Toronto’s long-favourite radio host tells grads to listen to their instincts

Being a good listener was radio host Andy Barrie’s stock in trade. You should be a good listener, too, the honorary-degree recipient told arts graduands on Wednesday, June 16. Especially to yourself.

“Listen to your own instincts,” said Barrie, who recently retired after 15 years hosting CBC Radio’s popular "Metro Morning". “It helped me on my way and I hope it helps you on yours.”

Left: Andy Barrie

Another word for instinct is intuition, which means “the things we know without knowing how we know them,” said Barrie. "This is very different from the knowledge that earns you your own degrees. But the very essence of intuition, Charles Darwin said, is that we follow it independent of reason. In the course of your life a lot of people are going to tell you to be reasonable when you know that absolutely the only thing is to be unreasonable and that will, for you, be what’s right.” 

“That will be your intuition speaking, what the Quakers call the still, small voice,” said Barrie. “When the Quakers are talking about the still, small voice they’re usually talking about the spark of divinity within each of us and they hope that attending to that still, small voice will allow you to treat others well. But I would like to ask you to listen to that still, small voice that speaks to your own enlightened self-interest. The still, small voice that tells you what’s best for you.”

Barrie was speaking to graduating students from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) after receiving an honorary doctor of laws. A draft dodger who came to Canada in 1969, the veteran broadcaster and journalist hosted radio shows in Montreal then in Toronto where he recently signed off as host of “Metro Morning”, the city’s most listened-to and respected morning show.

Over his years on air, Barrie became a shaping force for how Torontonians see their city, their country and their world, said LA&PS Dean Martin Singer in his citation. “Armed with intellectual and emotional rigour and with a profound respect for the complexity of the issues and people he encountered, Andy Barrie provided the Greater Toronto Area with radio journalism of an uncompromisingly high standard."

Barrie listened to his own still, small voice all his life. Born and raised in the United States, the star of high-school plays abandoned his ambition to be an actor after three failed auditions at university, and switched to radio. After graduating, he turned down a "great gig" working at CBS News in New York in the same newsroom as legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite. “My instinct told me that as a beginner I’d be making lots of mistakes and it would be better to make them where relatively few people could hear them.” A year later, after working at small community stations, he landed a job in Washington, DC. A year after that, he came to Canada. “My still, small voice was singing a song by Buffy Sainte-Marie called Universal Soldier when on Dec. 23, 1969, on the day that I was supposed to report for duty in Saigon, I drove my car across the Derby Line, Vermont border station and entered Canada.”  

Above: Andy Barrie with his daughter Jessie, on his right, and friends

“All the reasonable people in my life said I was destroying that life,” said Barrie. “Nothing good could come of being a deserter, they told me. I’d be a pariah for the rest of my life. My instincts did not agree. And this was not just an instinct for survival. It was about, as put in Hamlet: ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’ Including the men and women in Vietnam in whose wholesale death I wanted no part."  

“So here I was, a stranger in Canada, a stranger in a strange land, and yet miraculously from the moment I stepped foot in Montreal, I felt completely at home,” said Barrie. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the line about being homesick for a place you’ve never been. It was as if all my life I’d been a Canadian locked in the body of an American.”  

Years later, when it was possible to go home, about 50,000 of the 100,000 young Americans who came to Canada did. “For the rest of us, Canada had become home. Against all reason, the instinct that led us here in our northern migration had found for us not just a temporary sanctuary but an end to the homesickness for a place we’d never been.”  

“There were other times when that still, small voice led me to places pure reason would have denied me – getting married at the age of 25, becoming a parent at 30 when the Cold War seemed certain to end in a thermonuclear Armageddon.”  

“Most recently, my instincts told me it was time to hang up my headphones and look for something new to do," said Barrie. "Reasonable people reminded me that mandatory retirement was no longer the law. I could enjoy the stimulation of my job for years to come. But that still, small voice had been waking up with me at four in the morning for 15 years, and we both agreed we’d been there and done that and it was time to do something else.” 

“I’m hardly here to tell you to ignore all the rational reasons you carefully weighed in determining the directions of your lives, but pure reason has its limits,” said Barrie. "Albert Einstein himself said the only valuable thing is intuition.” 

“There’s one more quote that couldn’t possibly be left out of my talk today,” said Barrie. It comes from philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell and inspired everyone from George Lucas who wrote Star Wars to the author of the book Do What You Love, & The Money Will Follow. “The three simple words are ‘follow your bliss’. Follow your bliss. And only you, of course, could possibly know what that word means in your own case.”  

A small reality check, said Barrie. “It came to me as I was writing this speech on my iPhone, which has word processing software called predictive typing. In order to save keystrokes, it tries to anticipate what you’re typing and fills in the rest of the word. So I was typing away and I typed follow your bliss. I looked down and what I saw was follow your blisters. And I’m thinking this thing is smarter than even it knows. Because Campbell never wanted us to imagine that following our bliss was itself blissful. The journey would be the reward, however difficult, because its goal was the true fulfilment of who we are.” 

“So, graduates of 2010, follow your bliss, follow your blisters and may both help you realize the true treasure of the years you’ve spent at York University.”

York’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Barrie’s convocation address, visit the Convocation Web site.