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Jennifer McGuire

General Manager and Editor in Chief

A High Water Mark for CBC News

Categories: Canada, Journalism

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When the Calgary Police came to the CBC building on Westmount Boulevard around 7 pm on Thursday, June 20, and told us to get out, we couldn't exactly turn off the lights and go home to wait until the flood that was devastating much of the city and surrounding areas subsided. Hundreds of thousands of Albertans, and Canadians across the country were relying on us for the latest information on this natural disaster.

It wasn't exactly a shock that we were ordered out, along with everyone else in large parts of the city. Rain had been falling for several days, and the Bow River was rising before our eyes. By Thursday afternoon, we were watching large mature trees, roots intact, floating by. The water eventually broke the banks of the Bow, but it was the decision to cut power to our district that made the evacuation necessary.

Every CBC location has a plan for events of this nature, but as they say in the military, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. We rely as much, if not more, on the knowhow, instincts and goodwill of our staff. We immediately started moving our station vehicles, including our satellite and microwave TV trucks, out of the flood zone. One of our communications staff called a counterpart at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), a five-minute drive away (but on much higher ground), and by 10 pm we'd arranged to take over three well-equipped computer labs as a temporary production facility. Less than six hours later, we'd transformed them into a radio studio, a newsroom and a TV production area.

Our initial focus was getting the radio studio set up for the morning show, which would begin at 5:30. Radio and our website were the best platforms to deliver survival information especially since widespread power outages left TV sets dark. Our CBC Calgary website had more than four million page views between Thursday and Sunday, with over two million unique visitors. On days when the sun's shining in Calgary and there's no flood, we get between 90 and 100 thousand page views.

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Make-shift newsroom

Say what you like about modern technology, but the fact that a lot of our equipment is much smaller and transportable than it was in the past made a big difference. We did a pretty good job packing up the microphones, laptops and mixing board from our building downtown, but at one point during the set-up, somebody remembered that we'd need a way to get phone calls on the air during the show. So an employee was dispatched back to our building to collect a patch cord. The next morning, our producers would get guests on the line on their own IPhones, and once they did, we'd plug them into the board with that patch cord. Nothing fancy, but it worked.

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June 22: Russell Bowers broadcasts Daybreak Alberta from a classroom

TV presented its own challenges, but we made it work. Locations like Calgary are used to shipping their video to the giant computer servers at CBC headquarters in Toronto. This makes the content available to all CBC services across the country, but under normal circumstances, we would produce our own newscasts in Calgary. With no mobile production facility, we relied on CBC staff in Toronto and Vancouver to handle the switching and production of our shows. Again, nothing fancy, but we made it work. In fact, during the entire crisis, we produced hours of extra radio and television programming, for our audiences in Alberta and across the country, Whil providing content to CBC News Network's almost non-stop coverage for the first 48 hours. By our accounting, we missed getting just one short radio newscast to air. Our temporary solution wasn't perfect, but we were able to identify some issues, especially related to our computer systems, that we hope to address before something like this happens again.

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CBC News interviews Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

None of this would have turned out so well if it weren't for the contributions of the staff at SAIT, and our own employees. SAIT provided everything from IT and security to catering services, and those three computer labs were conveniently located right next to a parking area for all our vehicles. Our CBC employees were working overtime to keep local and national audiences up-to-date on radio, TV and online, while at the same time dealing with their own personal challenges. Roughly one-third of them were forced from their own homes by the flooding and power outages, so there was no warm bed for them to return to once their shifts were over.

Speaking of which, times like these sometimes make for strange media bedfellows. In the midst of the crisis, we were approached by CITY TV in Calgary, offering their own facilities to us, and asking for permission to simulcast our TV newscast, as they no longer produce newscasts in Calgary. We took them up on the latter request. It's part of our public service mandate to get information out to as many people on as many platforms as possible. And if we hadn't been given the green light to return to our own building on Sunday evening and fire up all our systems successfully, we might very well have taken up temporary residence at CITY the following week.

As I've indicated, I'm proud of the way our staff responded to this crisis, and grateful to our partners, especially SAIT, for their support. Extreme weather events aren't exactly rare these days; in fact, we lost power to the Broadcasting Centre in Toronto for 90 minutes during the flood on July 8. It happened right in the middle of our supper-hour newscast, but we'd made changes based on previous events and kept the show on the air this time. We know that Canadians look to the CBC in times of crisis, and we're here to deliver.

For our staff in Calgary, this story isn't over. Many of them are supporting the Calgary Foundation's Recovery and Rebuilding Fund. Here's a short video they've produced to promote that campaign.

Tags: How We Work

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