By Ian C. Daffern
They say the toughest thing about working in the TV industry is getting in the building.
The phrase is made almost literal by the fortress-like front of the ChumCity building at 299 Queen St. W. Who knew there would be a place inside for former English geeks like me who have converted to radio and television arts.
I’m in my first year at Ryerson and for the past five months I’ve been interning at ChumCity for Daniel Richler, former host of Big Life on CBC and all-around Canadian pop-culture guy, for his new show, The Word. I’ve never actually seen the show, since the channel it runs on, Canadian Learning Television, isn’t carried by the company I’m splicing my cable from. However, from what I’ve gathered, The Word is not just about novels — it’s about writing and words in any context you can imagine.
I’ve transcribed interviews with the Montreal-based graffiti crew HeavyW8T, who turn the alphabet into iconic art. I’ve shot pictures of “nasty nun” erotica for a story on a compilation called AntiCristo.
One thing that caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed transcribing the interview with figure skater Toller Cranston. Freakishly captivating, Cranston described his bizarre relationship with his mother, saying he “was his mother” physically, and “just like a clone.”
This Word stuff is weird.
The half-professional half-newbie world of an intern inside the ChumCity building is intimidating at first. It seems wholly populated by amazons — crisply tailored creatures striding around with a professional zeal. Now that I’ve been there a while I know they are just the surface expression of wacky in a deeply wacky building. Where I am based, on the second floor, was a little more reserved; the base for CLT is just down the hall from the executives. And except for the occasional, creepy brush with Moses Znaimer, things are still relaxed.
That doesn’t mean the vibe from Much doesn’t filter upstairs.
“If you see Mel Gibson, do not approach. Do not make attempt to make eye contact, ask for handshakes or autographs…” read the official email sent out for the day the former Road Warrior showed up for an interview with Sook-Yin Lee.
ChumCity is cool because celebrities swing by … but it’s best to leave them alone since they tend to bite when cornered. On my way to visit a friend in CityPulse, I passed Marilyn Manson moping around in the hallways. PJ Harvey was on the same floor as me once, but I didn’t catch a glimpse. I’m going to try and check out Jennifer Lopez this week, but somehow I doubt we’re going to be sharing a limo back to her hotel room. Puffy wouldn’t understand.
The sheer number of RTA kids roaming the halls inside ChumCity is reassuring. Most of the young, highly-styled people there originated from RyeHigh, and a lot of them are still attending.
Almost every RTA person I met working would ask about their former professors, followed up by: “Got any questions? Any questions for me?”
There’s also a layer of graduates embedded in the organization’s bedrock — RTA grads who made their way in the late 1970s when the station first started. The news director came from Ryerson. So did David Kines, the current v.p. and general manager of MuchMusic and MuchMoreMusic, as well as about half his senior staff. So between the dinosaurs and the new blood, ChumCity always looks like a Rogers Communications Centre reunion.
Bob Gardner, the chair of RTA, pointed out how the internship experience shows students the reality of the communications industry. And ChumCity is a great starting point — not just for its location. “In a way, City reflected the RTA energy level because they’re very youthful, very fun, very innovative,” Gardner says. “And I think that’s why a lot of our grads found it attractive.”
All of which, from what I’ve seen, is true.
It’s also safe to describe ChumCity’s character as “fiscally conservative.” From compacting a camera operator and a reporter into one “videographer” to jamming eight full television stations into one building, cost-cutting is the unofficial ChumCity code. Since you have to do everything yourself, CityTV’s environment allows for a diversely talented staff and it tends to breed jacks-of-all-trades.
The whole cheap philosophy doesn’t make the use of student interns and slave labourers seem too implausible. When I asked Kines if the stations are taking advantage of the students to cut costs, he grimaced and I started waving my future as a VJ goodbye. Nonetheless, Kines explained how student slave labour couldn’t happen because of the unions, they make it impossible for some intern to replace a union worker’s job. Interns must also be attending a broadcasting program such as RTA. “If they want to learn how to edit, we’ll let them,” says Kines. “We’ll let people put a story together if they want to, and if it’s good we’ll use it.”
For my own part, I’ve done a couple of small projects for The Word, such as writing copy for Word News and shooting short intros for stories. As for the slave work — mostly everything is done of my own volition. Even the more tedious tasks get you acquainted with the environment and introduced to new people.
More recently, I found myself hauling around giant gravestones, candelabras and dry ice, as well as providing duct-tape surgery on broken dolls. This was all done with pierce tongue firmly in cheek for a “goth game show” The Word was producing called Reach for the Crypt and moderated by Daniel Richler (a self-confessed “closet goth”) with macabre glee. Shot at the Velvet Underground, Crypt had contestants answer vampire trivia for prizes. The show was weird fun, the free drinks at the bar afterwards was a plus so I wasn’t complaining.
I’ve even been headhunted. When dropping off a tape at another television show, the producer tried to bribe me with the gift of giant voice-controlled robots. I didn’t break, especially since I still can’t get the robot to fetch vodka and ice. So for the time being, things are good — I can watch Busta Rhymes videos whenever I need to. As for The Word, it’s becoming a full channel this September, carried on the digital providers such as Rogers@home and Star Choice. That’s okay — I’m probably never going to see it either.