Tim and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad (And Just Plain Weird) CBC Internship

Right when I was emerging from J-school back in 2016, I was an intern for several weeks at CBC Montreal. I spent that time doing the work of a paid employee (for no pay), and encountered a wildly unprofessional environment. Five years later, it’s still the most unprofessional workplace I’ve encountered in the media — and that’s saying a lot in an industry where companies can get away with a lot due to the lack of jobs, low budgets, and so forth.

Before I get to the details, I want to clarify my intentions: I’m not seeking to get anyone cancelled, so I’m leaving names out. Besides, I think a lot of CBC’s issues are institutional (although there are certainly staff there who deserve cancellation). Rather, my aim is to put the shitty experience out in the open — a lot of journalists aren’t willing to detail these kinds of experiences for fear it will negatively impact their careers, so, I’m trying to “be the change I want to see”, or whatever.

As for why I’m doing it now (five years later): at the time, I was fresh out of school, and dropping an article about a shitty experience I had at Canada’s largest media outlet would have probably been a questionable career move. For most of the time since, I was in Montreal local media: a small scene, so publishing this felt a little too close for comfort. Now I’m freelancing and not covering Montreal, so the timing feels right. I understand that the culture at CBC (and CBC Montreal, specifically) hasn’t changed drastically since 2016, so I feel it’s still relevant. Having heard other firsthand anecdotes, I also know I’m certainly not the only person to have a firsthand experience of CBC Montreal as a terrible workplace. So, yeah: Openness is good, time to spill the details!

In mid-2016, I was about to graduate from the masters program at Carleton University’s journalism school in Ottawa. To graduate, students had to log 16 weeks of work experience in a professional setting — I was just short of this, so I opted to do an unpaid internship with CBC Montreal to check that box (and hopefully make a few connections for future work).

I was in a weird position, because I had actually worked for six weeks at CBC Ottawa the previous summer, covering staff on vacation, (plus one short CBC internship much earlier on at grad school). I was a (paid) associate producer on CBC Ottawa’s afternoon radio show, so this meant the Montreal internship was a step down, but I had to get the experience to graduate. I flagged the Ottawa experience to Montreal internship manager, asking to be assigned to different work than what I did in Ottawa, because an internship is meant to be educational.

They promptly assigned me to work on CBC Montreal’s afternoon show, doing the exact same work as I was paid to do in Ottawa, but on a lower-rated show with far less budget (this is not an insult: CBC Ottawa has exceptionally high listenership and therefore more money, although I also found it a much more professional experience, where I received good feedback and training).

This should’ve been a major red flag, but I optimistically thought “at least I know how to do the job/should be easy to make a good impression” and went along with it. I basically acted as a bonus producer (or “researcher”, as CBC Montreal calls them) for the show, on top of its regular staff. I would bring possible stories to a morning meeting — all staff were expected to do this, and I understand that casual staff sometimes did this research at home, off the clock.

Each day, I’d be assigned a couple of stories for which I had to find guests and write scripts, and maybe discuss with the host. I also ended up taking on the show’s music programming duties — since I worked for an independent music festival in Montreal, I had the knowledge to do it quickly. (The show’s music seemed to be a neglected afterthought — standard CanCon bands like Arcade Fire were used incessantly as a fallback, and I even spotted top 40 music like Bruno Mars getting playlisted, which seemed bizarre, considering CBC’s mandate to promote Canadian arts and culture). At my producer’s request, I ended up writing a short guide to music programming for the show’s other producers, with pointers about finding interesting local artists or using CBC’s somewhat convoluted music library to find songs that were thematically linked to the show.

Anyway, this low-level intern exploitation was nothing spectacular, but a few days into the internship, we ended up with two producers out sick, leaving me and the lead producer. That producer and a higher-up manager discussed calling in casual employees to help — this conversation happened just a couple meters from my desk, and they more or less said that I was capable enough, so while one person (not two) could come in a few hours, extra staff weren’t urgent. So, I — the unpaid intern — ended up helping to cover two sick staff for much of that day. In the days that followed, one producer was out sick and I covered again (my notes are unclear, but I think this was for another two days).

By chance, CBC Montreal happened to be advertising for casual staff to do exactly what I was doing, on an ad-hoc, “we call you” basis, mostly covering sick days and vacation. I applied with the firm endorsement of the show’s producer, who seemed keen on the idea of me working with her in the longer term. She gave me the name of a manager to ask about this work, so I approached that manager, who, without discussion, gave me a very quick and very firm “no”. It seemed odd that this was such a definitive “no” with not even a moment of consideration (given that they were looking for staff), but, what can you do?

Given that rejection, I quietly asked my producer if she had any feedback for me — was I doing anything wrong, could I improve anything? No — I was good at the job. I asked if she had any idea why I couldn’t land casual work, and I was told that I was clearly cut out for it, but management were sometimes just weird and picky about these things.

A few days later, a newly-hired casual joined the show as a producer. This person was, to say the least, clueless. They came to story meetings with zero ideas, and sat dead silent, despite the clear expectation that such staff should bring pitches. They were a pretty slow worker: someone who was either out of their depth, or just not particularly good at their job. Then came the truly wild part: one afternoon, while the other staff were in the studio, they quietly approached me and asked me to show them how to use Dalet, CBC’s audio editing software.

Dalet is a finicky program that isn’t intuitive to a newcomer, so while it seemed a little weird that this person apparently hadn’t received training, it wasn’t a total surprise that somebody was confused by the program. However: it quickly became apparent that this person had no clue how to edit audio at all — they did not know what a waveform was, and didn’t appear to have ever used any program like Audition or Audacity.

