Peter Mansbridge: Catching More than Flights at the Airport

By Adam Freill

Ask Peter Mansbridge where some of his best work starts and he might chuckle and say, "At an airport." The chief correspondent for CBC News and anchor of The National was discovered by a CBC radio station manager while making an announcement over the public address system in the airport in Churchill, Man. That seminal moment in 1968 launched a career, and a voice, that’s instantly recognizable to Canadians from coast to coast.

"I was 19, working for a small airline called Transair out of Winnipeg. I was doing everything from fueling planes to loading baggage to selling tickets at the counter," recalls Mansbridge. "They sent me to Churchill to cover for a guy who was supposed to be on holidays for two weeks. I got there and after about a week they called and said, ‘He’s not coming back, so you are staying.’

"It turns out, it worked out great."

A month after his transfer to Churchill, Gaston Charpentier happened to hear the young future newsman over the intercom.

"I was calling the flight over the PA system in the terminal building and this fellow comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you have a good voice. I’m the manager of the radio station here. I need a guy to work the late-night shift.’"

So that’s what Mansbridge did for the next year, working full-time at the airline and part-time at the radio station doing the late-night record show.

"And we are talking Churchill: population 1,000, at a radio station that couldn’t be heard five klicks outside of town, but it was fun and eventually they offered me a full-time job, and I switched into news," he says.

Finding a Working Recipe

It is often said that success comes from a blend of hard work and opportunity. Being discovered, by chance, at a small airport presented an opportunity for Mansbridge, but it takes more than just being found to build the type of career that makes one a household name in Canada. "Success is often based on being in the right place at the right time, or getting a lucky break, but it is what you do with it," he says. "I worked extremely hard. The odds were against me. I had no background in broadcasting. I had no background in news. I spent hours and hours of my own time listening to shortwave radio to listen to how others would do their thing."

Broadcasts by the BBC, the CBC and other news teams would be his training grounds.

"I would listen to whatever I could to see how different people would do their work – not to copy them, but to understand what it is they were doing," he says. "That’s how I learned to write. That’s how I learned to do interviews. That’s how I learned to edit.

"I worked seven days a week, 16-18 hours a day trying to make this work for me. And I was there for three years before I was given the opportunity to move south to the big network and work in the Winnipeg local newsroom. And when I got there, the same thing started all over again."

His hard work and eagerness to learn his trade earned him respect in the Winnipeg newsroom, which led to more learning opportunities and career advancement. "I owe a lot to those people who were part of my life in the early 1970s."

The Airport Can Be a Zoo

Having good things happen at the airport might sound far-fetched, but not for Peter Mansbridge. Not only did he get his start in media in an airport, he also had one of his most recent forays into the spotlight kick-started by a chance meeting in, of all places, the airport security line.

"It is as crazy as how I got my start in broadcasting," he says. "I was on my way out to give a speech in Vancouver, and I was going through security at Pearson, and the guy behind me says, ‘You are Peter Mansbridge.’ And I said, ‘That’s right.’

"Like most people in this business, I get that every once in a while, so I was polite. But then he says, ‘I was just talking about you in a meeting yesterday. We want to talk to you about a role in a movie.’"

After hearing a brief description of the project, a Disney film from the team that made the blockbuster Frozen, Mansbridge says he was still in disbelief.

"I’m thinking, ‘Really? This is happening in the Pearson Airport security line?’" he says. "I said that I had to catch a plane, but gave them my card figuring that I would never hear from this guy again. Before the plane took off, I get this email from him, and he’s a vice-president with Disney."

The role needed an approval from the CBC, and scheduling needed to navigate last year’s election, but in a matter of weeks from that chance meeting at the airport, Mansbridge had a new role to voice, that of Peter Moosebridge, co-anchor of ZTV News in Disney’s Zootopia.

"They wanted me to come down to Hollywood to do it, but I couldn’t do that because we were in the middle of the election campaign, so they organized a studio in Toronto," reports Mansbridge. "They had a big video hookup with the producers of the film in L.A. It was the real deal. It was pretty exciting. And I did my two or three lines and that was that."

On Climate Change and the Environment

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the northern reaches of the country, Mansbridge has witnessed the realities of climate change firsthand.

"We southerners like to think of Churchill as north, but it really is not that far north. The major change that is going on due to climate change is going on much further north than Churchill," he says. "Things are changing, and dramatically, and have been for the last 10 to 15 years.

"When trappers notice that all of the sudden there are different birds around, and other birds that they are used to aren’t there, and the fish are different, and the water is warmer and the ice is less, they go, ‘Wait a minute, something’s going on here,’" he explains. "And it is much more visible in the Arctic than it is here."

And while the cause of these changes may be open to debate, there’s no harm in reducing one’s environmental footprint, he says.

"I think we all have room to improve on this. Looking at more efficient ways of heating our homes, of driving our cars, of simply moving around and being aware of what’s happening in the much bigger picture," he says. "There’s no harm in looking at better ways of conducting our lives because, in the end, it is often more beneficial to us and our pocketbook to do that."

Getting over Rough Spots

The dance that can be necessary to deliver bad news to a client about an HVAC or plumbing system that needs a complete re-do isn’t all that dissimilar to the position that television interviewers can find themselves in when an interview goes south, and Mansbridge admits that he’s had a few of those moments during the 15,000-plus interviews he’s done over his career.

"Why does it always come to $12,000? That’s what I want to know," he laughed as he considered the similarities of the two difficult positions. "Every time I’ve had one of these housing problems, it is always ‘$12,000 is going to fix this.’ It’s like it is some kind of magic number.

"When your readers are called in, they draw upon the expertise they have that those who called them don’t have. They use it professionally, and the end result is good for everyone," he says. "In my case, when an interview is heading south, and they do, you have to draw upon your professional skills to try and salvage it, to try to get something out of it. In some cases it works; in other cases, it just doesn’t, and I think your readers understand that too. You’ll end up sometimes with clients who just won’t buy the argument and the explanation they are being given."