Carol Off

Late one morning last October, Carol Off, the new host of CBC Radio One’s evening flagship As It Happens, prepares to interview Zemedkun Teckle, spokesperson for the Ethiopia Ministry of Information. Ensconced in a recording studio in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in downtown Toronto, she dons her headset. The wall behind her features a groovy 1970s AIH sign and photographs of past hosts such as Barbara Frum, Elizabeth Gray, Michael Enright and Mary Lou Finlay, who collectively have interviewed quirky oddballs alongside serious newsmakers for the past 39 years. Watching through a glass window in the control room, the producer and technician are thrilled with how clear the line is to Addis Ababa. Off has been to Africa many times as a reporter and knows from experience how to cover stories of war. Ethiopia has just sent military personnel into Somalia, ostensibly to train the fragile transitional government there. The goal is to prevent the Union of Islamic Courts, the group that has controlled the Somali capital of Mogadishu since June, from making headway into the country. Off is in her element.

In From the Cold She grills Teckle about whether his government has mobilized forces into Somalia: “Along with these militias you say are just in there to train, have those Ethiopian militias gone in with any military hardware? Do they have tanks with them?”

“The military men who went in to give training to the Somali side have to be able to protect themselves,” says Teckle. “In that case, they may have taken some basic weapons.” “And tanks?” Off persists.

“I don’t think so,” says Teckle, chuckling softly. “I’m not going to comment on the details. I don’t have all the details.”

Off is enjoying this. She likes interviews in which she can hold public figures accountable for their actions. “Teckle is a warmonger,” she says later in her office. “He’s not taking any responsibility for what’s going to happen. And that makes me cuckoo.” (In late December, her suspicions were confirmed when Ethiopia launched a full-scale offensive, successfully ousting the Islamists and plunging the capital into chaos.)

For Off, hosting AIH is the right job at the right time, an opportunity that allows her to stay in one place after years of travelling while still providing a vehicle for her considerable experience and talent as a journalist. But at the same time, as the 40th anniversary of AIH approaches, the venerable radio program is part of a less innocent zeitgeist than when it was created in 1968. Televisions in the office are tuned to 24-hour news outlets, direct dialing makes sending flowers to overseas operators at Christmas unnecessary and the world is connected by email, cellphones and even satellite phones.

Still, the format of the show has barely changed — including the 38-year-old theme song, “Curried Soul,” by late Canadian jazz legend Moe Koffman — and to some it feels like a time warp. (One former producer, Lesley Krueger, says, “I get a shock of displacement when I’m out in the car somewhere and the theme song starts playing — what year is this?”) It also operates in a medium sometimes thought to be anachronistic in the era of the Internet, not to mention that CBC itself is under pressure from parsimonious federal governments.

There is no doubt that Off, when she started at AIH last September, was the latest in a long line of distinguished hosts, bringing a new energy and perspective to the show. The question is not so much whether this serious, hard-charging, ambitious journalist can shake up AIH’s “heritage” formula, but whether she’ll fall under the spell of its quaint and sometimes whimsical charms.

In the newsroom, Off launches into a pigeon impression. She flaps her arms around her head wildly and flashes a mischievous grin, a reminder that she has a reputation for having a lighter side, too. She has just interviewed a British photojournalist who snapped a photo of a pigeon struggling down the gullet of a pelican in a London park. Most of the producers have already seen an amateur video of the incident on, but they enjoy Off’s performance anyway.

Working at AIH brings out a different side of her personality, one that was rarely seen in her previous work. “There is absolutely no humour in filming the bodies of people being held up by branches in a river in the Balkans during the spring thaw,” says Margo Kelly, a reporter for CBC National Radio News, who has known Off since university. “It’s nice to hear her laugh.”

But she has another reputation to contend with. A long-time CBC producer who has worked at The Nationalsays she is a micromanager who wants to control every aspect of production. She would second-guess the producers and crew, telling an experienced cameraman how to light a scene, for example. “It got to the point where many of the producers just wouldn’t work with her at all anymore,” he says. He remembers her interviewing style — asking the same questions, sometimes for over an hour, until her sources gave in. Her tenaciousness drew both incredulity and grudging admiration from her colleagues.

Despite burning out some of her teammates, she has forged a highly successful career. She has reported from 40 countries, including war zones like Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Persian Gulf. She won a Gemini Award in 2002 for In the Company of Warlords, a documentary about Afghanistan that she made for The National. She has written three non-fiction books that explore sober issues surrounding world conflicts. Her most recent, Bitter Chocolate, tells the story of boys as young as nine who are forced to pick cocoa in the Ivory Coast, pointing out the tragic irony involved in producing the world’s favourite treat.

