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The Top 100: Chris Hall, the ‘sober second-thought’ in politics

By Ally Foster      

'As someone who works in business, I have clients who are not based in Ottawa who raise issues that they heard on The House,' says Greg MacEachern, senior vice president of government relations with Environics Communications.

Chris Hall hosts the weekly political radio program The House, which airs on CBC Radio One and SiriusXM on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. EST. Photograph courtesy of CBC

In 1998, Chris Hall arrived at CBC’s Ottawa Parliamentary Bureau with a plan: he would stay for four years, learn all he could, and then move on—maybe to a foreign posting.

Now, 19 years later, Hall is still working in the shadow of the Peace Tower. His voice—a recognizable tether between Canadians across the country and the happenings on the Hill—has become synonymous with Saturday mornings. Hall hosts the weekly political radio program The House, which airs on CBC Radio One and SiriusXM on Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. EST.

The show debuted in 1977, when the media were first given permission to broadcast the House of Commons proceedings. At the beginning, regurgitating the goings-on inside the House was the show’s mandate.

“In other words, BORING” Marguerite McDonald, the show’s first host, quips on CBC’s website for The House. She goes on to explain that the producers quickly realized it would be more valuable to the listener —and more interesting—to broadcast excerpts from within the House of Commons accompanied by reaction, research, interviews, and context.

Susan Helwig, a producer on the program from 1977 to 1987, is also quoted on the website explaining that staff were then encouraged to ensure that the radio show was more than just a “mouthpiece for politicians.”

And it is within that vein—and still in its original timeslot—that Chris Hall operates.

The House in and of itself is an institution,” says Greg MacEachern, senior vice president of government relations with Environics Communications, calling the program the “sober second thought” of politics, as it unpacks and analyzes the previous week’s proceedings.

MacEachern says that quite separate from the show he’s become associated with, Hall is an influential political player in his own right.

Hall’s first foray into journalism was in university, where he was the editor of the campus newspaper while studying political science at Queen’s University. Before coming to the CBC, he wrote for The Ottawa Citizen, where he worked his way up the newsroom ladder from covering the neighbourhood beat to taking over as the Queen’s Park Bureau Chief.

Hall tells P&I that making the transition from print to radio “wasn’t really a well thought-out plan,” but adds that he’s very glad he did it.

“The radio was always something that was on in my house growing up,” he recalls. “My dad and I listened to it when I was growing up in the States, driving both to school and back.”

Hall adds that in today, where constant digital connection and multi-tasking are the norm, “radio has become more valuable.”

The audience can listen to the radio not only while driving in their cars, but also while sitting on the bus, walking to work, or with their earphones on as they work at their computers.

CBC, and The House specifically, has responded to the growing demand for more regular listening options. A library of past episodes is available for streaming on the website, and they are no longer limited to Saturday mornings. Hall also hosts midweek podcasts and special programming during significant political events.

Hall says he recognizes that increasingly, people are “looking for a conversation and not just the top news hits,” which are available with the flick of a finger through a Twitter feed or a news app.

“You can consume the written word in newsprint, or on a screen, but there’s something about the radio that transcends,” agrees MacEachern. “It’s a lasting medium.”

When it comes to content, Hall says he focuses on the fact that “ordinary people don’t necessarily live and breathe politics, but want to know what’s going on, and want some deeper answers or a longer conversation.” He adds that “my focus has always been to try and ask questions that may seem obvious, but don’t necessarily get [asked] in the news cycle.”

“As someone who works in business, I have clients who are not based in Ottawa who raise issues that they heard on The House,” says MacEachern, who adds that the program is a window into Ottawa for those across Canada who want to stay connected and understand what’s happening in the seat of federal politics.

And Hall says that after a decade of difficulties under former prime minister Stephen Harper, who was notoriously protectionist when it came to the media, it has become easier under the Liberal government to provide Canadians insight and interactions with the policy-makers.

“The Liberals are very keen to have the ministers take ownership of the issues that they’re pushing,” he says, adding that he’s had success with bringing cabinet ministers on the show.

But the one fish he hasn’t been able to reel in yet is the prime minister, who hasn’t been on the program since the 2015 election.

Even still, Hall says he believes the listeners are more engaged than ever before, and there’s a lot of political news out there—both in Canada and abroad—to pique their interest.

Hall’s goal for this year—aside from finally getting Trudeau in the studio—is to keep trying to improve the great show he inherited, and to do justice to his team who he says works incredibly hard.

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