On Dec. 4, 1976, a Weekend magazine article asked: “Is the world ready for a mystic … with a broadcasting empire and liquid gold in his veins?” The mystic in question was Geoff Stirling and the reference was to an unconventional treatment for arthritis Mr. Stirling said had cured him, but the description aptly suggests both his Midas touch and his image as an enigmatic visionary.
Legend, maverick and pioneer were words frequently applied to Mr. Stirling, who died on Dec. 21 at 92. Indeed, he revolutionized radio and television broadcasting in Newfoundland and Labrador, unifying the province as never before. He had an incredible instinct for predicting the next big thing, from satellite TV to the price of gold.
“He just sees things that other people can’t,” his son Scott told The Globe and Mail’s Report On Business magazine in December, 2004. “He’s not afraid to try something everyone else believes will fail.”
Mr. Stirling wanted to be rich, not out of greed, but because that meant he could be free. He travelled the world and experimented, letting loose his tremendous curiosity on technologies and philosophies.
As a journalist and publisher in his 20s, he would work 24-hour shifts, bank a wealth of copy and fly from Gander to New Orleans or Capri.
Deeply spiritual, he would spend months travelling in India, meet with holy men and religious figures all over the world, fast for 40 days and meditate regularly.
He also wrote In Search of a New Age, a personal treatise whose 16 chapters include guidance on “Mind and Thought” and “Be-Do-Think.” His beliefs could seem quirky. He once hired an executive because he was an Aries.
His business innovations, however, were sharp and prescient, including introducing 24-hour television to North America, bringing colour TV to Newfoundland, putting 24-hour English-language AM radio on the air in Montreal and planting the seeds of music videos by playing footage of rock performances during commercial breaks.
Many of his staff never saw him from one year to the next, but they got used to 4 a.m. phone calls. (“Where are you?” was always their first question.) Sometimes he called because he was watching NTV on satellite and would request a specific piece of programming or a particular visual effect. All Newfoundland would then view what he requested.
“I’m not Howard Hughes, because Howard Hughes is invisible. And I’ll never be invisible,” journalist Alexander Ross quoted Mr. Stirling as saying, in a profile in the early 1970s. Mr. Ross also noted Mr. Stirling’s “mystical quality,” which he shared with some fellow entrepreneurs (including Polaroid’s Edwin Land), who “took an almost existential approach to the process of risk-taking,” and who were even somewhat uninterested in money.
Indeed, Mr. Stirling never kept his business intuitions to himself, for example encouraging his fellow Newfoundlanders to buy gold in the early 1970s, because he felt its price would rise, which it did, from $35 (U.S.) an ounce in 1970 to a peak of $875 (U.S.) in 1980.
Adventuresome and bold, Mr. Stirling was known for his rock-star aura. Part of it was pure genetics, as he was very handsome.
But he also had a certain kind of eccentric charm that made people pay attention, leading him to cross paths with figures such as John Lennon and (almost) Fidel Castro.
Geoffrey William Stirling was born March 22, 1921, to Edgar, a businessman who owned the popular Stirling’s Restaurant on Water Street, and Ethel (Uphill), of Salisbury, England. She had travelled to Newfoundland to visit her twin brother, when her ship, the HMS Bruce, ran aground and the passengers had to walk over the ice floes to reach land. The Stirlings named their first child Bruce. Then came Geoff, Enid and Rex. The boys attended Bishop Feild School in St. John’s and Mr. Stirling also attended Chatham House in Ramsgate, England, for a year.