The man behind Montreal's youngest TV station

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

Last January, Bob Babinski, BA’86, joined City, a national television network with plans to launch in Montreal the following month. As the fledgling station’s executive producer and local content manager, Babinski was tasked with creating two Montreal-centric programs, one with a sports focus, the other a local iteration of the network’s morning show, Breakfast Television. And he had only a few months to bring both to air.

The first show, Montreal Connected, which explores professional and amateur sports in Montreal, debuted at the end of spring. Babinski, a veteran sports broadcaster, wanted to create a weekly magazine-style sports program with a local focus, something the city had not seen, at least on the English-speaking end of the spectrum, in a long time.

Babinski considers the show an extension of the feature work he’s done in the past, albeit with a local slant. “It should reflect the urban nature of Montreal, where sport plays out within the urban environment, and then secondly shine a light on non-professional athletes.” Thus far, the show’s stories have run the gamut from a profile of Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher, to a piece on an arm-wrestling club in the city’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough.

Babinski notes that the show will move to its own studio digs in October, but admits that part of the challenge in creating it was tempering his expectations to the resources available, a notion that reviews seem to echo (“If your focus is on substance rather than style, there’s definitely a good foundation to grow off of,” Steve Faguy, a Montreal media critic, wrote in June).

City Montreal's second show, Breakfast Television Montreal, debuted last month. It shares a format with its network counterparts in cities across Canada, but Babinski set out to give it a distinctly local voice. “I wanted to capture the vibe of Montreal that has people coming together rather than being pushed apart,” he says.

To that end, his first hires were hosts Joanne Vrakas, who had previously served as a reporter at CBC Montreal, and a second, less likely candidate: Alexandre Despatie, silver medal-winning Olympic diver. Babinski was impressed with the charisma and bilingualism the athlete displayed in interviews. “He’s got something that you can’t teach,” he says.

He was also won over by the pair’s instant rapport. “Chemistry for your on-air talent is primordial,” he says. “If you can select reporters and hosts who have chemistry between them, then you’re way ahead.”

The challenge of finding a group that gelled was compounded by the number of applicants—close to 30—he considered. In the end, Despatie and Vrakas were joined by four more on-air personalities, all of whom, Babinski says, represent complementary aspects of Montreal culture

Babinski credits McGill with introducing him to the dynamism that the show aims to depict. “I lived in the student ghetto and became friends with all sorts of international students,” he says. “It got me to see the city in a way that I hadn’t seen it growing up.”

It was also at the University that Babinski’s career in broadcasting began. In his final year at McGill, he wrote and performed a sketch comedy show on what would become CKUT. “I absolutely adored it, and I realized that I liked being on radio.”

Following a stint at a Montreal community newspaper, he landed a job at a radio station in New Brunswick. In the decades that followed, he would become a fixture on CBC, producing and appearing on a range of television and radio broadcasts, among them the network’s coverage of the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Olympics. His work on Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada netted him a Canadian Screen Award nomination earlier this year. Babinski also chairs the advisory board for the McGill News.

Now, he faces the challenge of selling Montrealers on two new viewing options, one of them a morning show in a market where two -- one local and one national -- already exist. While programs like Breakfast Television Montreal were created in part to meet local programming mandates, Babinski believes there is a big enough market to accommodate the city’s three English-language morning options.

And though numbers matter—he and his crew will receive their first set of BBM measurements in January—so too does the calibre of guests the show draws, says Babinski. In its first weeks on air, BT Montreal hosted Québécois filmmakers Chloé Robichaud and Louise Archambault, along with American clothing designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Babinski is also paying keen attention to the show’s growing social media presence. Within two weeks of its launch, its Facebook page—where individual segments are shared—picked up more than 1,000 likes. But the producer’s other measure of success might be harder to quantify. “That people of significance in Montreal consider us the best show in Montreal,” he says. “That would be it.”