As I arrive at Toronto's Rosewater Supper Club to interview Susan Marjetti, her party is already well under way. Over a hundred radio industry insiders are gathered at the upscale banquet hall to honour her with the 2017 Rosalie Award, which recognizes Canadian women who have blazed new trails in radio.
The hall is filled with the white noise of conversation, with its volume raised thanks to glasses of complimentary wine. It's hard to find Marjetti, though. If you look back — way back — you find her standing at a table near the end of the crowd, surrounded by four other CBC managers. It's a spot ideal to avoid the glare of the spotlight, and she stays there during most of the pre-award mixer.
Fittingly, Marjetti herself flies under the public’s radar. The 55-year-old CBC veteran is one of the most powerful people in Canadian radio, and arguably, the most influential of all. As CBC’s executive director of radio and audio, she oversees a publicly-funded portfolio that includes CBC Radio, CBC Radio 2, CBC Radio 3, CBC Music and the network's podcasts and online streams. Free of the commercial constraints of her private radio peers, she has a nine-figure budget to produce programming that others cannot or would not, and can playlist music from all genres that would otherwise get ignored on Top 40.
But what influences Susan Marjetti? After she accepted her award and the party started to wind down, I sat down with her for a wide-ranging, one-on-one conversation about her upbringing, her successes and where the CBC should be going next.
During your acceptance speech, you mentioned that your career in broadcasting started at the age of 12, with your first job as a DJ in your hometown of Sydney, Nova Scotia. How do you become a party DJ that young?
I DJ’d at a school dance and one gig just led to another. I would play at local dances and weddings. You know, I’d show up at the venue, unload the amps, my disco ball and my turntable. I did that up until I was about 17. When my friends were making 50 cents a week in allowance, I was making $50.
What were some of your favourite songs back then?
Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Let It Ride.”
Did your time as a DJ inspire your career in broadcasting?
My first love was music, long before I wanted a career in journalism. So, at that time, I called one woman at a local radio station and told her that I was a DJ at local dances. I told her I wanted a career in radio and she told me, “Forget about it dear, you’ll never make it.” I used that to spur me on and applied to Ryerson.
Ryerson's Radio & Television Arts program, right?
Yes, I thought, if I can get accepted at Ryerson, I’ll not only be the first in my family to graduate from university, but I can maybe make a difference, too. I was rejected the first time I applied. So, I applied again the next year and this time I asked my older sister to drive to Toronto. I sat in the admissions office and wouldn’t leave until I was accepted.
Marjetti not only graduated from Ryerson, but at the top of her class. She moved away from music and started a career in radio journalism after a stint during university as a newsreader at CFRB Toronto. Her career then took her back to Halifax to work for private radio stations during most of the 1980s. In 1988, she joined the CBC as a producer, then manager, and worked in Halifax, Winnipeg, Fredericton and Sydney. In 2001, she moved back to Toronto and was given the task of turning around CBC's local radio service. She started with the flagship morning newscast Metro Morning.
What wasn't working at Metro Morning when you arrived there?
Toronto isn't one large demographic, there are over 140 different languages spoken here. The city's diversity has grown exponentially from three per cent in 1961 to 40 per cent in 2001. When I listened to Metro Morning I didn't hear that diversity in the broadcast. As the public broadcaster, we have a duty and obligation to reflect the makeup of the city. You can't just change that with the stories you tell, you also have to reflect that diversity within the newsroom. You have to change the culture behind the scenes. To create cultural change, according to many studies, you need to make sure that diversity exceeds 30 per cent and we did that with our hiring at Metro Morning.
What was the result of that cultural change?
The ratings quickly began to improve in 2002. Beginning in 2003, we were number one in the market for the first time, and 110 ratings periods since.
Was there any negative feedback during the transition?
From listeners? Yes, there was. We would get calls telling us to "get those people with accents off the air." It reminded me of Halifax, where we reported on racist bar owners not allowing Blacks to go on the dance floor in their bars. I was thinking, there are still people out there trying to keep people off the dance floor.
Due to Marjetti's success with Metro Morning, she was chosen to oversee Ontario's regional programming in 2010. In 2015, following the executive shake-up in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, she was promoted to her current position as executive director of CBC Radio and Audio.
Diversity has long been an issue with CBC's workforce. How are you working to improve that within your department today?
Cultural change takes time, but you can hear the changes reflecting in our new programming. For example, Piya Chattopadhyay's Out in the Open, CBC Winnipeg's Now or Never and the hiring of Duncan McCue to take over Cross Country Checkup.
What about your leadership?
We're developing a program for women, to develop our leaders of tomorrow.
Well, we're starting with women first and developing future programs from there.
In 2015, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly appeared on q and memorably criticized the CBC for not being a "risk-taker in terms of content" and that it should take cues from edgier competitor Vice. What do you think she meant by that?
I think Joly is becoming more and more aware of the leadership role public broadcasters have to play. I've been to dozens of cities to speak to broadcasters who are looking at our Metro Morning model to be more diverse and relevant as they push forward in the digital space. Our podcasts were downloaded 12.7 million times in January and half of those downloads were from millennials and the other half from our core audience.
What are some of the biggest challenges ahead for CBC Radio and Audio? Technology? Changing demographics?
We keep pushing forward in the digital space and serve the public in areas that private broadcasters can't serve. Our podcasts are a prime example of our success in that area. Between the period of April 2016 to April 2017, our podcasts were downloaded 100 million times.
Finally, you were affectionately praised by many of your peers tonight as being "outspoken." Do you think you're outspoken?
I'm lucky to be working with other outspoken women, who have the confidence and style to value authenticity. [CBC Vice-President of English Services] Heather Conway is one of those women, and she gave me the opportunity to help position radio for its future. You know, I didn't grow up saying I want to be a manager. Nobody does. I became a manager because I wanted to see things changed and be part of the solution.
Author’s note: While I remain neutral and report in the interest of objective journalism, in the interest of disclosure, I am a former CBC employee.
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.