Conrad Black is back — ‘with zip’

The Baron, Lord, and former inmate transforms into ‘Zoomer’


Chris Young

For all his titles, Lord Black of Crossharbour, PC, OC, KSG, has never laid claim to that of “Boomer.” Depending how persnickety your definition, the 69-year-old might have been born a year or so too early. And certainly his inability to recall whether or not he has ever even attended a rock concert—he has a “funny feeling” he might have been dragged to one in the mid-1960s—speaks more of a profitable youth, than the requisite ill-spent one.

So it stands to reason that he’s a little uncomfortable with the term’s late-life upgrade. “To be completely truthful, I’ve never gone cock-a-hoop for this whole ‘Zoomer’ thing,” says Conrad Black, arching one of his formidable brows. It’s not to say that he doesn’t understand what his new boss and business partner Moses Znaimer is up to—trying to commodify a large and monied demographic that most advertisers have lost interest in. It’s just that he can hardly say it with a straight face. “It’s a funny word.”

That could be a problem: the former newspaper baron began a new career this week as co-host of The Zoomer: Television for Boomers with Zip. The weekly, one-hour current affairs show is airing Monday nights on the Vision channel, which is rebranding itself as ZoomerTV. It is taped at the Zoomerplex, a sprawling old industrial complex in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood, which houses Znaimer’s stable of “silver tsunami” related businesses, including a classical music station and CARP, formerly known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. And this month, Black is the cover boy for Zoomer, the glossy “mature market” magazine Znaimer launched back in 2008.

A year-and-a-half after his release from a Florida prison, where he served 29 months on fraud and obstruction of justice charges related to his lost media empire, Black has re-established himself as a Canadian opinion maker and pundit for hire. There’s his long-running weekly column in the National Post (which he managed to keep going even during his incarceration). His well-received books, including A Matter of Principle, his jailhouse memoir, and most recently, Flight of the Eagle, a strategic history of the United States. And the speaking gigs, for which he commands as much as $50,000 a night. But the move to TV has the potential to either make him an entirely different type of star, or a bona fide laughingstock.

Znaimer, who until 2003 was the founding force behind CityTV and MuchMusic, is serving as the show’s executive producer. And he is clearly betting that Black’s large personality can be harnessed for big ratings. The promo material, which included teaser web videos set to the Jupiter movement of Holst’s The Planets, calls Black “Canada’s most polarizing man,” and promises viewers “Lord Conrad like you’ve never seen him before.” (If that means hearing the still-member of the British House of Lords use the term “bum boys,” then mission accomplished.) On billboards, and in full-page newspaper ads and radio spots, the sell line is that Black and his co-host Denise Donlon, a once MuchMusic VJ turned music and broadcasting executive, are going to offer “gutsy” and above-all “opinionated” television for the 45-plus generations.

At the taping of the show’s first broadcast episode late last week, there was a definite buzz in the air. The purpose-built studio—stripped down to the warehouse brick and decorated with vintage TVs from Znaimer’s personal collection—was packed with journalists, former CityTV heavyweights, and once-familiar faces like that woman from the Parachute Club, and the guy from Triumph who now looks just like Sam Elliott. Black gave Ronnie Hawkins, one of his guests, a warm embrace. (Improbably enough, he and the rockabilly legend are longtime friends, having bonded over “some horribly liquefied evenings,” says Black.)

Wearing a sober blue suit, sharp chequered tie and an elegant gold watch, Black seemed slightly overdressed, but not out of place in front of the cameras. Seated at a round table next to Donlon, an untouched glass of red wine before him, he rumbled to life now and again in a panel discussion that ranged from assisted suicide to pot use to “extreme” longevity. In a little over half an hour, he managed to name check Ariel Sharon, Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Disraeli. But the closest anyone came to controversy was a risqué joke by Hawkins, who is now 78, and a cancer survivor. “I was going to order up all [new] organs in China,” he drawled. “Except for one. I was going to get that in Congo.”

