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a man and woman stand in a crowded room

Andreas and Nele Zechel await the start of the Die Drei ??? (The Three ???) audiobook premiere at the Hamburg Planetarium (September 2014).

Update, Jan. 9: This piece was singled out in CBC radio’s December ratings report as part of a very strong end to the year. “The Spark story, ‘In Germany, audio books are insanely popular and the voice actors are rock stars’ earned 29,000 page views.”

Update, Dec. 17: I just got word that this piece was the driver for an excellent week on the Spark website where page views more than doubled from the previous week. The mini-documentary provided nearly two-thirds of the page views to the site for the week.

“Each year, Germans buy more audiobooks than e-books, and the voice actors are as big as rock stars. This past summer, 20,000 Germans filled a Berlin stadium just to listen to the most popular audiobook series. Tomas Urbina gets inside the audiobook craze.”

This mini-documentary originally aired on CBC radio’s Spark on November 30, 2014 and again on Wednesday, December 3. See the post and listen to the piece on Spark’s website, here.

The following report aired originally on CBC radio’s weekend newscast The World This Weekend, on November 1, 2014. It is a radio version of a story I reported for The Local Germany.

Canada is one of the world’s most wired countries, but some rural areas are still waiting to get high speed internet. They may have something to learn from Germany. A group of tiny villages has managed to go digital and they’re helping others step it up. Tomas Urbina reports…

reporter interviews man with cows in background

Interviewing dairy farmer Holger Jensen about his farm’s internet use in Löwenstedt, Germany. August 2014.

The Arthur F. Burns Fellowship provides young journalists from Canada, the United States and Germany the opportunity to live and work in each other’s countries and work in a news organization in the host country. It’s often described a journalist exchange program.

With a little less than a month left in my stay in Germany, the German embassy in Canada asked me for my thoughts on the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship. The fellowship is supported by the German government, as well as several private sponsors.

Read the post on the German embassy website, here.

Franco Urbina standing in a dimly lit corridor
Photo: My father, Francisco Urbina, in the corridors under the seats of 
Santiago's National Stadium, where thousands of political prisoners were held.

Radio: Black Box – breaking the silence of my father’s past

Last September, Chile marked the 40th anniversary of the military coup that toppled elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973. The coup led to 17 years of brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet that deeply affected so many families, like my own.

The anniversary gave me chance to talk to my father about what had happened to him during that dark time, something he’d never talked about before with anyone.

Continue Reading…

Juan Guzman stands on a street corner wearing sunglasses

My afternoon with the judge who put Pinochet on trial

The morning had been eventful enough. I’d just finished double-ending an interview for CBC radio’s The Sunday Edition and then conducted my own with former judge Juan Guzmán, the Chilean judge who prosecuted Pinochet for crimes against humanity in Chile. As our interview wrapped up, I made an off-hand comment that set me up for an amazing afternoon.

Continue Reading…

You heard it on CBC radio’s As It Happens

The federal government has renewed funding for the PEARL Arctic research station, one year after it shut down. I broke this story today with CBC radio’s As It Happens.

Here’s the story based on the As It Happens interview (the audio is at the top left):


Halli Galli

April 8, 2010

The night before I flew to Chile, I had some friends over for a Chinese hot pot, a delicious send off prepared and organized by my loving Malika.  We ate until none of us could anymore, then Malika and I cleared the table for a game of Halli Galli, which we’re told means “fun” or “party”, in German.  Halli Galli indeed.

I lost quickly in the first round, but took the opportunity to try out my new portable audio recorder.  I had made what I like to call, “an investment”, and bought a relatively high-quality recorder to take with me to Chile, mainly to document the conversations with my grandparents.  I recorded the rest of the round as the others played — it’s interesting how quickly a microphone disappears and people feel at ease, faster than with a camera, I think.  The game went on, shrieks and giggles, pounding on the table (it’s part of the game) and cheers.

Then I found my headphones and plugged them into the recorder.  What came out was warm, full, crisp and as the recently retired host of CBC Toronto’s morning show has put it, “intimate”.  I was amazed and I instantly sought to share the feeling, passing the headphones to my filmmaker and writer friend Barnett to take the first listen, then on to the others.  The feeling was there, on their faces: surprise and wonder at the richness and perhaps the sudden upwelling of emotion I had also felt at the sound’s touch.

waveform of halli galli audio recording

waveform of Halli Galli audio recording

Maybe he was right, that host of Toronto’s morning show.  The image, the camera, whether still or in motion, seem to carry with them that distance which seems inherent in the act of looking.  But sound enters us, becomes part of us, and involves us in it; the intimacy is real.  I felt it in the moment the sounds of Halli Galli bounced upon my ear drums, but of course, I’d felt it before.

Malika says I’ve found my love in radio.  And she may be right.  She’s got a unique perspective on it all, of course.  She’s been there throughout my trials and errors getting my feet wet in the waves of CKUT, one of Montreal’s community radio stations.  And the feeling has kept me coming back; back to the portable recorders, the volunteer room, the production studio, and onto the air.

The feeling of hearing a good sound, of producing a piece you are excited about is something akin to the feverish bliss of having words flow from your pen in a flurry of language you had not anticipated when you flipped open your notebook.  The glide of the well-inked pen along the paper, the texture of the writer’s canvas itself, even that familiar scent of “blue” that you recognize as you raise the pages to your nose.  Halli Galli and intimacy, all in one.

Take a listen to what we heard that night, here.