"My voice? What's it like to have my voice?" Barbara Budd asks, repeating my question.
The co-host of CBC Radio One's As it Happens, who announced her departure last Monday after 17 years on the air, leans forward in her bright red jacket, her face breaking into a wide smile.
"I understand why you ask," the 58-year-old confides in a low murmur, pushing her glasses up onto her nose. "It's sort of like why I've always wondered what it must be like to have grown up beautiful." She pauses momentarily. "Or to have great breasts," she booms with a loud laugh. "Or to be able to do great hand demos!" she says, fanning her hands out on the table between us.
Irreverent, funny, serious - whatever the situation calls for - that's the nature of Ms. Budd. By her own admission, she has always been "unleashed" on air, free to ad-lib and add colour and texture to the show in her trademark arch voice.
But today, two days after the announcement, her mood is mostly one of sadness.
"It feels like when someone comes home and says, 'I used to love you but I don't any more,' " she says of the corporation's unexpected decision not to renew her contract, which she was informed of a little while ago. She shakes her head. "Not that it has happened to me in any relationship with a man," she puts in quickly. "[But]you feel hurt and kind of shocked," she says.
"And then you think, 'Where were the signs?' That's what every man and woman does when somebody says to you, 'I'm outta here.' You think, "Why didn't I see it?'"
The breakup has been painful. Last Monday, Ms. Budd told listeners that she will leave at the end of April. She says she is disappointed that - on Wednesday, the day we meet - she still hasn't heard from co-host Carol Off, who has been away sick for a few days. "I understand that everybody operates differently," Ms. Budd says diplomatically.
(They have since spoken - "We discussed my departure at length the other night. Ah, life. We laugh. We cry. And we carry on," she later explained.)
CBC brass also requested that they approve her on-air goodbye speech. "They read it and they said, 'It's good and it's like you.' But they wanted me to remove two words - 'with regret.' They thought it sounded loaded, which it was, and my response to that was, 'Well, don't you think that by not putting it in it's loaded?' But I could see that it bothered them, so I took it out," she says. "I wasn't told I couldn't go on air without taking it out. But I acquiesced because I don't like making other people's lives miserable."
Since she started on As it Happens the day of Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, Ms. Budd has worked with some of the CBC's leading journalists, including Alan Maitland, Michael Enright, Mary Lou Finlay and Ms. Off. She works part-time - coming in at 3:30 in the afternoon to record her contributions, delivering a funny, sometimes serious or cheeky counterpoint that helped continue the show's popularity, 42 years after its inception.
"It's like a skating pair," she says of the on-air partnership with her co-host. "From day one, you have to find out what your best numbers are. Is it the tango? Something else? And it was different with Michael and different with Mary Lou and different with Carol as well. But the object has to be that you're dancing as a pair," she explains, adding that she and Ms. Off get along well and have respect for one another.
Ms. Budd's termination is another sign of the corporation's efforts to update its programming, observers have noted. "It isn't enough to have the audience that you have," she says, explaining her take on the CBC's rationale. "[But]it's not as if As it Happens doesn't already have [younger people]listening and writing in.
"My performance was never called into question during these discussions," she adds. "Over the last while, the corporate spokespeople and the senior management have always been very clear that they've been fans of mine."
But the CBC wants more journalists on air as opposed to "presenters," which is how Ms. Budd, who is an actor, has been described. It's a delineation that slightly rankles. "I haven't studied journalism, but I think that, on the job for 17 years, after being so closely entrenched in the show, people might assume that there's a certain amount of journalism that's rubbed off on me." Still, she's not bitter. "I knew I wasn't the journalistic part of the duo. I didn't quibble with it because I loved what I was doing, and in listeners' minds, there's never any distinction between those roles."
After graduating from York University's theatre program, Ms. Budd worked for five seasons with the Stratford Theatre Company in Stratford, Ont. Returning to Toronto, she did a variety of acting jobs and frequently performed in radio dramas for the CBC, a gig which led to employment as an on-air presenter for the public broadcaster.
A single, never-married mother of an adopted 17-year-old boy, Thomas, who has special needs, she is fearful about what's next, she admits. "This is no longer about me or ego or anything else. This is about providing for my son and my future," Ms. Budd says. She may return to some acting and has been working on a non-fiction book for the past year and a half. The day after her on-air announcement of her departure, her e-mail inbox filled with more than 400 well wishes from listeners.
"My life has been amazing, " she declares suddenly. Born in St. Catharines, Ont., the middle of three daughters of a father who owned a gas station and a mother who taught school, "I have never applied for a job in my life - aside from auditioning as an actress - and I've never stopped working from the time I was 14."
Her guiding principal has always been to be herself, which involves integrity, honesty and humour, she says. She tells me that on the day she had to sit down with senior CBC management to discuss how she would break the news of her departure to listeners, she was reminded of something a guidance counsellor had said to her when she was 15.
Her teacher presented her with an "intention" sheet, which included the question, "Who do you want to be?" She was supposed to write down a dream vocation.
Cheeky even then, she challenged him. "Well, shouldn't you have written, 'What do you want to do?' " she recalls retorting.
And then she gave him her response. "I said I don't know what I want to do but I know I want to be me." She pauses again. Another booming laugh. "That's 43 years ago, and I knew it then and I know it now."
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