In between the talk of death and aging, there were some attempts to lighten the mood. In one taped “Life Lessons” segment, Donlon endeavours to teach Black how to ride a Toronto streetcar. “The money goes in there,” she says, gesturing at the fare box. “And you don’t tip the driver.” At another point, she unveiled a “Blacktionary” to help viewers contend with her co-host’s prodigious, and often arcane, vocabulary. (Perspicacity, the ability to show discernment or insight, was the word of the day.) There was also a musical guest, Molly Johnson, who crooned a jazz standard while Black watched raptly, tapping his fingers along with the music on the table top.

The meatier bits of the show were perhaps the most successful. A weekly “Talk Black” commentary, filmed against a backdrop of model ships and an antique globe in the library of his Bridle Path mansion, where he inveighed against the Harper government’s cold-shoulder approach to the United Nations, found Black in his comfort zone. And his sit-down interview with Brian Mulroney resulted in some newsworthy comments from the former prime minister on Quebec’s proposed charter of values, and the political strengths of newish Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. In Black’s vision, these one-on-one conversations, drawing on his connections and high-powered friends like Henry Kissinger, Bob Rae, Margaret Atwood and Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, will be The Zoomer’s centrepiece. All too used to being at the sharp end of pointed questions, he wants to make the exchanges slightly familiar, but not informal. And above all, substantive. “As far as I’m concerned I’m not pitching it at idiots,” he says.

But separating his steak from Znaimer’s sizzle may be a tough battle. In the conversation with Mulroney, a collection of Zoomer magazines was conspicuously fanned out on a coffee table in the foreground. And at other times, the show felt like a weird hybrid of Charlie Rose and a late-night infomercial. Among the guests at the roundtable for the first episode were Susan Eng, CARP’s vice-president of advocacy, and Libby Znaimer, Moses’s sister and vice-president of news and information for his radio stations. There was also an incongruous advice segment on how not to get ripped off by car rental companies, featuring Dale Goldhawk, the Zoomer empire’s resident consumer advocate.

The PR bumph for the show indicates that it will continue its scattershot approach, with promises of upcoming cooking demonstrations and even a discussion on sex toys, led by Suzanne Boyd, the editor of Zoomer magazine. Sadly—or thankfully, depending on your outlook—Black says he won’t be participating in those types of segments. “But I might watch them.”

Black certainly has a long history of being entertaining on TV and is never shy about expressing his views—just google his snarling exchange with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman during a book tour last fall—but it’s not yet clear if that will make him a good host. He hasn’t sought or received any tutelage in his new job, and says he doesn’t ever review his performances on the small screen. Characteristically, Black doesn’t seem to harbour any doubts about the outcome. “It’s mainly a question of fluency, and I’m not going to become tongue-tied when the modern equivalent of the red light goes on,” he says. And as he rightly points out, there is a ready market for his opinions as a columnist and author.

Yet, for the first time in a long time, it’s not Black who is setting the agenda for the discussions. The first episode saw three of Black’s guests sporting their tiny, unmissable, Order of Canada pins, but had no mention of his continued fight to hold on to his own. That’s a shame. Ask Black about the upcoming hearing he has requested into the advisory council’s attempts to strip him of the honour, and you get an earful about the “popinjays” in the basement of Rideau Hall. “If some junior official can throw me out of the Order of Canada, I’m not interested in being in it,” he declares. “Nobody is throwing me out of anything!” And it’s similarly engrossing to get him railing about the U.S. justice system, prison reform, or the question of his lost Canadian citizenship. (He recently extended his temporary resident’s permit for another three years.) Black says he doesn’t want The Zoomer to be about his hobby horses. But frankly, it’s those rides that make him a compelling, and frequently infuriating, figure.

