Authors: Mary Lou Finlay
Cabbages and Kings
Touching the Earth
The Man in the Bear Suit
Verse and Worse
This Is the Dance Portion
The Wrath of Grapes
The Maple Leaf Forever
Mike the Headless Chicken
War and Pax
Mike the Music Man
It’s All About
few months after taking my leave of the CBC and my job hosting
As It Happens,
I tuned in one night to hear this listener’s phone call:
The sale of a 36-year-old ham-and-cheese sandwich half-eaten by Richard Nixon: this is why I listen to the CBC. This is why I love
As It Happens.
The caller was expressing what thousands of people from across Canada and around the world have told us for years: however good we may be at covering the Big Story, it’s the half-eaten-by-Richard-Nixon-ham-and-cheese sandwiches that really stick in their minds.
As It Happens
is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s second-longest-running current affairs show
is the longest), and on good days it still sounds younger and brighter than almost anything else on the dial. I can say this because I don’t claim credit for it; I think the credit is due mainly to the format devised in the early years by Mark Starowicz and exploited so brilliantly by a succession of producers and hosts, including Barbara Frum and Al Maitland. Basically, it’s a phone-out show that daily chases down the stories the producers find most beguiling and delivers up people for one of the hosts to talk to. On any given day, the topics may range
from war in Chechnya to a nettle-eating contest in Yorkshire and anything in between. Sprinkled among the interviews are bits of music and readings and recorded speeches and humour that add colour and texture.
The show has been drawing fans to CBC Radio from around the world for 40 years. When I left, over one hundred U.S. stations were broadcasting
As It Happens,
and we were breaking new ground at home; the ratings at that time put AIH in first place in its time period in the very competitive Toronto and Vancouver markets. Not that markets are a prime concern since CBC Radio is commercial free, deriving its financial support from a government-mandated annual taxpayer subsidy.
Perhaps it’s because CBC Radio doesn’t have to worry about advertising sales that it’s developed into such a different animal than its TV cousin, or maybe it’s because radio as a medium is so different. In any case, CBC’s radio arm has been more successful at creating an identity that sets it apart from its competitors at the same time as it unites Canadians across the country. What people say they like about
As It Happens,
in particular, are its breadth and depth, its fairness, its sense of humour and its ability to take them immediately to the heart of unfolding events, be they regattas, riots or bank robberies.
But, above all, listeners seem to cherish the show’s devotion to the odd and the eccentric. During our 30th and 35th anniversary years, when we invited the audience to tell us what they would like us to dredge up from our archives, the most common request was for Barbara Frum’s Big Cabbage story, otherwise known as the Goddamn Cabbage Story (see Chapter 3).
Now, as the show celebrates its 40th birthday, it seems like a good time to remember some of the weird and wonderful
people I met while hosting AIH—people like the Canadian inventor of the bear suit, the guy who walks naked across the U.K., and Mike the Headless Chicken from Fruta, California (not, strictly speaking, a person).
I couldn’t write about these exotics, though, without also remembering a few of the seekers, adventurers and heroes whose tales have thrilled and moved me over the years. Their names include Ignacio Siberio, the man who wouldn’t drown; Canadian astronauts Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette; and Mike Stevens, who brought music and hope to a remote village where both were in short supply.
Sometimes the people make the story, and sometimes it’s the story that brings forth the people. It was 9/11 that introduced us to Kathie Scobee Fulgham. As the daughter of the man who was in command of the space shuttle
when it exploded in 1986, Kathie Fulgham knows what it’s like to watch your father die over and over and over again on TV. The Air India crash, recounted in Chapter 15, brought us Anant Anantaraman, who planted flowers among the ashes of his life. And the war in Iraq led us to Salam Pax, the Baghdad blogger who provided a rare insider’s view of the conflict.
Combining these themes—the silly and odd, the brave and pioneering, the big news events—will result, I hope, in a kind of print version of the radio show. Of course, I’ve omitted more than I could include. To mention all the men and women, boys and girls, fish, pigs, turkeys and uncooperative parrots who informed and delighted me over the years would be to embark on a never-ending journey. I hope all the people who are not mentioned will forgive me. To all of them, from the bottom of my heart, a big thank you for being part of our great conversation.
