If you have been alive in Atlantic Canada in the past three decades, you know Steve Murphy. You know he anchors the six o’clock news five nights a week. You know he wears glasses and a dark jacket on the air. You know he co-hosts Christmas Daddies, the annual telethon that raises funds for disadvantaged families in the Maritimes. You know his guest stints in Lloyd Robertson’s chair up in Toronto. You know his booming yet soothing voice, the measured tone he uses to deliver the day’s events with the accompanying appropriate tone—grave for soldiers’ deaths, bemused for wacky wildlife video, folksy-authoritarian for everything in between.
You can’t live here and not know the man, and you’ve proven that year after year—no other newsperson has ever won Best News Anchor in the history of the Best of Halifax poll.
What you might not know is that this is a man who began his announcement career as a teenager, in a department store.
“Good afternoon shoppers, and welcome to Woolco,” he intones, imitating his 15-year-old self. Sitting in a board room looking out over the light racks and reporters of CTV Atlantic’s Robie Street newsroom—a Joanne Clancy here, a bank of editing bays there—on a brisk October day, Murphy is dressed in a suit and tie. The jacket’s open. At 10:30 in the morning, he’s already attended an editorial meeting and recorded a promo for that evening’s show, more than seven hours from now.
“I was interested in the announcing part of it,” he says, leaning on the word with a teenager’s self-importance, “but I was interested in the newsy part of it too, mostly because when I was in grade seven the whole Watergate thing happened. And I had a history teacher who followed it every night on As it Happens and he came in the next day and told us all about it. So I got interested in the current affairs aspect of radio and started to listen to As it Happens.”
When Murphy was 16 he tripped into a radio job at CFBC in his hometown of Saint John. (All of his employment stories begin like this, tripping and landing and lucking into each successive career move—it’s enough to make a journalism school student cry into her student loan payment.)
“It actually was five nights a week, and I was in grade 11 and going to work at four o’clock and working until midnight and writing and reporting news and going on the radio and so on,” he says. “And that’s how it happened. And to be quite honest with you, I thought it would be a part-time job that would lead to going to school and doing something else, but I never found the time to get back to doing anything else.”
In 1980, at 20 years old (he’s now 46), he moved to Halifax to be “a junior management guy, which I really didn’t like,” at CJCH, reading the news in the afternoon. The host of the station’s phone-in program, Dave Wright—who has been the conduit for more than one Murphy career move—decided to move into television full-time, to ATV, and offered up Murphy as his replacement. A few years into that gig, Murphy too began drifting over to ATV. In 1982 the station premiered Live at 5, a magazine-style lead-in to the evening’s newscast.
“I was the guy who had the opinions on the radio in the morning and then I came on and did some opinions on TV at night,” he says. “And I must tell you, when I go back now and look at those tapes, I have a very hard time getting past the arrogance of that guy.” His voice becomes quiet with shame. “Really, because to be to so young and to think you knew so much—it was preposterous.”
He shakes it off, brings the Steve Murphy Voice rumbling back to life. “I think we were talking about Sunday shopping even then, back when dinosaurs roamed,” he says. “They were all the same sort of cultural and political issues that we have now. There are always rights-driven issues—there were abortion debates raging when Morgentaler was coming into the Maritimes, we talked about capital punishment, we talked about government scandal, government corruption—these are recurrent themes in the history of civil society.”
He became a permanent co-host, first with Laura Lee Langley and then with Nancy Regan, of Live at 5 in 1986, taking over for Dave Wright, who was on vacation when he accepted a job at a Boston newsroom. “So I took the fill-in there and never stopped,” says Murphy.
In 1993, he moved into the anchor chair at ATV Evening News, initially as a fill-in that became permanent when his predecessor—Dave Wright, natch—did not return. “The call never was really the call,” he says. “I wish that there was that ‘Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up’ moment. But there never was.”
He’s been the face of local news ever since. He talks in life as he talks on the air—firmly, crisply, directly, no babbling. He tends to bookend speeches with the same statement, repeating words over and over, not because he’s redundant but so it’s always clear what he’s talking about. A man who spends his life telling us about the missteps of others is not so easily felled.
