It's been a rough few days, that's for sure. I am really heartened to see the support I have, especially from listeners. I can't tell you how much I love hosting Daybreak. I just wish the CBC loved me half as much. I guess I'll never really know why they don't want me.
- Nancy Wood, Feb. 22
Nancy Wood hasn't said much since she learned almost a month ago that she was being pulled from the host chair at Daybreak. Part of that is because Wood has never been one to draw too much attention to herself (at least, that's the impression I get from listening to her), and part of it is that there are still discussions happening behind the scenes - and CBC employees have been told not to talk to the media.
The short note above is all she wrote to me when I asked her about this whole thing almost three weeks ago. On Twitter, where she has a personal account, only this tweet, saying she'd be glad to return to her job, but providing no new details about what's going on. On her Facebook account (which isn't open to non-friends), similarly cryptic messages.
Even though I've never conversed with Wood in person, those brief crumbs of thought tug at my heartstrings. Here we have a veteran journalist and a professional radio host who is being forced from her dream job and doesn't even know why. It's been reported that Wood was hospitalized for stress, and while I haven't confirmed that (and it's really none of my business), the emotional impact this has had on her seems pretty apparent.
Is she gone or isn't she?
This whole situation is in a strange kind of limbo because the CBC hasn't yet made any public announcement. So not only has there been no comment from management about what's going on (other than to say she hasn't been fired from the CBC), but there's been no comment on Daybreak itself about the matter. The journalists who work in the Montreal radio newsroom, the same ones who desperately try to track people down for comment about matters of public interest, are under orders from management not to comment themselves, even though many of them are outraged about what's going on. Instead, they're being asked to forward all inquiries to communications man Hugh Brodie (who, of course, hasn't gotten back to me).
Even though no announcement has been made yet, the process of scrubbing Wood has already begun. The Daybreak homepage doesn't even mention her anymore, replacing her photo with one of the "Daybreak team" (which interestingly includes Steve Rukavina, even though he's not a regular Daybreak columnist - Rukavina has been one of the fill-in hosts and is one of the rumoured candidates to replace her). Fill-in hosts now don't even bother mentioning that they're "filling in for Nancy Wood" - instead leaving the whole thing ambiguous and treating listeners like idiots.
The CBC seems to think this decision is official enough to take Wood off the website but not official enough to actually confirm it to listeners. Go figure. Attempts by journalists and others to talk to those in charge have been met with boilerplate answers from the audience relations department saying they don't comment on staff issues.
Voice for the voiceless
While the CBC remains silent, others have spoken up. Four Gazette columnists (Mike Boone, Basem Boshra, Doug Camilli and Henry Aubin -- UPDATE: times three) and one La Presse columnist (Marie-Claude Lortie) have written about the matter, all saying the decision makes no sense (though the fact Wood once worked at The Gazette might have had something to do with it - I hope they're as loyal when I get fired from a radio host job). Letters are still coming in to the Gazette, leading to a lot of ink with her name on it.
Listeners themselves have also gotten in on the action, setting up a Facebook group in protest (almost 500 527 members now), and flooding the program's official Facebook page with questions and demands (all the while, the columnists and researchers who use it pretend like they can't see all the comments, instead talking about the weather and asking for story tips). There are even rumours that there might be a protest outside McLean's Pub on Sunday when the Daybreak team and other CBC personalities will be hosting a pre-St. Patrick's Parade breakfast.
To say this was a blunder by CBC management is to make a huge understatement. This is a mess. The only thing the corporation can hope for now is that most listeners forget about Wood and move on when they announce who will replace her. This is ironic because morning hosts are humanized so listeners can relate to them, and that builds an emotional connection. That emotional connection is great for building audience loyalty, but it really sucks when their favourite radio host gets the shaft. The audience could leave en masse (unlikely, since they don't have much of an alternative), or decide to turn on the next host, blaming him or her for getting Wood reassigned.