Her awareness of injustice started early. She grew up the third of seven children in a family of mixed Polish and British descent. Off spent her childhood in post-war northern Winnipeg, a working class community of immigrants and refugees that was home to Holocaust survivors. Her outrage at hearing their stories from the war — and on one occasion seeing a tattooed forearm — was supported by her parents, who had a social-justice bent. She decided to become a journalist while studying English at the University of Western Ontario in the late ’70s. After reading through an issue of Western’s Gazette, the student daily, she knew she could do better. She has been working in journalism ever since.

This level of determination was nothing new. After leaving high school, Off travelled across the country for almost two years before marrying an artist named Fred Harrison and settling in London. She gave birth to their son, Joel, when she was 21, and had to juggle university studies with caring for her baby. After graduating, she made the difficult decision to leave Joel in the care of his father — whom she had divorced — and move to Toronto to find work as a journalist. (Joel, now 30 and studying urban forestry in Toronto, sees Off weekly).

Off’s singular drive impressed her current husband Linden MacIntyre, host of CBC’s the fifth estate, when he first met her in the late ’80s (they married over 10 years later). “She wasn’t a glamour girl who got spotted and nurtured,” he says. “She essentially set out to invent herself and her journalism and did it bit by bit, seeing the world on her own dime, learning French on her own initiative and in many cases, coming up with her own stories and executing them against great odds.”

One dramatic example: in 1986, she sold most of her possessions to buy a plane ticket to Karachi. She planned to interview Benazir Bhutto, who was in jail at the time, and had pitched the idea to CBC radio showSunday Morning. When she arrived at the Karachi airport, she ended up being one of the only journalists in the midst of a bloody hijacking. With the airport shut down, she filed radio and television stories for CBC, along with major networks in the U.S. and Ireland. MacIntyre heard her reports from the scene and says, “I thought that was pretty gritty.”

By 2005, when she heard Mary Lou Finlay was to retire from hosting AIH after eight years, Off realized she was ready to throw her hat into the ring. The hiring process took over six months, during which time there was both a federal election and an Olympics, but CBC wanted to find the right fit. When Off finally won the job, she realized she was ambivalent about giving up her foreign reporting, which MacIntyre describes as addictive, but she accepted after much soul-searching. She doesn’t miss travelling as much as she feared. At 52, working at AIHallows Off a new level of comfort and security: “I’ve started to realize the degree to which folding myself into tiny airplane seats for 25-hour journeys to other parts of the world, and spending weeks sleeping in makeshift rooms, tents or ditches, is hard on the body.”

Her schedule today is more conventional — she has weekends off and dinner at home most nights — but the intense, sometimes daunting necessity to be prepared and effective for interviews that are scheduled at the eleventh hour is demanding in a different way. The new pace is relentless. Where she used to travel intensely for a month or so and then return to a more flexible timetable, now she gets up each weekday and reads all the newspapers to prepare for work. Often she reads all weekend, too, leaving little time for stacked-up errands and personal obligations.

When she arrives at the show’s open concept office in the mammoth, glass-enclosed broadcasting centre at around 10 a.m., the show’s chase producers, mostly in their twenties and thirties, are already absorbed in intense research behind their computer screens. At 10:30 a.m. she joins them for a story meeting in the alcove by her office — a cozy space with couches, a stereo and a giant fern. Leslie Peck, the executive producer, presides over the meeting like a den mother. The producers pitch their ideas according to categories, everyone listening respectfully before jumping in with comments. Peck has the final say about which ideas to chase and which to kill.

Back at their desks, the producers hunt down sources. Having scheduled interviews for Off, they write the times in dry erase marker on the storyboard, sometimes accompanied by little editorial cartoons, if they feel so inspired. (For one worthy but less-thandramatic story, a producer wrote, “Wheat Board: Manitoba,” followed by Zzzzzzz…). Before each interview, the producer handling the story gives Off a one-page research summary with a list of suggested questions. Then, at the appointed time, the segment is taped. Off goes back and forth from her office to the studio a dozen or so times on a busy day.

