I had done very, very, very little television to that point, certainly too little to be deserving of a national television show: A pre-Wayne's World/MTV/MuchMusic live rock music interview program on local cable called It's Up To You (don't ask how the title came about) and a brief hosting gig in a 13-part CBC half-hour series on new music acts called Video Hits Presents (proudly I can say it was the first documentary on The Tragically Hip, but I remember none of the other acts over the weeks).
My Newsworld audition tape included a mock interview with someone pretending he was then-Liberal leader Jean Chretien, a read of a news script to camera, and an anecdote about a bizarre high school football mishap. The head of the network, the revered Joan Donaldson (tragically later injured, since deceased), had been a j-school prof of mine. She slid my tape into the machine at about 3 a.m. and said she thought I was brave to offer up the anecdote. I don't think it was her best decision, but unquestionably she made many other wonderful ones.
I was hired on a Tuesday and by Thursday morning I was reading to a TelePrompTer all sorts of scripted links for a two-hour daily program called Canada Connection. I also had a smallish role on a weekend show called The Week Starts Here, hosted by Kathryn Wright, where I fronted a panel about media and tried to turn access-to-information documents into palatable television.
On that first day we felt a smallish sense of history and a largish sense of humility, and given some of my pratfalls on the air, only the humility grew. I still have my Day One t-shirt. It would be a laugh riot to try to put it on.
Today I know nothing excites people flipping through the channels in the afternoon more than watching a new host set up hour upon hour of solemn and languid newsfeatures from regional reporters, but back then there seemed to be an appetite for something, shall we say, more active.
Thus, Canada Connection became Newsworld's first cancelled show, and as a penalty, I was given two shows in return to host. If I were still there, I suspect I would now be fronting 512 or 1024 programs, if my math calculations are accurate.
One of the new shows I was given will make most Canadians double over with laughter for its programming audacity: Meech Lake Review. Yes, an hour-long live (sort of) discussion on the constitutional questions then gripping the land. As the British would say, it was worthy. I like lighthearted banter as much as the next person, but I can't recall any of us on the show cracking anything approaching a smile in all those months --- at least until we got back to the makeup room. It was on midday on the weekend, and freakishly, it had respectable ratings, which says a lot of the tolerance of my country.
The other show was actually great fun. Week's End was an hour-long week-in-review with a little more ambition than a week-in-review. We found excellent guests. Chantal Hebert got one of her earliest CBC gigs on the show as one of my political panelists. Giles Gherson, now a deputy minister in Ontario, was on the panel with her most weeks, as was Robert Mason Lee. We had great arts commentators like Ken Rockburn, Sarah Jennings and Sandra Abma, all of them moving on to much greater careers.
We had celebrities, world leaders, loads of Canadian politicians, lots of Washington-based think-tankers and commentators (Juan Williams was merely nervous and not terribly partisan yet, Michael Ignatieff was an academic and author) athletes, authors and terribly bright scholars. We gave them time, and in giving them time, they seemed to enjoy the experience enough to offer to come back and back.
And we had one of the great yuckster sports panels of all time, with Jamie Wayne (then of Financial Post) and Kirk Makin (then and now of The Globe and Mail). I don't think anyone has matched the fun of those finishing eight minutes on Canadian sports TV yet.
An aside: Months into my time at the channel I was provided training for a total of 15 minutes (it was supposed to run 45 minutes, but the trainer's camera was malfunctioning). I was taught not to always look at the camera (I converted that advice into a distracted look for weeks) and not to worry about writing scripts double-spaced (CBC had lots of paper, he assured me). He wanted to head to the bar and meet up with some of the women he'd trained earlier in the day, or so he said.
Through those years (the last four of the six part-time while I was Ottawa Bureau Chief at The Canadian Press) I learned to navigate the beginning/middle/end of interviews, bring a little of myself into it, and get comfortable enough in front of a camera to not fully embarrass myself.
I learned, too, that (duh) television has quite the power. Even though I was managing Parliament's largest reporting bureau at CP, my calls were returned and lunches agreed to only because I was on TV. I never learned to feel good about that.
Week's End lasted four good seasons, had for Newsworld very good ratings, and with Debi Goodwin and then Deborah Gyapong as my producers, I had two more than good teachers of the craft. Lionel Lumb ran the unit and he was oh-so-patient. The late Danny Malanchuk kept everyone on time and laughing.
The letters that came were in two categories: those who liked the fact that I listened to my guests, and those who had something to say about my haircut or tie. I learned that sometimes good journalism isn't good television and vice versa, but also found that a place like Newsworld could accommodate difficult discussion and not cut the segment short because it lacked the jolt factor.
When Don Newman retired a few weeks back, it was the full stop on the first two decades, the last Day One host to leave. In Don's time, Newsworld went from a bit of a poor cousin of the main network to a full partner in the news division. It had to employ talent like me at the start, but now plays host to the best CBC has to offer.
My bias is obvious, but I think Newsworld became a game-changer in Canada. It came of age during the Oka native standoff, the first Gulf War and during the constitutional wrangling, where Newman and others gave voice to experts and officials. It found homes for many from CBC's main channel --- refugees, they called themselves --- and the country discovered how much talent the public broadcaster had been keeping in the regions all those years.
It almost served like the Internet does for a news organization today with a lot of talent and finite space to exhibit it ---- it gave itself over for longer-form discussion, for events that didn't need to wind down by the top or bottom of the hour, and for some sort of linear, national conversation. It also made the rival broadcaster CTV figure out there was a market in all-news television, and when I got to manage that rival while running CTV News, I found out how extraordinarily challenging it is to keep a 24-hour news network from fading to black, literally.
My nostalgia doesn't extend fully. There were problems then and now, most notably the poor-cousin treatment by the main network at first, then the service's eventual production focus in the usual places, Toronto and Ottawa. At its inception Newsworld had programs based not just there but in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax and nightly local news packages from an astonishing range of Canadian locales. I learned more about the country from those packages than anything at the time, and it's sad to see the strength and professionalism of today's Newsworld under-supplied with the character of the full country. You can only learn so much from two cities in a country this size.
But I miss more than the clothing allowance and would do all of that over again in a heartbeat. I've attached a video of the first day's introduction. My moment there is thankfully brief. My memories overall are thankfully great.