A Swissair DC-10 has crashed in the water off Nova Scotia. As many as 150 people may have been onboard. The jet made what is being described as an emergency landing near Blandford, Nova Scotia. That’s on the south shore. Witnesses say their houses shook as the plane went down. It was on a flight out of New York, reportedly on its way to Zurich. -CTV National News 11:00 p.m. September 2, 1998
Most Canadians remember these words tumbling out of Lloyd Robertson’s mouth or similar descriptions from reporters across the country. For many it was the last image they took with them to bed. For Mike Sheerin, it was the last image he took with him to work. Hopping in a cab from his cozy west-end Toronto home, Sheerin was headed to the CTV studios in Scarborough less than 90 minutes after the initial reports of the crash. On the 35-minute ride, Sheerin had a great deal more on his mind than simply how something like this could happen. He was trying to piece together the night’s events because he would need to determine whom he could talk to about the crash. Twelve-thirty a.m. Toronto time would be 6:30 a.m. Swiss time. And Sheerin knew he would need to talk to someone from the airlines. He wasn’t a relative of a passenger or a member of a national rescue team, but he was someone desperate to talk to a Swissair official. Many people were depending on him to do so. Canadians would rise the following morning anxious to learn what had happened in Nova Scotia, and while Sheerin wouldn’t be the one informing them, he would be the one locating the people who would.
Mike Sheerin is a chase producer for Canada AM, the nation’s top-rated morning television newsmagazine. It didn’t earn that title solely thanks to hosts Valerie Pringle and Dan Matheson’s perky daybreak blather. One of the secrets behind the show’s 26-year run of success is, in the words of vivacious Canada AM chase producer Fiorella Grossi, “a team of kick-ass chase producers.”
Chase producers are the hunters of the broadcast news industry and the newsmakers are their prey. Perched on swivel chairs, surrounded by their ordinance-a telephone, comprehensive Rolodex, newspapers and the internet-they scour the globe every day for stories (and their characters) that inform, enlighten, enrage, and entertain their viewers. But it isn’t always easy. Guests can be hiding in every corner of the world, and stories are often buried in the back pages of newspapers and obscure, off-the-wall magazines with titles like Magnet,Troika, and Sage Woman. This is when their hunting instincts must rise to the occasion since just as a hunter’s family depends on their predator’s kill to feed them, a chase producer’s broadcast family depends on a kill to feed their program.
Though the profession may lack the prestige associated with executive producers or on-air hosts and reporters, chase producing captures the essence of journalism: locating, synthesizing, and packaging information to be publicized with purpose and little time to spare.
“This is Journalism 101,” says Benmergui Live chase producer Gary Graves. “We find the news, often when there is no real news, and it is paramount that we ask the right questions to get the right answers, comprehend those answers quickly, and find supporting information so we can offer our viewers worthwhile TV through articulate guests and new [story] angles in next to no time. We are, essentially, reporters removed from the last glamourous step of signing off.”
So while they toil in relative obscurity, chasers handle every aspect of the production process from the conception of the segment’s idea to its fruition. This can include taping and editing the interviews, writing prescripted questions for the host, and directing the live or taped segment. Chase producers are more than story and guest hunters; they are the string that threads together newsmagazines. As such, every good executive newsmagazine producer knows that the show’s success depends on a dynamic cast of chasers.
“Our producers are our show,” says former chase producer and now assignment editor for Canada AM Sean O’Malley. “If you don’t have a good team of them, then you have a bunch of boring guests and boring stories and there’s not a lot the host can do to rescue it-you’ve got to give the hosts the potential for good TV and if you can’t give them that, they can’t save it.”
Good TV means comprehensive, informative, and balanced coverage. Chase producers create that by being wellread, inquisitive, and creative. They seek to stimulate their audience by presenting fresh material and angles on all-too-often recycled news. All this comes together in what George Jamieson, until mid-March, senior producer of CBC radio’s newsmagazine As It Happens, refers to as the “bathroom break theory”- segments so informative and compelling that someone who has to go to the bathroom will wait until your segment is complete.
“You work with a blank canvas or a completely empty bit of air time every day, so it forces one to bring new, different perspectives into the industry that otherwise would get strained out and one can tell, by looking and reading and listening, certain kinds of journalism where the prospects have been strained out,” says Jamieson, who began his career as a radio chase producer for CBC Calgary’s The Calgary Eyeopener.
“There’s that phrase that Robert Fulford used when he was talking about newspapers: ‘One of the problems dealing with that particular branch of journalism is that you are trapped by the relentless chronicling of the unremarkable,’ and chase producing strives to avoid that by bringing unconventional ideas to light.”
