Robert Payne has enjoyed a life in the limelight – Photo Courtesy of Robert Payne
Robert Payne has been a journalist for 40 years. He has worked in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Niagara Falls, London, ON and gained notoriety in Toronto, Canada where he now lives. In the early days of his career, he coupled his work at radio stations with being employed at Dominion stores while in the province of Quebec.
From a tentative start in Quebec City, his goal was to rise to where skies were blue and the compensation green. When the full-time radio career ended (after 18 successful years at CKEY Toronto), he moved seamlessly to chairing the Ontario Film Review Board, the provincial government body that classifies all films and videos released to the Ontario marketplace.
He also produced award-winning columns with various newspapers.
The flexibility he has shown to last in the competitive field of journalism is an example of his adaptability and willingness to “bounce back” from any setbacks that have come his way.
Payne was born June 12, 1941, in Montreal. Both of his parents are from Fredericton. The railroad brought his family to Montreal and at the age of two, Payne’s family was transferred to Quebec City. He lived in Quebec City until he was 22. He calls it his hometown.
His family rented a flat on the top floor of a house when they arrived in Quebec City and there was a French family living below. The teenage children who lived below found great interest in the young Payne and he learned to speak French. Mainly he only spoke English to his parents, although he went to English schools. He would speak French with his friends.
“We were ‘the ghetto’ in Quebec City back in the 40’s and 50’s,” Payne explains with a chuckle, “the only blacks in a city of about 300-thousand. But rather than being victims, we seemed to generate warmth and curiosity among the locals. As a child, it was common for ladies to stop me and my mother on the street and pat me on the head adoringly”
Gosh, it’s a wonder the English-speaking, Anglican, African Canadian son of a railroad porter and homemaker mother could not only survive a childhood among a sea of White, French-speaking, Roman Catholic denizens of Quebec City but indeed thrive and live to tell about it.
Later on, in life, he got a part-time job at a Dominion store and also attended Laval University in Quebec City. He studied teaching and had planned to become a physical education teacher. He met someone at the school who invited him to apply to work for an English-language CBC-affiliate in Quebec. He auditioned and received the job.
Part of his job duties was making sure that everything was running smoothly. The other part of his job was being a DJ on the late night shift. He “fell in love with radio.”
“Once I got into radio I knew this is what I wanted to do for much of my adult life,” says Payne.
His parents were eager to have him live on his own, so when he was offered a management job with a Dominion store in Montreal, his Dad left for the railroad over the weekend and Payne had left for Montreal before his Dad got back that Sunday evening. He also got a part-time job in Montreal working for a radio station CKJM (note: the Montreal station I worked at was CFMB. The one I subsequently applied to was CKGM, across the street at the time. They asked whether I wanted to go to Ottawa). He was making about $60.00/week and even owned a sports car. The station in Montreal was a multilingual station that was the equivalent to CHIN Radio in Toronto.
Part of Payne’s tasks was editing audio in many different languages, as well as being a newscaster.
There was a radio station across the street from the one he worked at that were a rock station and the place where he really wanted to work. He went there asking for a job and they said we do not have one here, however, we are opening a new station in Ottawa CKPM and would Payne want the job. He decided to do it and moved to Ottawa. He found the only action in Ottawa was drinking in Hull, Quebec.
He met many friends in Ottawa, as well as met the mother of his two children. Being ambitious, he knew that going to Toronto was the way to reach his goals of great success – since the major media markets are there.
Before he got to Toronto, he worked in London, ON, as well as Niagara Falls.
He got a call from CHUM to work in Toronto. He did not last long at CHUM, mainly because he was intimidated by the reputation of his colleagues – many of whom were known far and wide as the cream of the crop and did not perform as well as he could have.
After leaving CHUM, he enhanced his skills and credibility by going to meetings and taping them. He would freelance these stories out to different radio stations. One of the stations he would do this for was CKEY – eventually, they offered him a job.
He ended up getting a job with CKEY in Toronto and learned his lesson from the experience with CHUM Radio by staying with CKEY for 20 years. He became quite a celebrity with billboards and caricatures made of him.
When management changed at the station and he was let go, it made the front page of the Toronto Star.
Close to the end of Payne’s term at CKEY, he was appointed to the Ontario Film Review Board and subsequently became its chair. The offer for this job came from the premiere at the time. Payne takes pride in instigating a process of standardized assessment of film and video content, such as pornography. When this story hit the papers, such as the Toronto Star – it caused quite a controversy.
“I learned a lot from that,” says Payne.
Payne is also a notable columnist. He worked as a columnist with Contrast Newspaper until it folded in the early 1980s. He then wrote columns for Share until the mid-1990s. He also became a columnist for the Toronto Sunday Sun. He has received an award for his columns.
Once his tenure with CKEY Radio ended, he got a call from Rogers TV to host a show called “Lemon-Aid” about cars. He did that for three years, as well as continued to write columns, be a speechwriter (for Ontario government ministers), plus a film reviewer.
He has also done casual work for the CBC, as well as worked on hiring committees with Centennial College (Ontario’s oldest community college), as well as taught at Centennial College.
He was the ghostwriter for Herb Carnegie’s book Fly in a Pail of Milk which deals with Carnegie’s 1940s hockey career, his unsuccessful attempts at persuading the NHL to accept a black player and his post-hockey successes.
Payne has served on a number of boards, including Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto, the Onyx Lion’s Club that served mostly the African-Canadian community. In the early part of this decade, he served as vice president of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ). He recently stepped down as Audit & Finance chair of Toronto Grace Hospital, a Salvation Army-owned hospital and continues to write part-time as well as fulfill the duties to his partner, such as cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry. Payne also hosted the first five years of the Harry Jerome Awards.
What does he have to say about being a pioneer in the journalism world as a black man?
“While I enjoyed meeting and serving with a broad range of men and women, I also think it served the purpose of some organizations to demonstrate a willingness to be inclusive,” says Payne. “Not so much the radio, where most listeners don’t have a clue as to what color you are. I confess to a touch of arrogance and ignorance at the time. Given my own upbringing in Canada, and because everyone in radio in the 60s and 70s spoke “like Canadians,” I remember (painfully/Paynefully) telling newly-arrived Canadians they needed to speak like “the rest of us.” I realize how negative and verging on racist my comments were. One of the great things about the experience is that it shows you how stupid you were as your former self.”
Payne has learned a lot from his early years in radio and journalism and the success he has achieved. For all those people he may have “pissed off” at one point, they can be safely assured that now in his golden years he is giving back to the community, plus giving back to his friends and family. He plays hockey three times a week and shows no signs of slowing down. Whatever arrogance he may have shown in his youth is not apparent in the humble older man who can still get up on a ladder at his age to make renovations to his home.
“I guess I come from good genes. My dad died last year at age 96, and my 94-year-old mom is keeping up the good fight.”
The resultant sense of acceptance and self-worth seems to have propelled Payne far beyond what the surface surroundings seemed to promise. Indeed it helped drive him to the upper echelons of his chosen profession.