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CBC's Amanda Lang: the accidental business expert

Amanda Lang

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

One of Canada's most recognizable financial journalists never planned to be an expert in business. She once wrote the Level 1 Chartered Financial Analyst exam but failed by a hair, "entirely because of bond pricing."

Amanda Lang's road to becoming the face of business news at the CBC, where she is senior business correspondent and has hosted The Lang and O'Leary Exchange for nearly five years, was one of apprenticeships. She has made a career strategy of grabbing opportunities as they arise, driven by a what she describes as a craving to keep "learning for a living."

After growing up in Ottawa and Winnipeg, the youngest in a large family – along with her twin sister Adrian – Ms. Lang studied architecture at the University of Manitoba. She stuck around precisely long enough to earn her bachelor's degree and a strong conviction that architecture was not for her.

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"I was just bad enough at it that I was unwilling to pursue it," she says over lunch at Kit Kat restaurant, a well-trodden Italian joint in Toronto's theatre district, around the corner from CBC's headquarters. "I'm not capable of going and being bad at something."

Architecture did, at least, give her a certain facility with math. Her first job "as a real journalist" was at the Financial Post, "and my first day on the job was the first day I'd ever read that paper. Literally. It was the first time I'd ever had to think about stocks or stock markets." The qualities that allowed her to do that – "My willingness to be ignorant was very high" and "I've never been inhibited by wanting to look smart" – have served her well through jobs at CNN and BNN.

Now 43, she calls her career detour "the lucky accident of my life." As she sees it, coming to business with "no preconceived notions" let her forge the measured, curious but still firmly pro-business stance she adopts on air. To her, businesses are like most collections of individuals: Basically good, but capable of acting very badly. And while she points out misbehaviour when she sees it, she is mystified by the amount of anti-business sentiment she encounters.

"Are people pulled aside in high school and told business is bad?" she exclaims.

This outlook made her a natural match for her long-time co-host Kevin O'Leary. Before lunch arrives, she explains why she thinks the program's pugilistic format has worked: Mr. O'Leary is brash and unwavering in his capitalist gospel, and her counterpunches are more moderate, nuanced and sensibly sassy. Their sparring yields welcome dissonance on a television dial with no shortage of echo chambers.

But she has seen her fair share of upheaval around her of late, and doesn't hesitate when asked if she can envision doing the show with a different partner. "Sure. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, there will be a show that isn't me and Kevin," she says. "At some point, he'll move on, I'll move on – you know, the audience may move on."

It is mid-July as she ponders this uncertain future from one of Kit Kat's wooden-slatted booths. Not even a month later, Mr. O'Leary will make good on her prediction, breaking up the duo's 12-year on-air partnership, which began at BNN, to sign on with Bell Media. There, he announced last week, he'll contribute to a range of programs, while at the same time deepening his commitments with American network ABC.

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Ms. Lang says she met the news with mixed emotions but took it in stride, and it "had a feeling of inevitability." Yet while Mr. O'Leary is a polarizing figure, his defection marks the loss of another big name for a corporation struggling through budget reductions and 657 job cuts that have pushed familiar faces like Linden MacIntyre and Steve Armitage out the door. CBC plans to shed up to 1,500 more positions over the next five years.

The notion that the country's public broadcaster is suddenly "on the ropes" or "down and out" is one Ms. Lang disputes, noting the CBC still ultimately has more resources than its foremost private rival, CTV. "It's a shame that it's a declining pot, but we're not going out of business," she says at lunch.

Still, she acknowledges the sense of turbulence inside the organization takes a psychological toll – that feeling of "what's happening? And do mom and dad know which way to drive the car?"

Kit Kat, at least, offers the comfort of consistency. Ms. Lang is a regular at the casual Italian spot, where servers and the owner, Al Carbone, greet her warmly. She orders a Caprese salad and the calamari, served at the same time – the same as she always does – and asks for a little balsamic vinegar. The balsamic is key.

"If you go to [Toronto restaurant] Terroni and you ask for balsamic, they will refuse to bring it to you," she says.

"The chef does not believe that a proper Caprese should be eaten with balsamic. They also don't serve diet drinks, because they don't believe in those." Lest anyone chalk this up to TV-star griping, it's the business aspect that irks her: "It's like, but people, you're in the business of serving people what they want!"

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Between sips of sparkling water, she muses about the future for the CBC, its business coverage and her role in it. She is firmly committed to her hosting duties for the foreseeable future (her show's name has changed to The Exchange with Amanda Lang in the interim, and a new program she will helm solo is in the works to launch at a later date).

But the CBC is at the outset of a digital shift that puts mobile content front and centre, and what that will mean for hosts like Ms. Lang is unclear. The fact that the CBC's TV department is dropping from the broadcaster's top priority to its fourth out of four – officially, at least – doesn't faze her.

Sure, the voyage into a digital unknown can be a tad unnerving. "We're trying to change the engines on a 747 in mid-flight," she says.