The brilliant illusion of AIH is that most listeners think it’s live. In fact, it goes out in waves across the country, reflecting different time zones, and airing from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in each one (except, needless to say, a half-hour later in Newfoundland). Off and veteran announcer and co-host Barbara Budd are not really together in the studio the whole time the show is on the air. Budd comes in at three, reads through the script and makes her notes. At 5:30 p.m. EST they introduce the show together to the East Coast. Budd then reads the transitions between each of Off’s earlier recorded interviews, which are edited for length and clarity. (It’s only on occasion that Off’s interviews are live, such as during a breaking news story). Then they pre-record the goodbyes during a newsbreak. Off heads home most days by the time the clock in the studio ticks around its green fluorescent circle to 7 p.m.

As important as the co-hosts are, the format of AIH is the real star of the show. It offers listeners an unusual mix of smart, in-depth interviews with current newsmakers and kooky ones about ordinary folks involved in unconventional situations. As former host Michael Enright puts it, “We always had a crazy vicar story. You know, some nutty Church of England vicar that came out in favour of ordaining white rabbits or something.” Within the first six years of her tenure as host, Barbara Frum had interviewed: the grower of the world’s largest cabbage (who was both hard of hearing and just back from the pub), “Bozo” Miller, who held the 1980 Guinness record for eating 54 pounds of chicken in one sitting, and a stuntman who planned to catapult himself across a river with a giant slingshot.

Over the years, producers have also reached Soviet dissidents at a clandestine meeting the night Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled; the boxer Muhammad Ali after he talked a suicidal young black man down from a ledge in Chicago; Sir Geoffrey Howe, a long-serving member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, in his bathtub; and a 17-year-old Dawson College student recuperating in a café after fleeing from a gunman in a trench coat.

In an age of high-tech gadgetry and the Internet, AIH has the same elements today as it had at the beginning: a telephone, a microphone and music. It’s a simple, relatively inexpensive model that so engages listeners, some report sitting in their driveways waiting to hear the end of an interview. In a Bureau of Broadcast Measurement report covering January to March 2006, AIH had a weekly reach of 895,100 listeners and captured an impressive 11 per cent share of the listening audience in Canada. Its popularity has grown to include Americans too, who tune in for a syndicated hour-long version in 105 markets in that country.

The origin of the show goes back to 1968, the brainchild of Val Clery, a former commando in the British Army, who devised the call-out concept. He used a new technique called “roller-coasting,” meaning the show would start on the East Coast and run for two hours in each time zone adding new, breaking material as it went along. It was completely live and ran for six hours, thus the name, As It Happens.

It was an era of experimentation in radio broadcasting. The all-night Radio Unnameable on WBAI in New York, for example, combined impromptu poetry readings with reports on the local Greenwich Village drug scene, all in an open format. But Clery’s idea to reach out globally was, in an era before digital and satellite technology, a technical nightmare. The phone system was so unreliable that Bell engineers had to be on hand for the first few shows and phone wires were rigged loosely around the studio. There were far fewer conversations and they lasted up to 15 minutes each, partly because it was so hard to reach people live. Guests would show up late, forcing AIH producers to play entire songs between interviews. It was slow and chatty, and ratings were terrible.

Luckily Margaret Lyons, a pioneering CBC executive, had a vision for current affairs programming and an eye for spotting talent. She believed CBC radio had become irrelevant to the average Canadian — the audience was so small in the ’60s that CBC thought seriously about shutting the network down — and she intended to change that. In 1970, she recruited Mark Starowicz, a 23-year-old ex-student radical who had been fired from both The Gazette in Montreal and the Toronto Star — as a producer. She wanted him to shake up the stuffy network from the inside, and put him to work on AIH.

So, in 1973, over one night during the New Year’s long weekend, Richard Bronstein, Starowicz and a technician reformatted the show. They more than doubled the number of items, making each one as topical as possible. They decided to use short stings of music in between items and engineered a mix of serious stories and lighter fare.

The premise — that you could start each day fresh and go around the world talking to newsmakers on the telephone — took a lot of chutzpah to execute. The staff was young and rebellious. “Our offices were next door to one of the middle-management types in radio,” says Alison Gordon, a producer from 1975 to 1978. “I remember at one point we took to playing on the turntable in our office an old marching band version of ‘O Canada’ before the morning meeting. Even though we knew it would never happen, we were hoping that he’d complain so we could then get the word out that ‘middle-management’ is anti-patriotic.”

