Matt Hayes remembers the first day he walked into the newsroom at CHCH. It was January 1982 and the Mohawk Journalism grad had just completed a short first job stint in Peterborough. (Editor’s note: Matt Hayes was the writer’s first hire as a completely green news director) “ I remember that first day walking in to that office.,” (which at that time was a sprawling Victorian house at 67 Caroline Street where the Bentley Condos now stand)…”Smoke was wafting in the air. Mo Stazyk (late senior news editor Maurice Stazyk) was smoking a cigarillo at the typewriter. Mike Krizanc (former CHCH assignment editor) is behind that big desk and the phones are ringing… and I walked in there. I came from Peterborough where there’s like 3 people in the newsroom… and my heart is racing… and I’m thinking oh my God I think I’m in over my head.”
For people starting their broadcasting careers like Matt it was a great time to be at CHCH; the station was making a lot of money broadcasting first-run American TV hits like Hill Street Blues, Maple Leaf midweek games, and blockbuster movies in the evenings. And in the daytime CHCH dominated the Toronto-Hamilton market with the Young and Restless, hosted by the ladies’ favorite, Vic Cummings–by far the number one soap opera in the market and rumored to be producing more profit than the rest of the CHCH schedule combined. The station was rumored to be worth $120 Million in 1981 dollars – the equivalent of $320 Million today. The only tiny cloud hovering over this money machine was an admonition by the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), during a recent licence renewal hearing, that the golden goose—CHCH– needed to get serious about its news operation, which at the time consisted of a staff of less than 30, producing a scant 7 hours of news each week under conditions that even then were primitive. Heeding the warning, CHCH turned on the tap, hired legendary news consultant Bert Cannings, and gave him the assignment of building a news operation and grooming a news director. It was into that rejuvenated environment that Matt entered.
That’s not to say there was a shortage on on-air talent already in place as Matt recalls, “It was incredible to me to be at a point where I’m working alongside legends like Norm Marshall, Dick Beddoes, and Tom Cherington…guys I had grown up watching on television and now I’m a colleague.”
For those who grew up with decades of Matt’s cheery antics as a weatherman it may be hard to recall that Matt started like everyone else in the business as a grunt reporter, and as a rookie it meant covering the stories nobody else wanted and entailed a lot of night and weekend shifts. Matt’s reporting career was short-lived however. The news operation had continued to expand with hour-long programming at 6 and 11 and there was a need for someone to do full time weather. Connie Smith who had been doing weather was promoted to City Hall reporter. Applying for the weather job, Matt suggested he had previous experience in Peterborough. “I said yes I had…but I hadn’t. So I went up to the airport where at that time they had a real (Environment Canada) weatherman there all the time and I spent the weekend there hanging out with those guys and talking to them…and by the Monday I was ready. It was very shaky, but I got through it.”
Not long after that, Matt began what became his trademark –weather promos where he would mix a little humour with being on the spot at some community event—often a charity dinner or awards evening. Matt estimates that over the years he probably provided some kind of on -air promotion to maybe 5,000 charities and community groups. A favourite feature was the notorious weather wheel of fortune—a wobbly homemade crown-and-anchor type wheel where instead of clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds, spinners would get to spin for rain, snow, sleet, cloudy and sunny skies. The shtick became such a hit that charities would auction off a live spin of the wheel with Matt to raise money.
There were also celebrity spinners in the days when Hamilton Place and the then Copps Coliseum were visited more regularly by the big stars, recalls Matt. “The best one was Bob Hope…he was playing at Copps Coliseum I got in touch with his PR flack and asked if we could meet Mr. Hope and she just blew me right off…so it was the night of…and I said to the cameraman…let’s just take the wheel down there and see if we can get him…and the great thing was everybody knew me, so were driving into the underground garage and everybody’s saying ‘Hey Matt’ and I’m saying ‘can you open this place up so I can get the wheel in there’…everybody’s assuming that this has all been set up. The next thing his limousine pulls in to the loading dock and he gets out of the car and I just went up to him and said ‘ hello Mr. Hope’ and I introduced myself and I told him what I wanted to do and he said ‘that sounds like fun kid’…and his PR lady is just glaring at me and so we just went for it. Later we got Jay Leno to do it, the Smothers Brothers, Tim Conway. It was great, it was a nice little vehicle and they always enjoyed it.”
