By Julie Arounlasy, Ed Hitchins and Aleema Ali
It’s often been said that breaking into the entertainment industry can be a gamble.
Former head executive at CHUM, Jay Switzer, took that sentiment quite literally. He was an innovative thinker, spearheading the efforts of getting the licences for such channels as MuchMusic, Bravo! and FashionTV, among others.
Those who knew him said he loved to take chances in his personal life as well. He took trips to the casino quite regularly.
“He loved to gamble,” a former colleague and Vice President at Hollywood Suite Ellen Baine recalls fondly “He didn’t drink, or smoke or do drugs. He had one vice: He loved Las Vegas. When I first met him, he taught me how to play craps.”
Switzer died in January at age 61 from brain cancer. Coming from a background where his mother, Phyllis, was one of the co-founders of Citytv, he started from the age of 16 on the switchboards of Citytv Toronto, and made his way to the role of station manager in the mid-1980s. Switzer took the approach that women needed to be moved from the back to the forefront.
Baine, who worked with Switzer for nearly three decades starting from their days at City, says that his efforts to streamline the industry was ahead of his time.
“Jay realized that the primary business of just regular broadcasting was going to become smaller and smaller. That eventually things were going to change on a technical level, which they have,” Baine says.
With the media industry now where things seem to be going at an accelerated pace, Switzer was one who realized that one of the cornerstones of the industry, storytelling, was something that was essential in connecting with its viewers.
“He was very adamant about that,” Baine says. “He wanted us to believe in what we were doing and didn’t just doing things for the sake of ratings points.”
Throughout the industry, Switzer’s reputation was not unnoticed. When he was appointed President of CHUM in 2002, an executive from a competitor said it was nice to see that nice guys do “finish first.”
In 2010, Switzer co-founded Hollywood Suite, four cable channels that play classic films from the 1970s to the 2000s, all broadcast in high definition.
His list of accomplishments includes both a Bachelor’s from the University of Toronto and a MBA from the University of Western Ontario. In late 2017, he was appointed the Order of Canada, but since he was too ill to attend in Ottawa, the ceremony was held at his home.
Baine says she wasn’t the only woman he mentored. Recently appointed head of CBC/Radio-Canada Catherine Tait was another.
“He would be so freaking proud of her,” Baine says.