“And the stars look very different today …” David Bowie, Space Oddity
In a vainglorious display of triumphalism usually reserved for Middle Eastern dictatorships, the outside and inside walls of CBC’s Toronto headquarters are plastered with audaciously sized portraits of its stars. A few of them showcase the photogenic face of Jian Ghomeshi, who, today, stands in front of one his large likenesses in the building’s lobby, where he is being photographed yet again.
“That’s not the best angle for me,” Ghomeshi tells the photographer. “Straight on, or profile is better.”
The spot where Ghomeshi’s face is plastered once belonged to Rick Mercer, but the ranting television dare-taker requested a switch, shunting Ghomeshi to an architectural column with a fire alarm.
Photo done, Ghomeshi (in dark jeans, dark T-shirt, dark hair and dark facial scruff) is walking toward the elevator when he is approached by a woman. Looking for a job, she asks one of the company’s highest paid on-air employees for advice. He tells her not to bother with human resources, but to target the program she is specifically interested in instead. She says she wants to work on “Strombo’s,” a reference to The Hour, the late-night talk show on CBC’s television side hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos.
That is rich.
In a profile written in 2006, a Toronto Life writer dismissed Ghomeshi as Stroumboulopoulos’s “frequent sidekick” on The Hour. But if he was that back then, he isn’t any longer. Ghomeshi, 45, has gone from understudy to public broadcasting’s poster boy.
Last month, Ghomeshi won the Gold Award for best talk-show host at the New York Festivals International Radio Awards. Q, the popular daily arts, entertainment and culture magazine he hosts with aplomb and a soothing baritone, airs on 120 public radio stations south of the border, including in major markets such as New York, Chicago and San Diego.
In the minds of many, Ghomeshi’s breakthrough moment came on April 9, 2009, the day Billy Bob Thornton went weird and Sling Blade-y during a live taping of Q. Thornton, who wanted to talk only about his musical endeavours, turned erratic and uncommunicative when Ghomeshi mentioned the actor’s film career. The mesmerizingly awkward interview soon hit YouTube, where the spot went viral.
Ghomeshi’s grace under pressure won him praise, as did his defence of Canadian music fans, who Thornton referred to as “mashed potatoes without the gravy.” Ghomeshi, with no small amount of starch, countered: “Oh, we’ve got some gravy up here.”
Of course, with success – and the raging popularity of Q across a variety of platforms (podcasts, television, websites, satellite radio, terrestrial radio and occasional live remote broadcasts) – comes disdain. Ghomeshi, in some circles, has a reputation as an unreasonably demanding boss with a Saturn-sized ego. His supporters will tell you something different – that Ghomeshi is a smart, thoughtful, driven guy with a broad range of interests. That Q is a personality-driven show, and that Ghomeshi has an authoritative voice. And that if anyone thinks he’s a hard guy to work with, well, maybe they are simply having a tough time keeping up with him.
Two years ago, when Andy Barrie signed off as the long-time host of CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning, he told his listeners to remember that Peter Gzowski was once 30 years old, meaning the Morningside host was not always the venerable, grey-bearded icon who memorably distilled Canada’s identity each morning from 9 a.m. to noon, and that things change, Canadians change and CBC radio hosts come, grow and go.
In the studio at the time Barrie said all this was Ghomeshi, the former rock musician and now self-assured young Turk in the process of reshaping the nation’s Gzowski role. Gzowski had a way of connecting listeners to their country; Ghomeshi, the immigrant-Canadian golden boy, who challenges conventions, books edgy musicians – “nice to see you too, Skratch Bastid,” he actually said on air recently – and wears a black leather jacket, not a frumpy sweater, is more interested in looking out at the world.
There’s a story floating around that Ghomeshi once told the Q team of producers and directors – a young, brainy, dedicated, personable group – that their personal lives would need to take a back seat to their work. When I mention this during our lengthy interview in the swish Q studio, Ghomeshi pauses before responding: “I work really hard, and I expect a lot. That can probably be a drag to be around sometimes.”
Ghomeshi’s mood, upbeat to this point, turns sombre, his eyes cast down as he considers his reputation among his team. “I would also say that I would do anything for them,” he continues. “I really believe in the people who work on this show, and I really believe our victories are collective ones.”
Later when I talk to a few staff members, the sound technician tells me, with a shrug, that the guy at the microphone is “particular” about how he wishes his voice to be heard. And who could blame him?
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The son of Iranian parents, 9-year-old Jian Ghomeshi and his family moved from England to Thornhill, Ont., in the mid-1970s. Today, he has no trace of an accent. “When we moved here, I wanted to do anything to fit in,” he says, “so learning how to speak Canadian was a priority.” He then demonstrates his childhood accent, which sounds alien coming out his mouth, as if he had swallowed Daniel Radcliffe.
He also does an impression – “an uncanny one,” Ghomeshi assures me – of his father. He blurts a clipped, Farsi-inflected “Please work harder!”
“Part of my workaholism comes from the ethic that has been instilled,” Gomeshi says, describing “please work harder” as his dad’s mantra. There’s a story Ghomeshi likes to tell about how, as a teenager, he informed his dad that his band Moxy Früvous was making money by busking on Bloor Street – a “great tradition.” His father responded that he knew of this tradition: “It is called begging!”
In his forthcoming memoir, 1982, Ghomeshi is the brown-skinned, David Bowie-loving immigrant in a mostly-white suburb of Toronto. “The book is about the 14-year-old me wanting to be Bowie, and desperately wanting to be New Wave,” he explains, leaving out the part about hair gel and eyeliner. “I’m in love with an older woman, Wendy, who is a couple of years older than me and she’s cool and New Wave and she reminds me of Bowie.”
