Music telethon organized in a few heart-felt beats

Buy Guy Dixon and James Adams,, January 12, 2005

The Canada for Asia benefit concert/telethon to be aired on CBC Television and Radio and an assortment of private broadcasters is being called an unprecedented, co-operative effort by artists and media companies in support of the South Asian tsunami victims.

But unprecedented isn't the right word. Some of the same lightning-fast logistics and even one prominent organizer involved in the huge Rolling Stones SARS concert, Senator Jerry Grafstein, have returned again. Also, despite everyone's efforts to help in some way to the general South Asian relief effort, not all are co-operating with the three-hour telethon being broadcast live tomorrow night from the CBC's Toronto studios.

Still, Grafstein was confident yesterday. "Nobody has ever said no to me on something like this. They didn't on the SARS concert, or [the post Sept. 11 rally] Canada Loves New York. Remember that? I did that," he said. "People think these things come together accidentally. Well, they don't."

As of yesterday afternoon, the CBC had announced a growing list of celebrities scheduled to appear on the broadcast, ranging from the Tragically Hip and Celine Dion to Rush, Mike Myers, Blue Rodeo, Wayne Gretzky, the Barenaked Ladies and on the list continues. The live broadcast to be shot in two large, adjacent studios, while also using segments taped by celebrities elsewhere, will be shown across the CBC's various media (including its website), as well as on CMT (Country Music Television), MuchMoreMusic, MTV Canada and the ichannel. Radio stations confirmed to broadcast the show range from CHFI in Toronto and Q92 in Montreal, to Rock 101 in Vancouver.

Grafstein and Liberal member of Parliament Ruby Dhalla, who is also heavily involved in the project, said they are still negotiating with other major broadcasters. However, CTV said it will not participate. CTV president Rick Brace declined the opportunity, citing the "short notice," as well, CTV dedicated much of its programming yesterday to tsunami relief efforts and fundraising.

Yesterday was the last day the federal government would match individual donations.

Instead, CTV will air The Concert for Tsunami Relief from Vancouver Jan. 29 starring Sarah McLachlan and Avril Lavigne. Yesterday, Global announced it would not simulcast the CBC telethon and instead "pursue our own initiatives," including the broadcast of public-service announcements and the creation of a donation plan that would see CanWest Global match the donations of its employees to relief organizations.

There was, at one point, talk of having the show broadcast from Toronto's SkyDome or the Air Canada Centre. Instead, given the desperately short time to get the show off the ground, given that NBC will be running its hour-long Tsunami Aid telethon Saturday, the Canadian version will be shot in front of only a small in-studio audience of a few hundred.

So how did the idea grow from a few phone calls on Monday, Jan. 3 to a national, star-laden charity broadcast on Thursday, Jan. 13? Dhalla, federal MP for Brampton Springdale, whose family is from Punjab, decided to contact the CBC with a telethon idea.

She learned from them that the charity organization World Vision, which works with singer Tom Cochrane, had also called the CBC and that Cochrane had already been phoning other musicians to get them involved.

At the same time, Grafstein, upon returning to Canada after monitoring the Ukraine election, had been talking to Dennis Mills, the former Toronto MP, who was also a major player in organizing the Toronto SARS concert. Mills couldn't help in time. But then Grafstein learned of Dhalla's efforts and joined her in getting all the major Canadian organizations involved with tsunami relief efforts to come on board with the broadcast. The CBC had said that the telethon's organizers themselves had to work out with the relief groups how the money from the broadcast would be distributed to those groups.

Meanwhile, Cochrane had been busy getting talent. One of those was Alex Lifeson, the guitarist for Rush. Describing the snap decision-making that happens when asked to do a charity event, Lifeson remembered a conversation he had with his wife as they watched the disaster unfold during the holidays.

"She said, 'Al, you've got a voice. You can do more than just make a donation to a charity.' And about half an hour later, after we had that conversation, Tom called," Lifeson said . "There's something about this that has galvanized everyone, and everyone's support has been absolute. To a person, everybody we've contacted has said, 'Whatever you need, I'm in.' "

"If all the pieces fall into place, the reach of this program will be the broadest reach in Canadian history," Grafstein said hopefully yesterday. "The problem is that when you work in one organization, you can get it done. But when you have to knit together competing organizations, competing charities, competing media, competing radio, competing personalities, it's hard to bring everything together. But everybody has subordinated their own issues for the greater good."