Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ben Meisner (1938-2015): B.C. radio's Voice of the North had a dark secret in his past

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
April 20, 2015

Ben Meisner, a gruff radio talk-show host based in Prince George, B.C., was known as the Voice of the North.

Vancouver broadcaster Jack Webster once declared he knew of only three things in Prince George — grizzly bears, black flies and Ben Meisner, each one of which could eat you alive.

Politicians of all stripes acknowledged his popularity by dutifully appearing on his eponymous show even as they grumbled afterwards about his aggressive questioning. Shirley Bond, an MLA from the city, compared a booking on Meisner's show with a trip to the dentist.

Mr. Meisner, who has died of cancer at 76, was one of the last of British Columbia's acerbic, politically astute, love-’em-or-hate-’em radio hosts. In some provinces, politics is a sport. In B.C., it is a blood sport, thanks in part to voices like Mr. Meisner's. Later in his career, the talk jock concluded his over-the-airwaves editorials by declaring, “I'm Meisner, and that's one man's opinion,” which became his catchphrase.

Lauded for his preinterview preparation, Mr. Meisner, a noted recreational fisherman, treated his interview subjects much as he might a feisty catch. Once on the hook, a politician was not allowed to squirm free, no matter how long the struggle.

In 1995, former NDP premier Dave Barrett was touring the province to promote his recently published memoir. Unfortunately for him, the book's release coincided with a forensic audit and news reports about a mysterious party figure known only as “D.B.” who had made a bank deposit of $12,500 in $50 bills. When the former premier appeared on Mr. Meisner's show on CKPG, the radio host asked about the scandal. “Accusations have been made, no charges have been laid,” the former premier jokingly replied. The host persisted and the politician refused to answer, whereupon Mr. Meisner terminated the interview, causing Mr. Barrett to storm from the studio, expletives flying in his wake.

Mr. Meisner claimed to have interviewed every prime minister from Louis St. Laurent to Stephen Harper, and once went pheasant hunting on the prairies with Roland Michener, the governor general.

Never one to shy from controversy, he insisted his prickly on-air approach did not endear him to many. “Doing this job,” he once told the Prince George Free Press, “I have a very lonely life.”

It turns out the outspoken broadcaster also carried a secret for much of his public life. He had been convicted and imprisoned for fraud as a young man.

Benjamin (later spelled Benjimen) Barry Meisner was born on June 3, 1938, on a grain farm near Walpole, a hamlet in southeastern Saskatchewan. He was the youngest of four children born to Anna (née Walowski) and William Meisner. His mother immigrated to Canada from Warsaw, Poland, in 1926, while his father had been born in Lunenburg, N.S.

The boy had a hard-scrabble upbringing in which his father was absent. As an infant, the family moved to Maryfield, a village on the railway line just west of the Manitoba border. In about 1945, his mother began a common-law relationship with Reg Morris, a dairy farmer in Treherne, Man. Young Ben maintained a trapline from which he sold squirrel and mink pelts. At age 14, he moved to Winnipeg, where he found work as an office boy by lying about his age.

Mr. Mesiner was still in his teens when he moved north to Dauphin, becoming a newsreader for radio station CKDM. He appeared in the local newspaper for his charity work, for earning master angler awards for the walleye he caught, and as a member of the station's curling team, known as the “730 Dialers.” He married and started a family.

In 1963, he and two other men, both from Fargo, N.D., were arrested and charged with fraud in a stock-option swindle involving bogus certificates. The other men, both formerly legitimate bonded salesmen, pled guilty. Mr. Meisner was convicted by jury the following year on three charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and sentenced to 18 months in the provincial jail at Headingley, Man. (The judge in his case, Brian Dickson of the Court of Queen's Bench, later served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.)

By 1965, Mr. Meisner was again on air, working for radio station CJGX in Yorkton, Sask., resuming a career that would also take him to Winnipeg and Toronto. He managed radio and television stations in Red Deer, Alta., and Kamloops, B.C., before joining CKPG in Prince George in 1973 where he handled a show called “Talkback.”

An hour-long radio program airing at 9 a.m. every workday became a regular stop for campaigning politicians. At one point, Mr. Meisner's understudy was an ambitious young man named James Moore, the current federal industry minister, who was elected to Parliament at age 24 in 2000.

In December, 2000, Mr. Meisner lost a $30,000 libel suit to NDP finance minister Paul Ramsey, who was a local MLA, after repeating and offering commentary on an out-of-context quotation originally published by The Province newspaper of Vancouver. In its defence, the station's lawyer told court a correction was issued within 17 minutes of Mr. Meisner's editorial, making the statement “the shortest libel in history.”

Mr. Meisner abruptly quit his own program in 2004. He said he was chastised by station management for criticizing Premier Gordon Campbell for “taking the easy way out” by granting an interview to a younger, less experienced news reporter for the station instead of appearing on his talk show. Management said it was unacceptable for the host to criticize another station employee.

At the same time, he quit writing a weekly opinion column for the Prince George Citizen newspaper to concentrate on an independent online venture he founded, now known as, which takes its name from the area code that covers most of the province.

In his career, he was active away from the microphone, as well, successfully campaigning for better health services in his region of British Columbia. He criticized the sale of BC Rail by the B.C. Liberal government. He also opposed an expansion of Alcan's Kemano hydroelectric project in the 1990s, as he sought to preserve his beloved Nechako River, a main tributary of the Fraser River and an important spawning route for sockeye salmon.

In 2010, Mr. Meisner was appointed a bencher to the Law Society of British Columbia, serving as one of six non-lawyers on the society's 31-person board of governors.

Mr. Meisner fell ill while on an ice-fishing holiday in Manitoba. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and, six days later, on April 2, died in a Winnipeg hospital. The sudden death shocked the city of Prince George, where he had been a fixture for more than 40 years. Several politicians issued statements of tribute, including B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who said the province had lost “a wise and passionate voice.”

He leaves his wife of 20 years, Elaine Macdonald Meisner, a son and two daughters from his first marriage, as well as two grandsons, a sister, and two brothers.

In 2007, he received a lifetime achievement award from the organization now known as RTDNA Canada, an association of radio, television and online news directors, producers, executives and educators. He was hailed for being “fearless and prickly.”

“I'm humbled because I'm not the kind of guy who travels in the right circles to get those kinds of awards,” he said at the time. “I'm a bread-and-butter guy.”

Winnipeg Free Press, April 2, 1964