New host, new look for North Country

CBC’s North Country radio program is back on the air, and its new host hopes to bring a new feeling to the show.

After being hired for the vacant host position earlier this year, Ramraajh Sharvendiran has helped reincarnate the show, kickstarting CBC’s only northern Manitoba-based show and bringing northern Manitoba issues and stories back to the airwaves.

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The new host’s trek to Thompson has not been a typical one. It has more twists and turns than Highway 6.

Originally from Toronto, Sharvendiran graduated from York University a decade ago, then worked in a variety of industries including marketing before finding a job in public health.

During that time, Sharvendiran began volunteering in the radio industry, first with a college station, then with other community radio stations. He described radio as a hobby back then, something he had a passion for, but not a steady job.

In 2016, Sharvendiran had given up radio almost entirely and was feeling lost in his day job.

“I decided that if I wanted to do more in public health, I had to go back to school and do a masters’ degree, do something in social work, or maybe I could go and do this thing I really miss. I could pursue radio,” he said.

Motivated by a return to the medium he cared so much about, Sharvendiran quit his job and went into a year-long college program for broadcasting. When he finished the course, he nabbed himself a prestigious internship, working on CBC’s marquee current affairs program The Current.

After receiving the internship, Sharvendiran was shuffled around CBC, working on several different programs in Toronto. The experience was enlightening, but over time, Sharvendiran discovered that in order to advance in radio he would need to leave his hometown and work elsewhere.

“Everyone over the last two years has said to me, if I want to do something in radio, I need to leave Toronto because my perspective is going to be in this bubble. I didn’t want to at first. I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ Then, after working in it for a bit, I kind of saw what they meant,” he said.

“Sometimes, when you’re chasing stories, national stories especially, you’re reaching out to other communities and I felt like I was having a disconnect in how I was approaching it.”

Looking for a change of pace, Sharvendiran wallpapered Canadian radio with resumes, looking for an interesting opportunity – the further away from Toronto, the better.

It was through that job hunt that Sharvendiran first discovered North Country. He applied, and after a short waiting period, was told that the job was his.

“I was just like, ‘Whoa.’ I wasn’t expecting to get this,” he said.

“When you apply for a bunch of jobs, sometimes you feel like nothing is sticking. I was in that phase, this hopeless, weird transition. I’d quit my job a year ago, jumped into this new career, and it was this point of my life where I was thinking, ‘Am I going to make this work?’ I thought if I didn’t go into it and try my all, then what am I doing?”After some deliberation, Sharvendiran packed up and headed west, first working with CBC in Winnipeg before making the move north.

“It was the perfect opportunity. It took me to a different region that was very different from what I’m used to,” he said.

“I think it’s very important for me to have a really different perspective than what I’m used to. Otherwise, what’s the point? If I move to another city centre, then I’m going to just fall into the same patterns. I needed to get out of my comfort zone.”

When he arrived, it became apparent there would be a steep learning curve. The Thompson studio, unused since previous host Mark Szyszlo left the show in March 2017 after more than three decades on the air, needed to be fixed up and put back online. Archived copies of the show were impossible to find.

“Because it had been off-air for such a long time, we couldn’t find an archive of the program. So I wasn’t able to actually listen to any of the older episodes. All of the notes I was taking on what the show was were from people who had listened to it,” he said.

That lack of archiving had both downsides and upsides – while it meant Sharvendiran had a limited grasp of the old show, it gave him an opportunity to launch the show the way he wanted, without needing to stick to the same format that was used previously.

Sharvendiran and Szyszlo share some common circumstances. Both came to broadcasting through community radio while studying in unrelated fields and both came to Thompson from Ontario. While there are common threads, there are also differences between the two – Sharvendiran wants to make it clear that he’s not simply trying to fill Szyszlo’s shoes, but rather carve out his own space with the program.

“At the end of the day, what I thought about was it would be impossible to live up to who Mark was, as a person on-air. Mark is Mark – that is why he was so successful at being himself on the air,” said Sharvendiran.

“If I try to pretend to sound like Mark, it’s going to come off as disingenuous – no one’s going to believe it, unless by some miraculous coincidence, me and Mark are similar, which I doubt. I want the show to be a partnership of sorts, where we get to have an hour every morning where we get to share space on-air.”

Since North Country went back on air on Oct. 8, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“There have been some people running into me going ‘Oh! You’re the guy on the radio!’” he said. “They can recognize my face now.”

“I can feel the wait – it’s been over a year. If they noticed the minute I came on air, that means they were really feeling that gap for a while. I can imagine how hard that can be.”

Now that he’s at the helm of CBC’s only northern Manitoba-based show, Sharvendiran said he hopes the show can evolve over time, along with his understanding for his new home region.

“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to really carry some of the stories that they’re giving to you, in a way that’s respectful to them but also accessible to whoever is listening. I do take every interview I conduct with a lot of thought behind it – even if it’s a rushed one. I’m always putting that pressure on myself. It motivates me to treat the story with respect.”

For now, Sharvendiran wants to focus on specific issues and stories in the north.

“I think that’s going to be the focus for the next little while – what is happening in these towns, the neighbouring areas. What’s happening in The Pas? What’s happening in Churchill – especially in Churchill, since they’re going through this time of cautious excitement on the rail line. I think people want to know how that feels like and what that looks like,” he said.

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