Point of View

CBC North, radio no one: When a radio host has to talk to himself

On Wednesday CBC radio programs in western Canada abruptly went off the air. Regardless, the show had to go on. Here, host Loren McGinnis reflects on what it was like to broadcast... to himself.

CBC host Loren McGinnis talks about the show that no one heard when The Trailbreaker lost its signal

Lonely Loren. CBC director Cory Chibry captured a shot of Loren McGinnis broadcasting to no one in the Yellowknife radio studio on Wednesday morning. CBC shows across western Canada lost signal and went off the air. (Cory Chibry/CBC)

Loren McGinnis is the host of CBC N.W.T.'s morning show, The Trailbreaker. On Wednesday it was one of many CBC radio shows that lost signal and went off-air.

I get a real kick out of talking on the radio. I love it. Wednesday morning at about 6:26 I was bouncing in my chair as I leaned into my microphone and talked about the humour and craft of Randy Newman's songwriting.

The end of that first half hour of the show is when I talk about music history and spin a tune. Wednesday was Randy Newman's 75th birthday. I talked about the singer with all the energy I figured a listener could handle at that hour, and then our director Cory Chibry fired Newman's song, I love L.A.

It poured into my headphones and I kept bouncing. I was on fire (I thought).

Over in the control room, on the other side of a big pane of glass, Cory pressed a button to override the song and talk into my headphones. "We're off air," he said.

Fire doused.

Thud. Bouncing ended.

I didn't know it then, but CBC morning shows across Western Canada were being missed. The technical issue was big (I still don't know what happened) and had wiped out every station north and west of Manitoba.

At first, Loren keeps a positive attitude about the situation. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

I've been taught and wholeheartedly believe that the trick to sounding natural on the radio is to picture someone: a person you're talking to. Otherwise you're just a guy alone in a room, talking to himself, chair dancing to Randy Newman.

Sometimes I picture John in Fort Good Hope, or Dorothy and Angus in Deninu Kue. Other times, Kate and Mike and their kids in Yellowknife or Shawn the fisherman on the Big Lake. Whoever it is, the specific vision and knowledge that you — yes you — can hear me, is what breathes life into this otherwise isolated, quiet, even lonely environment.

So what happens when I know for sure that none of my mind's-eye listeners are at the other end of the radio pipeline? A sort of personal and emotional disorientation — internal chaos for someone who defines himself Monday to Friday mornings from 6 to 8 by talking on the radio.

Too dramatic? Fair enough. And I'm OK. But I learned a thing or two from losing our signal.

Part of the strangeness is that we have to continue delivering the radio show. We could pop back on air at any second. And I can't have a mouthful of bagel or be snoring at my desk when that happens.

"You're tuned to The Trailbreaker here on CBC North, Radio One," I rattled on to no one.

My only anxiety greater than being off air is that no one would notice. On this, my anxiety was quelled and our work validated. By 6:28, I was responding to texts, emails, messages, tweets, studio calls, you name it. Phew, we're missed!

At 6:50 we had a live interview with CBC Sports' Scott Regehr from a studio in Toronto. I had to fight this almost uncontrollable urge to swear during the interview. Must have been the emotional trip through the stages of grief: sadness turns to anger.

Stages of grief: Loren is thrown into 'personal and emotional disorientation' by being off-air. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

At some point while we were off air, our technical team in Toronto managed to patch the morning show from Winnipeg out to all the stations whose signals had gone black. I pictured Bob in Cambridge Bay hearing about the traffic at Portage and Main.

At 7:37 or so, after some heroic effort by a radio technician working in a biblical tangle of cables, we suddenly snapped back on air.

What'd you miss? Some sports, news, music and a radio host taking an unexpected ride on an emotional roller-coaster.

My favourite audience account of the outage was someone in Yellowknife who complained her morning was thrown into its own chaos without the markers in the radio show to chart her morning routine. With The Trailbreaker off air, she accidentally showed up for work early!

We got back on the air in time to share the story about the understated heroics and community spirit of Betty Ann Minoza in Fort Providence. She's one of a number of community members who've stepped up to resurrect the fire department in Fort Providence.

After extending kudos to Fort Prov's award-winning firefighters and a small, disjointed reflection on how glad I was you could hear me again, I spun a tune. Into kitchens and cars, through clock radios and smartphones, people from Cambridge Bay to Fort Chipewyan and all over the Northwest Territories heard Marvin Gaye's, Let's Get it On.

My way of saying to you — yes you — "I missed you some bad."