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Forty-two-year-old Ravi Baichwal co-anchors the ABC7 weekend evening news in Chicago, the third-largest market in the United States. ABC7 News has been the ratings leader among Chicago newscasts since 1986.
Baichwal was born and raised in Toronto. He studied at the University of Western Ontario, and graduated in 1989 with honours, with a B.A. in political science and a certificate in French language studies. After working for several years in public affairs and politics in Ontario, he moved to Calgary and joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as a researcher, then moved into an on-air position with the CBC. Later he moved back to Toronto to become an anchor for CTV Newsnet Morning, a Canadian national news broadcast.
In late 2006, he moved his family to Chicago and joined ABC7.
Baichwal is married to award-winning broadcast journalist Sonja Nordahl, and they have two children.
Before moving to Chicago, you were anchoring a national news program. That’s the top of the mountain for a broadcast journalist. Why did you decide to make the change?
My life and job were terrific, and I had no intention of leaving CTV. But when the Chicago/ABC7 opportunity appeared unexpectedly, it was too exciting to pass up. ABC7 News is the market leader in an extremely prominent market, and Chicago is such an exciting city for my family and me. Chicago is sophisticated, but hard-working. It’s got white-collar smarts with blue-collar muscle. It’s got millions of stories, and my job—and my passion—is to tell stories. And that’s not saying anything about the range of stories one can cover in the United States. That’s too compelling an opportunity to pass up, and I’d always wanted to try my hand in America. And I’m very fortunate in that Sonja has been incredibly gracious and has sacrificed a lot, career-wise, so that we could make this move.
Have you always been fascinated by the news?
Yes, I’ve always loved the news. When I was growing up in Toronto, I would sit on Dad’s lap while he watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. And I actually paid attention!
My mom tells the story of how in 1975, at the age of 10, I brought up the coup in Argentina in my homeroom class. My teacher was surprised and amused. I was fascinated by the power of the story, and I never lost this fascination.
How did you make the decision to change careers in your early 30s and go into news?
For several years after college, I worked in public affairs (as a writer and government relations consultant for Ontario Hydro) and in electoral politics (including as legislative assistant to politician Greg Sorbara, now finance minister of Ontario). I was deeply involved in an election campaign in 1995 and when the side I was on lost, I found myself unemployed at 30. I decided to seize the opportunity to start something new and exciting. I simply threw myself headlong into the news business.
How did you get that first job in the news business?
I knew a number of people in the media and proceeded to call and pester everyone I knew for a chance to break in at the ground level in television broadcasting. After a few months of dedicated opportunity-hunting—and an unwillingness to give up—I landed a job for $24,000 a year as a researcher withCBC Newsworld in Calgary. I received a 13-week contract and a one-way ticket 3,000 miles from home—and I went for it.
How did you get onto the air?
On-air opportunities were few and far between, and they were senior opportunities for which I had to campaign, to get the network to take a chance on me. But I had every belief in myself that, when given the opportunity to anchor and report, I would do a good job. And the perseverance paid off.
I made myself as available as possible to cover for on-air people who were on vacation or off sick, or simply wherever opportunities lay. I also created opportunities by designing segments in shows where I could front pieces, especially on business programs I worked on.
I guess I did well in these on-air subbing engagements and segments, so eventually CBC gave me occasional opportunities to anchor newscasts in some time slots that were modest to say the least. For example, Christmas night at midnight. Who’s watching that newscast? Not many people, but I jumped at the chance to anchor it.
Then in 1998 I was offered a chance to become the national overnight anchor on CBC Newsworld. These newscasts were often simulcast on the main CBC network. I took the job and moved to Halifax on the east coast of Canada and learned my craft in the off hours. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who works staggered hours and in particular an overnight shift. It is extraordinarily taxing.
To succeed in broadcast journalism, you really need to be willing to put in a lot of work. And you have to accept the work as its own reward, which is probably the best of way of enjoying it and getting to the point of feeling that you are doing meaningful work. Quality. Consistency. A lot of people want the end result (being an anchor) but don’t want to learn the skills and invest the necessary sweat. And many people are not willing to face the pain of moving away from the places and the people they love.
