Vince Carlin sat in Studio T, deep in the heart of the CBC radio building in Toronto, smiling patiently. Across the table, Trent Frayne, sports columnist for The Globe and Mail, and Brian Williams, sports anchorman for CBC, exchanged one-liners while fidgeting with their headsets. In the background, the voice of Edmonton Journal sports columnist John Short, in CBC’s Edmonton studio, was being tested for sound.
After a final scan over his question sheet and a nod from the control room, Carlin went to work. For the next 40 minutes, the host of The Media File, CBC’s half-hour discussion show that runs Tuesday nights at 7:30, turned the apparent confusion into a comprehensive debate on the ethics involved in sports journalism. Williams lambasted professional baseball broadcasters, calling them “clowns” for drooling over the “carpet-bagging baseball player who spends his winters in California.” Short called the Toronto Blue Jays “foreign mercenaries” and criticized the press for labelling them “Canada’s Team.” Frayne took a rip at team owners and suggested the media should ignore them completely. When it was over, Carlin again smiled. After a good edit, it would make a critical, interesting and entertaining item that would run less than a week later on January 21.
It’s these qualities that Carlin, senior producer Stuart Allen and editor Dale Ratcliffe have tried to inject intoThe Media File since it first went to air last October. It wasn’t always easy, but then again, no one expected it to be. When the trio took the assignment, they knew they were breaking new ground. And despite their share of unforeseen difficulties, they’ve created a program that has made front-page news, done well in the ratings, and generated response from its listening audience. “This type of program is a major, major breakthrough for radio news,” says Allen, a veteran newsman at CBC. “The standard view is that radio doesn’t have opinions.”
The idea for the show developed one day last September. A group of CBC news executives, including Allen, had met with managing editor of radio news Michael Enright to come up with an idea for a show to fill the Tuesday time slot following As It Happens.
The CBC decision-makers were interested in a show about the media, but under one condition: it had to appeal to regular listeners, not just journalists. Allen agreed to this, but quickly added a condition of his own. “We had to make it clear to the hierarchy of the CBC that we were going to take a hard look at all the media-CBC included.”
This was easier to envision than to implement. As Allen and company would soon find out, breaking ground can be a harrowing experience. Time would prove to be the first problem. The original format called for as many as three items per show as well as a response to listener mail-all crammed into 30 minutes. This left little time for details. On one occasion, a taping session was arranged among six people at once-four in the studio and two on broadcast lines from studios in other cities-for a story on the manipulation of the press by the government. Even though Carlin managed to fit everyone in, the result was too many opinions and not enough focus.
But time wasn’t the only problem. The trio quickly discovered that journalists are not quick to criticize themselves. In the early stages of the show, the refusal rate for those asked to appear was close to 50 per cent. And when the journalists did consent to an interview, Carlin often found them hesitant. He faults himself for not being able to bring out the replies he wanted. “Interviewing a person in a short period of time was a new technique for me,” says Carlin, “I found I was letting easy answers go by.”
Throughout the first month, the trio struggled to overcome these problems. Then came a break. CBC president Pierre Juneau called one morning in October to agree to an interview for a story on the latest government cutback plans for CBC. Recalls Allen: “We agreed beforehand that if he said absolutely nothing, we wouldn’t run it.” Despite warnings from their peers that they were wasting their time, Allen and his associates gave it their best shot. Juneau responded to the first question from Carlin by saying the CBC would be “destroyed” if current cutbacks continued. The CBC news department immediately wanted the story, but Allen told them to wait until after it aired on the November 5 Media File. When it did, CBC used the story as did others. The Globe carried the story on its front page.
From here, the evolution of the show seemed to speed up. In the fall ratings, The Media File was tops among the five CBC special-interest programs that filled the 7:30 p.m. weekday time slots. Listener response has also been good. During the first month, fewer than five letters a week were received. During one week before Christmas, 86 listeners wrote in. Journalists as well seemed to be paying attention. “Now only about 15 per cent won’t talk to us,” says Allen.
Understandably, Carlin, Allen and Ratcliffe are all happy with what they’ve accomplished. But they are not about to let their minds slip into neutral. Says Allen: “My personal philosophy is that there is no such thing as a perfect show. But we’re striving for that.”