Thursday, June 12, 2008

CBC Radio News Reporter for a week

This week, I have been thrilled to work as a reporter at CBC Radio News in Toronto's newsroom, on the afternoon shift, covering stories out and about in the city. 

On Monday June 9, I covered a controversy about the city of Toronto's latest efforts to clean up illegal garbage dumping in Toronto's Rouge Park. The story itself appears on the CBC.ca website so you can read it on CBC.ca /Toronto's homepage, as well as listen to what aired Tuesday morning June 10 on CBC  99.1 fm.

Here's how I did it. 

When Doug Earl, the CBC news director, gave me the address and telephone number of the first person I was supposed to interview, I was in a store buying a new cellphone. I asked the clerk to look up the directions to it on his computer -- on Google maps --as well as check the website of the company I was going to be talking about, Standard Auto Wreckers, in Toronto. I don't own a Blackberry and CBC wasn't supplying me with one of theirs.

It turns out, I knew where the place was, as for several years now, I have been driving in the area several times a week to teach journalism at Centennial College's HP Campus at Morningside and Ellesmere. Lately, the area of Rouge Park has become so developed and built up with new home construction and gas stations and Tim Hortons outlets, it has spoiled the greenspace that used to be the reserve of golf driving ranges, farms, and outdoor walkers and cyclists I saw on my commute.

My first interview was at Standard Auto Wreckers, at the corner of Steeles Avenue East and Sewells Road. The owners, Ken and David Gold, are upset about a plan by Toronto to put up "No Stopping Anytime" signs outside their sprawling auto wrecking and parts yard.  

I met with Ken Gold, the founder, and his son David in their back office inside the plant.  I did a little "ice-breaking" with them, discussed the steamy hot weather we were having, they offered me a nice cold bottle of water, and we chatted about people we knew in common, since Ken lives near me in Richmond Hill, and his son David, lives near a popular restaurant we both went to in Thornhill, called Yitz's, at Bathurst and Highway 7. It went out of business despite high hopes by the neighbourhood it would be as busy as its original site at Avenue Road and Eglinton.

Then I tested my equipment, making sure the room had proper sound quality, no humming computers or noisy lights to ruin the interview. I also did a quick mic check with Ken, and played it back to make sure everything was recording. When I was a student at Carleton University, I once interviewed the foreign minister, Flora MacDonald, and didn't check my batteries. Needless to say, the tape sounded WAW WAH WAH because the battery level was low.  I did ask her, in desperation, --fearing I'd fail the assignment  -- if she would re-do the 2 hour interview. I won't bother to tell you her answer. So I always always check my equipment. 

Then I plugged my earphones back in, put them on again, and sat close to Ken's chair so I'd have the mic close enough to his mouth. And we were off.

Ken pulled out a copy of his speech he was preparing for Scarborough Community Council the next day, and the official documents from the Toronto traffic department, suggesting his company was mostly to blame for a lot of the garbage being dumped in and around the plant inside Rouge Park.

Ken is an energetic businessman who preferred to stand near an easel containing photographs he had taken in recent weeks showing the garbage in the park -- roofing tiles, sod,  you name it -- on Sewells Road and the neighbouring Littles Road. Then he showed me photos of their company's  home made "No dumping" signs he himself had erected around his property. One said "Pigs Litter People Don't". There are also signs up from the City and Environment ministry warning violators will be fined $10,000 or $50,000.

Next, he gestured to the parking area on the shoulders of the road outside his yard entrance: spotless.  Standard Auto Wreckers clean it up every day, he insists. Gold felt the city was trying to pull a backdoor move on his company, trying to force them to get out of the Rouge Park, by killing his business with street signs. I suggested it was like getting mobster Al Capone through his income tax evasion.

What bothered son David Gold about this whole thing, is, they pride themselves on being environmentalists. The company was operating in Rouge Park since 1979, before the Park was created (1995). They've won awards for being environmentally friendly in the way the business recycles automobiles. They drain all the fluids from the wrecks before they are crushed. They've been collecting and recycling mercury switches, even though it's not mandatory. They won recycler of the year from a U.S. recycling organization for their "green" habits. And now they find themselves in the ironic spot of opposing an effort to protect Toronto's largest urban park.

After our interview, I asked permission to record some sound of the wrecking yard for my story. Radio needs sound, I always teach my own students at Centennial College. So I got a treat. Ken and David popped me into their special golf cart, and whizzed us around the dusty noisy compound for a tour. 