Within a year, I got an unexpected call one night at 3 a.m. from the news director at CTV Vancouver. She had previously been a CBC producer and had hired me years earlier for my first job in the business. Now she had tracked me down again and she said, “I’d like you to be our six o’clock anchor.”
I said, “A.M. or P.M.?”
She said P.M.
It was hard to leave the CBC. It is an amazing, important organization for Canadians. But CTV, the network I was headed to, was incredible too. And the opportunity CTV was offering was too good to pass up. Six o’clock p.m. is prime time in the news business. I moved to Vancouver and I had a grand time there. I met wonderful lifelong friends there, including my lovely wife.
Later I got the call for CTV Newsnet. I could not believe it—I was being offered the national newscast and it would involve my moving back to Toronto, my hometown, where my parents still lived and where I still had a lot of friends.
This wasn’t that long after you’d gotten that first CBC job as a researcher, right?
Your father must have been very excited about this, especially given his love of the news.
Yes, Dad and Mom were both just as excited as we were. We came back to Toronto and our son was born, and then sadly my father passed away in Toronto on Dec. 26, 2004, the night of the Asian tsunami. It was heart-wrenching—he and I were very close. But I’m so glad he got to see me established as a journalist. I hope he felt a twinge of pride.
You’ve made a reputation covering breaking news. What does it take to cover breaking news effectively?
When you’re the anchor and a breaking news situation arises, an extra level of skill comes into play. If you can command that position and hold viewers interested in a situation in which the information is imperfect and incomplete, and in which you are learning details right along with the audience, then you’re accomplishing something very challenging.
Breaking news is often something tragic. The reason we (the media) focus extra attention on such events is that they are what’s out of the ordinary. Every plane landing safely is a minor miracle and an incredible thing—but that happens millions of times so it’s ordinary.
As a news anchor, I’m still me—I’m still a person who cares about his world and community and family and wishes that bad things did not happen. But when they do, it’s my job to cover them and help the viewer process and understand them.
When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon its return from space in 2003, I was on-air as the early morning anchor. It was a Sunday morning. We were scheduled to broadcast the landing live. We knew the exact scheduled timeline of the return. I don’t remember the exact times but, for the sake of illustration, let’s say the shuttle was scheduled to reach the atmosphere at 8:31, and touch down at 8:46. At 8:31 NASA would have initial satellite photos.
Well, at 8:31, we got no satellite photos.
This is rocket science, not public transportation. The shuttle does not run five minutes late. Everything is planned practically to the second. So we knew right then that something was wrong. And I was on the air.
This is a delicate situation for a news anchor. We know there’s a situation, probably a really important one, but we don’t know exactly what it is. As an anchor, you cannot speculate. You’ve got to take into account what the viewers are thinking, but you cannot speculate. In journalism, the number one rule is truth. The number two rule is attribution.
So you tell the viewers only what is known and attributable, and you keep their attention so you can tell them more as you learn more. And usually you have to keep their attention with few or no pictures, and that is difficult on television. And I think that you have to really care, and be sincere and honest, to pull this off.
Adrenaline is high during any breaking news situation, but as an anchor you must not let that adrenaline obstruct your ability to speak candidly to people from a controlled and informed position.
That’s why Peter Jennings was so incredibly masterful during 9/11. He held America’s hand through the TV in a world-changing situation with imperfect and incomplete information. This tragedy unfolded in front of all us, and I was thunderstruck by how he handled it. He told us what he could tell us, but he also informed us of what he could not tell us. And he walked through the uncertainty with us … as only someone in whom you place absolute trust can.
Your news team was nominated for a Gemini Award for your coverage of the Columbia disaster, right?
Yes. What a tragedy, what a challenging event to cover. But as an anchor you have to do it. It’s your job. It’s what you do. The viewers count on you.
I know you have many interests outside of the newsroom. You have flown with The Snowbirds (the military acrobatic airshow team of the Canadian Forces Air Command). Tell me about that experience.
