Jurgen Gothe was the comfortable, quirky host of CBC’s DiscDrive
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 22 2015, 8:17 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Apr. 23 2015, 2:04 PM EDT
There were the cats, the Willis Point Fire Department, much Mozart, and there was Jurgen Gothe, the comfortable, conversational host of an eclectic mix of music and often-quirky chat that made him an unlikely national figure and his show DiscDrive a long-running institution on CBC Stereo (which became Radio 2).
For three hours each weekday afternoon, from “scenic, subterranean Studio 20” in the depths of CBC’s concrete bunker of a building in Vancouver, Mr. Gothe’s mellifluous voice would coax commuters home and soothe their jangled nerves, while charming those at home. He was helped by musical selections that went well beyond classical to dip into jazz, pop, New Age, bluegrass and, on occasion, obscure, side-splitting cuts such as Don’t Fence Me In, rendered by a pair of cowboy-hatted East Germans named Hein & Oss.
But it was really Mr. Gothe who made DiscDrive what it was.
Launched in 1985, at a time when classical music at CBC was serious business, the preserve of announcers intoning gravely about rondos and sonatas in E major, DiscDrive was revolutionary. Mr. Gothe chatted convivially about the music and anything else that popped into his active mind. He seemed engaged, hip to the world outside, someone you might want to share a glass of wine with. And Mr. Gothe did know his wine.
His personable, knowledgeable columns on food and particularly wine were regular features of numerous newspapers and magazines for years. For someone who projected such an urbane, laid-back persona over the air, Mr. Gothe had tremendous energy. He ran a corporate communications business, wrote books, cooked up a storm, pounded out columns, and dabbled in unpublished, trashy mystery novels. He also penned a Monty Pythonesque, six-part radio series about the adventures of a fictitious Mozart named Wolfie Amadeus and a cast of characters hanging out at a pub in Vienna known as The Dog and Trombone. It remains a much-loved cult classic.
But what rocketed him to cross-country prominence was DiscDrive. With half a million regular listeners across the country, the program soon had the highest ratings of any radio show on CBC’s FM network. In Vancouver, DiscDrive topped most private AM offerings, too. It dominated Canada’s FM airways until 2008, when CBC brass abruptly cancelled the show after 23 years, as part of the network’s controversial makeover to attract a younger demographic.
Mr. Gothe, who died of cancer on April 9, a few days after turning 71, was an unlikely choice to front a show on CBC. A high school dropout, he had spent much of his working life in private radio on the advertising side, where his talent for writing clear, sometimes funny commercials brought him steady employment. He had made only sporadic appearances on air, reviewing wines and cultural events. One of his reviews nearly sparked a riot at Vancouver’s Schnitzel House, which sponsored the arts roundup. When Mr. Gothe panned the film Battle of Britain and the bomber jackets worn by a number of RAF veterans who had attended the movie premiere, the flyboys took offence. They went down to the Schnitzel House, threatening to dismantle the German restaurant’s furniture, before peace was eventually reached .
Meanwhile, Mr. Gothe had been acquiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of recordings, cramming his living space with thousands of albums. He first got his foot in the door at CBC in 1984, contracted to host Front Row, a straightforward Sunday afternoon concert series. A year later, CBC producer Tom Deacon was looking for someone with the gift of intelligent gab to preside over an innovative new FM show based in Vancouver, aimed at a drive-home audience with little interest in long symphonies. The aim was to relax FM’s traditional format and make highbrow music more accessible. Hired after a brief audition, Mr. Gothe made the show his own. “It needed a certain personality to carry it off, and Jurgen was the right man for the job from the get-go,” long-time producer Janet Lea said.
To the consternation of CBC producers in Toronto, Mr. Gothe worked without a script. He told stories, not all of which were true. He interjected whimsy on the fly, imagining at one point a Vivaldi Works factory churning out Vivaldi pieces by assembly line. The credits at the end of the week regularly included a nod by Mr. Gothe to the Willis Point Fire Department, a volunteer brigade for the small enclave outside Victoria where he used to live.
And there was his succession of cats. Mr. Gothe talked frequently about them on air. There was Quincy, after whom he named his consulting company. There was Fred. When Fred died, Mr. Gothe commissioned a commemorative piece from Seattle composer Alan Hovhaness, titled Fred the Cat Flies to Heaven. But most of all, there was Herbie. He became such a part of DiscDrive that its annual list of best recordings were known as the Herbie Awards. On Herbie’s death, the final hour of the show was turned over to music the dead cat might have appreciated.
