Arthur Black hops out of his truck and greets me with a hearty hello when I finally arrive at Fulford Harbour two hours late, having missed the earlier ferry to Saltspring Island.
"Welcome to the island experience," says Black, the retiring host of CBC Radio One's Basic Black, tipping one of his trademark black caps, and looking extremely West-Coast casual in black jeans, a black T-shirt, sport sandals and a safari vest.
Black, who moved to British Columbia's Gulf Islands from Fergus, Ont., six years ago, says he has missed countless ferries during his weekly commutes to the CBC office in Vancouver. Black typically spends three days of the week in Vancouver, interviewing folks from around the world and closer to home, such as the guy from Saskatchewan who uses pig spleens to forecast the weather. But as of next week, he's planning on staying put for a while.
After 30 years with CBC Radio and 19 seasons of hosting the whimsical Saturday-morning show that features ordinary folks doing odd things, Black is taking an early retirement at age 58.
The Basic Black grand finale, which will feature previously unheard moments of hilarity from outtakes over the years, was taped last week in Thunder Bay (where Black hosted the noon CBC Radio show for nine years and Basic Black was born). It will air this Saturday. After that, the show fades to black forever.
"It's time," says Black, who is as friendly in person as he sounds on the air -- but doesn't appear to have become overly lulled by island living, given the way he speeds around the bends in the road as we drive to a pub.
"I didn't have a fight, there were no rumours, I didn't want to go do anything else," Black explains later, taking a swig from his pint of dark ale. "You know when you go to a party and there's a time when you can see where the rest of the party is going to go and you don't want to be part of it? That's how I felt."
Black will continue to write his syndicated newspaper column, make paid speaking engagements and preside over Weird Wheels and Weird Homes, two half-hour TV shows that air on the Life Network. The two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour says he will probably write more books, perhaps even take a stab at fiction. (His latest book, a collection of essays titled Flash Black, was published this week by Stoddart.)
The executives at CBC accepted his decision to retire "with amazing alacrity," he says, laughing. "I would have liked them to beg me to stay." But nothing much about the national public broadcaster really surprises him these days.
Black says he is concerned about the massive overhaul underway as CBC Radio attempts to attract a broader, younger audience.
"CBC Radio is boring and earnest. But it's steady boring and earnest. The CBC has often been run by rogues and charlatans. And for as long as I've been there, the government has hated it. But it kept on going anyway."
He says this latest "youth kick" is "unbecoming."
"It's like watching Hugh Hefner trying to be hip. I've always said the CBC is like Scotch and olives. You'll like it when you're ready for it."
In the race to move forward, the brass at the CBC might want to have a look back at the success of Basic Black, which has remained the highest-rated variety show on Canadian radio for years. Each Saturday, the show draws approximately 600,000 listeners, and the demographics have always skewed young, without ever really trying.
"We're a big hit with the university crowd," Black says, shaking his head. "I've never quite understood that."
The story of how Basic Black got its start is bizarre enough to make a segment on the show. In the beginning, in 1983, the CBC's plan was to create a weekly poetry show. Black was in Thunder Bay, hosting the local Radio Noon show. He says someone from Toronto called and asked if he would like to host this poetry show.
Poetry from Thunder Bay? "Exactly," Black says bemusedly.
As Black recalls, he said "Well, okay. There's money involved in this, isn't there?"
The odd match of host to show wasn't any more unbelievable, really, than Black's first gig with the CBC as a livestock reporter. After stumbling through a succession of unconventional careers (dog walker, movie extra, roofer, underwear salesman), Black walked out on yet another job as the assistant editor at the Imperial Oil Review magazine in 1972. At the time, he had two options: install telephone lines or report for CBC Radio. The CBC producers asked if he knew anything about agriculture. Having just written an article about the South Saskatchewan River (but boasting no other experience in the field other than a brief stint as a cattle prodder at the Ontario Public Stock Yards), Black said "Yeah, I'm an expert."
They must have believed him, because he held the job for three years before budget cuts forced his relocation to Thunder Bay in 1975. He advanced to reading traffic reports and began writing a weekly newspaper column for Lakehead Living, which was eventually syndicated.
At first, Black hated Thunder Bay. He moved back to Toronto after a year, but then found he missed the folks up north and returned to find his groove.