“The stories I like best are stories that somehow are about subjects that really do affect people’s lives in a real way,” he says. “There are stories that are inside journalism stories that seem very profound to those of us who work in it every day—they tend to be about process or politics or structure. But I think a real news story is about some change or some debate or some system that really affects the way people live their lives. Not in an esoteric way, but in a real way. For example, I think the debate about Sunday shopping—maybe people are tired of it, I’m getting tired of it—but it was an important story because it did actually change the order of civil society in Nova Scotia.”
He’s a political junkie. He loves elections. “Love ’em. Absolutely love them, love politics, have my whole life. They’re sort of like the Super Bowl of local news because we get to go on the air for three or four hours, but you know, I also think that the quality of elections that I like the most is the horse race. And I don’t do play-by-play sports, but I love doing play-by-play elections.” He’s interviewed every prime minister of his lifetime, except Kim Campbell and “Lester Pearson, who died before I could’ve asked him any questions.”
He does a long-form interview in the second half of every show, one of his favourite parts of the job. “I like political interviews because I think one of the functions of journalism is—and I think Joe Howe said words to this effect—the politician is the journalist’s only natural adversary,” he says. “And by that I mean, you know, we walk a pretty fine line when it comes to objectivity about the things we cover, but journalists do have a duty to hold politicians accountable for what they do. Particularly as it compares with what they said they were gonna do. And I do think that we have a very serious role to play in that, and I take that seriously, and I also enjoy it.”
Furthermore, he says later, “I think I have a bit of a duty to the people watching to ask questions that they would ask.”
If they even care to wonder. When Peter Jennings died, Tom Brokaw stepped down and Dan Rather got heaved, all in quick succession, the death knell was rattled for evening news in the US. Katie Couric’s much-ballyhooed move from Today to CBS’s evening news has resulted in nothing more than a lot of hype and third-place ratings. It’s oft-repeated that most college kids get their news from Jon Stewart, the fake news guy.
“I love Jon Stewart,” Murphy says, objecting to the dismissal of The Daily Show as a serious program, which he calls “completely legit.” “Yeah, Jon Stewart’s making fun of the newsmakers, but he’s not really making fun of the news format. He’s using the news format to make fun of the newsmakers. And sure there is an element of satire—he’s poking fun at the format too—but the consumer of the Jon Stewart variety of news has to be a pretty informed person. You can’t get Jon Stewart if you’re not up on current affairs. So the idea that Jon Stewart is somehow anti-news, I don’t see that.”
What he does see is people turning to the news team he represents, as the saying goes, now more than ever.
“The ratings on our local news have never been better than they are now,” he says of his own station, “and I think that’s because we have more media than we’ve ever had before, and more TV, but we don’t have more local. And in a way, local has been redefined by the 500 or 5,000 or 25,000 channel universe. Because even with your satellite dish sucking down everything that’s up there—and by the way, there are hundreds of thousands of channels up there—you’ll only find a few where you’ll recognize the faces because they live in your town or your province. So I think local news has become even more important as that universe above us has grown.”
Rather than cower in the terror of what he does not know and react in slow-motion, like the record label and movie studio executives of his generation, Murphy instead sees today’s information climate as a challenge to be met.
“The idea of sitting in fear of new media—you’re wasting your time,” he says. “The new media are the new media and no medium has ever replaced another one, it’s only supplemented it. ‘Music videos will kill radio’—it didn’t happen. The internet is not going to kill anything. The internet is the fertilizer on the ground from which all media is growing. And it’s just something new. The form’s going to change, but so what? The consumer should drive it. We’re here to serve the public, you know. So if you don’t like the way we’re doing it, we’ll have to find another way to do it.”
Steve Murphy’s memoir, Before the Camera, is out now. He’ll be signing copies at Coles, Halifax Shopping Centre, November 4 from 2-4pm.
Tara Thorne has watched Steve Murphy anchor the evening news on ATV—pardon her, CTV Atlantic—her whole life and owns two t-shirts from stevemurphy.ca. She is arts editor of The Coast.