When word got out a few weeks ago that Quebec was lowering its drinking age to 14 (12 if the youngster is with a parent), there was outrage - and, in some circles, glee. People took to Twitter and other online forums to express their strongly held opinions. If the story seemed unbelievable, the fact that the original interview on the topic linked back to a CBC Radio Web page - and sounded very much like a CBC Radio interview - seemed to lend it some credibility.
The story, of course, wasn't true. It emerged from an upcoming segment on CBC Radio One's satirical current affairs show This Is That. The fake interview show - think of it as The Onion on the radio - is returning for a second season this summer, and no doubt the people in the CBC's audience-relations department are bracing themselves.
In its first season last summer, the parody - which undeniably sounds a lot like other CBC interview shows, mirroring that tone of objective, earnest inquisitiveness and story choice with uncanny accuracy - got the phones ringing at the CBC.
Listeners were upset to learn that Grade 4 was being cancelled in Nova Scotia, that during a planned visit by the Queen, locals would be forced to drive on the other side of the street in her honour, and that the Calgary Aquarium was shutting down and, needing to empty the building, was planning to grill up its fish for families who showed up the following weekend.
"I think this is absolutely outrageous and disgusting," one caller to the This Is That hotline said about the aquarium story. "This is shocking to me," said another, "and I just hope it's a joke."
It was, of course. For starters, Calgary doesn't have an aquarium.
But when listeners - already livid about the subject matter - realize they've been duped, that can spark even more outrage.
"We've got a thicker skin about it now," co-host Pat Kelly says. "You just come to terms with the fact that there's people that listen to the CBC who do not have a sense of humour whatsoever."
Kelly and co-host Peter Oldring, who met years ago doing comedy in Calgary, both grew up listening to CBC Radio. The two actors improvise the segments, one playing host, the other the interviewee. They record the shows in Studio 5 in Vancouver, the old home of Sounds Like Canada, the show that probably more than any other serves as a model for This Is That.
To make the spoof work, they work hard to match the feel of a CBC Radio interview show, from the content to the tone to the music stings. "We're just so dedicated to a certain sound so we don't disrupt the listeners' ears," says producer Chris Kelly (no relation to Pat), whose mother is a long-time CBC Radio host. "We want to sort of camouflage ourselves to be as authentic as possible."
But they say they did not expect to suck people in to the extent that they have. "Our intention was not to be putting out these stories that are going to be having people outraged at all," Oldring says. "And it wasn't until we got it on the radio that we realized, 'Oh, my gosh, some people are really calling in and they're not aware that this is a comedy or they are outraged at some of the content.' "
The radio show - which was recently nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award - carries no disclaimer identifying it as satire, but the website does state: "We make (up) the news." (It used to read: "We don't just talk about the issues. We fabricate them.")
"We talked about it when we put it on the air last year: Does it need a warning? Does it need multiple warnings? And the feeling was we just put it on the air and see what the response was," CBC Radio program director Chris Boyce says. "I think it's fairly clear if you're listening to it that it is a parody of the news."
Boyce says no serious complaints have landed on his desk. But the made-up stories have sparked some real debate among listeners - something the hosts view as an unforeseen plus. "It is really fun when you get a variety of opinions on this story that happens to be fictitious, but that has people really charged on both sides of an argument that actually doesn't exist," Oldring says.
The show's creators try to balance the it-might-be-true kind of stories with out-there segments, to try to tip their hand that it is a spoof, but it doesn't always work. "In some ways, because that tone of the CBC is such a recognizable tone, you can get pretty outrageous with a story and people will still often kind of think: 'Well it's the CBC, so it must be true,' " Oldring says.
This raises the question: Does such a show belong on the public broadcaster, whose flagship programs are based on the news and current affairs?
Boyce says there absolutely is a place for it. "One of the things that I love about Radio One is that it has an incredibly wide range of programming on it. ... In some ways, I actually like the fact that it is a show that satirizes the news, and it's providing that additional perspective on what we cover."
The hosts agree, pointing to shows such as Double Exposure and Royal Canadian Air Farce. And their intentions, they say, are to entertain, not to trick the audience.
"There's a type of listener who has the perception that we're a bunch of kids being pranksters on the radio," Pat Kelly says. "And we're not. We come from a place of being huge fans of the CBC. You just have to sort of give into the fact that for some people, this is just not their cup of tea."
This Is That airs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. on CBC Radio One, beginning June 30.