To be clear: someone was hired to work at CBC Radio in Canada’s second-largest city, despite never having edited audio, one of the fundamental tasks for working in radio. I politely helped them, all the while thinking about how completely batshit it was that the unpaid intern had to train a new employee on one of the most basic parts of the job (for the record, I only had minimal training, which was given to me in Ottawa — the Montreal office didn’t bother to train me or even ask about it, while apparently expecting me to do the work of a paid employee).

This experience gave me the courage to ask again about casual work: I could do the job, and a producer actually wanted me to work with her, so why not?

I managed get a quick meeting with the manager who had previously said no. I’m not a snitch, so I stuck to positives and didn’t bring up the terrible new staffer on the show, highlighting that I was passionate about radio, had done it elsewhere for years, that I was doing a good job here in the eyes of my direct supervisor, and given there were obviously shifts open. So could I please be considered, even with just an interview? This manager became angry and agitated, and proceeded to half-yell, half-lecture me about how I was obsessed with getting on the “casuals list”, telling me “there’s no such list” and I needed to just get over it. (I don’t really know where all the “list” stuff came from, I was just angling to be considered for occasional work.)

This manager was extraordinarily dismissive and condescending: I should have seen this coming, since I had noticed that in the office, she only deigned to say good morning to what appeared to be her favored staff, while ignoring the others. In this meeting, she talked to me like a child, belittling me for not knowing the minutiae of CBC’s system for hiring casuals. I told her that, of course I didn’t believe I was entitled to a job, but that I did find it bizarre that I was expected to cover paid staff over multiple sick days, but was apparently unsuitable for paid work. In light of that, I asked for more feedback — she tersely told me to go ask my producer, and I noted that my producer had no feedback, and had told me I was basically doing the job like any other employee.

I then reminded her that I was an unpaid intern in the office for educational reasons, so therefore, I needed constructive feedback. After all, I was about to graduate with a Masters degree in journalism, so if I was unfit to cover sick days at a CBC station that only drew around 3,400 listeners at any given time, it would be nice to know what skills I was missing. (Needless to say, I didn’t point out the low listenership in this argument.)

At this point, I was probably just pushing her buttons: it was very clear that I wasn’t going to get paid work. But still, I felt exploited, and that I had given up three weeks of my life for nothing, with no money and no additional skills or experience to show for it. She angrily snapped that I wasn’t qualified to work here, with no details.

I pushed back, saying that if I could not be given any usable feedback, I would have to go back to the university and report that CBC Montreal had not provided an educational experience, as the university’s internship program required of CBC, and instead used me to cover paid staff. That really didn’t sit well with her, maybe because that kind of report could get the office blacklisted by the university, depriving them of future interns. She finally came up with an answer: I was “too arts oriented” to work there, and maybe I should try someplace like alt-weekly Cult MTL — never mind that their pay was something like $20 per article at the time (I love them, but they were very cash-strapped at this time). The only evidence she had for this was the fact that I took on music programming for the show I was working on — never mind the fact that I did that because other staff didn’t want to (and arguably couldn’t do it in line with CBC’s mandate).

The description of me as “too arts oriented” was frankly, pretty weird: the idea of somebody being too artsy for the CBC seems pretty ridiculous, and when I’ve recounted this scenario to other people, most people ask something like: “did she mean ‘too gay’?” Anyone who has met me in person would know that I’m pretty gay — it’s very obvious from my mannerisms, my speech, my everything, and this manager would have known it. It struck me as the kind of clever, weasel-word “discrimination without discrimination” phrase from some middle manager who knows exactly what to say to avoid any trouble with human resources. But at the same time, maybe she was scraping for some kind of feedback to shut me up, and she couldn’t come up with anything better.

So, I’ll probably never know whether or not this was a deliberate slight or an accidental throwaway comment — and it doesn’t really matter, because what’s clear was that it was a total lie. I had just finished a thesis-equivalent documentary on business, urban planning, and gentrification in Montreal’s Gay Village (not art!), and during the internship, half my work focused on infrastructure, such as organizing interviews about the the newly-announced REM transit system for Montreal. Plus, almost immediately after the internship, I landed casual work at Montreal radio station CJAD: a news station run by straight white men that is most certainly not artsy. (That job also puts paid to the idea that I was unqualified: CJAD has far higher ratings than CBC and allowed me to go on-air as a reporter almost immediately: a task far above the level of a casual CBC producer.)

Anyway, after extracted my daily dose of veiled homophobia, the meeting petered out. At this point, I had just a couple days left of my internship, so I made one last-ditch attempt to see if I could at least get paid for the days that I covered sick employees — maybe they would figure that it might shut the disgruntled intern up. This was a nonstarter — I received an immediate no, because my details weren’t in the CBC’s system. I pointed out that I had an employee number and had been paid before, less than a year ago, so this shouldn’t be an issue. But no, I still couldn’t be paid, because of vague and undefined “rules” that nobody could explain to me. (For the record, I was still receiving my modest teaching assistant pay from the university while I did this internship, so it’s not like I was screwed for money, but as far as CBC knew, I was earning nothing.)

At this point, I was pretty eager to just get out of there, and didn’t have the energy to fight over a few days of possible-but-unlikely pay. It was a regrettable few weeks, to say the least — and that’s without even getting into some of the small-scale unprofessional BS spotted at CBC Montreal. For example, one radio host loudly made an “Asians should be good at math” joke to an Asian-Canadian administrative staffer, or the fact that I ended up as an emotional support intern of-sorts to one staffer who very clearly did not want to be doing her job anymore.

And I fully recognize that my experience at CBC is tame by comparison to some other nightmare stories out there, like that of Ahmar Khan in Winnipeg. I’ve certainly heard whispers of nightmare experiences from casual staff at CBC Montreal — if anyone ever wants to share or chat about it, my DMs are open.