Bob Keating has an ear for voices, and this one made him pause.
The CBC reporter was walking in downtown Nelson in the winter of 2017 when he passed two women singing on the sidewalk. One of the singers made such an impression that Keating asked if he could record her on his phone.
“Her voice was that striking. It just had such soul and humanity to it,” he says. “You could tell she lived the thing she was singing, you could not walk by. And I didn’t, and I’m so glad that I stopped.”
Keating kept the recording, thinking it may come in handy at some point. But in August 2018, he learned the singer had died of fentanyl poisoning in Toronto. At the same time Keating’s half-sister also nearly overdosed in Toronto, and he decided to find out more about the woman whose voice now haunted his phone.
Keating considers the ensuing story on Sarah Valiunas, or Sarah Vee as she was known, the work he is most proud of. But he’s not sure he would have stopped to listen to her sing if he weren’t a reporter.
“Journalism has made me a far more compassionate human,” he says. “Just telling these stories and meeting so many people who go through such tough, interesting, marvellous things.
“It’s often the worst day of their life that I show up, and if you’re not compassionate, you’re just not a good journalist.”
Last month, Keating retired after 29 years at CBC and 35 years in radio. He was CBC’s lone reporter in the Kootenays since 2000, and from his single-person bureau in Nelson he became one of B.C.’s most decorated journalists with five Jack Webster Awards, 13 honours from the Radio Television Digital News Association, one Grierson Award and a nomination from the National Magazine Awards.
A career in radio didn’t seem likely when Keating went to Calgary’s Mount Royal University in 1984. He wanted to be a writer, and even had an instructor say he had a terrible voice for radio.
But Keating’s first job was at a Cranbrook radio station in 1986, and over the years he honed his voice into the smooth sound of a confident storyteller.
“You can work with almost anything. I’m proof of that,” he says. “Because I had one of those voices, I sounded like Kermit the Frog back all those years ago.”
In 1992, Keating was offered a week’s worth of work at CBC’s Edmonton bureau. He ended up stretching that week into nearly three decades at the public broadcaster.
Over the next decade he listened to and learned from CBC’s reporters. The best radio voices, he decided, were warm and had a certain tone to them. One of his favourites is Sheryl MacKay, the host of North by Northwest, whose voice he says sounds like an instrument.
“The best radio, you’re speaking to someone like you’re speaking to a neighbour across a fence. So there’s a conversational tone that you can take with it. And it’s immediate, it comes to you in an instant. I’ve always liked that about it.”
While he was in Cranbrook, Keating made a trip to Nelson. The city made an impression, so much so that a CBC reporter remembered how much Keating had talked about it and let him know a job had been posted in the city.
Keating hitchhiked from Edmonton through the Yukon then south to Vancouver for his interview, where he got the job and relocated to Nelson in 2000.
Ever since he has been the public broadcaster’s eyes, ears and voice in the Kootenays.
“People of the Kootenays are fascinating and interesting and crazy like me. And so the place, I don’t know, it just got down in my soul from the very first visit.”
In recent years Keating has become fascinated by podcasting as a medium for telling long-form stories and also by its financial growth as audiences gravitate toward on-demand content.
“That’s what podcasting affords you is the ability to really, really dig in and to so thoroughly investigate a story it just leaves no questions in the listener’s mind.”
Keating won’t be on CBC’s airwaves anymore, which he’s at peace with. It’s time, the 57 year old says, for a fresh perspective in the region. That might someday come from his 17-year-old daughter, who he says is considering a career in journalism.
One of the first stories Keating did in the Kootenays came from a chance meeting at an Indigenous event in Castlegar in 2001. It was there he met a Sinixt woman and discovered a First Nation that had been declared extinct by the federal government in 1956.
He produced a two-part documentary on the Sinixt, followed by another last year. It was serendipitous that his final CBC broadcast on April 23 was a report on the Supreme Court of Canada’s acknowledgement of the Sinixt in a case about hunting rights.
That story, Keating says, is a perfect bookend to his time with CBC.
“The symmetry and coincidence of it is remarkable. I’m so glad I got to tell it at the end, because I followed that story right from the beginning.”
His own story, however, is far from over.
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