As It Happens

Carol Off stepping down as host of CBC Radio's As It Happens

Veteran CBC journalist Carol Off is stepping down as host of As It Happens, CBC Radio's flagship evening current affairs show, after nearly 16 years of interviews marked by both doggedness and empathy.

'It's time to move on,' says the veteran broadcaster who's leaving the current affairs program after 16 years

Carol Off, a veteran public broadcaster, is stepping down as host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens as of Feb. 25. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

When Carol Off first decided to stop globe-trotting and start hosting a radio show from a studio in Toronto, she says her friends "were really dubious."

After all, the veteran CBC journalist had spent much of her career in the 1990s and 2000s in the field, reporting the news from all over the world. 

"I was a wild animal and I was never going to be a house cat," Off said. But both she and her friends were surprised to find that she really enjoyed hosting. "It's just the world brought to me instead of having to go to the world. It just became my favourite job ever."

Now, she's leaving her favourite job behind.

Off is stepping down as host of As It Happens, CBC Radio's flagship evening current affairs show, after nearly 16 years of interviews marked by both doggedness and empathy.

"It's time to move on," she said.

She will host her final program on Feb. 25, before moving on to work on a new summer series for CBC. As It Happens will continue with a rotating cast of guest hosts as CBC Radio searches for Off's successor. 

They will be big shoes to fill, says As It Happens executive producer Robin Smythe.

"Carol is extraordinary. Her smarts, breadth of knowledge and experience, her work ethic, and especially her empathy make her interviews truly remarkable," Smythe said.

"The times that I have stopped doing what I'm doing while working on a busy, daily program to just listen to her conversations with people are innumerable. And I know we've all had those 'couldn't get out of the car, had to listen to the rest of the interview in my driveway' moments. I've been blessed that mine were at work."

Off, left, in the As It Happens studio with co-host Chris Howden. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Chris Howden, the show's writer-turned-co-host, says working alongside Off has been an honour.

"The Carol Off you hear on the radio — brilliant, empathetic, thoughtful, funny, generous, occasionally goofy — is the only Carol Off there is," he said.

"Working with her for the past 16 years has been an education and a joy. As It Happens listeners will miss her terribly — and so will I."

'The hardest job I've ever had'

Off began her CBC career in radio in the late '80s, first as a freelancer, then an Ottawa correspondent for Sunday Morning and a Quebec correspondent for the national news. 

She later moved to television, where she hosted the political debate show CounterSpin, before joining The National as a correspondent.

She has penned five books, received two honorary degrees and won several awards. Those include a Gemini, three medals from the New York Festival of Television, a Gabriel Award and ACTRA's John Drainie Award for Distinguished Contribution to Canadian Broadcasting.

A collection of images shows Off doing news hits for TV. (CBC)

She had just finished a stint in Afghanistan in 2006 and was feeling "world weary" when she decided to audition to be the new host of As It Happens. She'd been a fan of the program, which has been on the air since 1968, since she was in university.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I can't believe these people talk this way. They're so cheeky and irreverent. They ask questions nobody's asking. They're going places no one's going.' And I was gobsmacked that such a thing existed," she said.

"If anyone had told me then that I would one day host the show, I would have fallen over dead."

To her surprise, she got the job. Since then, she's conducted dozens of interviews a week on stories as serious as the war in Syria, and as silly as monkeys humping deer in Japan.

"It's the hardest job I've ever had, for sure," Off said.

"It's the emotional range of it. I've laughed. I've cried. I've become angry. I have learned something. I've had my head turned around. And that's in a single day."

Off preps for interviews in her office at CBC Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Interviews marked by doggedness, empathy

Some interviews require her to be dogged. 

When former Toronto police chief and Conservative politician Julian Fantino got into the legal cannabis business, Off grilled him on his history of demonizing drug use and enforcing tough-on-crime policies. She also took Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to task when the Liberals put an openly anti-Conservative union on a panel that doles out funding to media organizations. She held a Canadian priest to account for the Catholic church's role in residential schools. 

Off, right, interviews the late Sto:lo author Lee Maracle in the studio. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC Radio )

But some of her most memorable interviews are the ones where she exhibits compassion and empathy for people caught up in tragic circumstances. 

Take, for example, her heart-wrenching conversation with Barbara Winters, the passerby who comforted Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as he lay dying from a gunshot wound at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in 2014.

WATCH | An animation of Off's interview with Barbara Winters: 

Comforting a dying soldier

4 years ago
Duration 3:16
The last thing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo likely heard before he died from a gunshot wound on Parliament Hill on Oct. 22, 2014, was the voice of Barbara Winters telling him he was good, brave and loved. Winters told As It Happens host Carol Off about his final moments. (Animation by Ben Shannon)

Or the time she spoke to the grieving mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia teenager who took her own life after her parents said she experienced sexual assault and bullying by her peers.

Those are the kinds of conversations Off says have impacted her the most. 

"People who have been in the studio with me have known that my face is streaming with tears, but I'm still focused on the person I'm speaking with, because I think the most important thing is, it's their story," she said.

"They're the ones telling it. And I'm just the one that's channeling that for them and giving them that space to do it."

WATCH | Off explains how she handles emotionally difficult interviews: 

Carol Off on emotionally difficult interviews

4 years ago
Duration 1:53
Carol Off on how she covers distressing stories. (Mallika Viegas/CBC Radio)
 

Playfully examining 'the human condition'

But no matter how dire the news cycle, the show always makes room for stories that are goofy, weird, or just plain fun. 

Off has playfully interviewed the Canadian who invented pineapple pizza, a Texan who took his donkey to court, a woman in Maine who makes crafts out of moose poop and a man in Sweden who created a giant snow penis to make amends for destroying a smaller snow penis.

"My God, we need that. People can't take the relentless drip, drip, drip of what's going on in the world unless they know that there are other things going on," she said.

"Some of [the interviews] seem frivolous. But they're all people's stories, aren't they? I mean, they're all part of the human condition. And if you don't count the total scope of the human condition, you're not really helping people understand what the world is about."

Off, centre, with two producers dressed as a donkey and a beaver, Q host Tom Power, then-co-host Jeff Douglas, and former host Michael Enright, during the 50th anniversary episode of As It Happens. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC Radio)

New series, parting advice

As soon as the news was announced on Tuesday, tributes from fans and colleagues alike poured in on social media

Among them was Tom Power, host of CBC Radio's Q, who said: "She's given me guidance when I needed it most, and friendship when I needed that, too. Hard to imagine supper time without her. Thank you for everything."

Susan Marjetti, general manager CBC News, Current Affairs and Local, says Off will "still be telling stories this summer in a new series," the details of which will be announced later. 

"We will continue to enjoy her smart insights, never-ending curiosity, probing questions and dry, droll wit for a little longer thankfully. She is an incredible person and a top talent," Marjetti said in a news release. 

Listen | Off discusses her departure with co-host Chris Howden:

Carol Off is leaving as host of As It Happens, CBC Radio's flagship evening current affairs show, after nearly 16 years. She chats with co-host Chris Howden about why she's leaving. Plus, we spring a few surprises on her.

Off says she's not worried about the future of As It Happens, which has seen many hosts come and go. 

"Each time somebody new takes over this job, they just bring who they are to it. I brought a totally different thing than the others did. Someone else will bring what they have to it, and it's never twice the same."

She has just one piece of advice for whoever takes up the mantle next: "Keep your heart and your mind open at all times."

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