Black is forthright when asked why he’s doing the show. Znaimer made him a “very generous offer” for what amounts to part-time work. “After 10 years of the persecution I endured, I’m fine financially, but it did diminish my net worth somewhat. And I’m in a rebuild mode here, so it’s quite useful.” He declines to be vulgar or indiscreet and say just how much, but Black allows he also has been provided with a stake in the program. And for that, he’s content to let the TV guys figure out what works. “As long as it’s not something you’re embarrassed to be associated with, I don’t much care,” he says. “I leave it to others to judge what people will watch.”

At the end of the first taping, as the audience clapped and the theme music swelled, Donlon gave a wave and shouted, “See you next week. We’re zooming out!” Sitting stone-faced beside her, Black appeared like he might already be gone.


Conrad Black is back — ‘with zip’

  1. I suppose I should watch some of this, but frankly I find it a bit sad. It’s like watching an old battle ship visably rust – not do what it was designed for , battle with the enemy. Now he’s putzing around for a stipend, like Thomas the engine in a shunting yard.
    Is there any one left in their prime that Black can measure himself up against?
    Thank god we never had to endure the likes of the late Trudeau bandying banalities with Solomon. I want to remember his interviews with Frum, Gzowski and Webster. I’d imagine its the same with Black’s admirers. Who’s left who could fire up the old fraud? Did he ever do Hitchins? Now that might have been fun to witness.j

    • It’s pretty silly to dismiss this initiative before you have even watched. Black is hardly an old battle ship. I would say a possible counter-part in the States might be Charlie Rose (clearly no young chicken), a much respected, in fact revered interviewer. Another counterpart could have been Ignatieff — had he not decided to give up journalism in favour of a disastrous leap in to politics — now there is a sad, rusty battleship story. If Black is good, he will command an audience across the age spectrum. I suspect he will be good.

      • Of course black’s an old battleship, his diction is straight out of a Dickens novel half the time.
        I’d watch him even though I find him arrogant and pompous. Nor do i share his political convictions, but compared to what passes for modern day Conservativism in this country Black’s Close to charimstic; he questions the current Harper orthodoxy, which makes him worthy of respect in my book.

        • i like the fact that Conrad isn’t afraid to call out any politician irregardless of their stripe, not afraid to debate anyone worthy of his time there not many people like that anymore..the age or the era of intellectual giants is slowly becoming extinct

        • I’m afraid you might be right about that; either that or we’re getting old ourselves.

        • U lost me wit those fancy words. R usure u din’t get them from Black?

      • He WILL be good. He’s proof that adversity can be over come.

    • R there any other compliments u wud like to pay him?

  2. He may be a crook, but one with common sense, sure is better than a politician

    • Whether or not he is a crook is controversial. Regardless, he has served his time for the crime that he was charged with. Funny how all those anti-crime and punishment types when it comes to people like Omar Khadr are totally unforgiving of Black even AFTER he has served his sentence. I thought that in a compassionate society we forgive people for their missteps once they have served time as meted out by the courts? Guess forgiveness is only given to those with left-leaning political views.

      • Barbara Amiel defending your husband is what is expected of a wife,so good for you.

  3. I fail to understand why the Canadian media continues to cover the
    perambulations of man who, occupied by history, should be assigned to
    its dust bin. Mr. Black suffers from the affliction of thinking he is
    far more clever and erudite than he actually is.

    • Ever read his columns? Black is a wonderful writer and historian. You would learn a lot. And you are wrong about Black. I don’t see him as particularly arrogant — or certainly no more arrogant that is warranted by his great intellect. If anything, he was very compassionate in using his skills to assist uneducated inmates during his incarceration.

      • This crook’s attempt to rewrite history by whitewashing his own misdeeds will
        turn more on the public’s gullibility and short memory than on his
        self-serving eloquence and the pleadings of his acolytes in the press.

        • big words but wot do they mean?

    • “Mr. Black suffers from the affliction of thinking he is far more clever and erudite than he actually is.” This says a man who speaks of “dust bins of history.”

