CBC radio and the decline of public broadcasting

Some 20 years ago, a number of us in Ottawa formed a committee to defend the CBC, then “under attack” by the Mulroney Tories. We soon realized that it wasn’t the CBC as a whole we wanted to save: it was CBC radio. Of course, we supported CBC television, because we believed in public broadcasting. The problem was that CBC television was public broadcasting in theory. CBC radio, on the other hand, was public broadcasting in practice.

At a public meeting some months later, a few labour activists argued that our committee should defend CBC radio and television equally. Their motion passed easily, but people stopped coming to the meetings.

In those days, I lived in a four-room apartment, and most of the time a radio was tuned to CBC AM, as it was called, in each room, so that as I wandered about I was rarely without the CBC. Some shows were dull, but even these formed a pleasant background to my day. The odd one – Basic Black, for example – I found irritating enough to turn off. But there were a great many shows that I found reliably worthwhile: Sunday Morning, Peter Gzowski’s various morning shows, Ideas, Quirks and Quarks, The House, This Native Land. I bought a cassette recorder that I could preset to record shows I didn’t want to miss. And every night I went to sleep comforted by my citizenship in Vacuum Land.

In those days, no doubt I watched CBC television, but who pays attention to which TV channel you’re watching? I was a strong supporter of CBC television drama, but again, in theory. With a few notable exceptions – early Street Legal and This Hour Has 22 Minutes and, more recently, This Is Wonderland – I didn’t actually watch the stuff. I have no doubt that CBC television’s news and current affairs programming was better than the competition’s, but it couldn’t hold a candle to CBC radio news. Television news is just too slow. Endowed with visual capability, television news has to use it, but pictures take up valuable time and one battle scene looks pretty much like another (the attack on the World Trade towers being a notable exception). Train crashes always make for better visuals than political analysis. The most serious accusation one can make about a television current affairs show is that there are too many talking heads. But that’s exactly what radio is.

Things have changed now. I try to listen to The Current and As It Happens, but the list of annoying shows has mushroomed so that most of the time I prefer silence. Shelagh Rogers’s Sounds Like Canada, or “Death and Recipes” as my friends call it, features interviews about what it feels like to find out you have cancer. Then there’s Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean, rock star for seniors.

But that kind of banal sentimentality is on its way out. Ascendant is the trivially hip: all that talk about the wired universe; a weekly half-hour show devoted to the kumquat in contemporary cuisine; documentaries on potentially interesting subjects so overproduced you think you were listening to a technopop rock video; Out Front, where amateurs are encouraged to explore the use of sound effects as they tell stories of interest only to close relatives. Finally there’s the violence. Violent crime is, according to statistics, not increasing. But you’d never know it from local CBC programming, which, besides its endless chatting, seems committed to reporting every accidental or criminal death within 500 kilometres.

Google “CBC mandate” and you will find the sidebar on this page. It’s filled with admonitions about how the CBC should do things: be Canadian, be in English and French, connect the regions, reflect Canada’s multicultural and multiracial nature. But there’s little about what it should do, except at the top: inform, enlighten (as in The Enlightenment?) and entertain; and, further down, promote cultural expression. Clearly the CBC is living up to its mandate. But what kind of informing is going on? Well, you can learn a lot about the kumquat. Is that enlightenment? Is that entertainment? If you say so.

Many of us who support public broadcasting believe it contributes to “civic literacy,” to borrow Henry Milner’s phrase. We believe informed discussion is a precondition to successful democracy, and we were loyal to CBC radio, then, because there was a great deal of informed discussion. The weekly debate between Eric Kierans, Dalton Camp and Stephen Lewis was the model (although those who complained that it and the CBC in general were too left-wing had a point). CBC radio fulfilled the mission we gave it. Now it doesn’t. The World at Six, The Current, As It Happens, Quirks and Quarks do their best. But that stuff just isn’t hip enough to survive in the new CBC. Last week one of The House’s correspondents complained that electoral reform was boring. Compared to what?

What CBC management clearly believes is hip is the new media: websites and blogs, YouTube and Wikipedia and Facebook. Their ubiquity does force us to ask serious questions: What role will radio and television play in the future in this multimedia, million-channel world? Will all the distinct media converge into a few submedia, all delivered by Google? Will YouTube and Wikipedia replace CBC radio? Will it matter?

The future of technology may well make radio, television and newspapers dead or irrelevant. On the other hand, Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook might turn out to be fads, or at least not harbingers of cataclysmic change. Either way, why should CBC be out at the vanguard, hastening its own demise?

But it seems determined to do so. Recently, the CBC announced the appointment of John Cruickshank to its “top CBC news post.”1 According to a CBC spokesperson, Cruickshank’s areas of interest include the use of multimedia and digital applications, and the “different ways how news has to transform to serve better and provide a relationship with people .”

Of course the CBC has to change with the times and attract a new audience as the old one dies. But the CBC’s strongest support has come from supporters of traditional public broadcasting – CBC radio listeners – and the CBC is doing its best to send them to U.S. National Public Radio.

The future will be rocky. The next time CBC comes under attack, who will come to its defence?


1 Retrieved September 21, 2007 from here.