On the other hand, maybe forgetting Wood is exactly what most people will do. The CBC didn't spend that much marketing her, and she had only been in the big chair for five months before they decided to pull the plug, giving her no time to build a following. There's clearly a small, motivated group of listeners committed to keeping her there, but it's not clear whether that group will reach a critical mass.
Even if we accept that getting rid of Wood was the right decision (and that will depend a lot on who they bring in to replace her), the way it was handled was awful. To announce to the staff that you're going to get rid of the show host, then tell the staff to keep that information quiet, then tell the host that she actually has to stay on like a lame duck for a few more months to finish out her contract, then to ignore the inevitable protest from listeners, all while not announcing who will replace the jettisoned personality - I can't think of a worse way this could have been done.
In private radio, the decisions are quick and final. Hosts are called in, told they're being let go and asked to surrender their security passes. They're not allowed anywhere near a microphone, so they don't become a loose cannon. The decision is publicized quickly, and program directors make some statement about how they decided to go in another direction.
I've never been entirely comfortable with the way it's done in private radio, not even allowing people a chance to say goodbye, but to have someone on air with a noose around her neck for months is just cruel.
As a result, Wood has hosted Daybreak only once since she heard the news - Friday, Feb. 19, mere hours before The Gazette broke the story that she was being dumped. Since then, fill-in hosts have given no indication why she hasn't been on the air.
Breaking with precedent
If local management at CBC look like they're having trouble writing the book about this kind of staff issues, it may be because they haven't gone through something like this before. The previous seven Daybreak hosts over the past 30 years all left because they decided it was time to move on. Bob McKeown left for the Fifth Estate in 1981, Dennis Trudeau left for As it Happens in 1985, and Jim Duff left in 1987 to start the ill-fated Montreal Daily News. The next three hosts, Jon Kalina (1988-1993), Royal Orr (1994-1996) and Dave Bronstetter (1996-2006), all left because they were tired of getting to work at 4am every weekday. And Mike Finnerty, who lasted from 2007 to 2009, left to join his partner in London.
Ratings aren't everything
Supposedly one of the main reasons for removing Wood from this position is that Daybreak wasn't doing well in ratings numbers (at least not as well as Radio Noon and Home Run).
I'm not against the CBC using ratings as a measurement of a show's performance. I think the CBC could learn a lot from what gets the attention of the people. But there must be considerations of quality above quantity. How was Wood as an interviewer? How well did she do technically? How does she manage her team? How does she connect with listeners? If the CBC's sole concern was ratings, they could just put pop songs on the air, or porn. Clearly they have higher ambitions.
One criticism levelled against Wood is that she's "boring". It's not a nice thing to say, but I see where the comment is coming from (especially in light of the ratings). Wood isn't a personality like Tommy Schnurmacher, Pete Marier or Murray Sherriffs. She's just a regular person like everyone else. And she goes to work and does her job like a professional.
I'm a regular listener to the Daybreak podcast (recorded just after the morning show ends and featuring replays of interviews from the show), so I've heard quite a bit of Wood's voice. It's not a silly voice, it's soothing, warm, but serious. She knows her stuff, and she can be compassionate or aggressive with an interviewee depending on the situation.
But to some people (including, apparently, CBC bosses), that's not enough. They think she lacks personality and leadership.
What's wrong with Daybreak
Daybreak is boring in some ways, some Wood's fault, many not. The show is incredibly repetitive. It keeps repeating the same news headlines, weather, sports news and traffic every 30 minutes, leaving only a tiny window in every half-hour block for actual content. And that content is inevitably filled with an interview with some bureaucrat struggling to express himself in English through the telephone while sipping his morning coffee. That interview will usually be about some serious but boring issue that was brought up in that day's newspaper (or, in many cases, the previous day's). And after six minutes of barely explaining anything, they're awkwardly cut off by the host because it's time to go to traffic again.
