The Sunday Edition·Personal Essay

'It has been a delight to meet you on the radio' — Michael's essay

"It is one of the hardest calibrations in broadcasting, deciding between what an audience wants and what it needs. In making those choices, we fully realized that not every listener would like them. We knew that in trying to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody."

'Thank you for spending your mornings or part thereof with us'

Michael Enright has been behind the microphone of The Sunday Edition since it hit the CBC Radio airwaves in 2000. (Tanja Tiziana)
Listen8:27

The Sunday Edition debuted in September, 2000. Precisely one year later, we were confronted with the most devastating event of the new century, the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York.

Nothing could have prepared a new radio program for the astonishing, cruel events of that terrible week. Indeed no one was prepared for what had happened. Nor could anyone absorb its many different elements and confusions, in any kind of a coherent way.

The burning question facing this new program was how to make some kind of sense that following Sunday.

We decided, after much thought, that CBC Radio listeners needed comfort and context as much as coverage. We would try to give them a feeling that the world had not gone completely mad.

We needed to know the facts on the ground and so dispatched our excellent documentary maker Karin Wells to New York. But we also wanted to capture a spiritual and intellectual understanding of what had happened that Tuesday morning.

To that end we invited a variety of thinkers, including a historian, an ethicist, a Jesuit priest, and a writer to talk about 9/11. That 9/11 broadcast became the working model of The Sunday Edition over the next two decades.

We were privileged to control three hours of prime radio real estate. We could take the time needed to sort out complex issues.- Michael Enright

We took it as our mission to peel away the externalities of any story, to expose what painters call the pentimento, the hidden canvas underneath. We would build the program on three equal pillars; long-form interviews, documentaries and music.

Sometimes we failed utterly. But we succeeded much of the time in many different ways, which managed to find favour with a growing audience.

It was especially gratifying for me, as radio had been and still is a lifelong obsession. I grew up listening to baseball on the radio and to shows such as Terry and the Pirates, The Lone Ranger, Dragnet, The Jack Benny Show and The Whistler — all American programs.

When I was about 10, I took over a corner of my parents' bedroom in our downtown apartment and turned it into a studio. I had a headset from an army surplus store and used a table lamp for a microphone. I read commercials — these were ads from the local papers. I wrote scripts and played music on my father's hi-fi.

Michael Enright working from home during the pandemic in March 2020. (Gabe Enright-Levine)

Sixty years later, I would turn another bedroom into a real radio studio and broadcast The Sunday Edition, during the lockdown. 

The producers and I decided early on that The Sunday Edition would not limit its scope to Canada, although this country and its issues would be our main focus. We took the program on the road to the Middle East, to the United States, to Ireland and to cities and towns across Canada.

We held public forums in various provinces, to let local people share their views with a national audience.

Sometimes we failed utterly. But we succeeded much of the time in many different ways, which managed to find favour with a growing audience.- Michael Enright

On the music front, we introduced new, young singers like Sophie Milman and Kim Beggs. We featured live studio performances with the jazz trio of Mark Eisenman, Terry Clarke and Neil Swainson. 

We were privileged to control three hours of prime radio real estate. We could take the time needed to sort out complex issues.

We were able to feature special documentary reports which added colour and context to our search for understanding the world. Many of our documentaries won international awards.

The Sunday Edition at the University of Toronto on April 8, 2014. (Talin Vartanian/CBC)

A good part of our mission statement was to have fun, which we did most famously with the Great Jimmy Carter Hoax.

In my interview with the fake ex-president on April 1, 2001, I called him a washed-up peanut farmer. A Globe and Mail editor listening at home wrote a front page story for Monday's paper, excoriating me for rudeness.

Naturally, all hell broke loose. Even after we explained it was a hoax, I continued to receive nasty emails. But we learned later that President Carter thought the whole thing was hilarious.

We never were able to explain what Bjork was talking about, but we did create an instant hit and had a lot of fun with our series Icelandic Corner.

In 2002, we convened an all-female papal conclave of feminists to choose the next Pope.

Steve Martin was Michael Enright's guide for a tour of a new exhibition of Lawren Harris' work at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Thanks to the tireless efforts of our producers, I was able to talk to some of the most famous characters of the time. I talked to Boris Johnson before he became prime minister of the U.K., and John Major after he left that office. I had conversations with the greatest writers of the era; Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, David Grossman, Tom Wolfe, Orhan Pamuk, Azir Nafisi, P. D. James and Anne Carson.

Sometimes the conversation got nasty. Jane Fonda got angry when I raised the subject of Hanoi Jane, that was her support of North Vietnam.

On the other hand, the chief architect of that war, Robert McNamara, got mad at me for pointing out the number of Vietnamese civilian deaths. McNamara referred to American soldiers who died in the war. When I mentioned the million civilians who died, he said, "Well yes, if you're going to count them."

At the end of the interview, he stormed out of the studio.

It is one of the hardest calibrations in broadcasting, deciding between what an audience wants and what it needs.- Michael Enright

But for the most part, the guests were friendly, generous with their time, and were engaged. 

It is one of the hardest calibrations in broadcasting, deciding between what an audience wants and what it needs. In making those choices, we fully realized that not every listener would like them. We knew that in trying to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody.

Covering the Republican Convention in July 2016, with producer Talin Vartanian. (Submitted by Talin Vartanian)

This is especially true in programs about politics. Being human, none of us is totally unbiased. Our job as public broadcasters is to be vigorously non-partisan. In the course of 20 years we have been accused of being too liberal, too conservative, too anti-American, too pro-American.

In addition, in a time of so much vehement polarization, it falls to the public broadcaster to constantly seek out common ground. Which is what this radio program has tried to do for the last two decades, by making connections with our listeners. We have not always succeeded. But that has been our focus.

No radio program is the work of a single person. It is a collective effort. It brings together the talents and energies of a number of people who work their way to a cohesive broadcast.

I've been blessed, truly, to work with some of the finest producers in CBC Radio. Without them there is no Sunday Edition; there is no me.

The Sunday Edition team photographed in June 2019. Top row: Michael Enright, Chris Wodskou, Ira Basen, Alisa Siegel, Karen Levine and David Gutnick. Bottom row: Cate Cochran, Susan Mahoney, Talin Vartanian, Pete Morey, Pauline Holdsworth and Dean Ples. (Submitted by Talin Vartanian)

It has often been said that radio is the most intimate form of communication, speaking directly to the listener. This connecting force creates a bond between listener and speaker. And in the world of public radio, that bond is a covenant of sorts. I hope that the covenant with the public broadcaster is still intact.

As I have said hundreds of times, it has been a delight to meet you on the radio. And I'm not just talking about the guests I've interviewed. I'm talking about you, the listener.

I have been privileged that on crisp, April Sundays and ferocious, February mornings — in fact in all weathers — we were able to talk to each other over coffee about our common world.

Thank you for spending your mornings or part thereof with us, for the last 20 years.

I'm Michael Enright.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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