Anna Maria Tremonti is one of the steeliest personalities in Canadian journalism, but on Thursday morning she allowed herself a rare Sally Field moment. Kicking off a gentle interview with Shadrach Kabango, aka Shad, the new host of CBC Radio's Q, she admitted that she and her co-workers were flattered by the rapper's choice to join their ranks. "The very fact that you believe that it is worth coming on board here at CBC speaks to a lot of us on the inside, makes us proud," she told him, sounding not a little bit moonstruck. "One of my producers said yesterday, 'He likes us.' Because, you know the CBC's been under fire. So, your decision to come here is a big deal."
Shad replied humbly that he was honoured to become a public servant, but Tremonti couldn't resist one more self-conscious poke. "I'm just checking," she said, "CBC is having a rough time beyond Jian Ghomeshi: massive layoffs, lots of criticism, various criticism. You know you're at the CBC, not CBS, not BBC – you got it, C-B-C, right?" Sook-Yin Lee, Julie Nesrallah and Brent Bambury turned up to offer advice and good wishes. Even Peter Mansbridge contributed a pre-recorded white-man rap that left Shad briefly speechless.
If the folks in Studio Q allowed themselves a few moments of uncharacteristic giddiness, you could understand their relief. Thursday marked 20 weeks since Ghomeshi had stepped out of the studio and into infamy, and everyone on staff was eager – some would say desperate – to begin a new chapter. While the focus has understandably been on the former host, who faces seven criminal charges, the gruelling, unprecedented process of finding a new personality to be Q's flag bearer offers a fascinating glimpse into the stress fractures and underlying strength of the public broadcaster.
Over the past four and a half months, producers worked 16-hour days and endured sometimes crushing media attention.
Cutbacks announced last summer at the broadcaster – expected to eliminate 20 per cent of full-time jobs by 2020 – were not far from people's minds: a number of the producers are on temporary contracts. Cluster-bomb revelations of Ghomeshi's behaviour, who-knew-what-when, roiled staff and spurred the suspension of CBC Radio's top English-language executive just as the search process was moving into high gear in January.
But if CBC is beleaguered, as Tremonti implied, it remains a lodestar for many within the industry, and candidates lined up for the job of hosting its eight-year-old flagship arts and culture radio show. Within days of Ghomeshi's firing, even as the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto underwent a Stalinist purge to remove any sign of the former host, job queries began to flood in. Daniel Richler, a former CBC journalist now based in London, sent a volley of e-mails to former colleagues and current executives, offering his services and inquiring about an audition.
Management was not yet ready to think about bringing in outsiders, however, so the show relied at first on a rotating cast of three regular CBC Radio hosts: Bambury, Piya Chattopadhyay and Tom Power.
As one of the first hosts to replace Ghomeshi, Power says he felt a special responsibility to staff, who were clearly in some distress. "Sometimes in this industry, you start to wonder whether the lessons your mother had taught you about being a good, kind, honest person are beneficial, do you know what I mean?" Power says. "You think, 'Well, maybe I should be more of a meaner person, because that will help me get ahead.' And when I walked in there, I walked in with the utmost respect for that team, and that show, and I wanted to be kind with them, and just help them through it." He was well liked by the staff, wound up on the short list, and said recently that even though he didn't get the job, it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest the entire experience had renewed his faith in the world.
Staff wrestled with the shadow cast over the show by their former host in both abstract and concrete ways. In late November, Q published a blog post instructing listeners how to update the show's podcast icon on their mobile devices, because the old one featured Ghomeshi's image. A few weeks later, the show announced its archives would be scrubbed from CBC's website and YouTube in order to give those re-creating Q a blank slate.
"We're focusing on the future," said Cindy Witten, who was then the senior director of CBC Radio Talk. But fans were loath to see history erased like that, and after a brief outcry, CBC reversed its position.
Witten was clearly still finding her feet. She had only started at CBC in late September; five weeks later, the Ghomeshi scandal erupted, making every day at work feel like a Tilt-A-Whirl. On the first Monday back after the new year, CBC suspended Witten's boss, Chris Boyce, the executive director of CBC Radio, as part of the Ghomeshi fallout, and made her his temporary replacement. "It affected the process in that I was suddenly juggling two radio services," Witten said this week.
With the end of February as an internal deadline, the search was intensifying. Building on input from Q staff and the executive search firm Searchlight Recruitment, Witten and her managers cast as wide a net as possible, drawing up a list of about 200 people. They then asked about 20 candidates to come into the studio to audition in a mock show process. Candidates were asked to write an opening essay, like the trademark ones Ghomeshi had delivered (but usually not written himself). The artist Darren O'Donnell and the journalist Thomas Rogers, who had written an article for Rolling Stone last summer about so-called "Nipsters," or Nazi Hipsters, allowed themselves to be interviewed over and over by a parade of wannabe hosts.
Some, like the New York-based author and journalist Clive Thompson, auditioned in a remote studio. Sean Rameswaram, a Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based producer with Public Radio International's Studio 360, also did an off-air audition, then was flown up to Toronto for a week-long tryout in early February. He also conducted a panel discussion on "the whiteness of public radio" with two CBC employees who were given full rein to criticize their own employer for its relative lack of diversity. (Rameswaram is of Sri Lankan descent.)