To CBC Radio, too, I owe a huge debt of gratitude for having provided the opportunity, in
As It Happens,
to air this
conversation and for allowing me to burrow about in the archives to retrieve material for the book.
Above all, I am beholden to my former colleagues at
As It Happens.
It’s partly to honour them that I’ve written this, for without their dedication, patience, brains and perseverance, the show would not have lived up to the lofty standards set by its creators, and it wouldn’t have been such a joy to host. I salute them and thank them. I hope I haven’t misremembered too much.
n December 2004, Ignacio Siberio, a Miami lawyer, was spearfishing alongside his small power boat when a stiff wind came up and took the boat away. For about an hour and a half, he did his best to catch up to it, but in the end he had to concede defeat. Ignacio figured he was going to die. He couldn’t swim to shore, because the wind was against him; he would only use up all his energy trying. No one would miss him for hours, and by the time a search was organized, it would be dark and the wind would have blown him even farther out to sea.
Then he spotted a buoy bobbing nearby. Clinging to it might just give him a slight chance of surviving. Ignacio knew that the forecast was for the wind to swing around to the north during the night. If he could get through the night alive, he could try swimming to shore when it got light. But how to stay alive until then without falling asleep and succumbing to hypothermia?
He devised a plan. First he would review the cases he was working on—go over them in every detail. He figured each case would take about two hours. When that was done, he started reviewing his life. It was amazing what he learned about himself during that exercise.
In the meantime, the wind had shifted to the north and his muscles were now rigid with cold. He knew he had to keep
them from knotting or he wouldn’t be able to swim when the sun rose. “Try to relax your right hand,” he told himself. When that was done, he moved on to the whole arm, then to his left hand and so on until, to his surprise, he actually managed to get his whole body relaxed in the frigid water.
Still, he realized that, for all his efforts, he was probably not going to make it through. He thought how sad that would make his family and friends, and just before Christmas, too. He thought he wouldn’t like to make them sad. He thought,
But I have it in my power to turn tragedy into happiness if I just don’t die.
And so he made up his mind not to.
Around 10:30 the next morning, 20 hours after he’d gone into the water, Ignacio was fished out of the waves and delivered to shore. He was swimming for shore at the time.
Oh yes—and at the time, he was 80 years old.
Ignacio Siberio told us this story in the most matter-of fact tones on December 14th, the day after his rescue. He was well enough when he was pulled out of the water to be taken directly to his office—back to all those cases he was working on. I asked him if he thought an angel had been looking out for him, and he replied, “Something was. That buoy that popped up out of nowhere? It had no business being there. It was an abandoned buoy. And do you know, it had my birthdate on it! I was born on July 31; the number on the buoy was 7–31.
A magazine show like
As It Happens
is a blend of many elements—interviews, readings, music, commentary, debate—but at the heart of the programme are the stories and the often amazing people who live them. Ignacio Siberio’s adventure was pure gold, of course. It was the kind of story that would put a smile on your face for the whole day, even a
Monday just before Christmas. The season of good fellowship and cheer was always hell around the office. The desire to give everyone a bit of extra family time in the week between Christmas and the New Year means you have to do a certain amount of prepackaging in the weeks before Christmas, which also happen to be the weeks of maximum shopping and maximum partying and cooking and visits from relatives. The result is maximum stress for everyone. By the time you bid everyone adieu on Christmas Eve and make way for Alan Maitland’s reading of
you’re whacked. You spend your extra time off recovering from the effort it took to get the extra time off.
This is also the season when everyone else is partying or shopping or ducking work; sometimes news is scarce, and often it’s gloomy. The show that featured Ignacio Siberio included an interview with Paul Martin about his first year as Canadian Prime Minister, but there was also a story about Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian leader whose face had been ravaged by dioxin poisoning; a poignant tale about a Lethbridge, Alberta, man who was about to be reunited with the four brothers and sisters he’d lost when they were all sent to different foster homes as children; and a rather scary account of personal financial information from a Canadian law office winding up in a California jail cell. It was good to have Ignacio Siberio to remind us that amid all the misery and meanness and the pure, unadulterated evil that abound in the world, there are people who refuse to die because of the unhappiness it might bring to
What god in his heaven would not be stirred to pluck him from the jaws of death and restore him safely to his family (and his clients)?