I was co-hosting Canada A.M., and I flew with the Snowbirds on assignment. Not as a pilot—as a passenger. But I did have a set of working controls, since these were training jets with two sets of controls! The plane was a British Hawk, which is the chief training aircraft for NATO, and which is also slated to replace the CT-114 Tutor as the chief aircraft of the Snowbirds. What a machine. A sportscar in the sky. The Snowbirds fly nine planes together and they do things in formation that are incredible—it’s as if the airplanes are performing a complex ballet. In the Hawk, they’ll be able to do that even better.
We also did touch-and-go landings. That’s when you fly to an airport, descend, touch the runway, then speed up again and take off without ever stopping. They would do this several times in a row and it was amazing—like being on a high-stakes carnival ride.
My respect for pilots—military, commercial, recreational, whatever—was multiplied exponentially from the experience. Pilots are exquisitely talented and intelligent and skilled and trained and they have the mindset to maintain order in the controlled chaos that is human flight.
2008 will be the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Air and Water Show. Do you think you’ll get involved?
Now that I have a wife and two kids, I’m less inclined to take the risk—despite the incredible skill of these pilots, it’s still a risky proposition. But if someone asks me, I will definitely consider it.
Tell me about your love of sports.
I enjoy many sports, especially golf and baseball, but hockey is king for me. I’m a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
I’ve played hockey my whole life, and I still play today—in the Chicago Masters Hockey League. This is ice hockey—full gear, all-out, with incidental contact. We play once or twice a week. It’s exhausting and exhilarating. I’m very pleased that there’s a community of people who love hockey in Chicago. Chicago has a rich hockey tradition—the Blackhawks were actually one of the original six teams in the National Hockey League.
In all of the cities I’ve lived and worked in, hockey has been a welcome constant. What’s wonderful about hockey (and sports in general) is that it creates an instant connection with people across cultures, ethnicities, languages, and any other distinction you can think of. For me, hockey is instant social connection and it’s great exercise and it’s fun and when I’m skating I can still dream that I’m in the NHL.
Why is community service important to you?
Any fairly high-profile news anchor is blessed with a pulpit—not a political pulpit but a social pulpit. A TV newsperson is in a good position to empower others to participate in community endeavors to make their community a better place.
The idea of “giving back” is certainly part of it. Sure, I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, but I’ve also been blessed with opportunities that came my way through the work of others, especially my parents. So of course I feel a responsibility to give back.
But it’s more than that. It’s also about participating in the world around you, and creating connections with the people around you. Just being a good newsman would be great, but to be a good newsman and help strengthen the community outside of your on-air time—that’s even better.
What are some specific social issues you are interested in?
Sonja and I were the national spokespeople for CARE Canada’s efforts in Africa on AIDS. We went to Africa and did a documentary. We helped set up sponsorships for community schools, which are these wonderful home-grown organic schools that are popping up in places where AIDS is ravaging the working population. Many 30- to 40-year-olds are dying of AIDS and leaving behind orphaned children to be raised by grandparents, uncles or aunts, or siblings. These community schools are springing up specifically to serve these kids. We saw how far these kids have to walk to school, and how few resources they have. There is a huge “mechanical advantage” to helping these kids—just a little bit of assistance from an agency like CARE Canada can help create a much brighter outcome for these kids. We played a small role in trying to publicize the situation and the initiatives.
Last year I served as emcee of the National Indo-Canadian Achievement Awards, which awards Indo-Canadians who are making their communities better places. It’s a pretty amazing event. The prime minister of Canada presented the awards. 1200 great Indo-Canadians were there, representing a broad cross-section of professions and disciplines. Every one of them is a great story of love, perseverance, and faith paying off in success.
It is inspiring to see what Indo-Canadians and Indo-Americans are doing. We come from an amazing garden of values, and more and more, we are entering fields that are not traditional ones for us—arts, entertainment, politics, sports (Manny Malhotra is in the NHL!). And this is not to underestimate the value of more traditional fields such as medicine, engineering, law, and business. It’s just that today, more than ever before, Desis are working across disciplines to pursue happiness and make our communities stronger. And that, truly, is a great story.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|