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168 conversations

BY JOSEPH PLANTA

VANCOUVER – As it’s year’s end and I’m on hiatus from the interview program, I figured it apt to reflect on the program and what’s been wrought.

This year, 171 interviews were produced for this website, of which all but three I conducted.

I’m not a professional journalist, nor have I been trained as one. I began the interview program as a bit of a lark five years ago to see what it would be like interviewing people and conducting conversations on the small and big issues of the day. I’d come to it with a great appreciation of interviewing and the art of the conversation.

I’m a steady listener of Don Imus and a lot of how my interviews are constructed—the mannerisms are copped from him. For example, my introductions will end with, ‘Please welcome to the Planta: On the Line program, John Smith; Good morning, Mr. Smith.’ As well, Imus’s interviews, when he was on CBS Radio and MSNBC would be about twenty minutes in length. I strive for about the same length, give or take a two or three minutes.

I remain an admirer of interviewers like Jack Paar and Dick Cavett. They’re two great personalities to learn from. Their interviews on DVD are fun to watch as well as instructive. One could also do no wrong emulating Charlie Rose. His format is that which I covet: a long form interview on a sparse set, that’s all about the conversation. As well, Rose is a fine interviewer because he’s knowledgeable and interested in a wide variety of subjects. He can have Richard Holbrooke on to talk about the Middle East, while the next guest might be Angelina Jolie about her new movie.

Early on, two influences were Rafe Mair and the late Tim Russert. When it came to political interviews they were terrific. They were tough and dogged. I’d also read Lawrence Grobel’s books in preparation, as well as books by Steve Allen.

In this country the three finest interviewers are Eleanor Wachtel, Steve Paikin, and Ken Rockburn. I like them because they’re very smart, yet they’re unpretentious. They also make asking questions seem easy. They’ve been on the program and I’ve learned a great deal from them. They are also talented in that they make subjects I wouldn’t necessarily find interesting, captivating. More often than not, I’ll find myself listening to Wachtel on CBC Radio’s Writers and Company talking about something I wouldn’t have found myself tuning into in the first place. And the same with Rockburn and Paikin, who make their guests captivating to watch. Rockburn has such vast interests himself, and reflected them on his CPAC program. It was also fun to see what pin he had on that show. Paikin is such an amiable fellow with a great countenance that he’s a relief to watch. He makes interviews look so damned effortless, he’s easy to envy. He is also right down-the-middle when it comes to his interviews, so good that he’s regularly called upon to moderate the federal leaders’ debates. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered.

In the five years since the beginning of what is now the Planta: On the Line program, I’ve interviewed authors and journalists, politicians and newsmakers, thinkers and philosophers, poets and other artists. It’s been fun, but it’s also a lot of work. There’s a great deal of reading, note-taking, and a bit of writing.

The guiding principle of the program is curiosity, and not necessarily the audiences, rather my own. I hope you see through the guests and what’s discussed what I’m interested in. I still haven’t done a program on Frank Sinatra or the sitcom The Office, or an appreciation of Jack Benny. I would love to have someone on to discuss Churchill, The Sopranos, even Margaret Thatcher. But generally, I’m curious about the debate surrounding global warming; I follow politics; and I enjoy hearing about the writing process, among other things.

If there’s anything that sustains the program, it’s the willingness of people to come on as guests. I’ve been very fortunate to have people agree to come on, as well on occasion people who offer themselves up as guests. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the many publicists who are in regular contact, submitting recommendations for guests.
A good thing about this enterprise being non-commercial is that I don’t have a regular schedule, though I’ve gone on extended breaks during the summer. I have the great luxury of having guests on I want to have on, and not having to book someone who I’m not enthusiastic about because I have air to fill.

Looking back at the interviews I’ve done in 2009, I have favourites. But looking at the list, I’m pleased to say I haven’t regretted any of them. In fact, I’ve learned something from all of them.

My conversation with Christopher Buckley stands out. The Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown, who is such a great writer, made me laugh and weep when I talked to him about his memoir on his son, Walker. David Grann from The New Yorker on his remarkable book The Lost City of Z is one that I remember fondly. David Finkel from The Washington Post talking about his book The Good Soldiers is one that I think about often. I remember with a smile, Jane Christmas talking about her mum, who she wrote about in Incontinent on the Continent. And of course, the interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon about his wonderful memoir Manhood for Amateurs was a delight to do.

There are the good friends of the program who’ve been great about coming on: Rona Maynard, Paul Willcocks, Michael Klassen from CityCaucus.com [1], Sean Holman of Public Eye Online [2], Judi Tyabji, George Froehlich from the Savvy Insider [3], David Berner, David Schreck, Jim Taylor, Michael Kwan, Mike McCardell, Sean Cranbury, and of course the most frequent guest on the show, Rafe Mair. They’ve become audience favourites.

There are some fascinating and talented people I’d like to have on or on again when I return to the program. People like Stephen Hunt, Douglas Todd from the Vancouver Sun, Darren Barefoot, Craig Crawford, Mark Hasiuk, Charlie Smith from the Georgia Straight, Charles Demers, Craig Norris, Warren Kinsella, Dave Gerry, Chris Gailus, and Rachel Marsden, among many others.

And then there’s the audience. Modestly, I have to admit it’s great fun to see the hit counter to the website and see the numbers who are listening. I do the program for myself, but I’m glad someone out there is getting something from it.

Happy New Year, all.

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