    • Well he’s a hell of a lot smarter than u. So get back to the dustbin.
      Old English joke.
      The dust man goes to the house and this big black woman answers the door.
      He said Where’s ur bin she says: I bin for a big crap wher’es u bin.

  4. Good(?) Lord. Canada reportedly has some of the most lax laws & enforcement of white collar crime in the western world. Note the RCMP investigated Black & decided there was insufficient evidence to lay charges. It took the U.S. justice system to charge & convict him.

    The Harper government has done little to investigate, prosecute, or discourage the apparently widespread habit among wealthy Canadians of evading tax via off shore accounts. It’s low level workers & small business owners CRA goes after for not declaring income, not wealthy tax evaders. They’re treated as above the law. And there are insufficient resources devoted to investigate white collar scam & fraud artists. Canada’s a haven for white collar crooks. .

    Major media companies are coddling Black, giving him a public platform, & helping him be a “star”. Much of the public appears to accept this, & accept Black, which suggests that not only are our politicians, judicial system, police, media & corporate world too tolerant of white collar crime, the public at large seems to be too. Backyard pot growers with 6 plants will soon face mandatory minimum jail sentences, while a blind eye is turned to rich folk harming the taxpayer & ramping up the deficit by evading taxes. And white collar fraudsters are often left free to destroy people financially by scamming Canadians out of their life savings, if possible. Something’s seriously wrong with this picture.

    • Actually, this post seems to come from someone with an ax to grind, but little in the way of facts. There is considerable controversy regarding Black’s conviction — and various legal opinions have indicated that his prosecution was not legitimate. Certainly he would not be prosecuted in Canada, though in actual fact, Harper has established laws that crack down on white collar crime (the petty marijuana MMS’s seem to get much more attention. Your contention re “six” marijuana plants is correct from a legal perspective, except that no one is likely to be punished for such a crime. 5 plants or fewer is growing for yourself. Those growing more than 5 are likely growing hundreds. I challenge you to find a single case where someone is prosecuted for growing 6 plants in the back yard. Likely they would never be charged. Black is a very talented person, and (now that he has served his sentence), why should he not be allowed to use his talents for the benefit of all Canadians. Do we force people who have committed a crime (questionable in Black’s case) to perpetually wear a scarlet letter? You clearly dislike Black. I suspect you dislike him because he is rich and talented and you are neither.

      • Rose, I agree completely with your remarks on Conrad Black. There is no doubt the program will be good and command an audience across a wide age spectrum.

  5. Blacktionary? More like dicktionary.

  6. I personally have not met Mr Conrad Black. however I have watched and listened to him on many TV program shows…I have found to be a very knowledgeable person likeable the kind of guy I would enjoy talking to one on one…imagine for a second anyone the kind of pressuresthat going through a legal system for many years would put on you not to mention being in jail for almost 2 years for a so-called tax crime…there are far more worse crimes being committed and people getting less than 2 years…bottom line is this I will be tuning into the program to listen to Mr Conrad blacks point of view..

  7. …anyone else who’d done time wulda been shunned by the public and media alike…yet this guy struts around like a prima-donna peacock… the salivating media following him everywhere… when will the fat lady finally sing and he finally slides into a footnote on the pages of some obscure Canadian history text… anyway, the only suit color he should be wearing should be prison orange..bracelets on his wrists

  8. Conrad Black! Isn’t he that guy who renounced his Canadian citizenship?
    If so his visa to visit Canada (as a non-citizen) must have expired by now.
    Send him back to the Westminster house of lords, post haste.

    • I weeped when he did that. I new it would come back to haunt him. But it was Cretian who was on a witch hunt to get Black. CAuse Black hounded Cretian in the Post.

  9. As John Doyle from the Globe said, two words: Bad and Sad.
    …and it’s not Mr. Black’s show at all. It’s the Denise Donlon show with Black looking like an old crusty sidekick trying to look relevant while whining about the justice systems that convicted him. Ronnie Hawkins did the wise thing. He left in the middle of the show. Worst thing I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

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