Geoff Stirling and the whole, entire universe.
By Sarah Smellie
My first encounter with the Stirling empire occurred in the Yukon, before I had set foot in Newfoundland. I was a bartender at a hotel in Dawson City. Some nights, after closing, I’d be given a room upstairs to guarantee my 9am arrival to open up the next morning. On those nights, I’d stay up watching this Newfoundland station, NTV, and marvel at this large-helmeted Captain Canada chap as he brought peace, serenity, and Seinfeld to the planet at large.
Years later, having actually moved here, I’d find myself staring at my television at 4am, utterly speechless, as lines about the way of the divine scrolled down the screen, guided by the wail of apocalyptic opera.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “It’s all true.”
You don’t live here long before you start hearing stories about Geoff Stirling, creator of Captain Canada and the Atlantis saga, and chairman of Stirling Communications International, the parent company that owns NTV, The Newfoundland Herald, Stirling Press and OZ-FM.
According to legend, he used to interrupt late-night NTV programing with live feed of lengthy interviews and monologues about politics and crop circles; his house has a secret wood-paneled room with cameras waiting for his next transmission; he’d interview prospective employees while throwing knives at the door; and he once called NTV and made them interrupt the newscast with an episode of Inspector Gadget.
Google him and you’ll find a Facebook group and a BlueKaffee forum dedicated to the NTV overnight videos. There are a few short bios from Wikipedia and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2001, and a 2004 piece from Report on Business that claims he was inspired to get into media when he came across the Miami Herald while hunting alligators in Honduras. You can see him doing headstands and talking about socialism with Joey Smallwood in the 1974 NFB documentary, Waiting for Fidel. And for a good round-up of his Eastern mysticism-inspired philosophy, you can check out the Captain Atlantis series, and read his treatise called In Search of a New Age, on the Captain Atlantis website.
Back in October, The Scope submitted a request for an interview with Stirling.
Then one mid-January afternoon, out of the blue, he finally phones.
“What’s on your mind, honey?” he begins.
He talks to me for about an hour, covering provincial and municipal politics, sound vibrations, energy, ABBA, the old streetcars in St. John’s, and the possibility of a casino on Bell Island. Segues from one subject to the next are loose — he stops me mid-sentence, for example, to ask if I’d ever been to Egypt. “I ask,” he says, “because sometimes in the middle of a great conversation, the person will suddenly say ‘and then, when I was meditating at the pyramids of Egypt…’ and I tend to think differently about them after.”
But no matter the subject, he’s fiercely intimidating. He has the laugh of a Very Powerful Person: a deep “huh huh huh,” each “huh” ragged at the edges and clear in the middle, ringing in a voice he doesn’t use when speaking. It’s startling, youthful, and hard to gauge; he might be laughing at what was said, or he might be laughing at the essence of being Geoff Stirling and the public persona that entails.
Freaking out appreciably, I chit-chat about provincial politics.
“Now that we’ve got three women running the parties,” he says, “we have the chance to provide exposure to in-depth discussion. We could have tremendous frankness. If they’re willing to have late-night discussions, that is.”
What he means by “late-night discussion” is best seen on NTV some nights, during the overnight hours.
They’re credited as the first television station in the country with 24-hour broadcasting, which started in 1972. While every other station in the country would simply go off-air, NTV blazed all night, showing syndicated programming, movies, continuous live feed of a fish tank, Scenes of Newfoundland, and the Stirling tapes: hours-long interviews with Joey Smallwood; conversations with conspiracy theorist David Icke spliced with images of horrible grey aliens; the “Computer Animation Festival,” featuring Atlantis characters and pulsating animation sequences from the Lawnmower Man; repeated showings of Pink Floyd’s The Wall; images of crop circles, UFOs and the Egyptian Pyramids layered on top of one another and/or images of Barack Obama; and the laws of God — “The Law of Energy – All is Energy” — scrolling over random stills.
“In order to go for 24 hours, you had to have all that additional programming,” he says. “Ted Turner bought up all the basketball to use, but we just made our own content. We used uninterrupted interviews; we used Smallwood and whoever else could tolerate six or seven hours straight. We would ask Smallwood, ‘Why can’t every Newfoundlander be given ten acres of farm land?’ and we’d take the tape and we’d have him explaining all through the night why we couldn’t have it!”
“We didn’t have commercials during the night, so we didn’t interrupt the intellectual discussion. It opened up a whole new world of transparency.”
I ask him about the videos like the Computer Animation Festival and The Laws of God.
“This all started because we were now into the crop circles,” he says. “So by trying to make all the words and everything we do late at night authentic, we would take some of the new crop circles coming in and we would use special effects — well we’re just learning how to use special effects. I sent over a group, I wanted to prove that they were there. We’re not taking anybody’s word for anything. So you get a helicopter and the pilot confirms that one morning it wasn’t there and the next it was, and you show the footage.”
“The complexity of the imagery is so beyond anything we had five years ago,” he says. “So, if it is a fake, it’s still a fantastic mandala.”
“We’re trying to raise the consciousness,” he continues. “It’s simply automatic if you’ve gone and researched the information you’re trying to make available.”
In order to maintain freedom over NTV’s overnight programming and keep broadcasting his message, he says that NTV will always remain an independent station.
“You can’t interfere with a commercial company,” he says. “It has to be an independent network. We couldn’t interrupt some big company to broadcast these discussions; we had to do it on our own.”
