The Star Radio Room: The front of the front line on breaking news
By Roger Gillespie
It's called the box and while that makes it sound like a torture chamber it's actually an entry point into professional journalism.
The Toronto Star's Radio Room is a small room -- the box, get it? -- on the west side of the newsroom, 20 paces from the assignment desk. It has a half dozen scanners that monitor emergency services and it is never without a radio roomer in it, with the exception of the occasional call of nature. The women and men who work there are at the front of the front line on breaking news.The 'box' has been around since the '90s as a place for students of journalism to learn and practice the fundamentals. The Star's Allan Woods, the Globe's Graeme Smith, Natalie Alcoba at the National Post and Tamara Cherry at the Toronto Sun all did time in the radio room. The list of grads goes on and on and on.
Many move on to stellar careers at the Star or at major news outlets in Canada and around the world.
Ian Stewart is one of them.
Stewart was the 32-year-old Associated Press West Africa bureau chief when he was shot in the head and left for dead in 1999 during an ambush in Freetown, the war-torn capital of Sierra Leone. Just eight years earlier he worked in the Star Radio Room.
In his book, Freetown Ambush, Stewart recalled his days at the Star."For most of the summer of 1991 I sat in the box from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. listening to the police handling domestic disturbances and petty thefts. Occasionally I picked up on a shooting or other serious crime."
Radio Room work wasn't Stewart's favourite except for one thing: he met the Star's foreign correspondents.
"(M)y other overnight duty that summer (was) taking dictation from the Star's foreign correspondents. Over the phone I met Stephen Handelman, Olivia Ward, and Peter Goodspeed. They and the Star's other foreign correspondents often asked me to scan the wires for news tips on breaking stories in their regions."He was hooked.
"I enjoyed the crisp dispatches, but the real lure of the wires was the exotic datelines that I had long dreamed of visiting. I read about events taking place in Colombo, Kabul, and Phnom Penh. That sense of adventure captured my imagination, fueled with images of my favorite book, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness."
The Radio Room is tiny -- 10 by 15 feet -- but the women and men who work there play a big role. Staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Radio Room is an early warning system for Star reporters, photographers and editors.
When a propane plant exploded in the wee hours before dawn, it was a Toronto Star radio roomer who heard about it first and hustled the troops to the scene.When fugitive Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein, was captured by American troops in the middle of the night, it was a radio roomer who heard about it first and made the call that roused the foreign editor.
When a man took a fatal shot to the head in Regent Park, it was a radio roomer who heard it first and wrote a quick take for the web before another reporter and photographer could get to the scene
They are as important as they are fresh and the Star newsroom wouldn't be the same without them. Truth is, Canadian journalism wouldn't be the same without them.
A couple of times each year we say hello to new Radio Room staff and -- sadly -- goodbye to those leaving us. Spring brings the end of the school year and the largest turnover of radio roomers and in the next few weeks we say goodbye to nine of them.One departing boxer said this about their time in the radio room:
"The nurturing I've received at the Star has been overwhelming. In other newsrooms where I have worked I didn't have the mentors, the training, the advice and the editors giving me pointers on stories. The assignment editors pushed me to work harder and trusted me with stories they believed I could handle. It's been an excellent experience."
As we say goodbye, say hello to the 'grads' of 2010.
Tamara Baluja is going to the Vancouver Province this summer where she will work as a general assignment reporter.
What I learned in the Radio Room: It's all about pushing the police one step further, trying to get family members, - in short, anything and everything to make the story more than just a run of the mill story.
Carmen Chai is heading to Canwest News Service in Ottawa where she will cover national stories that will appear in papers across the country.
What I learned in the Radio Room: I was called upon to do it all. The radio room internship made me comfortable with filing quickly and accurately; no story is too big or too small for me to tackle and deadlines are now a welcomed challenge. We decide what is worth informing assignment and photo editors, in doing this, I've gained a strong news sense.
Joana Draghici will spend the summer writing.
What I learned in the Radio Room: How to be creatively resourceful, a strategically attentive listener, a persuasive interviewer, just how much I can do with a phone and Google - how to be an overall better journalist.
Ann Hui will be reporting for the Globe and Mail this summer.
What I learned in the Radio Room: It pays, literally, to think outside the box. Because being in "the box" means we're limited only to the sources we can reach by phone, it means we have to learn to get creative, fast, about finding ways to get in touch with sources. Again, because we're limited to reporting by phone, we don't have the luxury of being on the scene and simply walking up to the next witness/source. This means that when I do finally reach someone, I'm less likely to give up until I get the information I need.
..........Adrian Morrow will be reporting for the Globe and Mail this summer.
What I learned in the Radio Room: I've learned how to talk to people at some of their most painful moments and get them to reveal some of their most intimate memories. I've learned how to find people I thought were untraceable.
I've learned that you never really get over that fear of picking up the phone and calling the family of a dead person. You just do it. I've learned that when writing a story seems easy, I'm doing it wrong.
I've learned that sometimes you don't have time to think about reporting -- you just have to pick up the phone and start making calls.
Alex Posadzki will be a student this summer. This fall she begins work for the Canadian University Press as the Ontario bureau chief.
What I learned in the Radio Room: How to be REALLY persistent, how to pitch stories and that cops say funny things over the radio.
John Rieti's main focus this summer is finishing the major research project he's working on for the Master of Journalism program at Ryerson University. It's about the choice Cuban baseball players face when they contemplate leaving the socialist country to play in North America's big leagues. You can read more about it here.
What I learned in the Radio Room: I certainly learned lots about the police and what it takes to cover them. I learned about the great chase of journalism from some of the best editors in the business. And I learned how to stay awake for between the midnight and 8 a.m. hours using only caffeine and the sound of police scanners.
Jaspreet Tambar plans to travel.
What I learned in the Radio Room: Journalism is a racket, like banking or Hollywood. The overall effect rarely exhibits the clatter and intrigue behind closed doors. The Radio Room is an instruction on grueling hours, tedious work, demanding editors ... and the deep taste of satisfaction out of the grind that is reserved only for the strong.
Thandi Vela heads west to the Edmonton Journal as a reporter this summer. While out west, she'll continue to serve as secretary of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists.
What I learned in the Radio Room: It's no easy task covering a city as colourful and active as Toronto. I learned on my feet to get the news right, fast.