The abundance of chatty hosts on CBC Radio’s FM network today owes much to the trailblazing of Mr. Gothe and DiscDrive. Before that, said CBC personality Shelagh Rogers, “most CBC music shows were good for you, like All-Bran. With Jurgen, there was fun. Deep fun.” But DiscDrive was not A Prairie Home Companion. It was still a show of satisfying music, which was not always to Mr. Gothe’s own liking. Once, after listening to Andrea Bocelli perform his hit Con te partiro, Mr. Gothe moved in close to the mike and observed: “Ahh, the wonderful sound of money.”
Mr. Gothe was highly regarded south of the border. Many NPR stations picked up DiscDrive, and he won the Gold Medal at the New York International Radio Festival an unprecedented three times as best network radio personality.
Mr. Gothe was born in Berlin on April 4, 1944, or 4-4-44 as he liked to tell people. The elder of two children born to Charlotte and Walter, a baker who survived a stint as a medic on the Russian Front, he grew up in a city devastated by bombing and postwar hardships. But it was there that young Jurgen first experienced radio, performing as a child actor and singer on a Berlin kids show on an American-financed station in the divided city. Seeking a better life, the Gothes moved to Canada in 1954.
They landed in Medicine Hat. Despite the shock of going from urban Berlin to prairie Alberta, Mr. Gothe made the best of his new surroundings. A precocious teenager, he acted in community theatre, set up a basement gathering place called The Ember for the small city’s few young hipsters, and, at 15, wangled a late night, one-hour gig playing jazz records on “the voice of the Gas City,” radio station CHAT. “He was Medicine Hat’s avant-garde man,” former station employee Wayne Craven told the local newspaper. “I didn’t think he’d be in Medicine Hat very long.”
Indeed, Mr. Gothe was bored and restless by the time he hit Grade 10. Figuring he could learn far more on his own, he quit school. After working briefly for the Medicine Hat Brick and Tile Co., he lit out for Manitoba and a series of odd jobs, including pumping gas. By 18, he was in Vancouver, looking for radio work. He was soon hired by CHQM, a popular easy listening station that Time magazine once called “probably the best private radio station in North America.”
Meanwhile, he was building a record collection of classic proportions and becoming a sophisticated, self-taught connoisseur of wine and food. He loved celebrating good wines, while purposefully puncturing the snobbery that often shrouded the wine world. His final wine column, written last August for The Georgia Straight, was a typical ratings roundup of decent wines under $20 a bottle. “Ordinary people don’t taste wine,” he once said. “They drink it.”
Mr. Gothe bounced around several radio stations from Victoria to the Okanagan before making it big at CBC, but mostly, he was at CHQM, working his way from ad writer to music librarian to copy chief. There were also tenures at various ad agencies around town. Mr. Gothe’s talent and creative, offbeat way of looking at the world never left him short of employment.
At home, Mr. Gothe liked to throw dinner parties, usually doing all the cooking and washing up himself. An early fan of Monty Python, he invited the wacky troupe to his house on their first trip to Vancouver for a memorable all-nighter.
Mr. Gothe had several long-term relationships, including a marriage to fashion designer Marilyn Janis that ended in divorce, before meeting Victoria photographer Kate Williams on a blind date. They married a year later, in 1991.
Known for his private reserve, Mr. Gothe was caught off guard by the long-running public spotlight that came with the success of DiscDrive. Yet he came to enjoy his interaction with audiences when the show toured across the country and occasionally south of the border, talking affably to thrilled listeners between cuts of music.
Throughout most of DiscDrive’s lengthy run, Mr. Gothe would grouse to close friends that he would do one more year then retire to the Gulf Islands and write mysteries. But when the end came after 23 years, he was bitter at being cut loose so close to the show’s 25th anniversary. He agreed to do a one-hour Sunday afternoon program called Farrago, featuring his favourite CDs. It lasted but a year. “Nobody’s heart was in it,” Ms. Lea said.
After leaving the CBC, Mr. Gothe kept busy parlaying his extensive epicurean experiences into teaching, consulting, judging and just plain tasting of the wine and food he enjoyed so much. Few mourned his passing more than those in the now celebrated B.C. wine industry. Mr. Gothe had supported and encouraged the industry from its early days, when tasting many B.C. wines was considered, in the words of fellow oenophile Anthony Gismondi, “a painful experience.”
Mr. Gothe was an original throughout his life, said former CHQM executive Lyndon Grove, who had watched him mature from an 18-year-old hopeful to the gifted force he became. “He always had this great sense of confidence,” Mr. Grove said. “He was just there, ready for the world to catch up.”
Mr. Gothe leaves his wife, Kate; stepdaughter, Colette; brother, Peter; nephew, Jordan; and niece, Kelsey.