A Canadian radio show covering some of the biggest and smallest news stories in the world has referenced Reading for almost fifty years. It was good that most listeners had no idea where the city was.
Most major broadcast networks have their hard-hitting interview programs. BBC Radio 4a Today , In our time and woman’s hour while World Service has Witness , Outlook and Investigation .
In Canada, the national broadcaster CBC’s flagship interview program is called As it happens . Broadcast since 1968, the show features 90 minutes of interviews with politicians and experts on the big news of the day. A mixture of serious and not.
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Notable past interviews include Canadian Olympians, Syrian refugees, Rwandan genocide survivors and a bank robber in the midst of a crime, as well as a host of prime ministers and presidents. But the show is also known for its lighter reporting, many of which cover events taking place in the UK.
The most famous in Canada are an interview with a hearing-impaired English farmer about his record-breaking cabbage and another about the Headington Shark, a controversial sculpture in Oxford.
Such stories almost always refer to Reading. The tradition, started by English-born presenter George Somerwill, is now nearly five decades old.
In September 1976, on his first day on the job at CBC, Somerwill was reading a hastily written script about a story set in the UK. For the benefit of listeners, the former BBC man pointed out that the rural location was “nine miles from Reading”.
This prompted on-air executive producer Bob Campbell to shout, “Where the hell is the reading”. A sentiment probably echoed by As it happens listeners across Canada.
The bizarre show spawned a running gag that has continued ever since. Presenters covering UK-based stories often refer to the distance between their location and the city of Berkshire.
The tradition has evolved over time, with presenters not just giving the distance in miles or kilometers from Reading, but in bizarre units. These have included things like “733,000 garden gnomes lined up hat to hat”.
One such article, about a woman who cleaned and scented bins in Portsmouth, closed with the following line: “We believe this is just 84,480 bins placed end to end away from Reading, give or take trash.”
The result is that many Canadians have now heard of Reading – even if they have no definite idea where it is. Polls have shown that Reading is the most famous British place in Canada, apart from London.
Berkshire-born mandolin virtuoso and comedian Simon Mayor makes reference to the phenomenon on his blog, reporting that – when asked where he is from in “Engerland”, his response of “Reading” often elicits response, “No, not the Reading!” So if you ever find yourself in Canada, and you’re from Berkshire (or anywhere in southern England) and someone asks you where you’re from, just say ” Reading” – this will probably make you a few friends.