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Smith rocks the broadcast boat

May, 2011

When Sue Smith was a McGill University undergraduate, her major was political science, her passion theatre.

Not just any theatre, but improv, where thinking on your feet and quickly coming up with quips and spur-of-the-moment statements is key. Little did Smith know that the knowledge and skills developed then would serve her well in the broadcasting career she has developed so successfully.

Though she has worked extensively in television here and in England, many of us became aware of Smith while listening to Homerun, the CBC’s afternoon program on the air at 104.7 FM from 3 to 6 p.m., which she began hosting this fall.

“Let’s rock the boat!” Smith said in a recent remote broadcast session at Place Ville Marie.

Smith has a way of moving the show ahead with a rare combination of humour and analytical rigour. She’s good at small talk as she lightens up discussion of road conditions or the weather. When it comes to an interview about uprisings in the Arab world, natural disasters in Japan or Haiti, the rise of our dollar or the ups and downs of the Habs, she is knowledgeable and sounds natural.

The daughter of an Air Canada pilot, Smith grew up in the West Island and while at McGill, recalls doing “a ton of theatre,” including an improvisational soap opera with the Players Theatre at midnight on Fridays.

“We all had our own characters and the audience would throw situations at us. Really fun.” She also performed as a jazz singer at weddings, earning extra money to help pay for university, and taught sailing in the summers, but her first job after graduating was at the Centaur Theatre, playing in the musical Fire, the life of Jerry Lee Lewis. She played a stripper and a church lady.

“I rapidly realized it was very difficult to break into theatre, and I was better at being myself than portraying a character.”

In the late 1980s Smith decided to look into media work, which was hardly a given, since she had no formal training, never went to journalism school or gained experience in college media. She got her feet in the door with a job at Champlain Productions, then on Ogilvy and home to CFCF-TV and radio.

Sue Smith sounds comfortable and knowledgeable on air, no matter her topic.

She interviewed game-show contestants, kept her ears open, and was hired as traffic reporter on the Aaron Rand show on CFCF 600.

“He said, ‘Send me your CV,’ and I said, ‘I don’t have a CV.’ I gave him my mother’s phone number, and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll give you a chance’.”

That’s when her acting experience came into play.

“On St. Patrick’s Day, I pretended I was Shannon O’Smith and that a temp agency had sent me because Sue Smith was ill. Then the weather job came up and I was hired.”

When a CBC job opened up, Smith was hired to do traffic on Daybreak with then-host Jon Kalina.

When CBC TV started City Beat, she applied, was asked for a demo tape, and had to reply, “I don’t have a demo tape.”

“They gave me a week to put something together, and I did this wonderful story about the organist at the Forum, an elderly piano teacher from the South Shore, and this was her outlet. I put the story on the air, and I got the job and did it for more than three years, first as its own show then as part of Newswatch—ordinary people doing interesting things.”

The Smith career arc then took an abrupt change.

“I met my husband, Dr. Mark Ware, who works today at the MUHC Pain Centre and carries out studies on medicinal marijuana.

“I met him at a Halloween party in November 1991. He was in Barbados at the time. In June 1992, I sold my car, got rid of my fabulous apartment in N.D.G., and we ended up travelling in Africa.

“We went to Congo to see mountain gorillas, then toured Lake Victoria, visiting Tanzania and Kenya, Uganda and Burundi.”

They travelled in the Middle East, then moved to London so he could finish his internship. Smith could not find work, so she went back to school and got a certificate to teach English as a second language.

Eventually she was hired as a producer of entertainment stories at Worldwide Television News, but then moved to Kingston, Jamaica, so Ware could complete his medical internship. They stayed for four years. She continued to produce for WTN, often focusing on environmental issues, and completed an M.A. in international relations, with a thesis on sovereignty and the drug trade in the Caribbean.

Her travels and formal studies are much in evidence when Smith sets aside the lighter side of her personality to conduct interviews on weighty topics in the news.

They returned to Montreal with sons Gabriel and Dominic. Juliette was born the day before 9/11.

After a stint with Global TV, she resumed work at the CBC.

How does a woman with three young kids and a busy husband building a career manage to advance her own?

“It’s hard. As any working mother will tell you, balance is very difficult. I did not look for full-time work because I wanted to be home with the kids, which I really enjoy. But I was worried that by the time I was ready to go back to work, no one would want me.

“It was always a scramble, but luckily my mother was there.”

Smith has her own take as a media professional on what she loves about working in public broadcasting.

“The CBC has a real commitment to the truth, to balance, and it’s rigorous. I work with really special people, we are very careful about upholding journalistic standards.

“Our show is Montreal music, Montreal content, what people are talking about.”

There is also a commitment to telling stories you might not hear elsewhere.

Her working day starts at home in Pointe Claire, where she reads local newspapers, in print and online, and then takes part in a telephone hookup with the show’s staff about the day’s lineup.

“I drive my kids to school, grocery shop, do laundry, cook dinner, have my meeting on the phone, and go to work.”

The pace of the show can be intense, with breaking news, a host of contributors walking in and out of the studio, and Smith reading text messages almost as soon as they come in.

“My desk in the studio is a little oasis of calm. It can be frenetic out there, but to a certain extent I am shielded from that. The guests can be nervous, but I try to make it a calm and a nice place to be.”

Once a guest is in, Smith says she will often set aside the scripted questions.

“In my head, I know where I am going, I know what I want to get from the subject.”

Smith says she’s thrilled to be where she is professionally, because Homerun is “a real snapshot of your city, what’s happening today, tonight, tomorrow.”

Marshall McLuhan called radio a hot medium, compared with the cool of TV, and Smith revels in it.

“I just love the intimacy, that feeling of really connecting with listeners.”



At November 3, 2011 at 2:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are very good Sue...
I would like less propaganda for graffiti vandals and less propaganda for proponents of Separatism...which is an idea that is passé...


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