Longtime Toronto and Ottawa radio host Mark Elliot (Nils Johanson) dead at 65

Mark Elliot, aka Nils Johanson, the longtime host of CFRB call-in show People Helping People, has died. He was 65.

Longtime Toronto and Ottawa radio host Mark Elliot, whose real name was Nils Johanson, died Friday (Jan. 11) after a short battle with pneumonia. He was 65.

Nils Johanson, age 16, behind the controls at Graham Cable TV in West Toronto.

Best known for his long-running late night show People Helping People, Elliot got his feet wet in broadcasting in his teens, working in the control room at Graham Cable TV in West Toronto at the age of 16. His first announcing job came a few years later in 1973 at CHIC Radio 790 Brampton. He would soon move on to CFOM Quebec City, CFRW Winnipeg and then CFRA Ottawa in 1976.

Arriving in Ottawa during the heyday of Top 40 AM radio, Elliot soon attained celebrity status. But while his star was rising, behind the popular on-air persona was a sexual-abuse survivor, alcoholic and addict.

Steve Kowch, former operations manager at CFRB Toronto, who hired Elliot years later, recalls the late broadcaster’s stories about that time in his life.

“He would tell me about he how he would be facedown drunk, and was doing drugs at the time, but because he was so popular, the radio station staff would go to his house, haul him out of bed, sober him up and bring him to the studio. He would tell me ‘they would put me in front of a microphone and I would perk up and I was the DJ that everybody loved,'” recounted Kowch.

1977 Ottawa Journal ad

One night in 1983, Elliot had to be resuscitated after swallowing a handful of pills, but it wasn’t until 1987, when a wake-up call came. Now at CFGO Ottawa after a successful 12 years in the market, his boss not only fired him, but found him a spot in a residential treatment program in Windsor.

Elliot quickly found his way back to radio at CKLW Windsor and started counselling other addicts. That led to the birth of his call-in show that combined the two, People Helping People, in 1994. He eventually brought the show to Toronto, first to AM 640 (CFMJ-AM) in 1999 and later CFRB in 2001 where it had a 15-year run.

“It really was ‘People Helping People’, Kowch told Broadcast Dialogue. “Here is this guy on the radio – a recovering alcoholic, a recovering drug addict, a recovering sexually-abused young man – on the radio, open about all of his demons and able to help people listening to him who would call in.”

Mark Elliot, circa 1984.

“The other thing about Mark Elliot was his voice,” recalled Kowch. “He had such a smooth, passionate voice on the air, he was very low key. A lot of people listened to him because he was a great storyteller, but he was also a great broadcaster who could get people to tell their darkest secrets of their alcoholism and drug abuse. He was like a therapist on the radio. People opened up to him. I’m sure he saved many lives. He helped people understand that they weren’t alone and he helped people to get help.”

Kowch began to schedule Elliot on CFRB during key periods, sometimes for 14 days straight over the Christmas holidays and into the New Year.

“My philosophy was if anyone needs a Mark Elliot over the holidays it’s now. People with mental illness, drug addicts…they’re alone. This is when they needed him the most and Mark agreed.”

Elliot is also credited with keeping CFRB on-air during the Northeast blackout of 2003, which began to unfold while his show was live.

“I said ‘Mark, you’re still going to help people, but you’re going to help people get through this power failure.’ It was amazing how he went from talking to drug addicts to talking to other people…he was fabulous, and I’m listening and I’m watching and thinking ‘he can do anything,’ so I made him my go-to guy whenever there would be major breaking news on weekends and overnights and he always rose to the occasion and won us news awards for his coverage. As good as he was, that wasn’t why he was on the radio. He was on the radio to be a broadcaster and to help people,” said Kowch.

Openly gay on-air at a time when the country was in the throes of the same sex marriage debate, Elliot also hosted a memorable town hall debate with Christian commentator Michael Coren in 2005 that was aired across the Standard Radio talk network. Kowch says despite concerns that the attacks against Elliot were becoming increasingly personal during the pre-promotion leading up the event, the host persevered and the broadcast was well-received.

In addition to hosting Nightside five days a week and People Helping People on Sundays, Elliot was doing interventions during the day, tracking down other addicts and helping them to get sober. In 2016, People Helping People fell under budget cuts. Elliot continued doing the call-in show for a time for free, until he could no longer afford the gas to commute into the city from his home in Niagara.

“There’s nobody else like him. No one broadcaster like him. He touched the audience everytime he opened that microphone,” said Kowch.

Family and friends will be received on Tuesday, Jan. 15, from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., at Hetherington & Deans Funeral Chapel in Niagara. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to Project Share, Niagara Falls or The Scott Mission, Toronto.

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