“I want Daybreak to be an interesting listen. I want its journalism to be robust. I want people to tune in because they know they will get good interviews where we focus on the issues that matter and try to find out what’s new, what’s important, what’s really going on.”
Mike Finnerty

It’s a long way from Esterhazy, Saskatchewan and London, Ontario to the newsrooms of London, Moscow, New York, Toronto and Montreal. Both in terms of geography and outlook on life. Mike Finnerty’s talent, curiosity and drive to be a fine journalist have enabled him to make that journey. While his travels have taken him to some of the world’s most sophisticated cultural centres; and his work has thrust him into contact with world leaders and new makers, he retains a small-town sense of community, common sense and optimism.

Our conversation took place at Jean Talon Market, quite possibly the crossroads of Montreal’s multi-ethnic communities. Mike and the Daybreak team had just finished broadcasting from the market, amidst the produce vendors, customers and the occasional “beep beep’ of a forklift in reverse. Amidst this friendly chaos, Mike and the rest of the show’s participants sat around their characteristic round table – a format that is unique to Daybreak. Returning after a summer hiatus, Frank Cavallaro and Mike exchange friendly banter and Frank’s assertion that the Impact’s recent string of wins is directly related to the team’s recent acquisition of a few players from Italy. There’s a feeling of camaraderie, with Frank being everyone’s favourite uncle. After recording the daily podcast, Mike and I retire to the privacy of a Jean Talon Market picnic table.

Mike’s parents met and settled in Esterhazy, a town of 2,500 in southeast Saskatchewan and now the centre of the Potash industry. “There’s something about being born on the prairie that stays with you, that remains part of your being.” Mike continues, “My Dad felt that there was more opportunity in ‘The East’ – so we moved to London, Ontario where I went to high school.” Looking across the table to the incredulous expression of a colleague from Newfoundland; he quips; “I know that London is not the real East in Canada – but compared to Esterhazy it was far enough to be East for my Dad.”

In answer to my question about being fluent enough in French to attend Quebec City’s Laval University, Mike responds, “I was inspired by the Trudeau Generation, of the importance of being bilingual. I took my French very seriously in school, and participated in an exchange program with France.” His comfort with French would later be a tremendous asset at his first CBC Radio job in Quebec City.

After graduating from Laval, Mike returned to London and obtained his Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario in 1989. He began working as a researcher, writer and then broadcaster at CBC Radio in Quebec City. “I was pretty lucky to get a job right away with CBC Radio in Quebec City. I travelled the entire province, up to Hudson’s Bay and James Bay, down to The Townships and into the tiny communities on the Lower North Shore, accessible only by plane or boat.”

It was an ongoing lesson in Quebec geopolitics that has served him well – especially during elections. Communities like Chicoutimi and Blanc-Sablon are not just dots on a map for Mike. He’s been there, met the people and can visualize the streets and roads that he’s walked and the people he’s met. Perhaps these experiences are part of the intriguing political wisdom that Mike and veteran broadcaster Bernard St-Laurent share during their Monday morning political roundups. They have both travelled the length and breadth of Quebec, where one man’s province can be another woman’s country.

In Quebec Mike worked with author Louise Penny (then host of the Quebec City morning show). “I learned as much from Louise in 6 months as I did in my entire Journalism program at Western.”

In 1993 Mike moved to Montreal to work on Radio Noon, and then worked as a reporter in the newsroom.

Mike moved to England in 1997 to join the BBC World Service, and he participated in the world famous network’s transition to a 24 hour live news service. “When I first arrived – the BBC broadcast around the world in 43 languages. It was like a mini-United Nations, with people from different nationalities walking the corridors of the old grey stone building that was world headquarters.” Mike relates his London experience to Montreal; “It has served me well back here in Montreal, where we have people from so many different nationalities and cultures.”

The boy from Esterhazy, Saskatchewan was now a seasoned broadcast journalist travelling the world for The BBC World Service, covering the first parliamentary elections in Russia, the election of George W. Bush and the unimaginable September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States. “We arrived two days after the attack, and it was eerie to see New York City so quiet. We set up as close as we could get to Ground Zero, along the waterfront. Adjacent to our location, ordinary citizens had set up grills along the shoreline for almost as far you could see, and they were cooking. One by one, firefighters, policemen and rescue workers – all covered in dust and with that thousand yard stare – would come up to the barbeques to get something to eat. In the midst of all that destruction; people were remembering to help each other.” Continuing, Mike notes; “A couple of days later, we saw people dressed in business suits and ties going back to work. It was like they were making a statement – ‘you’re not going to beat us’.”

In his last two years with the BBC, Mike took over responsibilities as Editor of Daytime Programs, including Newshour, Europe Today, and World Update.

Mike returned to CBC Montreal in 2006 to become the host of Daybreak, bringing his new discipline and interviewing skills to the program. He and the producers brought in guest editors and encouraged the listeners to participate. Listeners reacted favourably, the listening audience grew and ratings went up. While CBC Radio doesn’t sell advertising, executives and broadcasters are acutely aware that they have to be accountable for the use of taxpayers’ dollars. Ratings and market share are a measurement of public acceptance.

“I expect that if taxpayers fund CBC Radio we have to deliver something of demonstrable public value, in this case a type of local coverage of Montreal that you cannot get otherwise.”
Mike Finnerty

In July 2009, Mike answered the siren call of London once more, assuming responsibility as News Editor for The Guardian, the second largest online news source in Britain.

However, life sometimes takes strange turns, and Mike returned to Montreal and the host’s chair at Daybreak in September 2010. In another interview Mike was quoted as saying; “I missed broadcasting, I missed radio. I missed Montreal.”

It’s a demanding role. “I get up at 3:20 because before I go on air, I have to inform myself about what’s been going on in our city and around the world while we were asleep. I generally have a nap in the afternoon, because sleep is essential. Then I like to visit a neighbourhood café or terrasse. Maintaining a good level of fitness is also important to the physical demands of this job, and I spend time in the gym. In the evenings, I often attend events of people I’ve met on the show.” And then, with a self-deprecating smile, Mike sighs; “But most nights I’m in bed by 9 or 9:30…” There must be something to it – because at 48 Mike Finnerty retains a boyish look – more like 30-something.

Beginning at 5:30, Daybreak is the first English radio program to begin broadcasting. “It a huge privilege to be the first to wish Montrealers a good morning. A lot of stuff happens while we’re asleep. Some of it’s great, some is dramatic, and some is difficult – like the tsunami hitting Japan.

“Broadcasting live has a special energy, and doing these remotes heightens the adrenaline even more. For me, Montreal is a love affair. I am endlessly proud to be the host of Daybreak. We have a privileged access to Montrealers and the city’s decision makers.”

Daybreak airs on CBC Radio at 88.5 FM weekdays from 5:30 to 8:30, with a follow-up online podcast that has become very popular, especially with ex-pat Montrealers.

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