It’s little wonder then that many of Canada’s prominent journalists emerged from the chase-producing ranks. Former The Journal reporter and now independent documentary producer Alan Mendelsohn, Sue Dando, the senior producer of CBC’s Life and Times, journalists-turned-novelists Alison Gordon and Peter Abrahams, freelance journalist, author and Ryerson journalism professor Stuart McLean, and Joanne MacDonald, director of news and administration at CTV News, as well as George Jamieson of As It Happens, are just some of those who started out as story- and guest-getters.
“One certainly learns in a job like [chase producing at] As It Happens,” says author and journalist Linda McQuaig, who took time away from print to chase produce for two years in the late 1970s. (One of her collegues was Pamela Wallin.) “It was a really good training ground. You learn how to be dogged, how to chase, to go after something and not to take no for an answer and that’s a big job of journalism-how to go after something and keep going until you get the interview you want or nail down the fact that you want. There are other aspects of journalism but those are among the most important.”
That’s what the folks at Canada AM believe. In their two-and-a-half hours of daily weekday news programming, their chasers have provided viewers with few “bathroom breaks,” airing comprehensive and pressing stories such as the 1996 TWA plane crash, the Quebec ice storm, and a memorial show for Princess Diana. It has featured newsmakers and provocative guests-“gets” as they’re known in the world of chase producing-like Rene Levesque, Peter Munk, Bill Gates, Madonna and Larry Flynt. If these guest hunters, like game hunters, mounted the heads of their most prized catches, the walls of Canada AM would be adorned with the heads of Benjamin Netanyahu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Oprah Winfrey-the gets of all gets.
The secret to success of Canada AM chasers is not uncommon to what most segment producers do at CBC’sAs It Happens, Benmergui Live, Newsworld Reports, This Morning and The National Magazine. They follow the rules of every good hunter: quickly locate the prime areas to hunt after determining the quarry, know and understand the surroundings of the prey, entice a possible catch with alluring bait, be quick to the chase, and seize the catch swiftly before time permits escape. And when a national disaster like the Swissair Flight 111 crash happens, an alarm audible only to chase producers sounds-think of a dog whistle-and the troops roll in, regardless of time of day, and hit the phones in an all-out war for the ultimate gets to determine which hunters have best internalized the rules of the game.
There’s a discernible buzz in the CTV building when Mike Sheerin passes through its ivory white-pillared entrance. Following the narrow pathway, he’s quickly led to the source of the noise. It’s the sound of ideas bouncing off one another as executive producer Zev Shalev, assignment editor Sean O’Malley, and chase producer Mary Ellen Collins brainstorm to determine the best way to handle the evolving crisis at Peggy’s Cove. It’s 1 a.m. and the team of three have been here for the past hour and a half making the necessary plans. Responsibilities have to be outlined and divvied up so that Collins and the now-present Sheerin do not duplicate calls. The show goes to air at 6:30 a.m. The chase producers throw story and guest suggestions on the table and a rough story board is drawn up. Shalev quickly allots the duties, sounding off the starter pistol, and the chase is on.
Behind the grey partitions that make up his office, Sheerin leafs through the phonebook to locate a number for the airlines. “Actually, I was trying to reach the PR person for Swissair,” says Sheerin after being transferred to the airline’s crash hotline. Sheerin is responsible for getting the institutional guests: the aviation experts, Swissair representatives, members of the Transportation Safety Board-someone who will help viewers understand what has happened and, more importantly, why.
As Sheerin waits to be transferred, he plays the chase-producing version of blackjack: every call is a gamble, but you just keep asking for more hits, or numbers, until you hit 21-the jackpot guest-or bust. Then you have to give up and start again. So far his initial call has been transferred four times.
On the other side of the room, soft-spoken Collins’s calls sound a little different. “Is this Miss Cochrane? Sorry to disturb you, I’m calling from Canada AM. You may have heard, there’s been a plane crash. I was just wondering if you heard anything?” After a short pause she inquires about what she heard and, after a longer pause, she emphatically asks if she would come on the show.
A chase producer with Canada AM for almost five years, Collins is in charge of local Peggy’s Cove guests. A native Haligonian, Collins has an insider’s perspective of the community and a contact list of friends and family-a definite plus. These contacts develop into the familiar call so-and-so system, where one person will provide a number that will lead to a string of numbers that Collins hopes will result in a get. For the moment, she has been relegated to one of the less glamourous aspects of guest-getting: looking for eyewitnesses. Often the two most difficult guests to get are the average citizen or eyewitness, not only because they can be the hardest to locate, but because they have often been involved in tragic or difficult situations. These guests, precisely because of their low profile, are frequently the most rewarding gets. Their stories are real and compelling, and their ability to recount them can be emotionally engaging.