The powers that be at Daybreak prefer this to alternatives. Why not record interviews the day before and edit them instead of allowing people to just run out the clock live? Why not have your staff go out and produce package reports about issues and play them for morning listeners? Why not host an in-studio discussion about an important topic instead of relying on your reporters to regurgitate what they learned like an office gossip queen? (These things do happen on occasion, but not nearly as often as the interviews.) Why not have an opinion columnist who can make serious, insightful points about current affairs instead of the knee-jerk uninformed ranting we see in private broadcasting?
The reason they prefer the live interview is because it's easy. Call someone up the previous day, ask if they're willing to spend a few minutes on the phone the next morning, figure out what they're going to say, and write questions into a script. It's not that they don't want to do anything more interesting than that, it's that they don't have the time, and they don't have the budget to hire people with the time.
Of course, this has been how Daybreak has worked for years, and previous hosts had the same problem with many of the same staff, but managed to build an audience to management's liking. Clearly there is something about Wood that isn't taking off here. (But there's something about Bernard St-Laurent that is?) It's her show, and the subdued personality that makes her a great journalist is a fault when it comes to hosting a radio show - especially in the morning, "when boring radio is least acceptable," as one CBC insider told me.
Yes, blame the new boss
Supposedly the main reason Wood was pulled so prematurely was that the CBC was about to bring in a new regional boss - Pia Marquard - and didn't want her to be stained with this decision. That obviously backfired, and for good reason: If she disagreed with the decision, couldn't she just reverse it?
The public outcry from the Nancy Wood saga has probably been larger than the CBC anticipated (certainly larger than Wood herself anticipated). And this is before they've even announced anything to their listeners - that might kick this campaign into the next gear. We'll see if it's enough to sway the new boss to keep her.
But even if they do bring her back (and she said she'd love to come back), the damage is done. The marks of that noose will be around her neck even if she's never hanged, and she won't be able to breathe comfortably so long as she's in that chair.
If you want to express your opinion to the person in charge, you can write Pia Marquard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bullshit hits the fan
UPDATE (March 11): About the same time I posted this, word finally started coming out of the CBC that Wood had indeed been removed from her Daybreak post. This post on the show's official Facebook page has a text from Marquard that many listeners reported getting word for word:
First, we'd like to thank you for your dedication to Daybreak - we're glad to know that it's part of your weekday morning. We also understand that because you're a regular Daybreak listener, you are concerned about our recent decision to change the show's host.
Nancy Wood joined the Daybreak team as the interim host in August 2009. It was not a permanent assignment and when she returns from her current absence she will begin a new assignment at the CBC.
We understand that some of Daybreak's listeners will not only miss Nancy as the show's host, but have also asked for more details regarding our decision. Our policy, like most organizations, is not to disclose personal and confidential information regarding our employees. We think this is an important principle of privacy and respect for all of our employees.
We sincerely thank Nancy for her continued commitment to the CBC and most recently, while she was in the Daybreak host's chair. We look forward to continuing to work with her when she returns.
Thank you for listening to Daybreak
Managing Director, Québec
This is pure, unmitigated bullshit. Whatever the technical status of Wood's contract with the CBC, she was hired as the permanent host of Daybreak. There was an announcement, an interview with Mike Boone, a whole production. Her face became the official face of Daybreak. At no time was the word "interim" mentioned in relation to her post, nor was there any indication that the CBC was looking to replace her during her five months on the job.
Either I'm misunderstanding something pretty fundamental (like the definition of "interim") or Marquard is outright lying here.
As for statements about "personal and confidential information regarding our employees," please. We're not asking for her salary or even the reason she's on temporary leave right now. We want to know why the CBC has decided to make a programming change by removing her as the host of Daybreak.
UPDATE (March 13): Henry Aubin has another column on Wood, focused on the response of anglo Montrealers, who copied him on 92 emails to the CBC. The column also mentions an online petition that has just started.
UPDATE (March 16): Aubin devotes a third column to Wood, taking aim at the CBC in general and its irrational focus on pure ratings. He says that reversing their decision would show that they care what listeners think.