Scanning for stories: Behind the scenes working overnight camera

When most of Toronto is fast asleep, CBC's Tony Smyth is scanning the airwaves for the next big story. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to be a camera operator capturing local news in the dark of night.

By Eric Mark Do, Reporter

When most of Toronto is fast asleep, CBC's Tony Smyth is scanning the airwaves for the next big story. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to be a camera operator capturing local news in the dark of night.

By Eric Mark Do, Reporter

Step into Tony Smyth's CBC van and you're greeted by an arsenal of scanners—11 of them to be exact—all tuned into different local police, fire and EMS frequencies. “He's got far more scanners than even we listen to,” said CBC assignment producer Laura Green. Each one is hooked up to separate speakers so that he can tell where the call is coming from. Listening to that many scanners at once might overwhelm the average listener. But, for Smyth, this isn't just his job as the CBC's overnight camera operator—it's his passion.

On the night J-Source did a ride-along with Smyth, he was at the scene of a fire in the west end of Toronto before his shift had even started. Within 20 minutes he shot and edited the footage, which was sent back to the newsroom in time for the 11:30 p.m. newscast.


Related content on J-Source:

“He is our eyes and ears on the ground,” associate producer Victoria Valido said. “He doesn't just take care of the technical part, as in just shooting the shots. He really is a newsgatherer when he's on the scene in terms of information and confirming details for us.”

However, between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m., Smyth's job is a solo one. This means he’s in charge of assigning his own stories and making editorial decisions on the fly. It seems to come naturally for Smyth, who started chasing stories as a hobby in 1986. As with any newsroom, some nights get really busy and others are quiet.

One night that sticks out for Smyth was the death of Toronto Police officer Sgt. Ryan Russell three years ago.

Smyth had just finished his shift when the call came in about someone crashing a snowplow into various things. He got there just as ambulances were arriving to treat Russell. As paramedics performed CPR, it sunk in that it was going to be a big story. “Anytime they're doing CPR on someone in the street, it's not a good sign,” he said.

He shot what he needed at the scene and followed the chase for the snowplow. With a newly installed dashcam, he captured many images of the vehicle passing right in front of him and the coverage earned the CBC a Gemini nomination.

“I think just his dedication and his passion for his work showed specifically in that story because he really gave us an inside look and really illustrated what happened that night,” Valido said.

Covering crime and trauma day in and day out requires a personal separation from the scenes. Smyth said, especially for big stories, “There's no time to get worked up about it. There's only time to do my job.” Certain stories do catch up to him, though, like when he watched the coverage of Russell's funeral later on and saw his widow.

After 25 years in the industry, only the unfortunate situation of seeing child victims still affects Smyth at the scene. Otherwise, when heading to a call, much like first responders, he's ready to work. Smyth knows what he has to do and gets it done quickly—on this night, later on in his shift, he quickly shot an electrical fire in less than five minutes.

As Green described, “The ugliest stuff usually happens overnight, so Tony is well-versed. He's probably seen all there is to see when it comes to overnight shifts.”

But there are also inherent dangers to the job.

Friends of victims can get aggressive, fires can get out of control and there are environmental hazards. In November 2010, Smyth was on site at a car crash in the midst of a snowstorm when CityTV cameraman Bill Atanasoff got hit by a car.

“I turn around, he was there. I turned back, next thing I heard was just this horrendous thump and he landed three or four feet from me,” Smyth recalled. Nearly four years later, Atanasoff is still in hospital after suffering life-threatening injuries. Now all the overnight camera operators are required to wear safety vests when out on traffic calls.

While the traditional scanner still remains the go-to, Smyth has also seen a change in how information gets shared. When he gets to a scene he posts pictures and basic information on Twitter and his blog. He's subscribed to a bunch of mailing lists and networks that alert him to news events. His still camera has a WiFi-enabled card, and he edits images on a laptop and transfers them back to the newsroom over FTP—in stark change to the days where he'd shoot on a VHS and drive it over to the newsroom.

And while rival news outlets may fight over exclusive stories, there's actually a great level of camaraderie among the overnight camera operators. Smyth, along with the Global, CityNews and CP24/CTV videojournalists, stay in communication with each other throughout their shifts. With only four of them working full-time and often responding to the same calls, it makes sense to get along with one another.

“The newsrooms like to think there's lots of competition, but on the night shift there's not really a lot,” he said. If three of the four camera operators showed up to a big story, Smyth said he'd definitely call the last person to make sure he knows about it “because you don't want one of your friends to get in trouble or lose their job because they're missing something.”

As Smyth waited for the next call in his favourite spot by Highway 401 and Weston Road—where the reception is good and it's an easy drive to any part of the city—you can tell it's the thrill of the chase that gets him going. As a freelancer, he used to spend most of his spare time driving to calls and listening to scanners.

“I used to literally sleep with a scanner beside my bed, and I did that probably at least for the first 15 years in the business.”

Ten years later, the scanners are still going—but only in the car, his natural element.

Related content on J-Source: