By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Vancouver Sun > Saturday Review
May 7, 1994

When David Wisdom took his CBC radio show, Nightlines, to Windsor for a weekend, a Detroit listener who had won one of Wisdom’s phone-in contests took him home to meet his mother.

Mother turned out to be ashes in an urn. “The ashes were in a plastic bag,” says Wisdom. “He said `I want you to meet her. Please take her out.’ So I took the ashes out and these rubber snakes on springs leaped out at me.

“I just sort of chuckled and nodded and smiled. I mean, I was in his hands. If he got mad at me, he wouldn’t have taken me back to the radio show that night. So I just kept on his good side.”

He recalls another incident a few years ago when inmates at a Michigan jail got hold of his home phone number.

“The whole weekend, non-stop, guys had lined up in this correctional institution and were phoning my home number and saying, `Play some {punk rocker Henry} Rollins! Play Rollins!’ which just turned me against Henry Rollins considerably.”

Wisdom lets slip a nervous laugh.

“At least I knew where they were and they weren’t coming to get me.”

For seven years, David Wisdom has been cultivating the weird and the wonderful on Nightlines, the nationwide music show he hosts on the CBC Stereo network overnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

With the aid of producer Jeff Henschel, Wisdom plays one of the most eclectic mixes around: rock and roll, country and western, blues, classical, jazz — from Ennio Morricone to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds to Dwight Yoakam to the Barney theme — all receive equal billing. Wisdom’s passion for the offbeat — in his music and his listeners — has developed a cult following for the show.

It’s Thursday, and Wisdom and Henschel are holed up in dimly lit Studio 21 in Vancouver’s CBC building to pre-record the last two hours of the coming weekend’s two seven-hour shows. The show goes live to the Maritimes at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 6:10 p.m. Saturday, so Wisdom is heading home an hour after the show starts a little after 10 p.m. in Vancouver.

“Everybody’s a little weird, and the weirdness has to come out somewhere,” Wisdom says from a chair across the felt-topped table in the sound booth. “I’ve found that people who are covered in tattoos and pierced things are often the most ordinary, banal type of people in the world.”

Wisdom, whose family moved to Vancouver from his native Sheffield, England, when he was six, is not particularly weird to look at himself. He stands about five foot 10, a stocky man with pale skin and a mop of thick, straight, jet-black hair, flopped over to his right. He’s 47 but looks in his mid-to-late 30s.

For about 10 minutes every hour of the show, University of B.C. history and fine arts graduate Wisdom introduces recordings, gives some background on the artists and shares his thoughts about the music. But unlike commercial radio disk jockeys, Wisdom speaks like a human being. He has a deep, soothing, resonant voice. His unscripted banter is conversational, genuine and reveals a true passion for his work. He clearly cares about what he’s playing.

The request line, an answering machine used extensively by listeners, is one of the show’s biggest draws. Callers answer skill-testing questions (”What would you do if you had to be in a talent show?”), make requests for music and even leave poetry or songs they’ve written. Wisdom initiated the line after he took over the show from Ralph Benmergui (late of Friday Night With infamy) in July, 1987.

Other staple Nightlines features include the Hour of Power (listeners send in a scripted hour of requests or host the hour in person) and the annual, extraordinarily popular Guilty Pleasures Weekend (listeners request music they’re ashamed to admit they love; the results are often hilarious).

A recent innovation is the Nightlines Sessions, in which bands that Wisdom likes perform live for the show. “It’s great for the bands, good for the show and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Wisdom, who in the late ’70s sang and played keyboards for art-band U-J3RK5 (”pronounced YOU-jerk — the five is silent”). “The kind of bands we record aren’t getting the big contracts, they’re not on television, but I think they’re more interesting than most.”

Wisdom worked in the CBC Vancouver record library in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a job he says he got because of his record collection, which numbered around 5,000 singles and albums at the time (it’s up to 25,000 now).

Then-producer Susan Englebert was impressed with Wisdom’s musical knowledge and gave him on-air experience chatting with J.B. Shayne, then host of Nightlines’ forerunner, Neon Nights. In 1982, Englebert hired Wisdom to program music for Vicky Gabereau’s Variety Tonight show and when Nightlines moved to Vancouver from Winnipeg in 1987, Englebert gave Wisdom the nod for the host spot.

His rise was not without growing pains. “The tricky part was when he first got Nightlines, because he was so awful,” says Englebert, now the CBC’s area head of radio music.

“He just sounded stiff. The music was great, but in between, all the continuity was pretty grim. I kept thinking `We’re going to have to get rid of him.”‘

Wisdom knew his on-air performance was bad at first. “It was nerve-wracking,” he says. “Especially after you followed Mr. Comedian, Ralph Benmergui.”

But subtle coaching from Englebert helped. “She’d say something like `That was fine last night. Maybe you could be a little more animated at times.’ I knew I was stiff as a doorknob for seven hours, and that’s really what she was saying. She was quite patient.”

The real joy of working with Wisdom comes from his ability to pick the right piece of music, Englebert says.

“I’d say, `Gee, David, I think we need something light that maybe has, I don’t know, mandolin in it,’ and he always understood what I meant. That’s rare. And when you find people like that when you’re producing shows, you grab them.”

Vicki Gabereau, host of the CBC Radio afternoon show named after her, says “he’s got a very comical, very oddball way of looking at the world, which is why we love him. He has a penchant for the tacky. He likes it if it’s really off the edge.”

He says he spends 50 to 60 hours a week putting the music together for Nightlines, which means “I don’t have enough time for my family,” wife Connie Kuhns (who has a show of her own on Co-op Radio) and their two children — Georgia, 7, and Nicholas, 3.

Wisdom says Kuhns is understanding about his schedule, but “she sometimes wishes I had a job I could just forget about, instead of getting phone calls during dinner and working at night and thinking of going to record stores during the day. It’s not only a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

Wisdom has his own theory about why his show has attracted the loyal following it has.

“Time of night has a fair bit to do with it,” he says.

“At night, it’s just the two of us and the music. It’s much more direct.”

The request line and its regular contributors are a large part of it, he says. There’s Doc Static, a science whiz who answers Wisdom’s skill-testing questions in terms of complex quantum physics principles.

There’s also Maurice Pooby. “I love this guy,” Wisdom says.

“He sends me a cassette of music about every 10 days. Forty-five minutes worth of music that he does.”

Pooby and his B.C. band (the Poobescents) sound like The Chipmunks soaring on a mix of acid and amphetamines.

“Sometimes he does themes for us. There was the last Social Credit convention that ever took place, and at the same time his propane heater went out. So he wrote a song called The Socred and The Propane.

“He’s just brilliant, great songs, and I play at least one song by him every week on the show.”

While Wisdom is excited about today’s music, he laments one particular trend he sees.

“Music has become really Balkanized, unfortunately,” he says.

“There’s just too many divergent audiences, and people have come to hate other forms of music and love their own, which is the really sad part.

“I just think music is a very important thing. It’s in people’s lives much more than they know, usually.

“It’s in their backgrounds, and it’s creeping into their minds when they’re shopping in the Safeway and when they’re driving in their cars.

“If it’s all round us, shouldn’t we have the best of what’s available?”