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By Matthew Halliday

A tall, blonde woman in a slim black skirt and jacket turns to face a television camera. She smiles.

Behind her is a small room, criss-crossed with cables and layered top-to-bottom with green paper. It looks too small to be a TV studio. Overhead, the lighting rig is perched on an old wooden cross-beam. The cameraman is wedged into a small alcove between the door and the set, and after he counts down, the blonde woman begins to read, in a clear, practiced news voice.

“U.S pharmaceutical giant Merck and Company has announced it will spend $4.85 billion to settle a class action suit…”

Her hands sidle suggestively up to the top of her jacket. She quickly unbuttons it, then shimmies out of her skirt and drops it at her feet.

“Turning to the U.S., the Senate has confirmed Michael Mukasey as the country’s new attorney general…” She removes her jacket entirely, and we cut to a wide shot of her in a black bra and panties. On the monitor, the little room behind her has been digitally removed and a cavernous, professional-looking TV studio green-screened in.

This is a typical show on Toronto-based Naked News, one of the Internet’s most unusual success stories. First launched in 1999, its bizarre premise still attracts a loyal cult following nearly a decade later, longer than Youtube, Facebook and most other Internet phenomena. The station is also the cornerstone of a small media empire, with affiliated programs in Italy, Japan and Korea.

It’s easy to call it pornography and Ryerson instructors aren’t encouraging their students to apply there. A visit to NakedNews.com, with its amateur audition videos and soft-core picture galleries, does nothing to discourage critics who dismiss it as porn. But watch a broadcast and it’s a different story. There are no bump ’n’ grind theatrics. The anchors simply disrobe, read the news and call it a day.

And as the company approaches its ten-year anniversary — an eternity on the Internet — the station wants to be taken seriously as an alternative media outlet.

“What we do is what programs like The Daily Show have done before us, which is present information to the public, but package it in an entertaining format,” says executive producer David Warga. “In the case of The Daily Show, humour. In our case, nudity.”

Naked News and its 40 employees are housed in an unmarked building at the end of a quiet residential street east of downtown, an inconscpicuous presence on Toronto’s media landscape. Inside, the building looks like any other TV studio, if a little smaller and more cluttered with second-hand furniture.

There’s nothing to give it away as anything but a community TV station, until someone like “nudecaster” Katherine Curtis, nearly six feet tall, her pin-up doll dimensions exaggerated in a svelte mini skirt and suit jacket, both just a little too revealing for the news-as-usual, strides into the room.

Curtis is the newest Naked News anchor, having just started this January. She’s been a model, a burlesque dancer and a bikini-clad hot tub girl on CityTV’s Ed and Red’s Night Party. She’s also worked as a housepainter and a roofer, albeit with her clothes on.

“I’m a nudist,” she says. “I hate clothing. Back in my early 20s they used to call me the strobe light because I flashed so much. This,” she sweeps her hands over her smart black blazer-and-skirt combo, “is very uncomfortable for me.”

She’s also a self-admitted nerd, a devotee of b-movies, sci-fi, and comic books. She hosts the Naked Nerd, one of the most popular segments on the weekend Naked News magazine program.

“I’d like to think we’re a legitimate news source,” Curtis says. “It just makes it easier to take the bad news. There’s a quote in Mallrats that’s brilliant, I think. The Brody character says that a woman could tell him he was dying next week, so long as she did it while she was topless.”

Her co-workers agree that the nudity is just one part of Naked News.

“For most people, their first reaction is to laugh and push it aside as not a serious broadcast,” says Ian Venebles, the station’s head editor and a 1996 graduate of Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program. “But we report anything anyone else does. It’s planes crashing, it’s Jays win, it’s TSE drops … we really pride ourselves on presenting the news in a serious fashion.”

In fact, Venebles thinks that playing down the nudity is the key to the program’s success. Playboy TV tried something similar a few years ago, but it flopped after a few months. Venebles says it’s because they were being too cheesecake about the nudity, paying too little attention to the news.

“It sounds ridiculous, but, yeah,” he says. “Still, we’re more than willing to take a tongue-in-cheek look at things happening in the world.”

