Conrad Black is back — ‘with zip’

The Baron, Lord, and former inmate transforms into ‘Zoomer’

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Chris Young

Chris Young

For all his titles, Lord Black of Crossharbour, PC, OC, KSG, has never laid claim to that of “Boomer.” Depending how persnickety your definition, the 69-year-old might have been born a year or so too early. And certainly his inability to recall whether or not he has ever even attended a rock concert—he has a “funny feeling” he might have been dragged to one in the mid-1960s—speaks more of a profitable youth, than the requisite ill-spent one.

So it stands to reason that he’s a little uncomfortable with the term’s late-life upgrade. “To be completely truthful, I’ve never gone cock-a-hoop for this whole ‘Zoomer’ thing,” says Conrad Black, arching one of his formidable brows. It’s not to say that he doesn’t understand what his new boss and business partner Moses Znaimer is up to—trying to commodify a large and monied demographic that most advertisers have lost interest in. It’s just that he can hardly say it with a straight face. “It’s a funny word.”

That could be a problem: the former newspaper baron began a new career this week as co-host of The Zoomer: Television for Boomers with Zip. The weekly, one-hour current affairs show is airing Monday nights on the Vision channel, which is rebranding itself as ZoomerTV. It is taped at the Zoomerplex, a sprawling old industrial complex in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood, which houses Znaimer’s stable of “silver tsunami” related businesses, including a classical music station and CARP, formerly known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. And this month, Black is the cover boy for Zoomer, the glossy “mature market” magazine Znaimer launched back in 2008.

A year-and-a-half after his release from a Florida prison, where he served 29 months on fraud and obstruction of justice charges related to his lost media empire, Black has re-established himself as a Canadian opinion maker and pundit for hire. There’s his long-running weekly column in the National Post (which he managed to keep going even during his incarceration). His well-received books, including A Matter of Principle, his jailhouse memoir, and most recently, Flight of the Eagle, a strategic history of the United States. And the speaking gigs, for which he commands as much as $50,000 a night. But the move to TV has the potential to either make him an entirely different type of star, or a bona fide laughingstock.

Znaimer, who until 2003 was the founding force behind CityTV and MuchMusic, is serving as the show’s executive producer. And he is clearly betting that Black’s large personality can be harnessed for big ratings. The promo material, which included teaser web videos set to the Jupiter movement of Holst’s The Planets, calls Black “Canada’s most polarizing man,” and promises viewers “Lord Conrad like you’ve never seen him before.” (If that means hearing the still-member of the British House of Lords use the term “bum boys,” then mission accomplished.) On billboards, and in full-page newspaper ads and radio spots, the sell line is that Black and his co-host Denise Donlon, a once MuchMusic VJ turned music and broadcasting executive, are going to offer “gutsy” and above-all “opinionated” television for the 45-plus generations.

At the taping of the show’s first broadcast episode late last week, there was a definite buzz in the air. The purpose-built studio—stripped down to the warehouse brick and decorated with vintage TVs from Znaimer’s personal collection—was packed with journalists, former CityTV heavyweights, and once-familiar faces like that woman from the Parachute Club, and the guy from Triumph who now looks just like Sam Elliott. Black gave Ronnie Hawkins, one of his guests, a warm embrace. (Improbably enough, he and the rockabilly legend are longtime friends, having bonded over “some horribly liquefied evenings,” says Black.)

Wearing a sober blue suit, sharp chequered tie and an elegant gold watch, Black seemed slightly overdressed, but not out of place in front of the cameras. Seated at a round table next to Donlon, an untouched glass of red wine before him, he rumbled to life now and again in a panel discussion that ranged from assisted suicide to pot use to “extreme” longevity. In a little over half an hour, he managed to name check Ariel Sharon, Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Disraeli. But the closest anyone came to controversy was a risqué joke by Hawkins, who is now 78, and a cancer survivor. “I was going to order up all [new] organs in China,” he drawled. “Except for one. I was going to get that in Congo.”

