The concept was simplicity itself: Find the newsmaker, get him or her on the phone, record the conversation and put it on the air.

"The telephone is a delightful instrument," explained Phil Forsyth, the first host of CBC Radio's As It Happens. "It can go anywhere, doesn't cost that much, and on the air it sounds like a real conversation rather than an interview."

Now, as the show celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, the truth of Forsyth's observation has been demonstrably proved. As It Happens is still going strong, five times a week, a lively and entertaining mix of texture-adding news analysis and offbeat items. Says executive producer Lynda Shorten: "I think it's lasted so long because it is as fully human, as ridiculous and as intelligent as the people who listen to it."

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It didn't matter where the guests were - Barbara Frum once interviewed someone who was taking a bath - As It Happens would find them. Over the decades, some of Canada's finest broadcasters have sat in the principal chairs, including Frum, Michael Enright, Harry Brown, Alan Maitland and Mary Lou Finlay. With only one brief hiatus, the show has opened and closed every night with two signature songs by Canadian jazz legend Moe Koffman - Curried Soul and Koff Drops.

For seven nights over the past week, the show has been marking its anniversary with a retrospective of its greatest hits - and misses - an exercise designed in part, as producer Kate Swoger put it, "to distract itself from the horror of the officially becoming middle-aged."

The week's lineup included shows dedicated to firsts (including an interview with the first person to iron while hang gliding); to political uprisings (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Iran and China, with expert commentary by historian Timothy Garton Ash); to pop music (featuring both stories that the program covered and those it missed); to Africa (the Rwandan genocide and South Africa's triumph against apartheid); to the economy; to Reading, the obscure British town that has been a staple of As It Happens levity (dozens of stories, all ending with the question-begging tag line, "We spoke to so-and-so in Fill in the Blank, which is X kilometres from Reading"); and a healthy injection of some of the show's bloopers.

On Tuesday, the actual anniversary date, current and former crew members joined a "How It Happens" discussion, looking at how its team of bleary-eyed producers manage to track down famous names in the news. Among those participating was Mark Starowicz, now a documentary filmmaker. He recounted how the show had played a seminal role in making the beaver Canada's national symbol - the result of a campaign to thwart an attempt by Vermont to claim the beaver as its own. The campaign led to a private member's bill in Parliament that formally adopted the Castor canadensis as the nation's principal icon.

Tonight, and for the remainder of the week, the show will air a selection of favourite memories from listeners.

For producers assigned to create the retrospective, it meant long hours mining the show's voluminous tape archive and deciding what to take.

For example, producer Dara McLeod, an Africa expert, decided early on that it would be folly to try to encompass 40 years of tumultuous history into a single program.

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"Trying to do too much would have meant doing too little, yielding nothing of weight," she says. Thus, she chose to focus on "the best and worst of Africa, two stories of struggle from the legacy of colonialism - the Rwandan genocide and the battle against apartheid in South Africa." In the former, the archive included more than a dozen interviews with Roméo Dallaire, then the United Nations commander in Kigali, and Médecins sans frontières volunteer James Orbinksi. It was, McLeod says, "history recorded as it happened."

Kate Swoger, who produced the uprisings segments, also had an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. The archives contained interviews with the spokesman for Iran's Ayatollah Khomaini, as well as an Iranian exile who returned during the revolution only to see his dreams of political freedom shattered, then fled again. The show also featured tapes from Beijing's Tiananmen Square from June, 1989, when Chinese army tanks bore down on protesting students and activists, killing thousands. "These are heartbreaking," Swoger says, "because the streets are full of young people hopeful that things will change, but you sense that things aren't going to work out."

Perhaps the lightest show of the week was about Reading, produced by Sue Campbell. Its use as a comedic device dates from September, 1976, when new producer George Somerwill, on his first day of work, was asked to handle a story set in rural England. At the end of the item, Somerwill, for no apparent reason, decided to add that the town was located a certain number of miles from Reading. Bob Campbell, then executive producer, said, "Where the hell is Reading?" But listeners loved it and it became an ongoing gag. It was employed dozens of times, the distance usually measured in miles or kilometres. But once - an item about a woman who cleaned and perfumed garbage cans in Portsmouth - the closing line was: "We figure that's a mere 84,480 garbage cans placed end to end away from Reading ... give or take a bin."


Behind the microphones

A list of the on-air hosts of As It Happens during its first 40 years on CBC Radio:

1968-1969: Philip Forsyth, Harry Brown and William Ronald

1969-1971: Harry Brown and

William Ronald

1971-1973: Harry Brown, Cy Strange and Barbara Frum

1973-1974: Harry Brown and

Barbara Frum

1973-1981: Barbara Frum and Alan Maitland

1981-1985: Alan Maitland and

Elizabeth Gray

1985-1987: Alan Maitland and Dennis Trudeau

1987-1993: Alan Maitland and

Michael Enright

1993-1997: Michael Enright and Barbara Budd

1997-2005: Barbara Budd and Mary Lou Finlay

2006-present: Barbara Budd and Carol Off