“You’ve got to be leading if you’re in this game, honey,” Stirling says to me. “And the game is communication. But you’ve got to give something more than just apple pie. You’ve got to give something that inspires the imagination, say ‘here’s what it was like to meditate in the pyramids.’ ”
His mission to widen the public consciousness has been a constant, in one guise or another.
In 1948, two years after Stirling began publishing the St. John’s Sunday Herald, now the Newfoundland Herald, he had a different message to broadcast. A founder of the anti-confederation Economic Union Party, which espoused the establishment of free trade agreements with America, he’d head to Washington to get statements from Senators about what they could do for Newfoundland. Many of them wound up transcribed in the Herald.
“There was a recording of one Senator, Senator Brookes, that was played on the radio stations here,” chuckles Philip Hiscock, a MUN folklorist, Newfoundland broadcasting aficionado, and Stirling mythology enthusiast. “But, of course, I’ve been told that it’s not Brookes on that recording, that it’s actually an actor that Stirling hired to read Brooke’s statement.”
In July of 1963, Stirling founded the Montreal-based radio station CKGM-FM, later known as CHOM-FM.
“When I got radio [in Newfoundland], there was no English FM in Quebec,” he tells me. “There was no FM in the cars, and because cars were the radio market then, FM wasn’t commercially viable. So I went on the air and gave myself the only English FM voice in Quebec.”
According to Mike Boone, a journalist for the Montreal Gazette who has written extensively about the early days of CHOM, anyone tuning into the station had an equal chance of hearing a live chanting session with Stirling’s guru, Swami Shyam, as they did a three-day-long Beatles marathon.
In 1969, Stirling, while vacationing in London, sent a telegram to John Lennon saying “I’ve heard your Come Together. So here I am. Geoff Stirling.” Lennon and Yoko Oko met up with Stirling and recorded an interview and a few station IDs that were later broadcast on CKGM, what they called “The Peace Station” in Montreal.
“He had a huge impact on radio in Montreal,” says Boone. “Geoff was really experimental with that station, he really pushed it, and he had the first station to really play good music. It was the first popular FM station in Montreal.”
“And didn’t he used to inject liquid gold into his veins?” he asks.
Stirling later sold that radio station to CHUM in 1985.
In the early 1980s, Captain Newfoundland arrived in the Sunday Herald. Shortly thereafter, the Atlantis graphic novel series emerged, in which Captain Newfoundland/Atlantis tutors Captain Canada, Yoda-style, to seek his superhero-hood within himself. Crystals, meditation, astral travel and UFOs are all paramount to his enlightenment.
By all accounts, Stirling has always been eccentric.
Ken Meeker was an editor at The Herald in the 1960s. Stirling, he says, was generous, gregarious and intelligent. “He was a great broadcaster,” he says.
“The videos, the politics, it’s all part of who he is. And I don’t think any one person has the full story of who he is.”
The Honourable Edward Roberts was executive assistant to Premier Joey Smallwood, and became leader of the Liberal Party after Smallwood’d defeat in 1972. He watched what he calls “a very unusual friendship” develop between Smallwood and Stirling. “[Stirling] has always,” he tells me, “danced to the beat of his own drummer.”
“He was a bit scary,” says Hiscock. “There was a spot my friends and I used to go to in the early seventies called Motion, and he fenced it off and started building this ashram. I think if he stopped the car when we were going into Motion and told us to get out, we would have clicked our heels and ran!”
“He was enormously confident,” says David Moores, editor at the Herald from 1984 to 1989. “He was tall, handsome, deeply tanned, he was an athlete when he was a kid, had a knuckle-breaking handshake, and he just beamed with self confidence. Always talking about free enterprise, but somehow a sentence would start with free enterprise and end with the Maharishi.”
He’s had a robust career as a businessman. Media empire aside, it’s widely believed (and perhaps legitimately known) that Stirling earned the bulk of his fortune with investments in gold, in the 1970s. Legend has it that a man in Tahiti told him to invest, and he did, telling anyone and everyone he knew to do the same (Roberts vouched for this, having been a recipient of the advice). A decade later, the price of gold had increased twenty-five times over.
From what he tells me, he began investing at a young age. In his early twenties, when St. John’s got rid of the street car system, he purchased all the cars.
“I sold them as cabins, people used them as little cabins beside lakes,” he says, chuckling. “I think I was paid $100 for them. I didn’t have any trouble getting rid of them!”
“It was a fantastic system,” he continues. “It was five or ten cents to ride the whole route, which ran from LeMarchant Road, over the hill, up Water Street and over to the Newfoundland Hotel. Those cars were cleverly designed. When you stopped the loop, you could reverse the chair to face the other way.”
“You’re a powerful man,” I say. “I bet if you got some people together, you could get the system back.”
He laughs, for a while. “Lead me not into temptation!”
At 90, he’s long since retired to Wickenburg, Arizona (“I’m trying to make it the solar energy capital of the world,” he says). If you dig a little, you can find a picture of him with a guy dressed up as Captain Canada on a website for the Wickenburg Legends and Ghosts tour. They’ve got a stop in the middle of town, at a building with a little plaque that reads: “March 22, 1984: At this location Captain Canada materialized for the first time in the United States of America.”
Apparently, on that date, Stirling busted through the door of that bar, boot first, and yelled, “I’m looking for someone to play a superhero!”
“All I really have to say is ‘have fun,’” he says. “You know, it’s about loosening up a bit. It’s about coming together.”