In between the talk of death and aging, there were some attempts to lighten the mood. In one taped “Life Lessons” segment, Donlon endeavours to teach Black how to ride a Toronto streetcar. “The money goes in there,” she says, gesturing at the fare box. “And you don’t tip the driver.” At another point, she unveiled a “Blacktionary” to help viewers contend with her co-host’s prodigious, and often arcane, vocabulary. (Perspicacity, the ability to show discernment or insight, was the word of the day.) There was also a musical guest, Molly Johnson, who crooned a jazz standard while Black watched raptly, tapping his fingers along with the music on the table top.

The meatier bits of the show were perhaps the most successful. A weekly “Talk Black” commentary, filmed against a backdrop of model ships and an antique globe in the library of his Bridle Path mansion, where he inveighed against the Harper government’s cold-shoulder approach to the United Nations, found Black in his comfort zone. And his sit-down interview with Brian Mulroney resulted in some newsworthy comments from the former prime minister on Quebec’s proposed charter of values, and the political strengths of newish Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. In Black’s vision, these one-on-one conversations, drawing on his connections and high-powered friends like Henry Kissinger, Bob Rae, Margaret Atwood and Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, will be The Zoomer’s centrepiece. All too used to being at the sharp end of pointed questions, he wants to make the exchanges slightly familiar, but not informal. And above all, substantive. “As far as I’m concerned I’m not pitching it at idiots,” he says.

But separating his steak from Znaimer’s sizzle may be a tough battle. In the conversation with Mulroney, a collection of Zoomer magazines was conspicuously fanned out on a coffee table in the foreground. And at other times, the show felt like a weird hybrid of Charlie Rose and a late-night infomercial. Among the guests at the roundtable for the first episode were Susan Eng, CARP’s vice-president of advocacy, and Libby Znaimer, Moses’s sister and vice-president of news and information for his radio stations. There was also an incongruous advice segment on how not to get ripped off by car rental companies, featuring Dale Goldhawk, the Zoomer empire’s resident consumer advocate.

The PR bumph for the show indicates that it will continue its scattershot approach, with promises of upcoming cooking demonstrations and even a discussion on sex toys, led by Suzanne Boyd, the editor of Zoomer magazine. Sadly—or thankfully, depending on your outlook—Black says he won’t be participating in those types of segments. “But I might watch them.”

Black certainly has a long history of being entertaining on TV and is never shy about expressing his views—just google his snarling exchange with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman during a book tour last fall—but it’s not yet clear if that will make him a good host. He hasn’t sought or received any tutelage in his new job, and says he doesn’t ever review his performances on the small screen. Characteristically, Black doesn’t seem to harbour any doubts about the outcome. “It’s mainly a question of fluency, and I’m not going to become tongue-tied when the modern equivalent of the red light goes on,” he says. And as he rightly points out, there is a ready market for his opinions as a columnist and author.

Yet, for the first time in a long time, it’s not Black who is setting the agenda for the discussions. The first episode saw three of Black’s guests sporting their tiny, unmissable, Order of Canada pins, but had no mention of his continued fight to hold on to his own. That’s a shame. Ask Black about the upcoming hearing he has requested into the advisory council’s attempts to strip him of the honour, and you get an earful about the “popinjays” in the basement of Rideau Hall. “If some junior official can throw me out of the Order of Canada, I’m not interested in being in it,” he declares. “Nobody is throwing me out of anything!” And it’s similarly engrossing to get him railing about the U.S. justice system, prison reform, or the question of his lost Canadian citizenship. (He recently extended his temporary resident’s permit for another three years.) Black says he doesn’t want The Zoomer to be about his hobby horses. But frankly, it’s those rides that make him a compelling, and frequently infuriating, figure.

Black is forthright when asked why he’s doing the show. Znaimer made him a “very generous offer” for what amounts to part-time work. “After 10 years of the persecution I endured, I’m fine financially, but it did diminish my net worth somewhat. And I’m in a rebuild mode here, so it’s quite useful.” He declines to be vulgar or indiscreet and say just how much, but Black allows he also has been provided with a stake in the program. And for that, he’s content to let the TV guys figure out what works. “As long as it’s not something you’re embarrassed to be associated with, I don’t much care,” he says. “I leave it to others to judge what people will watch.”

At the end of the first taping, as the audience clapped and the theme music swelled, Donlon gave a wave and shouted, “See you next week. We’re zooming out!” Sitting stone-faced beside her, Black appeared like he might already be gone.