Guess what? It’s Arthur’s 50th birthday this year, so we had to do something special. What could be more special then speaking to the man who conceived Arthur in the magical year of 1966. We had a chat with the one and only Stephen Stohn while he was in Toronto, filming Degrassi the Next Generation. Stephen laid the corner-stohn’s of Trent Radio and Arthur Newspaper fifty years ago. Since then, he has gone on to produce the teen drama series Degrassi. Until 2009, Stohn was the executive producer of The Juno Awards, and was also a director and Chair of the Canadian Acadamy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Here, Stohn discusses his early years at Trent, and his thoughts on modern journalism.
Arthur: How did you come about becoming editor of Arthur and starting the paper?
Stohn: When I started, my friend, Jeffrey O’Brien, and I joined the newspaper. When we started in 1966 and there was already a literary newspaper called The Sword. It started the year that I first went to Trent and by the way, back in those days, I was supposed to go to Champlain College but Champlain wasn’t completed when it was supposed to be completed. We were living downtown near Rubidge Hall and somehow decided it would be a good idea because I was interested in media; moreso on the recording and music side. I thought, “Well, a newspaper is media!”
So, my friend Jeffrey and I volunteered to be part of the newspaper. At the time, they were starting a weekly paper that didn’t have a name. You may well know the story that every week, they gave it a new name like the Sentorian and the Trent Trumpet. How it was done in those days was that people had to type on a typewriter onto Gestetner paper. They had to type into this paper that was really wax paper and when the keys hit the paper, it would make a hole in the wax. Then, you would wrap the wax cylinder around the Gestetner machine, put ink through it, and crank the crank.
So, Jeffrey and I were responsible for cranking the crank! It was fun and a lot of people didn’t really know about the newspaper. One night, it was one o’clock in the morning at Peter Robinson College. The typing had been done but we still didn’t know what the name of the newspaper was. Everyone had sort of left by that time, so it was up to Jeffrey and me to come up with a name.
That’s when I just said, Arthur. The more senior students who had been there before went over to the more illustrious publication, The Sword, which was more literary and formal, and I was left being the editor-in-chief. We had the time of our lives trying to figure out what a newspaper was and what we were doing. Of course, we knew nothing.
Arthur: We’ve been pouring over the early archives from the mid- to late 1960’s, and we would say compared to now, the direction of Arthur’s voice has shifted. In those days, it was dripping in humour and satire. Some of the articles would be poking fun at the administration. Is this something you hoped would continue?
Stohn: . I would say we didn’t know what we were doing and that reflects me *laughs*. It wasn’t like this was a long-term plan. It is thrilling in so many ways. Who would have believed that a newspaper called Arthur would still be here nearly 50 years later? Yes, we did have fun. I remember our first April Fool’s issue with the headline, “No Way for Trent’s System”. I wrote that.
We had so much fun doing little things like that. We were just trying to tell people what was going on at the university, which was very small at the time.
We were not trying to be the Washington Post and have a view on life. We were trying to engage people and create a vehicle for the exchange of information. It was over the summertime of that first year that we stayed on campus, met the Peterborough Examiner, and learned what offset printing was. We did our first offset issue and were so proud of ourselves. We could actually have pictures! We joined the Canadian University press and made up little cards saying that we were press. Of course, it never did us any good but it made us feel better. I think the Examiner took pity on us and printed those for free. I noticed a few years after my editorship when I was working on the radio station that different people sort of took the
Examiner and it started to become quite political and took a hard left-turn.
Arthur: We noticed in the older issues that there was a writer that went by “Stu Butts, Bu Stutts, Boob Slutts” and we just want to know who they were as they are a mysterious entity?
Stohn: Stu Butts is a real person. He also had a good sense of humour. I think he was a year older than me, so he may have been part of The Sword. We used to play bridge together – back in those days, bridge was a thing. We didn’t have the internet so you’d sit in the coffee area at Rubidge Hall and play bridge all day and skip your classes. Stu was the head of one of the paper’s departments. We liked to give our paper departments, like Sports, as if we were a big paper.
Arthur: What program were you enrolled in at Trent?
Stohn: I started in 1966 with a double major in Economics and Philosophy. You might say that for someone who’s a lawyer and a television producer now, those don’t sound quite right, but to me, those are quite perfect.
Arthur: How do you feel about this being Arthur’s 50th year?
Stohn: Well, the fact that both the radio station and Arthur have carried on isn’t too surprising. We were there in the early days and somebody had to start these institutions and it just happened to be that we were there at the right time and had the enthusiasm. So, that’s one side – that it’s not unexpected that the newspaper and radio station are carrying on.
