Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voice of the north dialed in

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THOMPSON -- Many people call him the voice of the North, but it's not necessarily a title with which Mark Szyszlo is comfortable.

The host of CBC Radio's northern Manitoba news program North Country is as humble as he is known across the vast region he serves.

"I never think of myself as being important," says Szyszlo. "It's nice to be able to wake people up in the morning and tell them their daily news or just give them a sense of what's going on in their communities. It's an honour to do that.

"But I never think of myself as being the only person who's doing it, because there's a lot of other people who, in their own way, are keeping people connected."

That may be true, but none of those other people command the audience of Szyszlo. Nor can they garner the respect that comes from being on the air for nearly 30 years.

Szyszlo joined CBC Radio in Thompson in 1986. Though he had just earned a phys-ed degree from his hometown University of Ottawa, he had fallen in love with broadcasting as a deejay at the campus radio station.

"It made so much sense because I knew how to work a microphone, and talking to people kind of comes easy for me," he says.

Szyszlo started as a freelancer. He planned on staying in Thompson for a few months, maybe a year, but the more this city boy saw of the north, the more he liked.

"The people here, and the history here, is just out of this world and it really opened my eyes," he says. "Before I came to Thompson, I never had a chance to meet any aboriginal people. I never had a chance to spend any time with a fur trapper. I'd never been to a drill camp. I'd never been to all these things, and now I consider those really special things."

Within a couple of years, Szyszlo was the noon-hour host of North Country. He later took over the morning show, too. He is now the lone occupant of the maze of offices and desks that is the Thompson CBC station.

Impossible to dislike, Szyszlo's animated energy and chicly messy hair belie his 53 years. His radio-made voice is reassuring and smooth. And he just happens to be one of the nicest people you'll meet.

That friendliness has helped him cultivate a long list of news contacts, which in turn has let him break some pretty incredible stories.

One of his favourites took place in Lynn Lake in the late 1990s, when a mining company was ready to leave town with its final two or three gold bars. Trouble was, the company allegedly owed the town back taxes.

As the story goes, a town employee seized the gold bars and had them locked up in a safe. The company eventually got its gold back, but it also had to pay some of the back taxes.

"It was basically a gold heist that they had pulled off," Szyszlo says, marvelling as if he had uncovered Watergate.

Szyszlo's vibrant tone changes when the subject of the cancellation of North Country comes up. It was back in 2009 when a budget-cutting CBC announced it would shutter its Thompson station.

Northerners revolted with a petition that went straight to Ottawa.

CBC backed down, and Szyszlo was thrilled to stay on the air, for more reasons than one.

"It would have been a real loss for the community to not have a local CBC -- not just a community, but for the north, too," he says.

Over the years, Szyszlo has watched as countless men and women in his and other professions depart the north in search of opportunity in larger centres. Szyszlo, too, could have worked his way up the ladder, but in his mind he is already on the top step.

"It's a large fishpond but in my case, I've had the chance to deal with people's stories and present them, and to me that's really special," he says.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2013 A9

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