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Thursday 23 March 2017


The sudden cancellation of Backtalk with Pete Soucy, one of VOCM’s much-heralded talk show hosts, represents a significant loss to the public affairs arena of this province.

At first one might think that the axing of the popular writer, actor, comedian, and teacher should be treated as just another change in the minutiae of operating a radio station, and that cancellation of one of three shows is not a matter for those outside of corporate media to bother their little heads over.

But that is not the case.

Underscoring this decision by Steele Communications, the radio station’s owner, is the huge void that exists in a province bereft of public affairs analysis. After all, VOCM does news as poorly as the other media.

A deft handler in the art of self-promotion FIRST WITH THE NEWS IN NEWFOUNDLAND V-O, as it is colloquially known, has never really earned a reputation for anything more than getting the Press Release or the news conference on air first.

That is a tip to a news culture that speaks to bottom-line conscious management and good logistics. It says nothing about news content or analysis. Still, to be fair, when it comes to the fulfilment of what broadcasters owe the public for their licences, all of them should issue daily mea culpas to the CRTC.

VOCM is a reader of Press Releases. It compensates for this deficiency on some level with its series of open line shows often using the best cuts in its news segments. Though the open line concept was born in the days when reporters asked real questions "How did that make you feel?" was never thought a weighty interrogative it is now more important than ever. In the age of info-tainment and a corporate culture that leaves little room for distinction or initiative, they have become an essential part of the news landscape.

Talk show hosts are not reporters, but the airspace they inhabit pays heed to notions of political transparency and accountability. A plethora of issues, that would not otherwise see the light of day, are assessed or simply given public exposure. When unwarranted deference is paid to politicians, senior bureaucrats, and business interests by the paid scribes, you can be certain that some member of the public is calling ‘open line’ to undress the emperor.

When the scribes are fearful which is always of being denied political access or worse, when they are in mortal fear of their bosses’ singular preoccupation with advertising budgets, at least there is the possibility that one of the more venturesome open line hosts is undeterred by the risk of temporarily losing the popular audience to boredom.

No one should think that the overseers of VOCM lay awake at night wondering if they have done enough to erase the democratic deficit or to accommodate naysayers in their mission to challenge government’s fecklessness, obfuscation and deceit. 

Equally, no one should think that what one hears on an open line show is always interesting, informative or accurate. But then, everyone needs reminding that, among the bevy of reporters chasing the next storm or fire truck, or checking the dimensions of Spring’s asphalt-deficient creations, accuracy always enjoys less zeal than does the cheapest titillation. For that reason, when reporters are busy being busy, talk shows provide the rarest of opportunities for members of the public to speak truth to power.

The mere fact that so much time is spent by overpaid PR types at Confederation Building and Nalcor scribbling the private testimony of individual callers, parsing its ubiquity, and debating whether the Premier or the Finance Minister should respond, is proof of their utility. 

When the subject of Muskrat Falls arises and Nalcor is forced into the light to confess the latest cost overrun or some other shag-up dealing with leaky cofferdams or faulty transmission wire, the joy of the show for me has long been the guessing game over which of the two buckos, Ed or Gil, would emerge, if only to ‘gild the lily’.

Let’s not get too carried away. We are talking about radio talk shows – except in this province their elevation to news status demonstrates the extent to which journalism has taken a backseat. It seems even that gift from the VOICE OF THE COMMON MAN is, at best, tenuous. 

Another occasional joy erupts when an ebullient host is energized enough to forget who inhabits the back office and to say what he really thinks. Soucy was a passionate host. His undoing might well have been that he cared about the big picture issues (especially Muskrat), the fiscal situation, and even some less engaging topics, like aquaculture. For that reason, it remains a worry that his passions were an aggravation to his boss who, it should be recalled, is still due an ass-kicking for having had the temerity to be one of the first flag-wavers in favour of Muskrat. It's not just Danny Williams who reminds us of the disconnect between wealth and commonsense. 

Of course, whether the bosses want toadies or talent, every open line show should be hosted by someone who is intelligent, knowledgeable, well-prepared, and patient enough to create an environment in which callers are welcome and their opinions valued. Pete Soucy was truly that kind of host. Hence a legitimate question might be: of the three hosts, why him?

All that intelligence, talent, patience, and passion lost from a role to which Pete was ideally suited just seems like an enormously bad decision.

Chalk one up for the purveyors of opacity, for the dark corners of deceit, for political and governmental insouciance.

You just know that the bastards at Nalcor have won another round.

It is not OK. But it is VOCM not Pete Soucy that has been diminished by his departure.