This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in
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After 22 seasons, what was once CBC Radio One’s weekend pop culture flagship show has signed off the air for the last time.

22 seasons? That’s a great run by any yardstick.

DNTO – or “Definitely Not The Opera” – was originally named to humorously distinguish itself from the simultaneous operatic programming on what is now Radio Two. It was fronted by several talented hosts throughout its various incarnations. Nora Young and most recently Sook-Yin Lee were arguably its two most beloved and memorable hosts.

DNTO was once to CBC Radio what Q is to it today. That is, it was once CBC Radio’s main pop culture phantasmagoria (albeit weekly); an on-air escape from the mundane into the world of contemporary creativity and inspiration.

But maybe because it was heard on the weekend and produced out of Winnipeg it managed to stay delightfully and defiantly offbeat. It always felt a bit like an underdog; a collective of the nerdy but most interesting kids back in school now passionately making the kind of radio that the grown up mainstream just didn’t “get”. 

It never particularly tried to be cool and as a result probably was.

Although drastically reimagined and reduced to an hour of listener-inspired stories in its last eight seasons, before that DNTO dominated the CBC’s Saturday afternoon Radio One schedule with several hours of non-stop interviews, music, comedy, commentary, mini-docs, reviews and that all-too-rare element missing from most public radio even today – fun.

Its strongest virtue in those heady days perhaps became its biggest perceived liability – its eclectic diversity. At its best, at its height as a pop culture compendium, DNTO felt like you were visiting a good friend’s weekend house party. You never quite knew who was going to turn up next or what they were going to say or do. But you knew if one guest wasn’t to your liking, there’d be another along in a few minutes. 

Today, it seems that kind of freewheeling national radio has been superseded by a much more tightly focused, thematically consistent and earnest style of programming. Whether it is superior to the type of acoustic smorgasbord that DNTO epitomized at its zenith I will leave to others to evaluate. 

So what does the passing of yet another CBC institution have to do with us?

Simply this: DNTO was a good friend to Canadian freelancers. 

And it’s always sad to say goodbye to a friend. Even after they’ve grown up and changed a lot.

I do not know a single freelancer – if they had diligently and persistently pitched DNTO – who did not get at least one item on during its very long run. (This writer included.) Many regular freelancers indeed did very well by the show. And many new freelancers placed their first piece on national radio on DNTO.

The fact is, DNTO was a terrific training ground for novice radio freelancers. Their team of energetic producers encouraged newbies and worked enthusiastically with anyone with a good idea who was also prepared to work hard. 

There was undoubtably some kind of official commitment to regional programming on the national network that worked in DNTO’s favour. Saturday afternoons pre-DNTO for many years were almost always Winnipeg-produced shows that also actively encouraged freelancers. Indeed, a previous incarnation (“Brand X”) was a curious experiment in host-less programming that almost entirely relied on freelancers. Before DNTO there was also “Captain” Jack Farr who piloted Saturday afternoons with his quirky brand of humour and interviews.

All this meant that a talented band of radio producers emerged at CBC Winnipeg who produced all kinds of diverse programming on the network and who knew how to work with freelancers. It became a hotbed of alternative creative programming within CBC Radio that it has never been able to fully replicate anywhere else in the country.

Over the years DNTO probably hired more freelancers across Canada than any other contemporary weekly CBC show. The fact that during its pop culture years an item could run just a few minutes – or much longer as required – made DNTO an ideal showcase for unusual stories both big and small.

In short, it was a dream gig for many Canadian freelancers. 

Those kids in the ‘Peg

My sense is that most top management at the CBC never quite took it seriously. Or completely understood it. To some of them it was probably just that weekend show out of Winnipeg concocted by those kids. And that was what inevitably saved DNTO for as long as it did. It was a kind of “theatre of the mind” made by dedicated young radio rebels who loved storytelling using the medium – far away from Front Street in Toronto.

Of course, times changed. The kids grew up. And Q took over as the CBC’s main pop culture program. For a few years the two shows seemed to happily co-exist, each with their own unique vibe and loyal following, but in time DNTO’s time slot and budgets were slashed. It became a very different kind of first person memoir-driven show.

It also meant a whole lot less work for regular freelancers.

The days of “tape talks” and ongoing freelancers coming in to offer their regular albeit often idiosyncratic points of view had ended.

The new format allowed newbies unfamiliar with the medium to concentrate on telling their firsthand stories and some old hands to reposition themselves as audio memoirists. There were still some limited freelance opportunities for those willing to make the change and for those who never knew how good it had once been for their predecessors.

But with the final broadcast of DNTO that long-lived Saturday afternoon CBC freelance marketplace has ended. 

Questions, questions, questions

* Will the CBC replace DNTO with a programming format that is as freelancer-friendly? 

We can only hope.

* Will any new show’s budget permit the extensive use of freelancers?

We can only hope. 

* Will any new show have the time and commitment to foster new young talent? 

We can only hope.

And while we’re hoping, you will remember to breathe, won’t you? 

The CBC still needs freelancers to help create radio that reflects the diversity and uniqueness of this vast country. Indeed, with all its cutbacks, I would posit that it needs us even more than ever to fulfill its ever-evolving mandate. 

It will be up to us to remind them.

The takeaway

The final DNTO broadcast aired on Saturday, May 14th, 2016. Fittingly, it was recorded in front of an appreciative audience of Winnipeg friends. The irrepressible Sook-Yin Lee hosted some live guests and reminisced about her multiple seasons on the show (starting in 2002) with past clips of a few memorable moments. 

But how do you sum up 22 exciting, frequently outstanding, occasionally exasperating years? 

An hour was simply not enough to do justice to the show nor to all the fine freelance voices who once populated the DNTO audio neighbourhood.

So thank you DNTO. Thank you and goodbye on behalf of all the freelancers who once worked with you to create something special.

You were a good friend.

And freelancers need all the friends we can get.

POSTED IN: Columns