"There was an Eaton's in downtown Thunder Bay," he says, trying to explain the appeal. "I went in one day and there was this guy in a parka. It was all grease-stained and he had a long beard and hair all over the place and boots with the laces trailing on the floor. He looked like a wild man. He was cashing a personal cheque and nobody batted an eye. He would have been arrested just on general suspicion in Toronto. I thought to myself, 'I like this place.' "
The folks at CBC liked his traffic reports, too. So much so they offered him this new poetry gig. A pilot was made and played to the brass. They didn't like that so much. "They said, 'Hate the show, love the guy. Give him something else.' "
Black was asked what he would like to do.
"I thought, okay, I don't want to interview movie stars. I hate people with that shtick. How about we interview ordinary people with extraordinary stories?"
The brass went for it and Basic Black, based on the title of a book he had just written, was born.
Black has interviewed many normal folks over the years with plenty of strange stories to tell. Extreme ironing (the latest in danger sports), the medicinal applications of mummified body parts, and the peculiar culinary delight of roasted grey squirrel being just a few of the subjects that have been dissected in recent months.
Part of Black's enduring appeal is the easygoing way in which he approaches his whimsical interviews -- always respectful, never mocking.
He says he isn't often overcome by the urge to laugh out loud at some of the absurd people he talks to.
"We kind of sift out the major wackos," he says, although he does remember one fellow from Arizona who claimed to be communing with pods of dolphins around the world. "That was really interesting, trying to talk to this guy and not lose it."
Black smiles fondly as he thinks back to some of his favourite stories.
"I defy you to go to Newfoundland and not have an adventure," he says of that "magical" province where he found a sensitive whale rescuer.
"It was this marine professor. He would go all over Newfoundland to save whales that had been caught in nets. He told me a story about going out in his Zodiak to save a whale somewhere. It was wrapped in the net and gangrene was starting to set in. He was right on top of it and he said the whale's eye came up and the connection was so intense, he began to cry while recounting the story. It was really interesting, because he was this tough old bird."
Each week, Black is joined by contributing editors such as Harold Fiske, a Toronto-based muckraker and former tabloid writer, who keeps listeners up to date on "the soft underbelly of the world at large."
In a recent episode, for instance, Fiske interviewed a psychic animal communicator to find out why certain monkeys were attacking humans.
There has been no contributor more popular, however, than George St. John Quimby, a correspondent from London, who regaled listeners with his wacky weekly "world service" newscasts for 11 years.
Quimby, who was actually a CBC stringer who did straight news as well by the name of Nigel Lewis, left Basic Black in 1994 after a potentially litigious issue over copyright.
"We talked our way out of that one," says Black. "I think we may have axed him too soon, because people still talk about him. It's the first thing most people mention."
Then there's the Humline, a hugely popular regular segment in which Danny Marks and Dinah Christie try to resolve musical mysteries for listeners who call in and hum mangled bits of partly remembered songs.
"I can't believe how popular that has become," says Black. It began 10 years ago when he phoned a library in Birmingham, England, that employed a staff member with a special talent for figuring out song names.
"Hey, Linda," Black shouts out to a woman walking by the pool table. "She cuts what's left of my hair," explains Black, patting his bald head, rimmed with white around the edges. Loyal listeners know very well that baldness is one of Black's favourite subjects for his weekly monologues.
With his firm round belly, white beard and ruddy cheeks, he sort of looks like a funky Santa Claus on vacation.
We drain our beers and go out to rescue Woolly, Black's dog, who has been waiting patiently in the back of the truck.
While walking down to the park, Black tells the story about how he and his partner, Lynne McClain, acquired their pooch.
"We were driving down the road and we saw a golden Labrador humping a border collie. 'We want one of those,' we both cried out." They tracked the owner down and got the pick of the litter for $50 and a bottle of Scotch.
Has the show changed him? Black says yes, it has sanded his sharp corners down.
"I was really a smart-ass when I started out. I'm a dumb-ass now."
He's very much looking forward to kicking back and spending more time playing fetch with Woolly. But won't he miss the show and his cast of adventurous eccentrics?
"I'm kind of sorry about leaving," says Black. "But not sorry enough to stay."