CBC show last year, we wanted to have someone on to comment on city issues. I invited Meisner.

He warned me it probably wouldn’t work out.

He recorded a few episodes, opining on spending issues, municipal priorities, that sort of thing.

One piece he wrote ran longer than the time allotted, and I thought there were some extraneous lines that we could do without. I emailed him to make the suggestion.

He replied, “Please do not run this editorial in any shape or form… I don’t feel it necessary to justify each and every paragraph I write.

“Consider last week’s submission to be my final column.”

He was getting paid, but it wasn’t about the money. It was never about the money.

I stand by my suggested changes, but I don’t begrudge him the decision not to be edited. He had his own platform. He had earned it.

* * *

A few weeks ago, Meisner paid his last visit to our office. Peering through the glass doors. “What’ll you have, bub?”

This time, we talked about his upcoming vacation plans.

He had asked his wife Elaine where she wanted to go. Hawaii? She said no. Mexico? Nah.

“You choose somewhere,” he says she told him.

He smiles, slyly. Here comes the punchline.

“So we’re going ice fishing in Dauphin, Manitoba!”

We talked about how much he was looking forward to it. How Elaine would like it.

* * *

A few weeks later, another breaking story is published to 250News.com. “Meisner battling cancer”.

Damn. Damn damn damn.

And of course his top priority is getting back to Prince George. “That is my town, and I owe so much.”

And this morning. “Voice of the North Falls Silent“.

That’s the headline. But look at the web address. It ends with “meisner-finally-coming-home”.

He was born in Saskatchewan, started his career in Manitoba, and moved on to Toronto, Red Deer, Kamloops, and more. But Prince George was home. He loved this city. And it loved him back.

I’m seeing tributes coming in from people from all walks of life. The premier has issued a statement. The comments section on 250 News is, as always, full of voices.

Here’s what I’m going to do.

I’m going to remember all the times he chose the tough questions over the easy conversation. The times he chose his journalistic instincts over money.

In these days of shrinking newsrooms and the ever-vanishing line between “journalism” and “PR”, he stood as an example. He would work for other people, but not if that meant changing what he wanted to say. He’d sooner quit. And he did, again and again. If no one would give him the platform to say what he felt needed to be said, he built it himself.

There are a number of critiques you could throw at him, but no one can say he wasn’t true to himself. And that’s no small feat.

Rest in peace, Ben. You deserve it.

That’s one man’s opinion.

* * *

I should add, I think it’s only fair that the fullest portrait of who Ben was comes from the man himself. Fortunately, the Prince George Oral History Group conducted an interview with him about ten years ago that gives you a full picture of his life and values.

You can also listen to my interview on CBC about him:

listen to ‘The legacy of Ben Meisner’ on audioBoom

And Dave Barry at CKPG put together an excellent overview of his life:

Filed under: journalism, personal, Prince George

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