As It Happens

Barbara Frum's legacy — she 'never lost her cool'

From her interview with a hard-of-hearing cabbage farmer, to the time she mediated a hostage negotiation, Barbara Frum is still one of the most recognized voices on Canadian radio.

David Frum talks about his mom's legacy as one of As It Happens' most beloved hosts

Barbara Frum was the host of As It Happens between 1971 and 1981. (CBC Still Photo Collection)


From her interview with a hard-of-hearing cabbage farmer to the time she helped mediate a hostage negotiation, Barbara Frum is still one of the most recognized voices on Canadian radio. 

To her son David Frum, the legendary As It Happens host was a journalist with an abundance of energy — which she channelled into thoughtful, humorous and direct interviews during the show's original six-hour format.

Barbara Frum died in 1992 of chronic leukemia. She was 54. Her career spanned decades at the CBC, and her legacy continues as the voice that shaped As It Happens.

David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, spoke with current As It Happens host Carol Off about his mother's legacy in an interview for the show's 50th anniversary radio special.

Here is part of that conversation. 

What does it feel like to be in here knowing that your mother's spirit, her legacy, lives in this room, in this show?

It's always a little spooky to talk about her. I am today four years older than she was when she died. And of course the studio is blocks away from the studio where she recorded her interviews, in much shabbier premises.

What was your mom like at home?

This is something I did not know exactly at the time that it occurred, but she got the diagnosis of her illness in 1974, so three years into the program. And she lived for 17 more years.

But she did not get a diagnosis: "You have 17 years to live." She got a diagnosis: "You have two years to live" — eight times.

I didn't know, many people in the CBC didn't know, until well into her her sickness. She hid it so well. She was very private. But even the people she worked with, she never let on. Her energy never flagged. We never saw this.

She was amazing. She would crash at the end of the day. It would be like going off the energy cliff. She would just be wiped out.

I remember some journalist got hold of the news somehow and wanted to make a little gossip item … and I remember my father telephoned him.

My father said to him, "Why are you going to print this? The children don't know. Do you really want them to learn it from the newspaper?"

The journalist was prevailed on not to print the story.

Former As It Happens hosts Barbara Frum and Al Maitland celebrate the show's 10th anniversary in 1978. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

It's marginally better now, but as a national broadcaster, I think your mom Barbara Frum had to deal with sexism all the time.

There is one, the most egregious and it's the one I'm sure you remember, when she and Dick Beddoes were speaking with the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Harold Ballard, back in 1979. It starts off friendly and goes downhill fast. What do you hear in your mom's voice there?

She is conscious she's running a show and one of the things that was true of her is she ... did not lose her cool.

The whole reason she was on the radio rather than television was because of assumptions at the time about what a woman had to look like. And she was explicit about this.

There's a profile of her in the Toronto Star in about 1969 — which I remember, as a framed copy of it hung in my grandmother's house so I read it dozens, maybe hundreds of times — where she would talk about how CBC executives had explicitly said she did not have the right look for television.

David Frum, an editor and pundit, says his mother was a champion for women in journalism. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)

We talked earlier about your mom's illness and how that showed or not showed on the program. There's just one clip that want to play for you. I think it's revealing in many ways. ... She is speaking with Terry Fox in 1980 after his Marathon of Hope was cut short.

I don't know there'd be an interviewer in the world today who, with the same health as my mother had, would have gone through that interview and not mentioned it. And that's partly a change in cultural style, but it's also an individual choice.

I know she thought about Terry Fox a lot and I know that sense of marathoning through a landscape with an uncertain ending — that very much resonated with her.

David, there is not a time when your mother's influence, her spirit, doesn't affect us. ... Did she have any idea of what ... legacy she thought she was leaving?

She cared a lot about her institutional legacy in broadcasting. She cared a lot about opening doors for women. She cared a lot about her family legacy and making sure that my sister and I were happy and established.

She ultimately would have six grandchildren. She only met one of them very briefly. If she had made it … she'd be 81. The six grandchildren would be her favourite legacy.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.