The Born Freelancer on Role Models: In Appreciation of Arthur Black

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.



I believe the freelancer you evolve into as your career progresses will very much be influenced by those you encounter early in your professional life.

Call it role modeling or maybe even a kind of subtle imprinting. Given there is no one clear-cut road to a successful career in freelancing, I think most of us subconsciously seek such guidance from those successful and further ahead in their careers.

I should explain the difference between a role model and a mentor. A mentor is almost always a role model as well but a role model is not always a mentor.

To clarify, with a mentor there is usually some continuing degree of give and take, some active exchange of information and viewpoints. I have already written on this site about one such mentor who helped encourage my early attempts at radio and television writing, the late Roger Abbott.

Role models, on the other hand, often have little or no direct contact but can still leave a lasting and profound impact, making a huge difference, never to be forgotten.

One such individual, for me, was Arthur Black.

Arthur Black

Arthur Black, in my mind, had always lived the quintessential freelancing life. He conquered every medium with his whimsical wit and gently absurdist point of view, most notably during his memorable 19 year run as host of “Basic Black” on CBC Radio (from the early 1980s through to the early 2000s) and via his numerous printed columns, articles and published books.

If Stephen Leacock were alive today, I believe his name would be Arthur Black, the recipient of multiple Stephen Leacock Memorial Medals for Humour.

From what little I know, Arthur bounced around quite a bit during his life before settling down to his career as one of Canada’s foremost contemporary humorists. A typical freelancer, he moved from place to place, job to job, acquiring considerable life experience and perfecting his “chops” before gaining national recognition on CBC Radio beginning in the early 1970s.

It was by the time he had graduated to hosting his own morning weekly collection of oddball interviews, features and music that I first became a young fan. Arthur was the perfect host for Saturday mornings. Laid back, funny, quirky, intelligent, curious – in fact, the kind of person you might think is almost too good to be true.

As a rookie freelancer I eventually pitched every show on the network except Arthur’s. Why did I refrain from pitching the one show I most admired? Looking back, perhaps it was a fear of being rejected by my favourite show. Or perhaps I felt nervous about an appearance with one of my professional heroes. Whatever. The show thrived and I listened and I learned at a distance from a master.

I learned how to treat guests with respect. I learned how to find the humorous and absurd in the most mundane normality. I learned to talk to the listener one on one and not as a group. I learned that intelligent conversation can be entertaining and fun. I learned that humility could combine with success. I learned so much more. I learned that life was a wonderful and elusive gift and that exploring its most unusual stories was a truly worthwhile endeavor.

One day as I walked through the downtown CBC Toronto parking lot I unexpectedly ran into Arthur’s then-producer. He wasn’t much on small talk. From high atop some creative cloud the muses sent a lightning bolt into my brain. Out of my mouth popped a credible elevator pitch. (I did not know they were called that at the time. For me, it was a parking lot pitch.) I think both of us were a bit surprised by it.

He thought about it, crunching and sucking on some hard candy that seemed perpetually stuck in his bridgework. Finally shrugging his shoulders, as if giving in to the inevitable, he said “Sure, why not?”

Several days (and much frantic work) later I found myself in a cramped, drab CBC Radio studio opposite… Arthur Black. To me, I could not be in a more dazzling, awesome space. From there, words and music sped out over the national airwaves as if by magic and on this day, I was to be a small part of it. I was still so green in my career (still more fan than professional) that I could not believe anything like it was possible – yet there I was.

Would one of my professional heroes turn out to have feet of clay?

And more importantly – would I screw up my Saturday morning national radio debut?

My “Basic Black” debut

I am happy to report the answer was a firm no to both questions.

Everything I had learned from listening to him was true. Arthur Black was the real deal – genuinely laid back, warm, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent – and immediately put me at ease. A true gentleman, a true professional, a true role model.

And me? Somehow I managed to rise to the occasion. A prerecorded show, I felt it was important to preserve the illusion of it being live. The first words out of my mouth as we began recording late that afternoon were, “Good morning Arthur”! He looked at me for a split second in amusement. Then he nodded, immediately accepting me as a fellow professional (as opposed to the ever-so-green newbie that I obviously was). We did the segment. The details elude me all these years later but I remember it ending on us laughing in agreement on some absurd point he had managed to impart on my topic.

We parted on friendly terms, no more and no less than as two professionals having worked briefly together. The segment ran pretty much unedited the following morning.

I was amazed at how much confidence working with Arthur had given me. Being interviewed by someone so good at their job simply inspired it. Every conversational turn he just ran with. Nothing seemed to faze him.

Here was no mere role model. I learned that day exactly the type of freelancing professional I aspired to be. I wanted to be another Arthur Black!

Paradoxically, I never went back on the show, preferring to remain a fan. Today I often wish I could go back and tell my younger self to get right back in there and pitch my brains out – but the one appearance seems to have been a watershed of some kind. Perhaps I was afraid it could never be repeated. Or perhaps I was afraid I would never be as good.

I never met or contacted him again.

Thereafter I contented myself to being a listener (I still miss the show after all these years) and later, a voracious reader of Arthur’s many wonderful books. One of my favourites, “Fifty Shades of Black,” is on my desk as I write.

R. I. P. Arthur Black: February 21st, 2018

I must admit I hadn’t thought of Arthur Black too often in recent years. I had always assumed (hoped) he was well and happy living in comfortable semi-retirement somewhere on Canada’s idyllic west coast.

Every now and then a new book would appear – or an old one in a used book store – and I’d remember. And I’d smile.

And so the news that Arthur was dying of pancreatic cancer had come as a complete shock and his death this week as a very real kick to my stomach.

Typical of Arthur, he blogged about his final journey with humour, with class and with great bravery.

I don’t know how long it will remain online but as of this date you can still read his blog here.

He once said there is humour to be found in everything. Your own death must surely be the ultimate test of that philosophy. His blog makes for heart-breaking yet inspired reading. And yes, right to the end he was still very very very funny.

The takeaway

I never actually became another professional Arthur Black, that would’ve been a terrible mistake. The world already had one. The best one possible. Instead I became the best me I could become – flaws, shortcomings and all – which was (I always thought) the greatest lesson by example he would ever teach me.

I was wrong.

His approach to death has become the greatest lesson of all.

I hope when my final days come that I can still be the best me I can be, and in that way, that I can be just like Arthur Black one last time.

So, goodbye, Arthur. And thank you.

May the rookie freelancers of today and tomorrow find role models even half as good as you.

Readers can contact the author directly with questions and ideas for future columns. Email: thebornfreelancer at gmail dot com.

Want to share your memories about Arthur Black or share a story about one of your role models? Please do so in the comments below.

Posted on February 23, 2018 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

One Response

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  1. Written by Don Genova
    on February 23, 2018 at 12:10 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Great column, BF. I had my own ‘brush’ with Arthur. I very nearly got a job on his show. But…politics. Anyway, I got to appear on his show with a story about oxygen bars, so at least I have that. And bumped into him at the office in Vancouver every so often. Everything people have said about him…all true. Amazing person.

    I just went and read his last blog entry, where a friend suggested a name for his blog, ‘Last Writes’. Here’s how the blog post ended:

    “‘Last Writes’ it is – and I’ve met a deadline with a…’dead’ line. MBWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

    My work here is done.”

    RIP Arthur

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