TORONTO — It’s just before 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, and one of Canada’s most recognizable hosts looks uncharacteristically tired, and a touch nervous. Jian Ghomeshi has spent the past two days glad-handing at a public radio conference in Atlanta, and he was out late the previous night at a comedy show featuring his second guest of the day, actress Janeane Garofalo. Now he’s in the studio, dressed sharply in a blazer with a pocket square and white Diesel V-neck T-shirt. Slight dark circles under his eyes betray Thursday’s travels and the late night. Ghomeshi is ready. But Guest No. 1 is not.
“Have we got KT?” Ghomeshi asks his producers, speaking into his microphone but looking through the control room window. On the other side, five men in torn jeans, flannels and snap shirts are shuffling between computer monitors and soundboards.
“I guess she’s running a little later than usual,” says Alain Derbez, one of Ghomeshi’s longtime producers. “She’s in the green room, sorting herself out.” KT is KT Tunstall, the Scottish folk singer who has just released a critically acclaimed album. This is only Day 1 of her 29-day North American tour, but 9 a.m. is early for rock stars. She straggles into the studio and straps on her guitar, slightly dazed yet with thick cat-eye liner perfectly applied. There’s no time to say hi, so she and Ghomeshi exchange greetings on-air. It’s 9:06, and here in Toronto, it’s time to record the most popular new arts and culture radio show in America.
“Q” is the simple, one-letter title for Ghomeshi’s variety show. In less than three years, it’s rocketed from being on zero American public radio stations to airing daily on 160. The show is a proud export of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., where since 2008 the program has aired across Canada every morning and repeated in the evenings. In 2010, Public Radio International began syndicating the show in the United States. The first four stations that signed on included two in Kentucky, a surprise for PRI executives. Three years later, “Q” can still be heard in Louisville, as well as in major markets such as Boston, Chicago and New York. Washington’s WAMU added “Q” to its rotation in August. The program daily on one of WAMU’s HD stations, and at 10 p.m. each Friday on 88.5 FM.
“The time was right for us to rejuvenate our Friday nights,” said Mark McDonald, WAMU’s programming director. “Q” is “one of those shows that has a vibrancy and energy to it. Public radio needs more of a sense of humor, and better arts and culture coverage. ‘Q’ provides that.”
It seems many other station managers agree. Julia Yager, PRI’s senior vice president, called the show “one of the fastest growing in recent history.” PRI is not affiliated with Washington-based NPR, and Yager pointedly suggested that “Q” is popular because public radio stations are looking for more than just news programming, and for more diverse perspectives. Ghomeshi — a Canadian born in London who is of Persian descent — is filling several voids on the American airwaves, including one for an international mystery man.