Collins can’t rely solely on the buddy system, so it’s off to the internet-one of the most important weapons in a chaser ‘s arsenal. Her Web travels, like her phone calls, differ from Sheerin’s. While he surfs Zurich online, she’s site-seeing Peggy’s Cove. She looks for places like local hotels, bed and breakfasts, and restaurants, in the hope that someone will still be around to answer her phone calls.
The course runs smoothly for her at first-she’s able to locate eyewitnesses- but she soon encounters the small-town syndrome. These small-towners have no problem telling Collins what they heard or saw, but as for going on national television?
“Oh, no, not me. That’s something for Mrs. Jones down the road,” repeats Collins, as she recounts the broken-record response.
An hour and a half after his initial calls in search of someone, anyone, from the airline, Sheerin finally has a strike. He asks the Swissair flack for an update, but what he really wants is air time with the president and CEO of Swissair, Phillipe Bruggisser-the figurative lion in the hunt-a valued and sought-after target and one of the hardest to capture. Sheerin knows the competition for the CEO’s time is fierce, so for the moment he’ll try to get in the good books of the person who has the power to make or break his hunt: the flack. PR people are a guest’s verbal bodyguard determining which media get access. In this case, Sheerin has wiggled his foot in the door and now that he has her number, he’ll make interim calls to her in the hope that his Mr. Nice Guy routine pans out.
While the executive producer and the assignment editor organize the technical aspects of the show and check in with their Ottawa-based chase producer (who’s already been sent to Peggy’s Cove), Sheerin and Collins distribute their attention among the several different modes of communication and information at their disposal: the television, wire services, and the internet. Because the series of events are literally unfolding before the chasers’ eyes, keeping up-to-date is paramount not only because it will enable them to determine what guests to book, but because they are also responsible for providing the hosts with background information, or greens, as they are known in the trade. These comprehensive yet concise packages are the unseen secret behind a knowledgeable host. They’re written after the chase producer pre-interviews the guests to determine their suitability for the show, making sure they’re interesting, compelling, and able to articulate the story they’re representing.
“It isn’t good enough for guests to be intelligent. A guest has to be able to tell their story in a way the audience can understand. Even if they are the closest to the story and the most knowledgeable, if they can’t explain their way out of a paper bag, who’s going to want to see them?” says Gary Graves.
A green is a written snapshot of a segment’s story. It contains everything from facts and background information on the item and guest, to a chronological lineup of questions, and the introduction the host reads on-air. “The whole idea behind the job is to get a good guest and write a good green to make the host look good,” says Graves. “It’s like the same relationship a makeup artist working with famous people would have: to make the person sitting in the chair look as good as possible without people knowing that there was someone behind the face spending hours to paint it.”
Sheerin may just have that look-good-for-the-host guest. It’s almost 3 a.m. and the deadline is imminent. His voice has changed from its usual authoritative, confident tone to a more sullen, emphatic sound. Like most producers on a chase, Sheerin has had to juggle his attention between various guests arenas, and while his luck in the Swissair department-the accountability arena-has been minimal, he may have someone to fill the eyewitness slot. He’s got a fisherman on the line, a fisherman who’s just recovered a torso from the water. “Will you be awake at 7 a.m. tomorrow? Would you be able to tell us what you saw and what you were feeling on the show?”
At times like these, in the midst of tragedies, Sheerin relies as much on his booking pitch as the show’s reputation. It involves the art of persuasion, explanation, empathy and unabashed pleading-in no fixed order-what As It Happens chase producer Thom Rose refers to as “giving good telephone to get good telephone.”
Good chase producers also know, however, when to back off. The fisherman has been through a horrifying experience: up all night, wading through a sea of dismembered body parts in search of survivors. As Sheerin ends his call with an agreement to contact the fisherman later in the morning to check up on him, his attention is diverted to the small TV resting on a filing cabinet behind him. It’s tuned to Newsworld. They have his guest on the show-or who he hopes will be his guest. It’s the commanding officer of the HMCS Preserver, the rescue ship sent to Peggy’s Cove. Sheerin is using a common trick of chase producing: relying on other television, radio or print news sources for potential guest ideas.
