Ottawa: The Secret Behind Nick Vandergragt
In the heart of the ByWard Market, radio personality Nick Vandergragt is shaking his head in disbelief about yet a new senate scandal.
His arms are moving frantically and he is jerking from left to right as he expresses his discontent about Justin Trudeau’s office and Rob Ford’s recall. While checking the score of the Maple’s Leafs game on his laptop, he engages his listeners George and Shirley in a variety of political discussions.
The show proceeds to a commercial break and a huge relief washes over him as the first part of the show is finished. He sighs, and proceeds to check his overloaded inbox where he finds an email from Steve Winogron, his program and news director inquiring about his future possibilities at CFRA.
Thinking back on the past 30 years of his life and his “crap jobs”, he never envisioned a glamourous career as a talk show host at CFRA radio. With a smile, he puts his earphones back on and gets to work.
“Live from our studios and the ByWard Market, this is CFRA’s Nick at Night.”
Although Nick is a familiar voice in our community, he wasn’t always in the spotlight. From his early childhood, he often encountered dead ends, potholes and in the process, scraped his knees so to speak. Every time, he got back up and fought for what he believed in.Every new job got him one step closer to success. For over 30 years, he sought an opportunity that would make him feel like he was giving back to his community, that he was making a difference among his peers.
While quite the entertainer, he acknowledges that he has made his fair share of mistakes over the years. Sometimes his pride and ego altered his way but to this day he remains confident that every step he has taken as made him who he is today.
“If you don’t know who you were, you don’t know who you are,” said Nick.
Nick grew up on a small farm in Leamington, Ont. with his dad Peter, his mom Carol and his four brothers and sisters.
As a kid, Nick was no piece of cake. He was persistent in his point of view and very stubborn. He even called himself “the professor because he knew everything about anything and they needed to hear it from him.”
In his teenage years, Nick grew to be very rebellious. He always wanted to find “the easy way” out. One night, his dad asked him to take down the greenery. His father Peter had some previous experience in demolishing houses and knew exactly what needed to be done but once again Nick was too hard headed to follow his instructions. He told his son to take off one board at a time and then do the same with the nails. He would be back soon.
He took a crowbar and removed all the nails at the same time. He took a step backwards and stepped on a five inch nail and began crying hysterically. His dad came back, looked at him, rolled his eyes and went back to work.
While his relationship with his dad was tumultuous, he still respected him.
He eventually graduated high school in 1980 and joined the Navy on his father’s advice. At the time, he didn’t know much about it or the impact it was going to have on his life. Yet, looking at it now, he wouldn’t have done anything differently. He didn’t have much choice; he desperately needed the money to provide for his family. So trusting his father’s judgement, he headed out to Nova Scotia and became an ordinary seaman.
He left from Halifax in a plane and landed on a mountain on a small island in Portugal. He’d never been on a ship before and for the first time, he witnessed just how small he was in such a huge world. Everywhere he turned there was water and only water. It was too much to handle for one day; he was exhausted and just wanted the day to come to an end.
For several years, he travelled on board of the HMCS Saguenay and the Annapolis where he performed the mechanical work down in the engine room. He generated the electrical power, ran the propulsion, the refrigeration and the outside machinery with his peers.
It was the first time he learned the meaning of the word “responsibility”.
After he joined the navy, Nick met Alison through a friend and 18 months later, they were married. Unfortunately, during the first seven months of their marriage, he was at sea and didn’t get to enjoy his new life as a newlywed. It was, as he recalls, the worst mistake he ever made. He had left his wife stranded with a number of responsibilities and their kids Laura and Katherine without a father figure.
“It was difficult and we already had kids. The longest he’d been gone was six months and some days it seemed like he’d been gone forever,” said Alison, wife and Co-owner of Vanderbrook Farm.
Eventually, like every worker, he went through a period of growth in his career. He became one of the best engineers of his rank and was very confident about his position on board. However, he never really understood the purpose of the job. He always looked forward to being on shore, meeting new people, going fishing and enjoying the outdoors; he never realized that his job was to be on the water. Till this day, he wonders how far he could have gone if he had understood what his job was.
It was in 1989 that he decided he’d finally had enough and returned to Southern Ontario where he began his multiple careers in electronics, furnace/air conditioning installation and truck driving.
He does not remember enjoying any of these jobs, but the truck driver was by far the worst one. Being a truck driver was hell. He had more mileage going backwards than going forward and his only excitement came from calling radio stations to give his input on a topic.
“A truck driver job after two weeks is the most boring job you’ll ever do,” he said.
Although he despised his job, he never thought about giving up. In the back of his mind, his family and their needs were far more compelling than his own happiness. He woke up, showed up to work every day and left with the satisfaction that his kids were going to have food on the table that night.
“I was too busy doing it [working], to worry. Yeah okay, there’s days I came home and said “Geez, I hate this job,” but always in the back of my mind, I said “Suck it up buttercup, you have a family to feed,” said Nick.