Some candidates skipped over the off-air tryouts and went straight to on-air auditions, including Richler, who had last done radio more than 30 years ago. He was nervous, and in the weeks leading up to his on-air audition in early February, he peppered producers with questions and ideas. "I must say, I was quite demanding, because I felt out of the loop, living in London," he said this week. "I knew they couldn't give me that much time, because they were working with other people."
Still, by the end of his audition week, Richler felt he had found a rhythm and was even enjoying himself. When his final show wrapped up, he went back to his desk and – at the stroke of noon – took a swig of Jack Daniels from a flask he had brought with him from England, "in anticipation of the cold Canadian winter."
When someone on the show spotted him, he said, they opened up a cupboard and revealed a bottle of single malt Scotch. "Apparently, when things were really bad, there were a lot of supportive people at CBC who used to bring cupcakes and muffins – and the occasional bottle of Scotch," Richler said.
No one joined him in the tipple; they still had work to do. Producers on the show told friends they were exhausted by the hamster-wheel-like demands of working with one guest host while trying to get the next week's host up to speed. Producers worked especially long hours prepping punk rocker Damian Abraham, but while he was a jovial presence on air he stumbled frequently during interviews and transitions.
As the revolving door of guest hosts and auditions continued, a number of U.S. stations dropped Q from their lineup, including WBUR in Boston. While the show's U.S. distribution is not a significant source of revenue for CBC, it is used to trade for other programming, such as The World, which is co-produced by PRI and BBC World Service. And Q's U.S. presence helps the show enormously in snagging big guests.
At the same time, listeners were offering feedback on the CBC website and with the hashtag #QTheFuture. Some listeners suggested they turn the audition process into a reality show. One candidate privately noted that it felt as if they had done so, and that it was not a pleasant experience.
Stand-up comic Candy Palmater, who has had a variety program on APTN TV for a number of years, said last month that she found the experience "bumpy at first," in part because she was used to writing her own copy. The Q crew, she noted, "has been writing for one person for 10 years, and now all of a sudden they're in this horrible position where they're writing for somebody different every week."
Alone among the candidates, the irrepressible Palmater seemed to take naturally to the reality show aspect of the casting process. She read the comments left for her on the Q blog, and even found some of the unsolicited advice to be helpful, including one listener's suggestion to forego softball questions. Throughout her five-day run, and in the weeks afterward, she asked fans to send e-mails and tweets to CBC expressing their desire to see her land the permanent gig.
It apparently worked: By the middle of February, Witten and a small inner circle had settled on a short list that included Palmater, Richler, Rameswaram and Power. It also included Shad, who had particularly impressed the managers with how quickly his interviewing skills had improved during his five days on air.
While the executives and producers were also impressed by some of the journalists, such as Rachel Giese, Witten and the others ultimately felt they wanted to go with an artist instead.
"We were struck by the connections that the artists and the creators made with the guests," said Witten. "So we took that fork in the road, and felt that was delivering the most interesting revelations."
Within CBC, it was widely believed that diversity would be an important part of creating the new Q – not just in the choice of its on-air host, but the staff as well. In fact, says Witten, it is an important value for the entire network. Two weeks ago, as she wrapped up a presentation to CBC's board of directors about her plans for the radio services, she raised the issue. "What I said was, diversity is foundational to everything we're trying do. We're not going to be successful, we're not going to be relevant, we're not going to reach more people if we aren't paying very close attention to diversity."
The shortlist was tested with an online panel of 1,000 respondents, who were asked to comment on the candidates' star power as well as their gut reaction to them. Executives at Public Radio International, which distributes Q to more than 100 stations in the U.S., were asked to listen to the five hosts and provide feedback – PRI is hopeful that Shad's appointment can get some of the stations that dumped the show to pick it back up again.
CBC executives also quietly shared the short list both with people outside and inside the broadcaster. In the end, it was Witten who made the call. "I would say a lot of data fed into it, a lot of people fed into it," she said on Thursday afternoon. "At some point, things start to coalesce in your belly, and you're starting to feel the choice, you're starting to feel the decision. There is a bit of black art to it. In the end, it's an instinctual call."
Spirits were high in Studio Q on Thursday morning, but by the afternoon, as Shad arrived for yet another media interview, he was carrying a Starbucks cup and looking a little worn. He settled in at a conference table on the third floor of the Broadcast Centre, in an abandoned quadrant of the offices which layoffs had rendered surplus. The place was under renovation, and to be leased to a new tenant.
Shad was trying to set realistic expectations. He noted that he would spend weeks in training before his debut show, a live extravaganza at the Glenn Gould Theatre on April 20. "There's opportunity for improvement in every area," he said, noting that he expected it would take six months before he and the Q team would really start to gel.
Late on Thursday, Witten was sounding cautiously optimistic about the future. "I think he's going to be good, and then I think he's going to be great."
Was she pleased with how the last four and half months unfolded?
Witten breathed deeply, then replied: "I'm pleased with the outcome."