Why is this man the city's top morning radio host?

Jul 17, 2004

Source : Toronto Star

'Nobody's happy not being No. 1'

At 5: 57 a.m. on the morning after the recent federal election, Andy Barrie is introducing what promises to be a blockbuster edition of CBC Radio One's Toronto morning flagship, Metro Morning.

He tells his audience he has only just learned what most of them knew before they went to bed: the make-up of the country's new government.

"I feel like a kid on Christmas morning," he intones quietly, breathlessly, glancing over the desk in Studio 330 at CBC's Front St. Broadcast Centre at Jill Dempsey, veteran CBC newscaster and editor and one of Barrie's essential sidekicks.

"I was in bed at 10: 30 last night, so I wasn't sure of the outcome ... did I get what I wanted, did you get what you wanted ... did we get what we wanted?"

During the next 21/2 hours, Barrie, host of the most listened-to morning radio program in Toronto, will use the plural first-person pronoun more than a dozen times. It's not a "we" that evokes fuzzy, folksy sentiment. It's not a team instructor's forced mannerism. It's not delivered with lofty, academic objectivity. It's not "we, the people." It's a gentle and unprepossessing gesture of natural, instinctual inclusiveness. It's "you and me ... and some of our close friends."

It's that quality, and the quiet, unrushed tone of Barrie's delivery - more than his self-assuredness on air, more than his obvious familiarity with this city, its people, its quirks and how it all works - that observers of the local radio market say have helped Metro Morning ascend to the pinnacle of the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement Canada's audience pile for the last two quarterly ratings periods.

The most recent survey, which profiles listening patterns between mid-February and mid-April, was published in May. It places CBC Radio Toronto in the top position in the 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, all-age (12 and up) listeners category, with a 10.1-per-cent market share. For the first time in most observers' memories, the non-commercial public broadcaster has beaten out commercial-driven, gimmick-laden, prize-happy, chatterbox private radio stations CHUM-FM (9.8 per cent share), CFRB (7.8 per cent), EZ Rock (7.5 per cent) and Q107 (6.9 per cent) in the most important and certainly most lucrative time slot, Morning Drive Time.

Metro Morning staffers and producers exhibit considerable pride in this accomplishment, perhaps disingenuously overlooking the fact that BBM is an arm of the private broadcasting industry and its most significant purpose is to allow commercial radio stations to set advertising rates for the coming quarter based on ranking, and to provide advertisers with up-to-the-minute demographic information.

CBC is not in the advertising game, so to BBM subscribers the morning show's ascendancy is of little or no importance, says Gary Slaight, president and CEO of Standard Radio, which operates three of Toronto's 18 commercial stations - Mix 99.9 FM, CFRB 1010 Newstalk, and EZ Rock 97.3 FM - and others in Hamilton, St. Catharines and London, areas in CBC's local broadcast "reach."

"The CBC is not supposed to be about competing for an audience - it's a tax dollar-supported public broadcaster that doesn't have to air commercials to survive," Slaight says, acknowledging nevertheless that Metro Morning has won over some of CFRB's audience share.

"I'm not surprised they're on top, given the CBC's huge marketing budget and its free access to TV ad time. The show has been percolating in the top three or four spots for a long time. But I am surprised they're making such a big deal out of being on top of a game they're not supposed to be playing."

With that rant off his chest, Slaight begrudgingly gives credit to Barrie, who spent 18 years at CFRB, and to the new Metro Morning, which underwent serious surgery two years ago at the hands of the incoming regional director of radio for CBC Radio Toronto and Southern Ontario, Susan Marjetti. She got her start as a radio news reporter under Standard's aegis in Halifax, where she was recruited by CHUM Radio to make local documentaries, and finally by CBC.

"The show has much shorter interviews than it used to, a brighter pace, more sports and traffic.... It sounds less CBC-ish and more like private radio," Slaight says. "And Andy's a warm, comfortable guy to listen to, maybe not as political as he used to be, more moderate than left-wing, but depending on the issue, you know where he stands. People relate to him."

Slaight, like many private broadcasters in Toronto interviewed for this story, is adamant that Metro Morning's dominance, temporary or otherwise, is a non-factor in the commercial radio game. Advertising rates will not plummet because a public broadcaster leads the field, he says, and he insists Toronto's highly competitive commercial radio market has never looked so healthy.

"Things have been a bit unsettled over the last couple of years, program formats have changed, stations have changed hands, listeners are moving around in the morning. But the top four or five contenders - EZ Rock, CHUM-FM, CFRB and The Mix - have been consistent performers.

"But nobody's happy not being No.1. We'll do what we need to do to change that."

Advertisers rarely focus on just one time slot, or "day part," when buying commercial space, says Dave McDonald, manager of ad agency McLaren McCann Canada's radio group.

"These numbers won't directly affect advertising buys in the morning.

"Only about 10 to 15 per cent of advertisers focus on one time period. Most want to reach all of a station's particular demographic, so they take all the day parts into account. CBC's BBM numbers will have no effect whatsoever on the market unless they reflect a dramatic drop in other stations' day parts - and that hasn't happened."

Nevertheless, the radio market is changing, McDonald says, as other electronic media draw the attention of listeners - online music, satellite radio, broadband radio services.

"There's much more crossover from radio to other media in the 18-34 demographic, the 'money group,'" he says. "People are expecting more and more from radio because of competition from other sources."