Few of the Naked News anchors have much background in broadcasting or journalism. Only two hold degrees in communications or broadcasting. Most come from backgrounds as models, or in esthetics, and there are a few drama majors in the ranks.

Victoria Sinclair, 42, is a former businesswoman with a background in marketing. As the senior newscaster, she has a measure of creative control not afforded the rest of the cast — when Pierre Trudeau died, she refused to disrobe while reading the story, out of respect.

“I’ve been here since the beginning,” she says. “I helped to make this a safe space, a space where it’s safe to come and express yourself. But we all did. We’re a group of women who share something very unique… when we began, it was almost experimental, pushing the boundaries of what you could do.”

Thirty-six-year-old Valentina Taylor has, like Curtis, been an odd-job Jill, working in radio, modeling for Playboy at 32, and spending time as a make-up artist before landing an anchor job at Naked News. She says that stripping in front of a camera is empowering, and she liked Naked News’s alternative, upbeat approach to reporting.

Head writer Basil Papademos, on the other hand, confesses to having doubts about the show now and again.

Shoulders hunched up around his ears, shaggy hair obscuring his eyes, fingers stabbing at a keyboard, Papademos looks like a hard-bitten newsman, but Naked News is actually his first newswriting job. He used to teach at Bickford Park High School, where he was “just a babysitter for people’s dysfunctional kids.” After a stint at an ad agency, he started at Naked News in 2001.

“I don’t know who the audience is, exactly, but obviously somebody’s watching it. Old men, probably. It doesn’t move fast enough for kids. My son tells me, ‘Dad, what is this?’ It really is like news,” he says.

While Naked News employs Ryerson graduates, the station only gets the occasional application from former students of the school’s journalism and radio television arts programs.

And Ryerson doesn’t exactly encourage students to apply.

David Tucker, chair of Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts Program, doesn’t understand the appeal of Naked News himself, but he gets the concept — at least in a meta sort of way.

“It’s a very post-modern ethos, blending high and low. We’ve seen news and comedy blend, so… I can see why programs like this have done so well, at least, with the other news/entertainment hybrids out there.”

“That’s ridiculous,” counters Judy Rebick, an outspoken feminist and Ryerson’s chair of Social Justice and Democracy. “The Daily Show is satire, using humour as a political instrument. This is just nudity.”

Rebick also takes issue with the idea that Naked News empowers women. “I don’t see how that’s empowering, if people are exposing themselves for other people’s pleasure. It’s unfortunate that young women still want to use their body that way,” she says.

But executive producer Warga says that appearance is only a small part of the hiring criteria. “I used to give each prospective anchor I interviewed three stories to read,” he says. “One of them contained the name Yasser Arafat. The very few that knew how to pronounce that without stumbling, I knew had a knowledge of current affairs and world news.”

Now that Arafat’s out of the headlines, Warga’s stepped it up a notch. “Nowadays, it’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he says.

Back on the set, anchors Taylor and Sinclair are shooting another “News In Brief” segment, a free teaser broadcast used for promo purposes.

During a story about Iran’s nuclear program, Taylor has some trouble with a tongue-twister of a line ending with the word “disarmament”. Since the troublesome part doesn’t appear until after she’s already removed her jacket and dropped it at her feet, every time she fumbles the word, she has to pick the jacket back up, smooth it out, and put it back on for the re-take.

As Sinclair, clad in only underwear, a bra, and pumps, sits down at a nearby PC to find a phonetic pronunciation key, Taylor sighs in exasperation. She’s not used to reading in front of anyone other than the cameraman.

“This is really embarrassing,” she says. “Really, I never do this many takes. I’m just nervous with all the extra people in here.”

Whatever brings people to Naked News, it keeps them there. In the volatile world of online media, the company has an impressive staff retention rate. Venebles has been here for six years, Papademos for seven and Sinclair since the beginning.

“This place has given me a lot,” Curtis says. “I’ve got the skills but I don’t have the paper saying that I have the skills to back it up. So they took a chance on me … to have a place where people aren’t looking down on me for being naked is wonderful. I honestly can see myself as an executive producer here one day.”

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