In those days AIH was located in the radio building on Jarvis Street, a former girls private school at the turn of the century. It was “haunted in the best way by all kinds of radio ghosts,” says Karen Levine, a producer who fondly remembers working there despite its flaws. “It was falling down, there were mice, there were flies in the bathroom. It was just a dump.” Cigarette smoke filled the air along with the constant clacking of typewriters. Producers had three black rotary telephones in their offices, and there were three more in the studio with corresponding lines. When calling overseas, they would cling desperately to the line (a lot of calls got dropped accidentally) and holler down to the studio for a technician to pick up. They rifled through paper reports coming in from the wires. They had a Telex machine to message out, though it was glacially slow. They edited tape with razor blades and then hauled the reel onto an Ampex machine to listen (and they had to listen hard because three other producers might be simultaneously doing the same thing). They used overseas operators in Montreal for every international call and received every incoming call through the overburdened CBC switchboard.

Unlike Off and company, who simply walk along a hall to the studio, producers on Jarvis Street had many levels of stairs to navigate, which they did at increasingly breakneck speeds as show time approached. Tempers flared and on occasion a typewriter would fly across the office, but the creative intensity also gave rise to the feeling that they were part of a large, rowdy family.

In then-host Barbara Frum, they found a witty older sister with an unorthodox fashion sense. Alan Mendelsohn, a former producer who later went on to write and direct a CBC Life and Times documentary about her legacy, remembers people teasing her about her wardrobe of busy prints, plumes and faux fur. “She was very good at laughing at herself and being made fun of,” he says. “She did not have a thin skin.” The loud blouses became one of her trademarks when she moved to television in 1982 to host The Journal, the second half of the national newscast, which she hosted for 10 years before passing away in 1992.

Although she achieved greater fame with The Journal, the legacy of AIH still has Frum at its centre. With her co-host Alan Maitland — a much-loved announcer with mellifluous pipes — by her side, she created a legendary intimacy with her audience. She had the ability, so valuable in broadcast journalism, to sound as though she was representing listeners, asking the question they would have asked in her place. The personality of the show evolved around her style, and over the years, her name became almost interchangeable with the show itself, as in, “I heard it on Barbara Frum last night.”

It was Frum’s cheeky and irreverent comments that first caught Off’s attention when she was in university and growing tired of the same rock music on the radio. She liked how Frum challenged authority in her interviews and says, “I didn’t know you were allowed to do that on radio.”

As one of the few hosts to have a primary background as a field reporter, Off’s forceful style has changedAIH, but not the basic character of the show. Jennifer McGuire, executive director of programming for CBC Radio, says the show is not static. There was minor tinkering with pacing when Off came in, and there are plans to continue exploring ways to use new technology. (The weekly podcast, The Best of AIH, is consistently near the top of iTunes’s most downloaded list). But even though the voice of the show is different, CBC brass seem to have adopted the position that they shouldn’t try to fix what isn’t broken. “You’re not going to see it turn into a documentary show, or start talking about earthworms,” says McGuire. “It’s a heritage show for CBC. It’s an important anchor in our schedule and the face of CBC Radio to the world.” Of course, offbeat items like ones on giant cabbages or record-setting chicken-eaters are part of what makesAIH the show that it is.

Take this morning in late October, for example. Off interviews Clive Farrell, one of the foremost butterfly experts in England, who just happened to have a monarch butterfly all the way from North America land in his garden while he was eating lunch. Dara McLeod, the producer, tells Farrell to hold while she transfers him to the host. “He’s quiet,” she says to Off. “Be forewarned.”

Off, who today wears a skirt and a soft blue sweater, asks her guest to describe the butterfly (“excellent condition, it just had a tiny tear in the hind wing”), what he feeds it, (“fresh flowers everyday and a pad of cotton wool that I soak in a 10 per cent sugar and water solution”) and where he keeps it (“this particular greenhouse I’ve got is quite large and there’s a little stream running through it”). He explains that the butterfly likely migrated across the Atlantic on the jet stream, where the temperature is -50 C. It’s one of the few monarchs ever to land in Britain.

Beyond the glass wall, McLeod types a question on her computer: how can the butterfly go so long without being able to rest on land? Off instantly sees it on her laptop, and weaves the question in. McLeod gives her the thumbs-up sign. Listening intently, the tough investigative reporter with the fearsome reputation for grilling subjects gazes into the distance with a dreamy look on her face, imagining herself in that greenhouse. Once the interview is over, she turns to her colleagues and says: “I’m going to go live with Mr. Farrell.”

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About the author

Gena Smith was the Head of Research for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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