CHUM boss makes graceful exit

You get the sense that saying Jay Switzer has left CHUM Ltd. as a Canadian broadcasting legend would just make him cringe.

You get the sense that saying Jay Switzer has left CHUM Ltd. as a Canadian broadcasting legend would just make him cringe.

But that status for the former caster’s president and CEO, who left in July, is hardly in doubt.

The way his colleagues tell it, Switzer found success at CHUM not as a consummate manager of his public image, but of the people he pulled together in an executive team and encouraged to make bold decisions he would support.

‘He trusts his team. He empowers them to do what they feel is right and to move things forward,’ says Roma Khanna, former SVP of content at CHUM Television. Khanna also left the fold in the wake of the purchase of CHUM broadcast properties by Rogers Communications, which gets the five Citytv stations, and CTVglobemedia, which gets everything else.

Others say Switzer would on occasion nudge them into action, but would never second-guess.

‘Jay has a different style of management. He hired us to do a job, and that’s what we were here to do,’ says Ellen Baine, who has served as VP of programming at CHUM Television.

Switzer bids no grandiose adieu, and offers no catchwords, punch lines or gags. This humble and thankful CEO, as ever, simply deflects credit for success onto others.

‘Smart people surround themselves with people who are smarter than [they are],’ he says with characteristic self-deprecation.

‘The collection of people is as important as any startling ideas that I may have come up with, which isn’t often,’ he adds, summing up years that saw him as a junior City program manager starting in 1983, working his way up to VP programming as of 1995 and eventually as CHUM head man starting in 2002.

David Kines, VP of music and youth services at CHUM Television, recalls an early push of encouragement from Switzer on his first major assignment at MuchMusic, which was broadcasting Nelson Mandela’s 1988 birthday concert from London’s Wembley Stadium.

‘We had the TV rights, but [the question was] where to take the show?’ Kines recalls. ‘Jay told me, ‘It’s up to you. Work it out and decide whether to spend some money.”

In the end, the concert broadcast was a success, and marked the first of many live big-event telecasts on Much.

Switzer’s reluctance to toot his own horn extends to noting that, though he wrote the original – and ultimately successful – CRTC application for Much, it was a young Sarah Crawford, who started working at CHUM as an executive assistant the same week Switzer did, who typed the 100-plus-page document while the hotshot MBA dictated.

That praise doesn’t surprise Crawford, who became CHUM’s VP of public affairs.

‘He’s so self-effacing. He’d be the last guy to tell you about his accomplishments,’ she says.

Indeed, it took much prodding for Switzer to revisit another career milestone that took place on a Thursday night in October 1988. He programmed the hit movie Dirty Dancing on City and trounced the competition – a simulcast of top-rated The Cosby Show on rival CTV – with a 32 rating and a nearly 70 share. For the first time, City carried the night against perennial rivals CTV and Global Television.

The portrait that emerges of Switzer as CHUM boss is of a straight shooter who never lost his cool.

‘The guy has never cracked under pressure. He’s stable and smart,’ recalls Denise Cooper, former CHUM legal counsel.

His friends will tell you that Switzer’s quiet, unassuming style springs from steely confidence in his abilities.

Randy Zalken, president of Toronto prodco Kaleidoscope Entertainment, remembers selling City a now-notorious live Geraldo Rivera TV special in 1986 in which a team of workers broke through a series of walls in a Chicago hotel to get to a secret vault once owned by gangster Al Capone. As it happened, the show was airing just as Zalken hosted one of the twice-monthly card games he still plays to this day with Switzer and other industry colleagues.

‘We were playing poker, and my son, watching the show on TV in another room, kept coming in and saying [the workers had found] nothing yet,’ Zalken recalls. Eventually, the son ran in to breathlessly tell everyone the vault was empty, except for dust and debris.

‘Jay just turned to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, the numbers will be over the top,” Zalken says. ‘And, of course, they were.’

While the entire industry wonders what’s on deck, Switzer remains tight-lipped about his next career move.

‘I’m still very young – 50, turning 51. I love this business and am too passionate about all the different ways of reaching audiences to give it up,’ he says.

His options are temporarily limited by six-month non-compete agreements with CTVgm and Rogers, so his immediate future, he explains, will include life as a ‘boy toy,’ accompanying his actress-wife Ellen Dubin, whose credits include the CHUM series The Collector, on her acting gigs.

Switzer adds that he needs a rest after a tumultuous year shepherding CHUM and its 3,000 employees through the company’s sale.

Baine says that Switzer was well aware of the strain the CTVgm takeover has had on everyone involved.

‘He knew how hard it was on all of us,’ she says. ‘[There are so many who've been] here for so long – grown up in a family company, and suddenly it’s not.’

Although he has fielded stateside job offers in the past, few expect Switzer to leave Canada – least of all himself.

‘There have been calls over the years, expressions of interest,’ he admits. ‘But the grass has never been greener elsewhere. [Toronto] is a great city.’