The Sunday Magazine

Turning the tables: Michael Enright answers questions instead of asking them

In an interview with The Current’s Matt Galloway, Michael Enright talks about hosting The Sunday Edition, some memorable interviews, and what he will miss the most.

The Sunday Edition team called on The Current's Matt Galloway to help us put Enright in the guest chair

To mark the 100th anniversary of The Easter Rising, when armed rebels fought the British in central Dublin, Michael Enright headed to Ireland in March 2016. (Chris Wodskou/CBC)

For two decades, listeners who tuned into The Sunday Edition would have heard Michael Enright greet them across the airwaves and entertain them with long-form interviews, documentaries and music.

Now, he's leaving the show to anchor a new, hour-long program on CBC Radio.

But not so fast.

After 20 years of asking the questions, it was Enright's turn to answer some. So The Sunday Edition team called on Matt Galloway, host of The Current, to help us put Enright in the guest chair.

Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.

How are you feeling on this final Sunday Edition?

I suppose bittersweet is the cliché word. It's been an amazing run and I'm just so lucky to live through the last 20 years and talk to some of the most extraordinary people in that time. [It] really is mind blowing. It's something that I could never have thought of in my wildest ambitions and dreams. It's just been incredible.

You said this was the greatest challenge in your career as a journalist. As a journalist who has done so many interesting things, saying that it's the greatest challenge says something. Why?

[There are] a couple of reasons. One is the contact, the intimacy with an audience without which we do not exist. The challenge is to maintain that contact, that relationship, but also to treat it with the kind of dignity, almost reverence, that it deserves. And the other thing is to keep it interesting. It's no good, however smart you think you are, if there's not an element of entertainment in this. If people won't read what we write or listen to what we say, then what's the point?

The other challenge is having been in print for quite a while, to formulate in your head the kinds of questions, statements, utterances you're going to make without the benefit of time — you have to do it on the spot. Working on a newspaper or magazine, you could take a week or more to decide how you're going to go. But [doing that] in the middle of an interview — that's the trick.

Robert Harris teaches Michael Enright to play piano 2:21

There are so many different ways that you can get information now that didn't exist five or 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago. What do you see as the power and the place of radio in 2020?

This is heretical, and I feel embarrassed to say it to some journalists of your calibre, but I think we're killing people with information. I agree with T. S. Eliot that information does not lead to wisdom. It simply leads to more information. Radio — yes, it does convey information in a way but, more importantly, it conveys emotion and it conveys the feelings underlying the known facts. You, the listener, really have to be engaged to get involved with radio. You can't use it for wallpaper.

Sundays are a particular day. They're a different broadcast day from the rest of the week. People have written and said — and I have to be modest here — that this is very much a part of their Sunday morning, the way church used to be or the way the breakfast or the brunch is.

You asked, is radio still relevant or important? I think it is. But more importantly public broadcasting, I think, is more crucial now than it has ever been.

For the listener, it's important to get a sense of who this guy is and what he is thinking about what's going on in the world.- Michael Enright

Tell me more about that and why.

Everyone takes a whack at us or has an opinion as they should. That's absolutely fair. But if you look at what has happened across Eastern Europe or Latin America — anywhere really — the first thing that the tyrant does is to shut down the radio service, the public broadcaster, [it] is to make sure that the public broadcaster becomes a state broadcaster for portrayer of propaganda and for political ends.

I am going out on a limb here, but I think Western liberal democracy is under threat, and is under siege. And I think that the public broadcaster is absolutely vital to either repair that or keep it alive or animated in some way that serves its various audiences.

Michael Enright, left, poses with Governor General David Johnston after being awarded the rank of Member in the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 22, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The CBC has a sort of ethics bible — Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP). It reads, "Our value of impartiality precludes our news and current affairs staff from expressing their personal opinions on matters of controversy on all of our platforms." How did you square that with the essay at the beginning of the program?

The idea of objectivity is long gone. Objectivity was invented in New York City in the late 19th century so that newspapers like The Herald and The Journal could get advertising from both political parties. They said: we're objective. Therefore, we want your ads on either side. In a time like we're living in now, impartiality and objectivity, I think, are dangerous … because if you are impartial, that is a position. You are taking a position. And to me, that's a negative position. I have stretched the limits of this and the management of the radio service have been very generous in allowing me to do so. And sometimes I've been slapped down, quite rightly so, by management for offending the JSP.

But I think that for the listener, it's important to get a sense of who this guy is and what he is thinking about what's going on in the world. I don't hate getting on the anti-Trump bandwagon, but we are living in different times. And the times demand some kind of assertion, some kind of position.

I've been nailed vigorously by audiences for opinions. I try to be very careful. I have a good editor, Christopher Wodskou. I can really go off the deep end occasionally. But I think it's something that the listener has gotten used to.

In a time like we're living in now, impartiality and objectivity, I think, are dangerous … because if you are impartial, that is a position.- Michael Enright

Who was your favourite guest of the last 20 years?

I think Dick Cavett, I probably have to say Christopher Hitchens.

Is there an interview that didn't go as you would have expected?

The one that stands out and has gotten a bit of history is my interview with Mickey Rooney, which was a total car crash and disaster from the first question. He sat down across the table and I said, "Mr. Rooney, you know, when you walked through the door of the studio, I felt like I've known you all my life."

He said, "How dare you say, you know me? You don't know me at all. How dare you say it?" And it went right downhill. At one point, we broke for the news and Mickey leaned across and said, "This is going very well. And it was a complete catastrophe."

Fear of flying: Michael Enright in the pilot seat 1:59

What can you tell us about what you want to be doing next?

I'm going to be coming back in the fall with a one-hour program. When and where — to be announced. What I'm hoping is to do a program that's based on an idea — not necessarily a news event — and talk through some of the things that we've done on the [existing] program, but with a little more intensity, a little more involvement, plus music. I want to have some fun.

I think the legacy of the program, if there is one, is that we were able to intrude on your Sunday morning.... And we hope that you found that it was worth it.- Michael Enright

What do you miss the most these times on Sunday mornings?

The people, the routine and the idea of sitting down with a group … and coming up with an idea that I have to make work on the radio, especially the young producers. They are so much smarter than I was. They're more intelligent, more ambitious and more creative. Just being around them is energizing. It's galvanizing. That's been one of the problems with the quarantine, that I'm stuck in a bedroom here and I don't see my young colleagues. I think I'll miss that the most.

You developed a relationship with listeners over the course of 20 years on Sunday mornings. What would you say to your listeners?

Before the pandemic broke out, I was in the liquor store … and a guy walked by me. He whirled around and said, "When are you going to put Paul Rogers back on the radio?"

I think the legacy of the program, if there is one, is that we were able to intrude on your Sunday morning for an hour or two, perhaps three. And we hope that you found that it was worth it.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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