But, on the other side, it is a genuine thrill that when I’ve gone back to Trent and met people like yourselves who are working on Arthur, and to think that it was 50 years ago… you know, I’m still inside of me. I’m still an 18-year-old on one of my better days. On my worst days, I’m like a 12-year-old boy. So, I think, how could that be? Because I’m only 18! I’m thoroughly grateful to have just been there at the right time and to have been given the encouragement.
Arthur: Are you aware of what went on at Trent during the Bonnie Patterson era? The closure of Peter Robinson?
Stohn: There’s no Peter Robinson College anymore?
Arthur: No, there isn’t. When this happened, students protested in the form of a peaceful sit-in. The police had the students forcefully removed and expelled from the University.
Stohn: My Lord! The protests that were organized back in the ‘60s was at a time when there were a lot of protests [happening] across Canada regarding administration and demanding more say in what courses were offered. There were rumours of war and we were on the brink of the Vietnam war. It was very much the students versus the institution.
We had learned that Tom Symons was being asked to go into politics and had been invited to Ottawa. So, our protest was that we didn’t want him to leave. We had signs like, “No, no, you can’t go.” It was a pro-administration demonstration so it was the last thing from students getting expelled. We loved the administration back in the day.
Arthur: Do you think that the Humanities are an integral part of Trent?
My hero back in the day was Tom Symons and we had dinner together, and it was such a pleasure seeing him. His whole philosophy was about the idea of being a renaissance person and immersing yourself in all of the subjects. The driving mantra of Trent University is so much based on the interdisciplinary approach and not just focusing on one area. You bring different brain patterns to different subjects which invigorates them and you as you learn.
Stohn: What do you think regarding the future of print? You could say the print world is disintegrating.
I think with everything that we do, we have to distinguish between “the medium is the message,” if we think about it in terms of McLuhan. I subscribe to the New York Times. My eyes aren’t the greatest in the world and I probably couldn’t read the print edition without glasses. I read the New York Times every morning and I appreciate all the journalism that they do. I read the New York Times but for me, it isn’t in print edition. I think that it is inevitable, not to say that print or television should die, but TV, as we know it, is ending. People are moving over to streaming services. To me, the contact keeps getting better and better. Will books die? No. I mean, people are always going to have physical copies, but at the same time, I can’t remember the last time I read a print copy of a book. I have hundreds of books on my Kindle.
You know, you ask, “is it the end of print?” but I almost want to deflect the question and say, “What does this do to journalism?” if we’re talking about newspapers. I think we’re in a period where the online advertising rates are finding it very difficult for newspapers even [published] online to survive. This is true in the television world as well. I have no doubt that this disruption that’s happening will find a settling point. If you look at Vice or Buzzfeed, they are different from traditional newspapers. They are making a good foray into real journalism and content production.
Arthur: We love Vice. It’s a space that gives hope to aspiring journalists, hope that there is work out there.
Stohn: My hope is that when we look back in 10 years time, that we can look back and say, “You know, what a nice eco-system we have. It’s not as broad as it was before but we’ve got some local and broad-based online journalistic sources.”
Arthur: Can you tell us about how you went about starting Trent Radio?
Stohn: When the Bata Library was being built, Peter Northrop had a recording studio in there with a four-track tape machine and a sound booth and it was meant for use in the language lab. But we worked with him and thought, “Couldn’t we use it to produce a radio program?” Radio was really big back in this day. It was the beginnings of stations like Chum FM. Stations were playing pop music and were sort of emblematic of a generational shift.
Then, FM radio was coming on-board and playing entire albums and getting much deeper into music. What we were able to do was record four hours into large tape reels and broadcast on Sunday evenings downtown [from] what was then called Chex FM. They were rival stations and played us. It was a way for them to have community content on the station. We undertook a university-wide survey of what people would want on the station. When I look back, I smile because it’s completely statistically invalid. What we did was ask how many of you would like to hear Jazz, or Classical, etc.? If 17% liked Jazz, 17% of the show was Jazz. This was in 1968.
Editors’ Note:* Champlain College will be hosting Stephen Stohn as our Alumni in Residence from October 13-18 to participate in workshops and seminars with Trent students. Stohn’s first community engagement event will start with an event on Thursday, October 15 where he will be a featured panelist at Through a Canadian Lens: The Current and Future Landscape of Television and Film, a free event taking place at 7PM in Bagnani Hall at Traill College.
There will also be a drop-in event for members of the public and students to meet with Mr. Stohn at Black Honey from 2PM to 4PM on Friday, October 16.