EDMONTON RADIO: Primeau fights for truth, justice, the Canadian way

Lesley Primeau comes off like a hard-boiled, old-school journalist you don’t want to mess with if you know what’s good for you. She talks a tough game, takes a stand, doesn’t back down, champions the underdog, fights for justice, truth and the Canadian way. It’s a tough job in a cutthroat business where newsmen and sportsguys alike address each other by their last names, perhaps fearing to expose the vulnerable underbellies of their given names to excessive familiarity. Primeau does it herself: “Primeau here,” she barks as she answers the phone. One imagines Edmonton’s Crusading Lois Lane of the Airwaves rising above a huddle of testosterone and conservatism, able to out-curse, out-drink, and out-argue just about any man in the building, holding her own in an old boys’ network of jocular jocks and hard-boiled, old-school journalists you don’t want to mess with if you know what’s good for you.

That’s 630 CHED in a nutshell.

And such is the perception of Primeau: that she’s a hard case. In real life, “The radio star is what I do, it’s not who I am,” she says. “I’m a little more quiet in real life, a little more shy.”

The “radio star” label is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but Primeau just happens to be one of biggest voices on Alberta’s self-proclaimed Information Superstation. The Quebec-born, Edmonton-raised broadcaster has been in the pundit’s chair on almost every shift since CHED went all-talk in 1993, getting her start in the usual way with small broadcasters and newspapers around Alberta following her graduation from the Bob Layton School of Broadcasting in the ‘70s. (This is not a joke. The current CHED news director’s school is said to have been one of Canada’s best, while it lasted.)

Primeau now shares the drive-time slot with stand-up comedian Andrew Grose, a partnership made in heaven, or perhaps somewhere south, depending where you stand. As the Burns & Allen of Edmonton radio, Primeau & Grose bicker like an old married couple – like we need more husband-and-wife DJ teams in this town – ready tackle any issue, however thorny, eager to give their opinions on just about anything, so long as it doesn’t piss off the sponsors too much. They get away with murder. Grose recently blurted out that Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is a made-up disease caused by “bad parenting” and also that he and his daughter once egged someone’s house on Halloween. Outraged callers lit up the switchboard demanding his resignation. Happens all the time.

Primeau says, “Working with Andrew Grose has truly been the highlight of my career. We have an amazing chemistry together and there doesn’t seem to be a topic we can’t tackle without one of us being on the wrong side – usually him.”

Grose responds, “If by the wrong side means the well-researched and well-spoken side, then she’s right.”

He adds, as a comic in all seriousness, “She really is the best partner in the world. She’s got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve seen in this business. She’s passionate about things even when she’s dead wrong – that’s what I love about her.”

Oh, for crying out loud, get a room. You get the idea. More – much more – can be heard every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 630 CHED.

In a recent face-to-face interview, Primeau allows that she has no problem coming up with an opinion on a given issue. Sometimes she can’t help herself. As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, she says she gets into fights with herself “all the time,” and is in fact a member of three political parties: PC, Liberal and Wild Rose. Doesn’t that make your head hurt. Name an issue, Primeau will give you an earful. As she did in our pundit pop quiz:

PREMIER ALISON REDFORD: “She’s going on the bus … She’s going on the LRT. What? Apparently she wants to talk to people, and I thought, do people on the bus want to talk to the Premier? And then I thought, is anybody on the bus going to know it is the Premier?

WILD ROSE PARTY: “I think Danielle Smith is going to give Alison a really good run for her money – and I would LOVE to see that debate.”

SO MUCH FOR THE OLD BOYS NETWORK: “Who in a million years thought that would happen?”

THE OIL PIPELINE: “It’ll come back around. They’re going to repackage it and maybe they’ll send it out after the elections so it doesn’t look like an election issue.”

THE ELECTION: “I want there to be set dates for elections. It’s too much a surprise and not enough notice.”

THE ARENA: (Makes a funny face): “We are the voice of the Edmonton Oilers, so … OK, I’m all for the arena. I don’t want to pay for it. There.”

EVERYONE’S A PUNDIT ON THE INTERNET: “I think everybody always had an opinion. They just didn’t have any avenues through which to voice them. The thing I hate is when they do it anonymously. If you have something to say, stand up and say it. If you’re not prepared to put your name to something, then you don’t believe it. You don’t go to jail in this country for saying something wrong.”

STEPHEN HARPER: “I think the Prime Minister is exceptionally bright, but I am still of the mind he’ll be one of those guys who says, ‘you don’t wanna play my way, I’m taking my ball and going home.’”

DESERT ISLAND DISC: “Tapestry by Carole King.”

US ELECTION: “The most fun will be Newt Gingrich. That’s hilarious: ‘Please can I have an open marriage?’ – that’s the greatest story in the world.”

THE OILERS: “If we take the first place in the lottery draft again, I’m going to be heartbroken. Oh, I’ll take the pick.”

GOD: “I believe in God. More importantly, I think God believes in me.”

Asked to relate the most trouble she ever got in – it’s never come from her bosses – Primeau says it was the time she laughed when the alligator ate the dog. This happened about 14 years ago. Some idiot in Florida had apparently spent $5,000 on a real purebred coonhound and was training it by playing fetch in the swamp, where unbeknownst to either man or dog a hungry alligator was lurking. No need to tell what happened next. Later, the man said only one thing: “Well, you know, it’s just a dog.”

Primeau recalls, “I laughed and laughed and laughed … The SPCA wasn’t very happy about that. They sent letters.”

The SPCA didn’t realize at the time, of course, that Primeau was – and is – a devoted dog person. She was probably laughing because the only alternative would’ve been to cry. Her beloved hound Wheatley is CHED’s official mascot, has the run of the building whenever her master is there. “There is no other dog like her,” Primeau lights up as she talks about Wheatley, even revealing plans to write a children’s book about her “arrant Airedale” (or is it “errant?”). It’s one of two books Primeau is tackling in 2012. “The other one will be more serious,” she adds.

After all these years spouting opinions into a microphone, Primeau has learned to “walk the line,” which is a little trickier than crossing it because you have to know exactly where to stop. Lately she’s been putting thought into the four RCMP officers who were killed, “And I thought it was interesting that four trained mounties get shot in the line of duty and the entire world goes crazy – notwithstanding that I think this was a huge tragedy – but four kids got shot on a highway outside of Claresholm, and it disappeared off the front page of the paper in a day. I think that’s a travesty.”

Primeau thinks we need to know more, not about the gun the kid got, but about the kid and what made him do such a terrible thing. She thinks about the RCMP killer’s accomplices, that they’ve been made into scapegoats and shouldn’t be in jail anymore. She thinks of the young girl who murdered her own mother and is now out of jail and going to college. Primeau thinks a great deal about some very bad news – and then shares her thoughts with the world to serve an agenda far beyond self promotion. It weighs on her sometimes, Primeau says, “because if you don’t fight for a better community, what do you leave for your children?”

As for the daily flack she and her partner take, well, if you don’t grow a thick skin in the news pundit business you might as well just start working towards scoring that first round draft pick.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t like me,” Primeau says. “Aww, now I’m sad. I want people to think. Just think about what you do and what impact it has. There are so many things that go on. You have to be part and parcel of the community you live in. This is a great city. It could be a better city.”

630 CHED has been part of this city since it was a real city, 1954. Close enough. It’s strange to remember how CHED used to be the No. 1 rock station in Alberta, or how many area baby boomers grew up listening to it – “we all did,” says Primeau – or how its all talk-no rock format has returned it to being the No. 1 radio station in town. Primeau is a big reason.