Introducing CHFI radio’s new morning show hosts

Christmas has come early to CHFI listeners.

On Monday morning at the Hotel X, cleverly disguised as a larger-than-life wrapped gift, new 98.1 morning show hosts Pooja Handa and Gurdeep Ahluwalia burst out of the box to announce their presence.

“CHFI Mornings with Pooja & Gurdeep” officially launches Jan. 4, and will be heard five days a week between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.

And in case you’re curious about how these two popular Torontonians, who have previously co-hosted the weekend editions of Citytv Breakfast Television are going to sound on another medium, never fear: the pair will be taking over from interim host of Tracy Moore of Cityline as of Dec. 6 for a “soft opening” of their show as they play wall-to-wall Christmas music.

Handa says it won’t be much of an adjustment.

“No, we’re still waking up at 3 a.m. and wondering what we’re doing with our lives,” jokes Handa. “But then we get to work and that’s when all the fun starts. I don’t think I can do anything but morning TV and morning radio now, because it’s so fun.”

“Speak for yourself, but I’d love better hours,” Ahluwalia interjects during a Friday phone call with the Star, as their warm chemistry is immediately evident. “That’s an ungodly time to wake up when your alarm goes off. That part’s not fun. But when we get in to work, we are literally laughing in the studio once we get going.”

“Like tears rolling down our cheeks, because we’re having that much fun,” Handa continues. “Gurdeep doesn’t realize it yet, because he’s not as old as me, but going to bed early — that whole thing? That’s called aging, man.”

“Well, not when it’s 6 p.m.,” Ahluwalia responds. “6 p.m. is insane.”

As far as the fun part goes, don’t take their word for it — take Troy Scott’s word for it. He’s the executive with the dual title of Content Director for 98.1 CHFI and National Content Director for Adult Contemporary Music Radio Brands at Rogers Sports & Media, and he hired them.

He’s also convinced that Handa and Ahluwalia will charm morning radio devotees with their sunny and friendly approach.

“There was something about Pooja and Gurdeep that has an instant oatmeal, 10-minute oil change, absolute beloved depth to them,” says Scott in assessing their chemistry. “It’s hard to explain, but I’ll give you this — they change a room and they change a car. Radio is a really intimate atmosphere — it’s usually just you in the car listening, or if you’re in the kitchen up early, that’s where CHFI listeners really live and it’s such a warm breath of fresh air and you can’t bottle that — you can’t package it. They either have it or they don’t.

“And in all my years in radio, I’ve never encountered two people that just ooze chemistry. If you met them at a Loblaws or you hear them on the air, they remain the exact same kind of people — and that’s something really special in this day and age.”

They’re also broadcast veterans that have paid their dues: Handa, Mississauga-born-and-raised, got her start at Global TV after briefly moving to New York and realizing that a career as an actress wasn’t her calling, while the Toronto-born Ahluwalia attended McMaster University to earn a business degree, but took a left turn and immersed himself in media, eventually becoming sports editor at McMaster’s student newspaper “The Silhouette” and hosting his own sports program, “Mac Attack,” on CFMU 93.3.

While with Global, Handa covered traffic and entertainment on air, then joined CP24 in 2008 as “weather specialist/traffic specialist/reporter/anchor/host” and the occasional traffic stint on CHUM as well. Prior to joining CP24 in 2009, Ahluwalia wrote for TSN and The Score before hosting Sportscentre for three years.

Both admit that jumping into the CHFI morning chairs previously occupied by Darren Lamb and Maureen Holloway is a gigantic learning curve.

“It’s not the same at all — it’s completely different in radio,” Handa explains. “At least, that’s what we’re learning from rehearsing. We get to still be us — which is wonderful, as that comes easy to us — but the economy of words and trying to remember that it’s different when you’re talking about a listener versus a viewer is new.”

Ahluwalia agrees.

“You can’t use the crutch of the visual and just speak to the pictures, which is sometimes easy to do when you’re tired in the morning doing a show. So, I guess the unlearning of a few of the TV habits — we’re refamiliarizing ourselves with some radio habits — there are nuances and idiosyncrasies that are different.

“I think we both really loved our last jobs and we’re super grateful for our time at CP24 and CP24 Breakfast in terms of how much better we got as broadcasters through it, but I think we both sort of felt like we had maybe maxed our growth there.”

It also should be noted that the show isn’t going to be restricted to radio.

“The really exciting part for us is that it’s going to be a multi-platform experience — while the radio is going to be our bread and butter, there’s going to be a lot of other exciting things we’re going to be doing,” Ahluwalia pledged. “We’re going to be involved on the TV side. There’s going to be a strong digital presence, which Pooja and I are both believers in … if you aren’t existing on peoples’ phones now and every other little crevice in this fragmented media landscape, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice and you’re probably not going to survive or thrive,” he said.

“And we’ll hopefully reflect what the listener is experiencing, right? What’s happening in our city? What’s happening in the GTA? How are they feeling? Sort of reflecting that tone well because we’re part of the same community,” adds Handa.

The duo will also continue their association with Breakfast Television with a weekly appearance.

They consider each other to be professional “siblings,” and as such, have great mutual admiration … along with the occasional annoyance.

“We are very playful and we poke fun at each other, but it’s in a loving way and it’s never malicious,” says Handa. “As a broadcaster, he’s the best I’ve ever worked with.”

Ahluwalia responds in kind.

“She’s the best broadcaster I’ve ever worked with and there’s nobody else I’d rather be doing this show with.”

Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. Reach him via email: octopus@rogers.com

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