Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Only perfection need apply

Russ Germain died Monday night. He was 62.

For those of us who grew up listening to CBC Radio One, Russ was the voice of the World At Six. Cool, unflappable, with a deep, smooth voice and the professionalism of the consummate newsman, he would be appalled by the structure of this sentence. For Russ, precision in language and clarity of structure were paramount. In radio, after all, listeners only got one chance to understand what you were saying to them, so it was incredibly important to be clear and precise. A pretty good approach for any news person, really, but one that is rarely instilled through constant emphasis and monitoring by one's editors.

When I worked for the Mother Corp. in the mid-90s, I either started my shift by reading the news on the morning show, or ended it with the 5:30pm newscast. This is how I came to know Russ.

Although he was based in Toronto, one of his responsibilities was to monitor all the regional newscasts for consistency, proper use of language, and accuracy. He was a language enforcer, as it were, insisting on perfection. Any slip of the tongue during a seven minute cast and you knew there would be an email or voicemail the next day kindly pointing out the error (in case you hadn't noticed) and offering an improvement.

Those of you who have never been in the news business probably don't realize that every major outlet has their own style guide, and each has their own quirks. Staff are expected to conform to their organization's guide, regardless of what the everyday usage of a word might be. The Mother Corp. was a particular stickler for specificity of pronunciation. Many words in the English language have more than one acceptable pronunciation - tomato, to-mah-to, kill-o-mee-ter, kil-oh-meh-ter, etc. Only one of these is correct for a CBC broadcaster.

One of our biggest ongoing battles was with the term harass. Russ, and therefore CBC, insisted upon hah-russ, which always struck me as vaguely British and kind of poncy. I have never heard anyone who wasn't trained at CBC pronounce it as anything other than HA-rass. It became a bit of a running joke in a newsroom constantly covering court stories, many of which involved harassment of one sort or another.

Proper usage of language was the other component to Russ' training. As radio people, we are encouraged to write like we speak, so it will sound natural to the ear for those who are listening. However, most of us speak with contractions, use words in the wrong context, or use expressions that, while commonplace, are inaccurate. For example, how often have you said "added bonus"? A bonus is by nature an addition, so it doesn't need the adjective. Or "completely destroyed"? Something either is destroyed or it is damaged. Destruction connotes completeness. My favorite is "enormity". People often use that to mean really, really big. It doesn't mean that at all. Enormous means huge - enormity means massively devastating, like "the enormity of the concentration camps cannot be overstated". That doesn't mean the camps were physically huge, but that they had a massively devastating effect.

In preparing to read a newscast then, a broadcaster needed to be aware of how the story was written, fix any misuse of language or awkward structure, be aware of timing and sound clips, and mind one's pronunciation, all with no retakes. It was a challenge most days, but in hindsight, knowing Russ was listening, and knowing there was a universal standard to conform to within the Mother Corp, I know I worked harder to master my on-air skills and pushed myself to constantly do better. Working with him, albeit at a distance, I truly learned how to be an on-air reporter. I suspect there are thousands of folks like me across the country, and abroad, who can say they came into their own under Russ' watchful ear during his 29 years with CBC.