BROADCASTING

A political junkie

Pamela Wallin chooses a fling in prime time

DIANE TURBIDE October 20 1992
BROADCASTING

A political junkie

Pamela Wallin chooses a fling in prime time

DIANE TURBIDE October 20 1992

A political junkie

BROADCASTING

Pamela Wallin chooses a fling in prime time

It was Thanksgiving weekend, and the grand opening of the Special Effects Spa in Wadena, Sask. (pop. 1,500), was in full swing. Proud co-owner Pamela Wallin, then still co-host of Canada A.M., CTV’s morning news show, was putting her makeup skills to work. “I did about 40 people that day,” recalled 39-year-old Wallin. “It was tiring but fun.” In an interview with Maclean ’s last week, the journalist explained that she and her sister, Bonnie George, had decided two months ago to set up the beauty shop and hire staff in their home town, located two hours northeast of Regina. “There was an obvious need—my mother was driving 35 miles for a haircut,” said Wallin. On opening day, as she applied eye shadow and lipstick to the faces of patrons, Wallin was contemplating another enterprise. Just three days earlier, she had been offered a plum position: co-anchor with Peter Mansbridge of the CBC’s revamped evening news hour, Prime Time News, which debuts on Nov. 2. By the end of the weekend, she had accepted. “It’s the most exciting job in Canadian journalism,” Wallin said. “It’s brand-new, there’s no preconceived notions and, best of all, it’s live. I love the unpredictability of that.” Wallin’s appointment is another in a series of arrivals, departures, shakeups and make-overs that have rocked the CBC this year. In May, management announced a radical restructuring of its prime-time programming. Its flagship news show, the one-hour package that contained The National and The Journal, would move to 9 p.m. from 10. Then in June, CBC president Gérard Veilleux reorganized his senior ranks. In one of the most high-profile changes, he brought in Tim Kotcheff, then vice-president of news, features and information programming at CTV, to spearhead change at the public network’s TV news department.

And in August, barely two months into his new position as vice-president of news, current affairs and Newsworld, Kotcheff announced the demise of The Journal, the 10-year-old current affairs program that has attracted nearly 1.2 million Canadians daily. Replacing The National as well as The Journal would be a retooled news and current affairs hour. Kotcheff told Maclean’s last week that he and his team are still refining the format of the new program. Said the new co-host: “I was told it’s a live, onehour seamless package of news and background items. That’s fine with me. I don’t want it to be any more structured than that.”

Wallin maintains that the uncertain climate at the CBC is part of an industry-wide upheaval. “There are so many factors at work,’’she said,

“the fragmentation of the TV audience, the recession. It’s affecting everyone.” Added Wallin: “Our business is always like that. We work in a state of chaos—that's what we thrive on.” Her co-host, meanwhile, told Maclean’s that he is delighted at Wallin’s appointment. Said Mansbridge: “I was part of the process of persuading her to come.”

Named the 1992 Gemini winner in the category of best overall broadcast journalist,

Wallin is a self-admitted

workaholic who averages -

about four hours of sleep a night. As co-host of Canada A.M., she rose at 3:15, drinking coffee and reading the papers as she was driven to work each day. While her workday at the

station often ended at 4:30 p.m., her reading kept her occupied until about 9 p.m. And as well as her duties at the morning show, Wallin moderated the weekly political forum Question Period and often worked with evening news anchor Lloyd Robertson on specials.

Describing herself as a political junkie, Wallin says that maintaining that schedule, while difficult, has also been exhilarating. “I love what I do,” she added. “If somebody told me that I had to sit down and watch the vicepresidential debate and then flip over and watch Bourassa and Parizeau, to me that’s not work. I would be doing that anyway.” As for her private life, Wallin would only say that she and her husband of five years, TV producer Malcolm Fox, recently separated.

Her fascination with politics, particularly with what she calls “the Canadian story,” has marked her 20-year career in radio, print and television journalism. The second daughter of businessman and retired X-ray technician William Wallin and teacher Leone Wallin, she graduated - from the University of Regina before becoming co-host of an open-line program on CBC Radio in Regina in 1972. She moved first to Ottawa and then to Toronto to work for CBC Radio’s As It Happens and Sunday

Morning. After a two-year stint as a political reporter for The Toronto Star, she joined CTV in 1981 as co-host of Canada A.M.

Wallin’s strengths as a reporter and interviewer became evident early in her career, and in 1985 she became the first woman in Canadian network television history to be appointed bureau chief. As CTV’s head of Ottawa operations, a position that she held until 1988, Wallin honed her skills as a tough-minded interviewer of politicians at home and abroad. She recalled that some of her earliest TV interviews were less than dazzling, recounting how then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau demolished her onscreen. But, she added, “I learned a lot about being prepared from that experience.”

One of her most intimidating subjects was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With 10 minutes to kill before the live broadcast, Wallin could not warm up her subject who, she recalled, would not make eye contact or respond to “any of the 14 topics I raised.” Finally, desperate to engage the leader, Wallin told Thatcher that she looked pale and suggested a touch-up by the makeup artist. Said Wallin: “It was the bottom of my bag of tricks, I’ll tell you.” It worked. “She looked at me and said ‘You’re absolutely right, how kind of you to suggest it,’ ” Wallin recalled, hastening to add that Thatcher remained “tough as nails” during the actual interview.

What keeps Wallin grounded in the heady world of TV cameras and politics, she says, are friends and family. “My idea of a good time is Saturday night dinner with good friends, good food and wine,” she added. “Where I grew up, people always socialized with potluck dinners.” Wallin regularly visits and calls her parents and sister. As well as the love they provide, Wallin says, her family is a touchstone for the values of the farming community in which she grew up. “They’re my own private polling firm,” she said. “If they think Brian Mulroney’s Gucci shoes are a source of outrage or merely a twominute flap, then that’s a good indication to me.” And Wallin noted that her links to the West “make me better at what I do. I’m not just worried about crime in Toronto. I consider what it’s like for my sister raising two teenage girls facing the same stuff in a small town.” Far from Wadena, Wallin will make her debut with co-host Mansbridge on Prime Time Newson Nov. 2. “Without wanting to sound too corny,” she said, “I’m hoping the show will be a brave new face of the news.” The program’s increased live component, she added, will give it an added edge. Television’s technological ability “to patch things up, to make them perfect,” she noted, “sometimes denies viewers the chance to make their own decisions about what they’re seeing. With live TV, everybody’s flaws are exposed, everybody’s weaknesses and strengths are tested.”

Barely two weeks after her tearful farewell on Canada A.M., viewers will be able to see Wallin’s familiar face again on the rival network. And she will once again be putting her own weaknesses and strengths to the test.

DIANE TURBIDE