But she gets excited at the notion of letting the way people consume news drive the reporting. Not so long ago, Ms. Lang hauled her staff off to a bar and said, "Let's have some fun." She challenged them to sketch out a new TV show, forgetting all they know about how such shows are constructed, with points deducted for traditional thinking.

"And some of the stuff we're batting around is, do you even need anchors? Do you need a TV show that has a host? Or do you just need content?" she says. "Maybe you don't need the kind of formal bus-driver host of the thing."

It's a vision that might threaten Ms. Lang's very job description. But whereas Mr. O'Leary has said he left to seek a wider audience, Ms. Lang insists she doesn't need a camera on her, and would do her job "in a closet" if someone would pay her to.

Even the CBC's throne, the anchor chair for The National, is not sacred in Ms. Lang's imagination. If you believe its long-time occupant, Peter Mansbridge, his job should become available in the next few years. He recently told the Toronto Star of his potential successors: "I see them all every day when I come to work. They're standing on the second floor, looking out the window as I cross the street, wondering, 'Is he going to make it today?'"

With a smile, Ms. Lang recounts calling him and saying, teasingly, "Peter, that's not true. We're on the fourth floor."

"It would be a hard job to say no to," she says of Mr. Mansbridge's gig. "But what I do think is that job, as it's currently constituted, probably won't exist forever … Is that what [the anchor's job] looks like in five years, 10 years? I don't think so. So do I want that job, the one that will come next? Yeah. I mean, I stay open to everything," she says, later adding, "I think there will always be a trusted brand, and the CBC will be that. But it could be a team of people that are the curators that we turn to."

Her current role is intellectually consuming, but manageable from a scheduling standpoint. She starts a typical day reading newspapers before a 10:30 a.m. producers meeting, does preinterviews during the day and tapes the show from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. (when she's not filling in on The National). She published her first book, The Power of Why, two years ago. But she counts parenting her nine-year-old son as her biggest commitment.

She also has some new-found free time. For years, her calendar has been packed with public speaking engagements, but "I'll be doing less of that," she says wryly. It's a sore spot. The CBC recently tightened its speaking rules, particularly for paid appearances, after speeches by Mr. Mansbridge and Rex Murphy caused controversy.

The impacts are two-fold, and she worries the CBC has underestimated them. The first is the financial hit, and though she doesn't discuss dollar figures, she expects CBC management will "find out as people's contracts come up." The second is the ability to reach out, in particular, to audiences beyond her show, particularly in the business community.

"But it's done," she says. "We'll see."

Put it all together and it isn't hard to imagine the TV host reinventing herself one day. She is well-connected, counting bank CEOs among her friends and shoots the breeze with Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Harvard University president, about football and concussions (a subject she sees from both a business and parent's point of view).

"I'm at the stage of life where I'm open and if the right thing came along, outside of journalism, I'm open to that," she says. "But that may be a state that I'm in for the next 10 years."

What would she do if not journalism? The CBC is her focus right now, and she never wanted to start or run her own business, but consulting-type work is a possibility, because it would allow her to learn multiple businesses.

"I haven't quite figured it out yet," she says. But Ms. Lang has rarely had it all figured out, and that seems to be working.

Curriculum Vitae

Born: October, 1970.

Education: Bachelor of Environmental Studies, focus on architecture.

Family: Daughter of Otto Lang, a former Liberal cabinet minister, and Adrian Macdonald. Has five siblings and a nine-year-old son.

Hobbies: "I've never had a sexy answer to that question." Reading, often fiction, as well as cycling and running, but not competitively – "I run with my twin and she's done half-marathons and stuff, but I don't get it."

Career highlights: New York correspondent for the Financial Post; covered the New York Stock Exchange and anchored programs for CNN; anchored SqueezePlay and The Commodities Report for BNN; moved to CBC to launch The Lang & O'Leary Exchange in 2009.

In her own words:

  • On Kevin O’Leary: “Frankly, he challenges me. I’m not somebody who has a fixed viewpoint about things. I’m open to the idea that I’m wrong all the time.”
  • On public curiosity about CBC salaries: “I don’t know what Peter [Mansbridge] gets paid, but he deserves it. I was trying to guess, actually. … We were both in that silly Senate request for salaries, and they quoted his salary as $88,000 and my salary as $78,000 or some kind of crazy number. So I sent him an e-mail saying, based on what I know the ratio for my salary to be, I’m now guessing your salary is X. And he said, I can see why you’re a business reporter, but your math is off.”
  • On the value of her public speaking, now constrained: “I get in front of communities who hate the CBC. I get in front of communities who think the CBC is anti-business, anti-corporate, left-wing socialist organization that should probably be obliterated. And they relate to us in a whole new way, because they go, ‘oh, they’re not so anti-business.’ They understand where we come from.”
  • On TV news in a digital age: “It’s almost impossible to beat Twitter now, with breaking news.”
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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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