(Ghomeshi’s worship of Bowie, if not Wendy, persists. Along with an Arsenal football scarf, a vinyl copy of Bowie’s 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is part of a shrine in the Q studio.)
A student council president in high school, Ghomeshi went on to study history, political science and women’s studies at York University. After graduation, as a songwriting drummer, he co-formed the satirical Can-rockers Moxy Früvous, who were together from 1989 to 2001.
His career with Canada’s national broadcaster began as the host of CBC Newsworld’s >play, a snazzy entertainment series not critically acclaimed, which ran for three seasons before its cancellation in 2005 due to poor ratings.
“It was an ambitious show, with great producers,” says Ghomeshi, “but it didn’t have a unified vision of what it was. Nor was I as comfortable being me, as I am with Q.”
At the suggestion of Chris Boyce, then in charge of program development at CBC Radio, Ghomeshi took to the company’s radio side. A trio of panel-driven music series he capably chaired (50 Tracks, 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version and The National Playlist) led to an 11-week hosting gig on Sounds Like Canada, which aired daily from 10 to 11:30 a.m.
On that show, Ghomeshi ruffled feathers; he wasn’t interested in caretaking while regular host Shelagh Rogers took off the summer. He made changes, aiming at a younger, more urban audience. Radiohead was played, some of the show’s producers harrumphed, and regular listeners beat the drums for the return of Rogers and the status quo. But Boyce had Ghomeshi’s back, and by the end of 11 weeks, Sounds Like Canada was sounding a lot like what would eventually become Q.
In baseball terms, Rogers had been Wally Pipped. In the spring of 2007, Ghomeshi and Q debuted as part of the network’s afternoon schedule, but by the fall of 2008 the show (along with current affairs program The Current), occupied Radio One’s once-unassailable mid-morning slot, a product of CBC Radio’s recruitment of fresh talent and new ideas in a bid for younger audiences. “The Q property is exposed in the most ways,” says Boyce, now the company’s executive director of radio and audio, referring to the program’s platforms. “It’s the living embodiment of the modern content brand.”
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Corporate-speak aside, Boyce is talking about growth upward and outward – think of an inverted pyramid. Q’s terrestrial radio ratings have grown by 11 per cent over the past three years. In terms of digital presence, Q ranks first out of all network programs in website traffic, audio-on-demand listens, podcast downloads, and Facebook and Twitter followers.
A recent live taping of Q at Calgary’s McEwan Centre sold out in minutes. It wasn’t that long ago the CBC bussed in seniors for these kind of events, and now the seats are filled by Gawker-reading college kids.
Q’s unprecedented American victories are explainable. The show takes pop culture seriously, attracts A-list guests, engages in lively debate and manages a rhythmic flow of its varied content. You have a host in Ghomeshi who comes with an exotic cultural background, a radio-friendly baritone, and who’s cocky and well-read enough to take on a variety of issues and interview subjects in an in-depth way. “The type of show Jian does draws on a lot aspects of the host’s personality,” says Robert Harris, long-time CBC personality and producer. “It stretches your brain power, and the audience reacts to it.”
Some of the new listeners no doubt react to Q’s hip list of musical guests. Moreover, the artists and labels themselves are on board. Would rapper and Q guest Jay-Z have done Radio One five years ago? No chance. “American managers are reaching out to me, wanting to know which shows they should do,” says Patrick Sambrook, a prominent artists’ manager whose clients include Kathleen Edwards and Sarah Harmer. “Q is on the top of the list for international artists coming to Canada. It’s the show that you want to be on.”
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Interviewing is what Ghomeshi does best. I’m watching him in action, as he speaks with Benh Zeitlin, the boy-wonder director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the eccentric, critically beloved film about a young girl in an ecologically threatened Louisiana shantytown. Ghomeshi has a way of buttering up his guests, laying it on with a thickness that would make Donald Trump blush. “Congratulations on this amazing piece of work,” he tells Zeitlin, after a spiel that involves the hyped-up pull-quotes “Oscar buzz” and “modern-day masterpiece.”
As talk progresses, the interview turns less breezy. Ghomeshi brings up criticism – the claims that Zeitlin’s movie fetishes poverty, that it is not political enough, that it mines the “magical, mystical blackness” trope and that he, as a New Yorker, is not qualified to make a Southern film. The director defends, credibly and not at all angrily, and then Ghomeshi returns to his good-cop persona, hailing the film with the adjectives such as remarkable, risky, big, difficult, and, once more, remarkable.
It’s an engaging conversation that satisfies all concerned: interviewer, interviewee and the listeners. “Jian has this amazing ability to care – and I think it’s genuine – for a wide range of subjects,” says Torey Malatia, the head of Chicago’s WBEZ, who was the first to acquire Q in the United States. “Jian is asking questions, not because an editor or producer is telling him to ask those questions, but because he really is curious and wants to know. And I think his guests respond to it in kind.”
Radio is a medium of relationships. Gzowski knew that, Barbara Frum knew that, as does Michael Enright. Says Ghomeshi, “the trick in broadcasting is that if you’re comfortable in your skin, the audience, for the most part, will be comfortable as well.”
It’s ironic that an immigrant’s son who just wanted to fit in now is succeeding for his ability to stand out. All that was required to do his best work was for him to be himself, on a show pretty well built around his own interests. “I’ve always been made fun of for using big words,” Ghomeshi says, “and now I have an avenue where’s it’s okay to do that.”
Ghomeshi has yet to land a dream interview with his hero. It might not ever happen. Given his other achievements, however, you’d have to think a talk with David Bowie at this point would be gravy.