In his own words: Switzer on the record about his career at CHUM

Jay Switzer's roots with CHUM and Citytv run deep. After all, it was his mother, Phyllis Switzer, who launched City in Toronto in 1972 along with a group that included Moses Znaimer. From working the switchboard in his school days to becoming a junior City program manager and eventually taking over as CHUM's top man, Switzer has spent most of his life in the CHUM/City fold.

Jay Switzer’s roots with CHUM and Citytv run deep. After all, it was his mother, Phyllis Switzer, who launched City in Toronto in 1972 along with a group that included Moses Znaimer. From working the switchboard in his school days to becoming a junior City program manager and eventually taking over as CHUM’s top man, Switzer has spent most of his life in the CHUM/City fold.

In this one-on-one with Etan Vlessing, Switzer looks back on those times, and points to what CHUM did right – and what it had to do just to stay afloat.

At what point was it decided that you would be leaving CHUM?
The big decision was in July 2006, when [CTVglobemedia's deal for CHUM] came down and the bid went to the board of directors, and my senior team had a decision to make – stay with the company through the transition or not. The CHUM board wanted us to take the company through the transition. The CTVglobemedia management and board wanted us to stay through the transition. So, we made a commitment to see this through the trustee period before considering the next phase of our careers.

How hard is it for you to walk away from CHUM?
There’s a huge emotional component. I worked with [CHUM Television VP production] Marcia Martin on the switchboard back when I was in high school. I started as a program manager, just out of university. I helped write the original application for MuchMusic in 1983. Of course it’s emotional. But we’ve been having lots of goodbye meetings. And I don’t think there’s any ounce of sadness or bitterness. There are fond memories of what we built. We’re going to be proud of what we built. Emotion, yes. But sadness, no.

When did Citytv become so important to you?
My first memory of Citytv was when I was in junior high school. I grew up in Calgary, and moved to Toronto. And it’s easy to say that what Moses [Znaimer] led creatively broke all the rules of television. But with Citytv, it was the first chance for a lot of people in Toronto to see their ethnicities on air.

Also, Canadian television had never known female floor directors. And on the first day on air for Citytv, the director was Jane Fairley. Our gang decided to give her a chance to direct. The bravery to show Toronto back to itself on air was a challenge to the establishment. And Moses was a big part of that. His work, to a great extent, is a large embodiment of what we stood for.

What were your impressions of CHUM founder Allan Waters, who was really the opposite side of the coin to Moses Znaimer?
I use a few words to describe Allan Waters. ‘Common sense’ comes to mind. He forced the discipline of keeping it simple on all of us. And he was just a smart enough guy to know Moses and he were like oil and water, but he knew enough to let Moses and his group carry on.

Any time we would have a bad day, we would touch wood and thank ourselves we worked for the Waters [family], who were constructive and would share in the responsibility for bad news.

It’s unusual for a broadcaster to stay as long at one network as you did at CHUM.
The grass doesn’t look greener somewhere else. It has been the same for other CHUM managers. David Kines [CHUM Television VP of music and youth services] came here after graduating from Ryerson. Marcia Martin, Stephen Hurlbut [Citytv VP news programming and VP/GM CP24] – the gang goes way back. CHUM is a fun place to work.

It’s a place that respects your work in an informal environment, but expects big results. The politics and the empire-building that happens with other companies – we would argue in our shop it might take up only 5% to 10% of your time.

Are you satisfied with what you accomplished at CHUM?
We all wish we could have a little more time. I was four years as president and CEO, and it takes a year to get the plan in place. Many of the changes we had in the works – from an operational and creative point of view, the ability to get capital and better marketing muscle – are important.

Was it hard to compete with CTV and Global Television all those years?
Yes, and part of the challenge during down cycles was you still have to keep the lights on. You have 3,000 people to pay, including radio. There were things we had to do during the tough recent years that, stroke by stroke, take you off the brand. Those are tough choices – needing to hold costs and stay on brand.

Could you provide an example?
The big challenge is with conventional TV and either small-market or second-tier conventional TV stations. Conventional television has the potential of becoming the AM radio over the next decade. You have systems designed back in the 1960s. It’s no secret that margins in conventional TV have slipped from the low 20s to low teens and single digits. There are real structural issues.

So, on the Citytv stations, we used to not have infomercials, even late night. Then a year or two ago, we were hardly making any money. So, for giving up a 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. slot, we still have a business. But the result is the brand has slid a little off. I wish we had had deeper pockets.

How have Canadians’ TV viewing habits changed over your CHUM years?
They mirror what happened in the U.S. This may sound like complaint. It’s not. We were prescient enough to decide the future of TV was in specialty channels. We think of ourselves going back 25 years as the country’s first cable-style conventional TV station that lived and breathed like a specialty channel. Back then, others were downplaying the future of specialty. It was not a priority early on for CanWest Global. It was for us. Out of strategic choices, we have built a specialty portfolio that is second to none.