Media vet credits career success to standing out and stepping up
by Donna Kakonge
Robert Payne is a man who has known some ups and downs. Chance, perseverance and ambitious choices have littered an illustrious life in media born out of a fortuitous whim played out in his hometown of Quebec City over four decades ago. From a unique childhood to a chance audition, Payne took advantage of the cards he was dealt and still enjoys a 40-year career that has encompassed an 18-year run at CKEY in Toronto, his work as an award-winning newspaper columnist and his role of Chair at the Ontario Film Review Board.
The English-speaking, Anglican African-Canadian son of a railroad porter and homemaker was an ironic sight amongst the French-speaking Roman Catholic denizens of Quebec City, which Payne reflects back upon as a plus.
“We were ‘the ghetto’ in Quebec City back in the 40’s and 50’s,” Payne explains with a chuckle, “the only blacks in a city of about 300-thousand. But rather than being victims, we seemed to generate warmth and curiosity among the locals. As a child, it was common for ladies to stop me and my mother on the street and pat me on the head, adoringly.”
He grew up not coveting a career in radio but instead had set his sights on becoming a physical education teacher. A schoolmate invited him to apply to work for an English-language CBC-affiliate in Quebec. Payne auditioned and nabbed a job as a novice DJ on the late night shift, subsequently falling in love with the medium.
“Once I got into radio, I knew this is what I wanted do for much of my adult life,” he says.
From his tentative start in Quebec City, he cut his teeth in radio with many stops along the way, including Montreal, Ottawa, Niagara Falls and London, where he played everyman roles as diverse as editing multilingual audio clips to newscaster.
Payne’s ultimate goal was to rise to where the skies were blue and the compensation green, so with Toronto calling, he joined CHUM radio and was met with newer, big market challenges. For the first time, Payne was intimidated by the reputations of his colleagues – many of whom were known far and wide as the cream of the crop. In his assessment, he did not perform as well as he could have and as a result did not last.
The experience did not deter Payne however, and was a source of inspiration in the pursuit of another big player, CKEY – where he finally made his home and enjoyed a comfortable notoriety for 18 years. It was the same amount of time it takes to raise a child, and like all children, Payne was forced to grow and move on. After new management came on board and Payne was let go of the CKEY family, he was already exploring other opportunities in the industry of media he loved so much.
Reinvention came in the forms of columns for Contrast Newspaper, SHARE and the Toronto Sunday Sun, a job as the Rogers TV auto show host of Lemon-Aid, government speech-writing gigs, film reviews and teaching stints and committee work at Centennial College. He hosted the first five years of the Harry Jerome awards and was the ghost writer for Herb Carnegie’s book Fly in a Pail of Milk, an account of Carnegie’s struggles and successes as a black man with a hockey career in the 1940’s.
Payne has used the depths of his experiences to serve on a number of boards, including Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto, the Onyx Lion’s Club that served mostly the African-Canadian community. He is a past Vice President of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) and has also recently stepped down as Audit & Finance Chair of Toronto Grace Hospital.
Close to the end of Payne’s term at CKEY, he was appointed to the Ontario Film Review Board and was subsequently invited by the Premier to become its chair. Payne takes pride in instigating a process of standardized assessment of film and video content. Inevitably, the Board’s process for pornography was explored in the Toronto Star and set off a considerable amount of controversy.
“I learned a lot from that,” says Payne.
But controversy is no stranger to a man that grew up black over a half-century ago. Payne is reflective on his career as an African Canadian.
“While I enjoyed meeting and serving with a broad range of men and women, I also think it served the purpose of some organizations to demonstrate a willingness to be inclusive,” says Payne. “Not so much the radio, where most listeners don’t have a clue as to what color you are. I confess to a touch of arrogance and ignorance at the time. Given my own upbringing in Canada, and because everyone in radio in the 60s and 70s spoke like Canadians, I remember telling newly-arrived Canadians they needed to speak like “the rest of us.” I realize how negative and verging on racist my comments were. One of the great things about experience is that it shows you how stupid you were as your former self.”
Payne has learned a lot from his early years in radio and journalism and the success he has achieved. He says to all those people he may have “pissed off” in his past, they can be safely assured that now in his golden years he is giving back to the community. But whatever arrogance he may have shown in his youth is not apparent in the man who, sizing up a ladder in the midst of home renovations, is humble about his robust health and continuing passion for media.
“I guess I come from good genes. My dad died last year at age 96, and my 94 year old mom is keeping up the good fight.”
Into his 60’s and playing hockey three times a week, Payne shows no signs of slowing down and along with enjoying family and friends, awaits what lies next around the corner in a rollercoaster of a career.
About the Author:Donna Kakonge is a professor, author and journalist living in Toronto.