Matt fondly remembers working with icons like Tom Cherington. “I’ll never forget the night my daughter was born. We did the weather from the nursery at the hospital…and I’m holding her up. The next morning I went to work and Cherington came in and said ‘I watched the news last night (with that deep ballsy voice)…and I wept.” It was great because he was a pussycat.”
With the kind of profile Matt had developed it was no surprise that local radio wanted to take advantage of his following. After a couple of short-lived stabs at CHML, Matt was offered a fill-in position at K-Lite which soon became permanent. Matt says and “it was good cross promotion…in the mornings on radio we would do a quiz segment. Where Matt was last night with the weather…and it all tied together. It was great promotion.” For most of the 20 years since he joined K Lite Matt and co-host Sunni Genesco have been number one in the morning radio ratings.
Allowing Matt to work on both sides was controversial then and even in recent years under Channel Zero. “The current news director told me many years ago that he would never have allowed it to happen and it always bothered him. I juggled both of those jobs for over 20 years.” Reflecting on the recent bankruptcy that took him off TV, Matt sees an irony. “ I always thought the radio job was less stable than the TV, I always figured that I would be able to say goodbye on CHCH one day after deciding it was time to pack it in.”
While the mass layoff at CHCH came as a shock when it happened Matt had been aware for the last ten years that the TV landscape in Hamilton had become shaky. “Even going back to Global (owners from 2000 to 2009)…they were always trying to reinvent us. They named us the E Channel and they were running all this crummy lower tier programming…you’d see some of the commercial breaks and you’d say where’s the national ads?…and you see a lot of Chia pet commercials and you’d wonder if they were making any money.”
In recent years sometimes Matt questioned the Channel Zero commitment to CHCH. “They’d always have these town hall meetings, which I stopped going to, because they’d always talking about what they were doing elsewhere…like ‘WE’VE just acquired this and were trying to buy that,’ and every meeting was all about WE WE WE until the last day when it was WE’RE moving on and YOU are finished…!”
The story is well documented about the fatal day at when employees were divided into two groups—those who were being fired and those who were staying. Matt recalls, “the meeting was at 4 and I got there at about ten after. And by then everything was already underway. The big studio on the main floor was full of people…and at this point I don’t know what room I’m supposed to be in…but I walk into the studio and I see a sea of grey hair and I think ‘this does not bode well’. So then I walked up to one of the managers and I said ‘am I in the right room?’ and they said…’Yeah you are.’
“I walked out the door,” Matt continues, “and I said ‘there’s 33 years that meant absolutely nothing’, and I went home and I started drinking. I was on the phone all night…and at about 11 o’clock my daughter says ‘Dad you need to post something on social media’ I’m not a social media guy and so she set me up and I put this piece out…and then I went to bed and I couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night I hear my IPad pinging, pinging, pinging… I open it up…and there are all of these messages from people I don’t even know…and they are the most beautiful messages…I’m sitting in my living room and I started to cry…because they were saying such nice things and that’s when I said ‘OK it did mean something’ I still get it every day when I’m out and that’s really gratifying.”
Despite the lighthearted on-air persona, Matt was trained as a journalist and he worries about the future of news with younger people getting nonprofessional news from a variety of online sources. “Everybody wants the news so quickly. In bites. News seems to be heading to digital but how do you make that into a revenue producing opportunity? There are stories that lead a newscast today that back in 1982 when I started would never have been a lead story.”
Looking back on his 33 year career Matt says the love and support he has received, especially in recent months has been great. “I had 33 years doing a job I love in my home town. I wish some of the people who worked behind the scenes at CHCH and made me look good were getting some of this support too.”