Jian Ghomeshi is growing the U.S. fan base of Canadian radio’s ‘Q’


Jian Ghomeshi. (Joanne Klimaszewski)
October 18, 2013

— 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.

“He has a personality that makes you think, ‘I want to know more about the person behind this voice,’ ” McDonald said. “His voice alone promotes a curiosity among our listeners.”

Ghomeshi is aware of his magnetism, for better or worse. He’s a Canadian celebrity whose dating misadventures haunt him online. (Ghomeshi wasn’t named in one embarrassing girl-tells-all blog post, which insisted he’s better interacting with women in his studio than on dates.)

People recognize him. On YouTube, “Q” posts get as many as 3 million hits. A one-hour version of the show also weekly on the CBC’s television network.

Ghomeshi is the face of the “Canada Reads” national literacy campaign. A two-story portrait of him dangles from CBC headquarters in Toronto. And the parody Twitter feed @Stats_Canada, which is devoted largely to jokes about hockey and maple syrup, recently posited that “65 percent of Canadian babies say Ghomeshi as their first word.” (His name is pronounced — by Canadians of all ages — as ZHEE-on go-MESH-ee. The soft “J” sounds a bit like “Jacques.”)

Increasing traction in the U.S.

So he has many fans. But that doesn’t mean Canadians expected their hometown Persian broadcaster to become popular in the United States.

“For those of us in Canada, ‘Q’ has been around for a while. It’s a staple. It’s a well-known and well-respected show,” said Craig Silverman, a Canadian media consultant who teaches at the Poynter Institute, a U.S. media think tank. “But the idea that it would suddenly be across the border, and get traction so quickly? That’s definitely a surprise. . . . It would never occur to me that an interview show, originating in Canada, hosted by a guy named Jian Ghomeshi, would take root in the American South.”

Besides WAMU, the other stations that added “Q” to their lineups this summer are in Upstate New York, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas. While Silverman can’t explain Ghomeshi’s appeal south of the Mason-Dixon line, he does respect him as an interviewer and believes there’s a market for a radio show that goes beyond a quick Q&A with writers, actors and musicians.

“What ‘Q’ has going for it is that it offers really in-depth interviews,” Silverman said. “Jian really does his homework, and manages to do a fairly long interview, that is usually interesting and usually allows new things to surface. He’s doesn’t come to the table with boilerplate questions, and that is really hard to do.”

Take the recent Friday morning when Tunstall and Garofalo stopped by the CBC. Ghomeshi did not ask a single question related to “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” Garofalo’s most popular film. The actress divulged that Ghomeshi had been at her comedy show the night before, and you could tell that they had a comfortable morning-after rapport. “Stop looking in my eyes, I don’t need to pick up your HPV!” she told him on-air. In the control room, Ghomeshi’s staff members nearly fell off their rolling ch. He played along, unfazed, and asked whether stand-up was her true love.

What American listeners did not hear was the fight about facial creams that Garofalo picked with the Canadian game-show host who came next on “Q.” Friday’s show for two hours in Canada, and the job of producer Brian Coulton is to cut “Q” down to the 51 minutes 30 seconds that American listeners will find most interesting. He kept Garofalo, two of three songs sung by Tunstall and an English novelist kvetching about American writers becoming eligible for the Booker Prize. Coulton cut Ghomeshi’s opening editorial essay (praising an Ontario football team for dropping the name “Redskins”), a media panel (debating Quebec’s proposed “Charter of Values”) and the game-show host (because, just try to name a Canadian game-show host who is not Alex Trebek).

By noon, Coulton had sent the abridged MP3 of “Q” to PRI, and Ghomeshi was ready for a Starbucks break. His drink of choice was a decaf soy latte, despite the fact that he still had two afternoon interviews to prep for: one with the president of the UFC, and one with Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor and failed Canadian politician. Ghomeshi had been reading Ignatieff’s new book while en route to the public broadcasting confab in Atlanta. All conference attenders were invited to a PRI meet-and-greet reception for Ghomeshi, as well as “The Takeaway” host John Hockenberry and “The World’s” Marco Werman.

“To be feted along with them is flattering, and humbling,” Ghomeshi said. “We are carried in enough markets now that we are considered another big American radio show. Two years ago, when I first went to this, I had five stations, and I thought that was cool.”

Gaining on the competition

“Q” is not PRI’s only arts and culture offering, but the show is quickly catching up with the competition. “Studio 360,” a weekly program known for its quirky features, is 13 years old and syndicated by PRI to 215 stations. The most comparable daily program is “Fresh Air,” the interview show produced by Philadelphia’s WHYY and distributed by NPR to 584 stations. Host Terry Gross focuses on current events more than Ghomeshi does, but their guests sometimes overlap; for example, tennis legend Billie Jean King appeared on both shows last month to promote a new documentary.

PRI executives say they aren’t giving the CBC any advice on content, and Ghomeshi maintains “Q” has changed little since the show began airing in the United States. There are just tweaks. For instance, he now specifies whether he’s talking about London, England, or London, Ontario. And he’ll rattle off several of Tunstall’s American tour dates rather than say she’s performing in Toronto and Vancouver. But behind the scenes there is a major change: As more American stations pick up “Q,” more potential guests say “yes.”

“It’s helped 100 percent,” Ghomeshi said. “It is awesome when Jeff Tweedy of Wilco comes in and says, ‘I listen to you every day, man.’ ”

Ghomeshi is a big music fan, and part of what makes his job so exhausting is that he attends so many concerts and events. “It is very hard for me to shut off. I love the show, and I have thrown myself into it.”

Like so many Canadian entertainers, Ghomeshi has long pondered finding success in the United States. He has agents in Los Angeles but doesn’t plan to move in next door to Ryan Gosling. “I flirted with the idea of living in the States,” Ghomeshi said. “But the show I would want to do is ‘Q.’ We live in a new reality of borderless content. . . . The dream of being able to host something out of Toronto, that becomes really well known in the U.S. and beyond, is really exciting.”

Ghomeshi has several relatives in Maryland and the District. And now that “Q” has been featured in a local newspaper, Ghomeshi says, his relatives will finally believe he has a real job.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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