By Nicola Ryan
Gift of the Gab
On the phone from the CBC studio in downtown Toronto, Tom Power sounds just as warm and funny as he does on the radio. Tom’s originally from St. John’s, NL, and he’s been charming CBC listeners over the airwaves for more than a decade. He’s best known as the host of Q, CBC Radio One’s daily arts and entertainment program, and right now we’re trying to remember landmarks from our childhoods growing up in “town.”
It’s been a few eventful years for the team at Q - adapting to the pandemic in 2020, winning a prestigious award in 2021, and launching a brand-new format earlier this year. Tom sounds happy and, for all his success at age 35, endearingly humble.
“I get to work with the most amazing team in the world on Q,” he enthuses. “I love getting to talk to people, artists I never could have dreamed of when I was looking out my window in Cowan Heights. I’m really so lucky.”
Tom started his radio career in St. John’s. At the age of 15, he fell in love with bluegrass music and begged his folks for a banjo. By the age of 20, he was pursuing a folklore degree at MUN and working at CHMR campus radio, and he was a fixture at trad sessions and folk nights playing with his band, the Dardanelles. Tom pitched an idea for a radio show highlighting traditional and current folk and roots music, and the CBC came calling. “On my 21st birthday I got hired and started the show, Deep Roots,” Tom says, adding, “They later told me they didn’t know how young I was.”
Three years later, in 2011, Tom was chosen to helm Radio 2 Morning - a promotion that required him to permanently relocate to Toronto. “I didn’t love having to leave Newfoundland,” he sighs, mentioning how he misses his family, friends and playing with the traditional music community. “And I definitely didn’t love being in my mid-20s and going to bed at 10 p.m.,” he adds with a laugh, referring to the morning show’s early hours. “But it was really worth it. I’ve been in Toronto for 11 years now, and you know, this is also home to me now,” he continues. “I have a great community of friends and family and musicians up here, too.”
Tom was named as the new host of Q, CBC’s lively arts, culture and magazine program, in 2016. Since then he’s been chatting with musicians, actors, writers, directors and tastemakers of all kinds. Listeners have come to know Tom’s genuine enthusiasm and humour alongside his thoughtful and in-depth interviewing style. The list of interesting folks he’s talked includes hometown stars such as Mark Critch, Alan Doyle and Mary Walsh, and major celebs like Celine Dion, Harry Styles and Jerry Seinfeld. But Tom’s usually not rattled.
“The nerves go away over time and you gain confidence,” he says. “But I can still always tell I’m really nervous when I find myself uncontrollably laughing. I remember we had Paul Simon on, and we couldn’t start the interview because I was laughing too hard - he couldn’t hear me - just at the absurdity that I was about to talk to Paul Simon. I loved it.”
When the pandemic hit and COVID lockdowns were put in place in March of 2020, Tom and the Q team had to adapt quickly. They put together Sound of Mind: Mental Health and the Arts, a week-long series of interviews with artists including Rupi Kaur, Shawn Mendes and Katy Perry. They also created a national TV catch-up show called What’re You At? With Tom Power. Tom hosted from his living room - granny square blanket folded on the back of the couch, banjo within easy reach - welcoming guests virtually and connecting with worried listeners across the country.
“During the pandemic we started to spend a little bit more time with guests, and talking about sort of different things,” he says. “We weren’t necessarily talking about the news of the day, ’cause there wasn’t a lot! So we were talking about sort of, you know, richer, deeper, emotional things. And laughing more, and getting kinda real.”
That realness was evident in Tom’s poignant and insightful conversation with iconic Canadian actor Michael J. Fox. The 2021 discussion focused on the actor’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and finding optimism in the face of adversity, and earned Tom and the Q team the Gold Medal for Best Interview by the prestigious New York Festivals Radio Awards.
Tom soon followed up with other exceptional chats - superstar singer Adele opened up about love, divorce and her struggle with fame; and Friends star Matthew Perry shared his incredible story of surviving substance abuse.
What’s Tom’s secret to putting his guests at such ease? “I think I started to let myself talk to these people the way I talk to my buddies back home. Like, I no longer felt that I was like, having to interview-interview like a CBC journalist, but like I was just yakkin’ with them. I think it’s because I’m from Newfoundland, where Newfoundlanders can kind of talk to anybody, that allows me to do this job.”
More Time With Tom
To build on the show’s recent success, in January 2023, Q was revamped and relaunched with a new hour-long, two-interview format to focus on the intimate conversations for which the show’s become known. It’s also the first flagship daily radio show to drop as a podcast first every morning.
“I listen to podcasts mainly,” says Tom. “Well, I still listen to OZFM in Toronto - if I feel a bit homesick, I’ll put it on in the afternoon - but mainly I listen to podcasts. I’m just so excited that this is the way that people will be able to listen to my show.”
The radio version of the show continues to air at its regular time and is now followed by a new show called Commotion, hosted by Elamin Abdelmahmoud.
As for the future, it seems like Tom’s really hit his stride and the sky’s the limit. Who would he wish for, if he could choose anyone to interview?
“Conan O’Brien is my dream interview,” he says wistfully. “I once spoke to his assistant and we were talking and I said, ‘Can you just let Conan know that I watched him every night on TV? And like, I just want to be clear about this one thing - I was an hour and half ahead of the rest of the world, so I had to watch him at two in the morning.’ Conan means that much to me that I would experience severe, jet-lag level fatigue all through high school in order to watch him. But also, he’s sort of a guidepost for how I do my work and interviews, and I’ve never gotten the chance to talk to him. So he’s my number one.”
And is there a Newfoundlander on the list?
“My favourite singer in the world is from Newfoundland. My favourite singer ever is Anita Best. And Anita’s a friend of mine, so it’s not like I haven’t talked to her. I think she did such interesting work. When she was a young woman, she went out and collected and saved a bunch of traditional music that we still sing to this day. She’s an incredible performer and she’s just lived an incredibly rich life. One of these days! I’m always talking about it, but one of these days I’m going to bring a couple of microphones home and get her story.”
Though he’s a seasoned pro and has talked to some of the world’s biggest stars, at the heart of things, Tom’s still the same down-to-earth guy from Cowan Heights. “I’m delighted about it all,” he says. “I’m so proud of what we do and I’m so grateful to the CBC for giving us a chance to go further with the work we’ve been doing. Are you kiddin’ me? It’s the greatest job in the world.”