Former Q107 programmer and Toronto radio veteran Bob Mackowycz, now part of a group going through regulatory hoops to introduce American-based satellite radio into Canada, thinks commercial radio's best days are over. He points out that American private radio stock prices have fallen a drastic 20 per cent in the last few years.

"The high-tech communications bubble caused by deregulation in the 1990s went hand-in-hand with the wholesale dumping of radio properties. Commercial stations have had to increase their ad load to maintain income, and as a result listeners have had it with commercial radio, airing between 18 and 22 minutes of ads every hour.

"Those changes are being felt in this country as well."

The events of Sept.11, 2001 have caused even more significant shifts in audience expectations and the way morning radio meets them, says Julie Adams, program director at Rogers-owned CHFI-FM.

"This shift is perhaps more obvious at our sister station, 680 News, where we 've encountered a greater interest in the state of the world, a need for more local information, and less interest in gimmickry.

"The shift I'm feeling these days is away from unbelievable personalities, the shock jocks and zoo characters that used to populate morning radio. Even at Top 40 radio it's evident that listeners want real people on the radio."

Across town on the morning after the federal election, Andy Barrie seems to be the living response to what the people want on radio. In his studio he's surrounded by eight panelists of differing political persuasions and socio-ethnic origins, and performing something of a mental and audio juggling act as he moves without apparent distress from one to the other, keeping the pertinent ball in the air, throwing it back and forth with measured assurance, all in an effort to paint a picture of what the election results mean to Toronto's vastly diverse residents.

During frequent breaks in the show's intense pace - when Dempsey, veteran traffic reporter Jim Curran, and sports reporter Kevin Sylvester silently enter the studio, sit at designated microphones and deliver their bits, or when the national news chimes in from somewhere else in the CBC building - Barrie rises from his chair and like a towering, white-haired professor, an avuncular stage director, urges his panelists with smiles, whispers and theatrical gestures to keep focused, keep the spark alive.

In the adjoining control room, studio director Gord Cochrane lines up phone interviews with local political winners, losers and commentators, then types cues and an ever-evolving program schedule into a computer monitored constantly by Barrie on the other side of the glass. Studio technician Kim Holmgren keeps tabs on the quality of sound emanating from within Studio 330, and on cue, almost unseen, punches in sound bites and musical clips that are constantly being stored by reporters in the field and producers in other CBC centres in the program's computer bank, glowing and throbbing at his side.

"It's all very demanding," sighs an exhausted Barrie at the end of his shift. "It's usually more linear than it was today - one guest leaves, another enters, you shift tone. But with all those people in at one time, trying to remember their names, their affiliations, their arguments and concerns - it's a bit like air-traffic control."

An American army deserter who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, Barrie started out in Montreal, moving to Toronto in 1977 for a long and beneficial tenure with CFRB. At the top of his game at the time, and one of the most popular and lauded voices in the local radio market, he surprised everyone by making the leap to public radio, specifically to head up CBC Toronto's Metro Morning, in 1996. That his former mentors are dismissive of his program's recent triumphs clearly ticks him off.

"Of course it matters that we're No.1, it matters categorically," he says. "We are public broadcasters, beyond political and commercial expediency, and we have an obligation to serve the public in the best way possible.

"It feels wonderful to be No.1 in Toronto - because we're succeeding for the right reasons, not because we have a million dollars to give away."

Unusually modest for a radio personality, or perhaps well seasoned in the art of the humble showbiz shuffle, Barrie is quick to deflect credit from himself, deferring constantly to the reliability and integrity of his on-air and off-air partners in the Metro Morning enterprise, and to the audience.

"What did we do right? I'm not sure. It takes years for the market to change, years for people to find you. We made changes to the show while the political culture in this city was just beginning to wake up after a long sleep. Toronto re-engaged with itself at a time when commercial radio was disengaging from the city with the 20-minute news wheel programmed somewhere in the U.S., with centralized program formats that have nothing to do with local tastes and lowest common denominator call-in shows.

"Private radio seems determined to amuse us to death, to borrow a famous aphorism, and the simple fact is that people here want to be amused in different ways. They want good company, not cheap company. They want immediacy, a mix of voices and perspectives, music and comedy that reflects their city and their view of the world.

"Radio is a lifestyle choice, a private thing that reflects who you are and how you want to live ... and when you get down to it, CBC Radio hasn't changed much over the decades. It's a rock. If we owe anyone, it's commercial radio for eroding the loyalty of its audience."

The essence of his winning style Barrie attributes to a conviction that "radio is listened to by one person at a time.

"You pitch your voice as if that person is about eight inches away, you make it a 'you-and-me' conversation."

That's Barrie's particular gift, says his boss, Susan Marjetti, an intense 43-year-old whose vision of public radio in the new millennium is better manifested in the revamped Metro Morning than in such tiresome phrases as: "It's our job to put the public back in public radio" and "The inside must look like the outside."

Fiercely competitive and given carte blanche with CBC's Southern Ontario radio programming, Marjetti isn't too proud to crow about her success - "we've more than doubled our 24-34 audience, doubled 35-49, we have a 10-to-15 share of over-50s, and The Current, which follows Metro Morning, is also No.1!" - nor to boast that the fat lady has not yet entered the building, let alone begun to sing.

"We're into the second year of a five-year plan," she says mysteriously. "We're creating programming that's more relevant, that reflects the changing face of this city and of the country. Earnest, serious information is old thinking. Radio needs the range of a newspaper with all its sections ... it needs to be bold and provocative, fun and, above all, community based. Radio, like the human imagination, radiates from your neighbourhood, then out into the world."

© Toronto Star