I've become more comfortable with who I am, I never gave myself a chance to be quiet. I really needed that.
Watching Rogers in her serenity shed, how carefully she articulates her thoughts and how quiet and honest they are, it's easy to imagine the young, shy girl who grew up the eldest of four children in an upper-middle-class family in Ottawa and was drawn to the microphone as a way of hiding. A few years after her parents divorced when she was 15, Rogers attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., where she majored in art history. Her career goal was to work in an art gallery or museum, restoring works of art. But she started pitching in at the campus radio station and that was that.
Still her career at CBC Radio has not been on a continually upward trajectory. She began in 1980 in Ottawa working on a music program. Four years later, she moved to Toronto to host a local CBC drive-home show. Then she switched to Metro Morning. In 1986, she started with the arts program that was eventually titled The Arts Tonight. Ten years later, she was offered the chance to become deputy host of Gzowski's Morningside, once sitting in for him for 11 consecutive weeks, but when he announced his retirement, she did not get the job. It went to Michael Enright and Avril Benoît, then Benoît was dropped, and finally, Rogers took over the chair from Enright, when he decided to cut back on his schedule. But just as she got the job she had wanted for so long and that many believed she was best suited for, the CBC brass decided to revamp the Radio One programs. This Morning became Sounds Like Canada, only two hours instead of three and consisting of a number of shows within a show. Rogers sounded "like a frustrated master of ceremonies at a 12-ring circus" wrote one critic. Many believed that her medical leave was the result of her frustrations.
Rogers denies those rumours. "The stories that I suffered," she says, raising her hands to put imaginary quotation marks around that last word, "were exaggerated. I wasn't unhappy. It's not fair to say I was unhappy. It was challenging because I was dealing with a new program style. We were experimenting. It just so happens that my hypertension happened at the same time.
"I don't know how long a time limit you put on experimentation," she responds, when asked whether there are frustrations when her instincts as a seasoned broadcaster tell her that a format isn't working. "We tried everything all at once, and it was confusing for the listeners," she says. The newly formatted Sounds Like Canada in the fall will "build on my strengths," she explains, adding that some, but not all, of the segments will be included.
Does she feel that The Current and its host, veteran journalist Anna Maria Tremonti, have diminished the importance of Sounds Like Canada? "Not at all," Rogers says. "I'm a very different kind of broadcaster." But isn't that part of what may have hurt her at the CBC, that she is perceived as soft? "I don't know who sees me as soft," she says. "What I'm interested in is the human narrative. I've always wanted to know more of the what and how, not just the why. I like to ask the questions that elicit stories."
Throughout her time off, Rogers has done a lot of thinking, she explains. "I'm coming back to an encounter with my faith," she offers, when we're standing outside in the sunshine, among the wild phlox. In her early 20s, following a car accident, she became a born-again Christian while a student at Queen's. She left the small group she had joined when she began working in the media. Rogers is a deeply spiritual person, even though she is not enamoured of organized religion.
This inner Shelagh Rogers is hard to draw out. It wasn't until well into the interview and we were in relaxed conversation in her shed that she seemed willing to reveal it. But it's the voice you will hear when she returns to the radio. Her brush with a potentially fatal medical condition made her re-evaluate her work and life.
"At the beginning of Sounds Like Canada, I was holding myself back. My laugh was an issue, and I'd think, 'Am I laughing too long?' But that's not an issue any more. If something requires joy, what's wrong with that?"
She pauses; laughs; and fixes me with her determined eyes. "I'm going by my guts, and not by a pie chart."
~ The Globe and Mail