As Sheerin watches the commander on Newsworld, caffeine and adrenaline race through his veins. He thinks quickly. He calls the CFB and connects with their phone operator. “What do you mean you can’t connect me or give me the phone number for the ship? I just saw him on Newsworld. You need to put me through, or at least call him and ask him to call me,” says a frustrated Sheerin. The operator isn’t complying so Sheerin asks to be transferred. After being passed up through several people in the CFB’s chain of command, he finally gets the high commander’s flack.
“I’d just like for you to call the commander of the ship, give him my name and number and see if he would do a quick update with us while we’re on air.” The voice on the other end agrees without much conviction. Sheerin doesn’t think he’ll call back but he’ll do what all chasers are called to do-have patience and hope for the best. Now it’s off to the wires where he’ll scroll through the incoming flashes for updates.
Collins has managed to line up husband and wife eyewitnesses. Her gentle but persistent approach has convinced them to rise that same morning, after a couple of hours of sleep, and head down to Peggy’s Cove at 6 a.m. to speak to Canada AM reporter Tom Walters. In the meantime Sheerin has booked David Gersovitz of Commercial Aviation News. He is the expert who will shed light on what may have caused the crash and Collins’s eyewitnesses will shed light on what the crash has caused. Although Canada AM‘s belly isn’t quite full, the hunters have delivered what, for now, will feed the lineup. The chase producers put the finishing touches on the greens, rush them off to the hosts and everyone is off to his or her designated position. And even though the cameras begin rolling, the chasers do not hang up their weapons just yet. An hour after Matheson and Pringle shuffle between newscasts and guests live on location and in New York, Sheerin and Collins continue to man the phones. Their persistence pays off. At precisely 7:30 a.m., as the show falls into its second hour, Sheerin gets the call. It’s the commanding officer of the HMCS Preserver. He’s on the line, ready to be put on air. Sheerin puts him on hold, calls into the control room and a few minutes later Dan Matheson is asking the officer to explain to Canadians what’s going on. Sheerin still isn’t finished. At 8 a.m., with one more hour left in the show, he makes his last attempt to capture a senior Swissair representative. He doesn’t just get a representative, he gets the representative-president and CEO Philippe Bruggisser. With Bruggisser on hold, he makes another call into the control room and lines up what is known as a “phoner”-an interview the host conducts with a guest via the phone.
The hour of nine finally rolls around. Matheson and Pringle thank their in-house guest David Gersovitz and their on-site reporter. In the Canada AM offices, the tired Mike Sheerin and Mary Ellen Collins are packing up their things to leave with a sense of satisfaction at having helped to fill the show-one which later proved to beCanada AM‘s top-rated show ever, with 537, 000 viewers across the country.
So why do they do it? Why do they toil in the fields of story ideas and potential guests to harvest the cream of the crop only to pass them on to the one who gets all the glory? Why do these hunters, most of whom are accredited journalists, with either related degrees or experience in the field, do all the necessary work required for an article on-air, but relinquish what most journalists relish in-seeing their byline below their piece and control of the final product the public sees?
“It’s about the Zen of life. There’s no glamour in it but it’s personally rewarding because you learn a lot and you meet a lot of interesting people and in the Zen of life, what’s better than that? You’ll never get rich and you’ll never get famous, but I’d say it’s a pretty good trade off,” says Graves.
So would I. How many people can scroll through their rolodexes and see the names and numbers of Yasser Arafat, F.W. de Klerk or Desmond Tutu? And how many people can tell you all about Superbugs, how the Senate works or how electromagnets are effecting people without having an educational background in any of these areas? Better yet, how many people do you know who have talked to black South Africans who voted for the first time the day Apartheid was lifted, have discussed the King of Norway’s disruptive garden satellite with his landscaper, or have convinced the Head of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan to give you a couple of minutes of his time and then had him in his hotel room with cameras rolling for an hour? In respective order, Thom Rose, Gary Graves and Newsworld Reports‘, Nazim Baksh can.
“It’s fascinating at the end of the day to think I just got off the phone with a foreign minister who just came back from Bosnia, or really neat authors and people who are involved in wonderful causes doing wonderful things, like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. They are part of history, people making history, and if you get to talk to them, it’s your little window into the books,” says Herrie ten Cate, a former chase producer for As It Happens and current show producer of Newsworld Reports.
So as sleepy-eyed Mike Sheerin and Mary Ellen Collins close the window onto their part of history in the making, they can do so knowing Canada AM‘s constant appetite for news and insight has, for the moment at least, been satisfied. And as the day is just beginning for many of the country’s myriad newsmagazines, Sheerin and Collins can leave knowing that they helped Canadians to understand the awful truth of the events of September 2, 1998. They beat the chase and can prove it on the wall of mounted heads which, as of today, has one less space.