I went to going-away shindig for a coworker earlier this week. That’s not altogether unusual. What is unusual is the number of people outside of my workplace who are aware of and care about the fact that this going-away is happening. You see, it was for none other than Daybreak North host Chris Walker who, after three years manning the microphone here in in PG, is heading off to a news position in Kelowna. The response in the form of emails and such from people saying they’ll miss him and wishing good luck has reminded me of the unusual nature of my current job, which is that people outside of my workplace have daily access to what I’m doing.
In most jobs, your interactions are limited to those in your workplace, be they co-workers or customers. You certainly have an effect on the world beyond your office walls, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the world is aware of it, and it definitely doesn’t mean they feel like they’re on a first-name basis with you. It’s different in radio.
I’m saying this as someone who until recently interacted with radio as an audience member, and who still feels more of an ‘outsider’ than an ‘insider’ when it comes to the experience of being on-the-air. When you work in radio, your job is part of hundreds of people’s daily routines. When I’m at the CBC researching stories and pre-interviewing guests, I’m helping put together the program that people throughout northern BC use to find out what’s going on both around the world and around the corner. And when you listen to a local show, you feel a lot more connected to it. It’s in your community, on-the-air guests are literally your neighbours. I have family in Dawson Creek and friends in Smithers who hear the show and know who “Chris Walker” and “Robert Doane” are, even if they’ve never met them.
I’m impressed with these people who go on the air for two and half hours a day, five days a week, in every community north of Williams Lake up to the Yukon border. In so doing, you’re inviting anyone with an radio dial or an internet connection to hear you, while you work, and form on opinion on how you’re performing. I’m still getting used to the experience of people I know saying “I heard you on the radio the other day”, and all I do is read the weather and community notes once in a while. I’m even more surprised when I speak to my grandma and she mentions hearing me, because she lives a day’s drive away. And, quite frankly, when I go on the air I’m not thinking “this is going out across the province, and people are listening.” I did at first, and it threw me off too much. But over the last little while, I’ve taken myself so far out of it that I completely forget I’m going on the air. I’m just doing my job.
At some point, I’ll have to reconcile the two. I haven’t been at it long enough for people I’ve never met to recognize my name when I meet them somewhere, but I suppose it could happen eventually. I know that my first days of work at the CBC were some of the most surreal I’ve had simply because I was meeting people I sort of already knew— or at least their voices and their names. Even more surreal was the experience of speaking to the hosts in Prince Rupert because they are still bodiless voices, but they’re addressing you, directly, through headphones or the telephone— it felt like one of those Twilight Zone-style deals where the TV starts talking to you. Now it’s becoming surreal in the other sense— I’m addressing people who I’m not sure are there. I know people are listening, but I never know exactly who they or what they’ll think of how I do it. And over time, they’ll start to form an opinion of me, and maybe even feel like they know me.
I don’t know what I think about that, really, but I do know one thing: there’s something very unique about the relationships people have with their favourite radio shows, one that isn’t replicated in their relationships with celebrities, or tv, or even blogs. I think it’s the voice aspect of it— in print, whether online or off, there’s a degree of separation, editing, and a time-lapse. On TV, it’s either fictional characters or celebrities so famous or so far removed that they may as well be fictional. And audio is the one thing you can have wake you up and continue to be engaged with while eating breakfast, making lunch, and driving to work. That builds the relationship over time. Plus there’s the voice coming live, directly across the air into your house or headphones or car. And sometimes it’s talking to someone else, but often enough it’s talking directly to you, telling you the weather or asking you for your song requests. And that builds, too.That is why people who have never met Chris Walker care that he is leaving. He’s built up this relationship with people over the last few years that feels more direct than most one-to-many relationships out there. And even though I just have a small part in this, and have only had any role to play in it for less than half a year it’s a good reminder: this is one cool job.