First stop, the fluid recycling shop -- with my earphones still in, and long skirt pinned down with my other hand so my skirt wouldn't pull a Marilyn Monroe!

But I needed better sound. So we careened through the rows and rows of hulks and wrecks until we arrived at the crushing machine.

I'd only seen one of these in the movies -- when bad Superman tries to kill the good Superman in a wrecking yard! This real one makes a lot of noise, and splinters the glass!

After I'd collected about 2 minutes of pure sound, I was done.
 
Next stop, a drive down Sewells Road to see for myself if there was any garbage on the side of the road. Sure enough, 30 seconds later, piles of trash: broken toilet, purple shag bathroom rug, and 2 benches from a mini van. There were more piles as I went along: cans of paint, a Toronto telephone directory from 2008-2010 still encased in plastic. Sod.

I took some photos for the cbc.ca website and recorded some outdoor sound --again about two minutes worth. Then I thought, I need other opinions of neighbours. So I searched for a farm entrance, found the driveway and pulled up to the parking area.

The place looked a little dodgy I have to admit. I also was worried about guard dogs. I am afraid of big scary dogs. So I got out gingerly, yelled "Anyone home?" and as soon as the barking started and the hound came over, I jumped back in my car and rolled up the windows, hoping the owner might come out and settle the german shepherd down.

He did come out, a big man in a white undershirt and beard. With a second big dog. 

I stayed in my car, rolled down the window, identified myself and what I was doing a story on, and he agreed to talk to me, albeit he told me to stay inside the van. It's the first time I have ever done an interview with me sitting in the driver's seat and the source outside the car.
But those dogs made me nervous!

Next stop, an interview with Councillor Raymond Cho, who represents the area. Now I know of Councillor Cho from my other job teaching journalism at Centennial College. My students have had their share of run ins with him, reporting for the Toronto Observer newspaper. I didn't tell him any of this when we met in the Scarborough Community Council office. 

I taped our whole interview, but I didn't need to. I needed only one clip. Still better safe then sorry.  His English is heavily accented, and I was thinking "I hope it's clear enough to use on air."

He told me why he was trying to use parking signs to clean up the Park, but said he'd try to get the order delayed to give the city and the Golds time to work out a solution.

Driving back to CBC to file the stories, the heavens opened up, plus I had to pee so badly. Rush hour traffic from Scarborough to Front Street is never fun, but this Monday was particularly bad because there were fire trucks at the corner of Simcoe and Front and construction outside the East Side Mario's restaurant so it took me an hour to make it back to the parking lot.

The best part of the day was over -- after 27 years in the business, I admit I enjoy the field reporting best, meeting new people, getting in to see new things (like a junk yard) and being on my own with my tape recorder, my own ideas, and my long reporting experience to guide me.

But the only way anyone will hear my work is to put a story together. That's tougher. I had written the story in my head while driving back to the station..actually talking the lead out loud, and then "voicing" the story  out loud -- roughly, the way I would tell it to a friend.
That's what I teach my students to do and it works to focus your mind, and get rid of all the reams of interviews and material and research which you won't be able to use anyway in a story that runs 75 seconds!

As a reporter, I eagerly hoped there would be room for 2 voicers to run the next morning -- but it was a busy news week: the apology for native residential schools, a series was running on speed racing, and the desk just wouldn't be able to fit in two voicers of mine on a marginal story. Bummer! 

So I shotlisted the tape, pulling audio clips that I thought I could use, including the sounds of the crusher, the sound of the garbage strewn road, interviews with the farmer, the autowrecker and the politician. And put it together in what I felt was a really nice package that brought the listener to the scene. I also filed a long script and clip- alternate version and squeezed in two clips! I always feel badly that I interview people and they don't get on so I try to give the morning desk more then they can use, and then let them edit it down! 

The next morning, my husband and I turned on the radio at 7:30 and 8:30 to listen to the news, and when my stories ran, I did a mental "fist pump" in the air - YESSSSSS. My husband said I was a good storyteller, and that I like these kind of offbeat feature stories. That's what my boss said later Tuesday afternoon when I arrived for my shift. " It had your name written all over it," said Doug Earl, the news director.

All in all a good start to the first reporting week.

Tomorrow, a surreptitious visit to Woodbine Racetrack with a hidden microphone.