Listening to the city

By Aaren Madden, July/August 2012

CBC’s Gregor Craigie sees Victoria as a city of activists.

The Big Apple; Motor City; City of Lights; Cowtown. A place can be conjured in a phrase, but it’s never as simple as all that. We all have our own spheres of reference that feed our perceptions of home—or any place for that matter—so there are as many ways of engaging with a place as there are people who live there, who visit, or who contemplate it from afar. 

As for this place, few witness its breadth on such a regular basis as Gregor Craigie, host of CBC Radio One’s On the Island morning show.  Every morning, he arrives at work at 4:30, where, on air from 6 until 9 am, he talks with artists, activists, politicians, academics, scientists, historians, even a fellow planning to start a sword fighting school. Additionally, some evenings, he moderates panel discussions on local issues like the fixed-site needle exchange and all-candidates debates during municipal elections; he hosts arts events and fundraisers, all with a warm and engaging demeanour. 

Craigie has been greeting Victorians with his soothing voice for five years now. It was rather a winding road that led Craigie to Victoria, one he started out on delivering pizzas while earning a history degree at the University of Calgary. Having tired of his CD collection, he started skimming the radio dials and ended up listening to CBC Radio One’s As It Happens. “I thought, oh, that would be a good job!” he recalls. A year after graduation in 1995, he left a dead-end job and the band he played guitar in to study broadcast journalism at the BC Institute of Technology in Burnaby. After graduation, he worked as a “casual” reporter (meaning he was scheduled day to day) for the CBC in Vancouver.

Next came something of a wild ride for Craigie. At the urging of his CBC colleagues to “go somewhere interesting,” he took his British passport and “not nearly enough cash” and landed a job at the BBC in London as a script writer for a show called Up All Night. He worked from 5 pm until 5 am, “so the ungodly hours started in London,” he laughs. 

Soon after, “being in the right place at the right time,” Craigie started reading the news for BBC and Public Radio International’s The World, a global issues show based out of Boston and geared to American audiences. “[The BBC] wanted someone who sounded American to their English ears,” he explains. It was an interesting position he found himself in, being tugged between British and American values. “Never mind the journalistic, editorial stuff; half of my job was Boston phoning, saying, ‘It’s Myanmar! It’s not Burma!’ And the London editorial desk would say, ‘Clearly, it’s Burma. We do not listen to the military junta’.” 

Still, it was a dream job for Craigie. “You know what it’s like when you are single, out of school and you are passionate about something,” he relates. “All I really wanted to do was travel and tell stories.” And that he did. Much to his initial surprise and delight, the BBC sent him to South Africa, Namibia, and Bosnia, among other places. Those were freelance gigs, as was the work he did for CBC and CBS at the time. For three years, he was clocking intense, often 80-hour work weeks. 

Slowly, though, he realized “there were no married people there.”

Seeking balance and more travel, he spent six months freelancing for CBS and CBC, filing stories from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, India, and, for an extended period, Nepal. To his dismay, most of the demand for stories from Nepal, especially from CBS, was for coverage of climbers on Mount Everest (particularly fatalities), even though the country was in the midst of a civil war. Of the reports he did do, he still worries he fell short. “It was difficult to convey what was going on in a complex situation. I never felt like I settled it properly because I knew I wasn’t staying,” he reflects. “I came to the conclusion that if you want to report properly, you can’t dip in and out. Too much Western media does that.” 

Partly, he grants, that’s the nature of the beast: with limited resources, providing sufficient context on all the important stories is constantly challenging. Although there is always more to say, he’s quick to point out many Western media organizations do a great job covering complicated issues, “including many journalists at the CBC.” However, given that the federal government recently cut funding to the mother ship by ten percent, striking that balance will likely become even more difficult. 

Luckily, Victoria’s station, being “a fairly lean operation” already, will have no layoffs. Even so, the dance between context and constraint is well-choreographed, says Craigie. “I feel fortunate that we here at CBC Victoria have the staff to follow several local issues on an ongoing and in-depth basis.” So, while he would enjoy more time for interviews and confides the occasional desire to “devote, say, a week of work to focus on one topic, rather than doing a wide range of interviews on various topics,” he is reconciled to the realities of the form and loves his job.

Plus, he’s no longer surrounded by single people: he married Rebecca two years after returning from Asia. Life remained peripatetic for a little longer, what with one year in Victoria, a short stint in Vancouver, then two years in the Kootenays with the CBC. Says Craigie, “This is one of few, maybe the only place, we would leave Nelson for. We can walk and ride our bikes most of the places we go. Living in Vancouver, we couldn’t do that unless we lived in a condo. And it’s nice to have a vegetable garden in the back yard and let it grow all year round.”

Interestingly, he has noticed that the way others view Victoria does not line up with his own experience. Colleagues across Canada direct every story related to seniors to Victoria’s CBC office. While statistics show we’re four-and-a-half percent above the national average for seniors in the population, “people have a skewed idea of a bunch of people shuffling about in walkers,” says Craigie. Some friends and colleagues wondered if it was the right place to raise a family; others accused Victoria of being just plain boring. Craigie disagrees. “There are lots of families. Lots of great restaurants, great places to take the kids, and I don’t feel the need to go to Ikea every weekend, so I am coping all right,” he smiles.

Really, he doesn’t even mind his early start. It allows him to spend the better part of the day with his sons, Lochlan, five, and Benjamin, a year and a half. And after many itinerant years, staying put and witnessing the breadth of a place has allowed Craigie to understand something about Victoria and its people.

“Victoria,” he observes, “is a city of activists…it’s a city where people are passionate about the things they believe; they have really strong convictions about what’s important for the community”—more so, he thinks, than most other places he has lived. 

It’s no surprise he would come across passionate folks in his line of work, so the clincher is what happens off the air. He is constantly aware of “how much I hear about the issues we discuss on the show when I am at Thrifty’s, at the coffee shop, at the playground. That has really surprised me,” he says. Lately, most of the talk in and out of the studio is about pipelines and tanker traffic. “Whether it’s Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline, or Kinder Morgan’s proposal to expand its own shipments through Vancouver, we hear a lot about it from our listeners and the parties directly involved as well,” he says. “So I think of this city as a passionate place with people who are really paying attention to the issues.” 

City of activists. Instead of conjuring a city, this is a phrase that, fittingly, evokes its multitudes of stories.

Having lived on his north Calgary route at the time, it is entirely possible that Aaren Madden ate pizza delivered by one Gregor Craigie.