In radio, yes, even in public radio, there's an unkind phrase we sometimes use after an interview has failed to live up to its potential. There are, I'm sure, regional variations of the phrase, but it boils down to something like this: "Well, at least they made the meter move."
The meter is the VU meter, which measures volume units. The meter can measure how loudly or forcefully someone is speaking into a microphone, but sadly it has no way of interpreting or assigning any measure of importance to what the person is saying. "One small step for man," "The Lady's not for turning" or "Just watch me" – the meter doesn't care about the significance of what's being said or its place in history. Literally any sound will make the tri-colour LED bars glow happily.
So these days, as I sit in a radio studio and listen to Vancouver's three main candidates for mayor, I know they are speaking because the meter is moving, but I understand about as much as the meter does about what they're saying.
And I'm about 90 per cent certain this is not the result of my own dopiness.
Getting the NPA's Kirk LaPointe, COPE's Meena Wong or Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver to answer a question directly is like playing whack-a-mole. You hit them with a question, and they pop up somewhere else – somewhere you weren't looking.
Inevitably, at the end of an interview with any of the three, my Twitter feed lights up with questions like, "What did they just say?"
On the issue of affordable housing, I asked Mr. LaPointe, in a city where 50 per cent of families rent their homes, what could he do for them?
His answer: "Look, there are lots of things that we can do. The first thing that we really need to do is basically start attracting again higher paying jobs. We have not been in the business of opening ourselves up for business over the past six years.
"The mayor has some sectors of the economy that seem privileged around job growth, but a big part of our economy hasn't had any attention paid to it. And as a result, out of the 10 largest cities in the country we have the lowest family income."
He concluded by saying that we need to start "becoming proud again of our history, our economy and our geography."
Next up, COPE's Meena Wong.
The question, "You've promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Tell me how that's going to work?"
Here's her answer: "Well, where we want to start is, we all know that Vancouver right now is the most expensive city to live in in Canada and yet we make the least amount of money for workers here. And so we have this great disparity, and then it becomes the most expensive city to live in and people who are working very hard in the city cannot afford to live here, and we see people who grew up here or grow old here in this city and are moving out or have to move away and first what we want to do is provide more affordable housing in the city by looking at vacant housing in the city."
A strikingly similar answer to the one Mr. LaPointe offered on a completely different question, and every bit as enlightening.
But it moved the meter.
Mayor Gregor Robertson, I would argue, is not the worst offender of the three. But then, he has the advantage.
He answers questions with the authority you might expect from a person who's occupied the mayor's office for six years. But his problem is vagueness. You could spend all day parsing out a promise like, "We're going to build 4,000 units of affordable rental housing for families over the next four years."
It sounds impressive, but press him on what affordable means, or his definition of family housing, or how he arrived at the number 4,000, or his definition of build or who "we" is anyway, and oh look, we're out of time.
I'm not certain why I expect better answers – or even answers at all.
I suppose it's because, if you're offering yourself up for the city's top elected position, you should at the very least be able to articulate clearly your plan and perhaps even how you might pay for it.
Just moving the meter isn't enough.