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People Helping People – The legacy of Nils Johanson

January 2019

On 11 January 2019, Canada lost a veteran broadcaster and addictions counselor who went beyond what anyone would expect. He truly cared helping addicts find their way to recovery and preventing them from going down the same path to destruction that should have killed him years before heart troubles and ultimately pneumonia finally took him at the still young age of 65.

Now you can be forgiven for not knowing the name Nils Johanson because most of us, myself included, knew him by his professional name: Mark Elliot.

Although I only met him in person once, I was an occasional caller to his radio show and regular listener.

Nils Johanson was born 24 December 1953 and grew up in Weston, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Johanson would grow up to become a very popular disk jockey on various Top 40 radio stations in Toronto, Winnipeg, Quebec City and Ottawa.

He was forced to take on the radio name Mark Elliot in 1975 when hired by CFRW in Winnipeg, a name he would use for the next 47 years. Years later, Johanson described on his show one night that the name Mark Elliot came about due to the then common practice of radio stations buying generic promos to announce their on-air staff to save the cost of actually recording their own. When Johanson told the Program Director (PD) he hated the name Mark Elliot, the last name left on the list, the PD’s response was to ask if Johanson still wanted the job.

“I’ll get used to it,” was the response “Mark Elliot” gave to the PD.

Johanson had previously used the name to Rick Shannon when working at
 CFOM AM in Quebec City, due to a program director insisting no one could pronounce Nils Johanson.

He would also go on to become a high-functioning drug addict and alcoholic. In an industry that was soaked in booze and cocaine at the time, it was easy for a childhood sexual-abuse survivor and closeted gay man to fall into this trap, just like many others did.

At the height of his fame in 1986, Johanson quit his job at CFRA in Ottawa, live on the air after a dispute regarding programing changes to his show. He moved onto CFGO, also in Ottawa, but his addictions eventually caught up with him in 1987, when a sympathetic program director fired him and encouraged him to go into addiction treatment.

Johanson would eventually go to the Brentwood Recovery Home in Windsor, Ontario, and after completing treatment, returned to the airwaves on CKLW in Windsor. It was at CKLW that he created the show “People Helping People,” a show dedicated to addictions and recovery. The show was eventually syndicated on AM 640 in Toronto but after being cancelled, was picked up by CFRB in Toronto in 2001.

On People Helping People, Johanson dispensed advice on overcoming addiction in an honest and compassionate but blunt manner, frequently interspersing his assessments with personal stories of his own struggles, saying that there were very few drugs that he didn’t abuse at one point or another. Although he did re-lapse, he did maintain his sobriety or over two decades.

In addition to hosting People Helping People, Johanson doubled as host of The Nightside, a nightly general interest talk show, from 2003 until 2007, when he voluntarily relinquished the show due to being overworked from his private addictions intervention practice, Intervention Toronto.

During the “Great Blackout of 2003”, a widespread power outage that encompassed southern Ontario and parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, CFRB was one of the few radio stations still on broadcasting. Johanson was on the air at the time and went above the call of duty by providing information and calmness during this unusual event.

Johanson also had the distinction of being the only openly gay host of the usually Conservative station, coming out live on The Nightside one evening. When the debate around legalizing gay marriage was sweeping across Canada in 2005, Johanson took part in a live debate on CFRB against then-anti-gay marriage advocate Michael Coren, who has since changed his stance.

Johanson’s passion for helping addicts and alcoholics find their way to recovery showed just how generous a person he was, as in addition to the radio show, he also hosted free group meetings one night a week in both Toronto and Burlington.

Although People Helping People eventually became a victim of budget cuts at CFRB, by then called News Talk 1010, former CFRB Program Director Steve Kowch recalled Johanson’s reaction to the cut in a recent Facebook post: “…when CFRB wanted to cancel the show because of budget cuts, Mark did it for FREE until he could no longer afford to put gas in the car to drive in from his cheap Niagara apartment to host the show. Not being on the radio was killing him.”

After his “retirement” from the radio business, Johanson also retired the name Mark Elliot, and officially reclaimed his legal name publicly for the first time in 47 years.

As his partner of over two decades, Jarrett Rainhard, stated in a Facebook post, “He was beginning to enjoy life again as Nils Johanson, and that to me, is why his passing hurts so much.”

I feel extra sad personally to hear that in “retirement”, Nils seemed to have lost the spark that being on the radio had given him. Steve Kowch also wrote in his Facebook post, “Not being on the radio was killing him. I had supper with him and Jarrett one night last year and the sadness in his voice had replaced the optimism he always had when he was on the radio.”

Jarret added “It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see the outpouring of love and respect from so many, even as (like you [Kowch] said) he had felt beaten down by a system which no longer furnished him an opportunity to help others on the air.”

Mark Elliot/Nils Johanson is one of the reasons that I have almost 3 years of sobriety today. I will miss him, but at least there are clips of his radio show available on the internet, so I can always hear his voice if needed.

Sources: http://gta.boardhost.com/viewtopic.php?id=2927n, https://www.facebook.com/steve.kowch, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Elliot_(radio_host)

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/people-helping-people-the-legacy-of-nils-johanson/

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