During his long days of driving, he was introduced to the radio and to Rush Limbaugh. It was the first time he felt a connection with someone that had the same worldviews as he did and before long, he became his source of motivation.
After 10 years, with the support of his friends, he was able to quit his job and pursue a new opportunity. In 1999, he moved to Killaloe with his wife and kids and joined a small radio station called CHCR 102.9.
He started his own talk show called Think Tank in 2000 where he got most of his experience. At first, nobody listened to what he had to say which gave him the chance to polish his arguments. With no post-secondary education, he made more efforts to research, read and write about the things going on around the world.Sometimes, it was difficult but he always knew that his lack of education could be one of his assets.
In a matter of months, Think Tank became the best talk show in Killaloe. However, it didn’t stop there. He had higher ambitions and wanted to raise the bar a little bit higher.
“I had taken his opinionated rants for granted, it was nice to finally see his passion grow into something more, ” said Alison.
In autumn of 2002, Nick came to Ottawa seeking the advice of David Mitchel, the program and news director of CFRA at the time. While he came specifically to get some feedback on his show, he ultimately came out with a new job.
“His approach to the news was very different from the Ottawa region broadcasters. We are always searching for different views to appeal to a broader crowd and Nick did just that, “said Steve Winogron, the current news and program director at 580 CFRA.
Even though he was a real rookie in the business, Nick had the enthusiasm and the strong will to keep going. At the beginning of his career at CFRA, he felt the pressure to succeed but he adapted quickly to those demands. The listeners showed their interest in his show and soon enough, he was getting great feedback from his listeners.
Certainly, there were days where he wanted to quit and let it all go. One day his boss came in his office and told him his latest show was “The biggest piece of crap he had ever heard.” Fearing how he could meet his boss’ demands, his coworkers stepped up to the plate and helped him make the adjustments needed.
“People want to drag you down in the business, but not at CFRA. People sat down and helped each other like brothers and sisters did,” said Nick.
Over the years, he refined his approach to politics and addressed the unexpected with charm and sarcasm. He is now the star of Nick at Night and Lowell Green’s replacement. As far as societal and audience changes goes, he reflects what the listeners are thinking.
The crowd listens to Nick because “He is what Limbaugh was to him; a voice that is speaking the words that they don’t have the platform to speak but always believed in.”
He is very down to earth, funny and a humble man but like any strongly opinionated broadcasters, he doesn’t appeal to everyone. His conservative values sometimes create heated discussions with his listeners.
“I find his political views online to be narrow-minded and partisan,” said Darlene Giehler, a politically active citizen. “In my opinion, he lacks insight into world issues and has a low tolerance of opposing perspective which unfortunately manifest into a growth limiting destructive form of prejudice.”
Some feel he is very much to the right and Nick admits that he doesn’t appeal to everybody but in his opinion “Being conservative isn’t about political stripe; it’s about a way of life.”
“I don’t agree with him 99% of the time but he always backs it up [ his arguments ] and I respect that,” said Mai Habib, journalist and broadcaster at CFRA.
At the same time, others like his candid approach and share his political views. To them, he brings a refreshing perspective on governmental matters in Ottawa.
“He expresses himself clearly and in the smallest time frame possible. None of the other hosts have that talent, and the way he relates to his military experience is what makes him so different.He doesn’t need to pretend to be someone he is not,” said Michael Pryor, an occasional listener of CFRA.
He is well respected by his peers and engages with his community at several occasions through social media. He is also an active member of the Renfrew County and Killaloe Lions Club and makes an appearance at events he believes in.
“I have known Nick for over 10 years as a personal friend, talk show host, family man, husband and father. [..] I have the utmost admiration for the entire family,” said Shirley Mosley, a long-time family friend.
While some may think Nick’s entire life revolves around politics, this isn’t the case. After a long day at work, Nick looks forward to going back home to his beautiful wife and eight kids in Killaloe.
“If I do Lowell for a week, come Friday I’m ready to go home. I’m burnt. I want to go home. I want to go back to the real world,” said Nick. “I really love what I do, really love Ottawa, but I don’t live there.”
Until the following Wednesday, he tunes out of the world of politics and enjoys fishing, some historical reading and walking in the wilderness with his compass. He also helps his wife with the day to day running of the farm and his kids’ home schooling.
In the meantime, he has other responsibilities around the farm that include building and maintaining fences, cutting firewood and “a clutter of chores” with the horses. On Wednesday, he tunes back in and starts reading and researching for his upcoming show.
At 51 years old, he is heading into a new chapter of his life. He and his wife are looking into buying a new farm to accommodate their business needs and they are confident about what the future holds for Nick.
“As for CFRA, I don’t know where they will be in five years, but I hope we will still be one happy family.”
Photo Credits to Nick Vandergragt