When he was 14, Mr. Stirling’s mother was killed and his father seriously injured in a car accident on the way home from her birthday party. It was a shocking loss with a terrible parallel, as Mr. Stirling’s daughter Kimberly would also die in a car accident, in 1977, when she was only 19.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Mr. Stirling was a star athlete in track and field, introducing “the western roll” to the high jump. His high-jump record stood for decades and he is in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
He also did a year of pre-law at the University of Tampa. But he was bored.
In the 1940s, as the Newfoundland National Convention debated Newfoundland’s political future, he co-founded, with Ches Crosbie and Don Jamieson, the Economic Union Party, which opposed Confederation and advocated closer ties between Newfoundland and the United States. Their slogan was, “Don’t Sell Your Country for Six Cents a Meal” and Mr. Stirling’s campaign tactics including meeting every U.S. senator.
Despite this early clash with the pro-Confederation stance of then-premier Joseph Smallwood, Mr. Stirling went on to run provincially for his Newfoundland Reform Liberal Party in 1975.
He and Mr. Smallwood were often on different sides politically, but there were also odd convergences between their outlooks and personalities, and they were lifelong friends.
For example, in 1946 Mr. Stirling used $1,000 he had saved working for his father to buy 60 tonnes of newsprint, and founded the Sunday Herald (now The Newfoundland Herald), an American-style tabloid.
Most people, including Mr. Smallwood, told him it wouldn’t work. Mr. Stirling had some experience freelancing with The Chicago Tribune and Time magazine (and writing a sports column for the Daily News while a student at Bishop Feild).
He wrote, printed, sold ads and delivered the paper. The front page headlines of the first issue, dated May 12, read: “Hitler’s Son Alive in Germany,” and “Movie Company May Film National Convention.”
The paper also broke stories, such as the hourly wage differential between Americans and Newfoundlanders working on the U.S. military bases, which was $4 versus $1.25, because of a decree from the British-appointed Commission of Government, which administered Newfoundland’s affairs from 1933 to 1949.
The Commission responded by passing an order-in-council forbidding anyone to advertise with The Herald.
But the newspaper thrived on circulation. The initial 10,000 press run sold out. Mr. Stirling’s marketing strategies, very much part of this success, were way outside any box; for example, he would drop bundles of Heralds on the ice floes for the seal hunters.
In 1950, he and Mr. Jamieson started CJON radio. In 1955, this became CJON TV (now NTV, “Canada’s Superstation”). Mr. Stirling handled the business end while Mr. Jamieson, later a provincial Liberal Party leader and a member of Pierre Trudeau’s federal cabinet, was the public voice of the nightly “News Cavalcade.”
As Mr. Stirling told The Herald, he expected TV to “take over. It had music, it had sound, it had everything.” Later on, switching to colour was “a big accomplishment” and helped further distinguish it from CBC, the only other channel, which was still black and white. By the late 1960s, he owned five Newfoundland stations, each with its own licence. NTV is the only Canadian station with deals to broadcast both CanWest Global and CTV programming. Its audience share was huge. The newsroom, with its slogan “First with the news in Newfoundland,” held the dominant market share as a source of information.
In the 1960s, when FM radio played easy-listening and light classical music, and car radios didn’t even pick up FM signals (listeners had to buy a special set), Mr. Stirling bought CHOM-FM in Montreal. By 1969, it had become a counterculture rock station, featuring repeated plays of Abbey Road, throws of the I Ching and meditative chants. He called it “tribal radio.”