A Pronounced Problem
Hearing the stories closer to home
The CBC, the BBC, and NPR are all part of my daily radio diet, but I tend to indulge in more lighthearted fare early in the mornings, especially if I’m about to head out for a hard run. Grinding through fast kilometre repeats is just easier with a pop song stuck in my head than with the reality of the latest newscast settling in (that can wait until I’m back at my desk).
My typical morning soundtrack is a highly rated Toronto station with three likeable hosts, who mix silly games and celebrity gossip with quick hits on the usual topics — the traffic, the weather, the latest COVID‑19 numbers, and, of course, American politics. Last year, the presidential primaries and general election got plenty of airtime in between Top 40 hits, just as the MAGA marauders of January 6 and the swearing-in of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris did earlier this year. Canadian politics and politicians, meanwhile, tend to fly under the radar; who cares about Sean Casey or, for that matter, Justin Trudeau when you have Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber.
But even my morning radio hosts couldn’t ignore the sudden departure of Julie Payette, on January 21, as Canada’s twenty-ninth governor general. The DJ who plays the role of the smart one briefed listeners on the unfolding drama the morning after the former astronaut aborted her mission: the allegations, the official statements, the high-profile lawyers who had been retained, even a cringeworthy refresher on what the governor general actually does. And seeing as this was palace intrigue at its most vice-regal, she also mentioned the name of the GG’s New Edinburgh palace several times.
What troubled me on my run the morning of January 22 was not the pace of the workout or the news of Payette’s resignation, which had consumed me the night before. What troubled me was how the young broadcaster — fully educated in Ontario, according to my sources at LinkedIn — repeatedly pronounced Rideau Hall as “Rye Dough Hall,” as if we were about to make a loaf of bread. It’s a small thing, yes, but one that speaks to something larger.
One of the things about sleeping next to an elephant is just how loud pachyderms can be, with their constant rumbling and trumpeting and stomping. In the wild, their sounds can be heard from up to thirteen kilometres away. In metaphor, they can be heard across a closed international border — so clearly, in fact, that just about all of us can mimic them perfectly.
At this point, we would find it unforgivable for on-air talent, however serious or saccharine, whether in the U.S. or Canada, to mispronounce the first name of the new vice-president. At the very least, one host would try to subtly correct the other’s mistake. But butchering a vowel in Rideau Hall, with thousands and thousands of early risers listening — that blunder goes uncorrected and, I worry, unnoticed by far too many.
Rideau Hall may be little more than a symbol, but it’s our symbol, one that represents the apogee of our political and civic order. Its pronunciation matters because what goes on there matters, just as much as what goes on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or 10 Downing Street or any other stately address that captivates the collective imagination. Its neglect is symptomatic of a larger problem, a reminder that we must not allow urgent debates about the future of Canadian content — whether they’re around the CBC’s broadcasting licence, around social media companies compensating news organizations for content, around more publishers wanting to merge, or around the very survival of our newspaper and magazine industry — to be drowned out by the entertaining circus animal next door.
We all felt the emotional baggage of the presidency just past. We all felt the horror as rioters descended on the U.S. Capitol, as well as the relief of a successful inauguration two weeks later. I suspect we all feel some hope that the next four years will be far less exhausting than the past four, even those who are upset that Biden has cancelled Keystone XL. But, on the whole, do we feel anything so viscerally about the goings-on at Parliament Hill? Do we listen with the same rapt attention we give Washington?
For the time being, Donald Trump is holed up in Mar-a-Lago, an address that no Canadian radio personality would ever mispronounce. For the time being, a sense of decency has returned to the West Wing. We can’t ignore the elephant — that would be naive and impossible — but maybe we can adjust the dial and spend more time talking about ourselves, about things like the new governor general and the new governor general’s secretary — who those people are, how they are selected, and how their jobs affect all Canadians, no matter which part of our news ecosystem we turn to.