The CBC building in Toronto
The ratings pretty much deny my existence. Broadcasters assume that I will skip over lively political debates in order to shriek about the latest hissy fit on The Hills. Is it so hard to believe that I’m interested in the richness and complexity of my cultural landscape? I just don’t care as much about celebrities, scandals and shopping. Sorry.
To the bafflement of pollsters, I am a young person who happens to value the content provided by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. My devotion may even be baffling to many of you readers out there. How often do you hear, “Did you listen to CBC radio last night? You missed some very clever dark humour—Gregor Samsa wakes up to realize that he has turned into a cockroach, so he writes to Dr. Seuss for advice. . .” (No, I’m not making this up. Kafka and Seuss are a brilliant blend!).
Yes, I happen to enjoy commercial-free radio programming; it provides sanctuary from the watered-down infotainment on every other dial. I am regularly stunned by the musical brilliance of Canadian artists that are virtually ignored on commercial channels. I’m a huge fan of The Hour—George Stroumboulopoulos’ youth-oriented news show—because it actually gives young people the benefit of the doubt. I’m telling you, the CBC provides the goods!
Canada is a huge country with a long list of needs. According to the Mandate Review Committee, an independent body tasked with assessing the value of the CBC, it is “the only medium of information, education, enlightenment, culture and entertainment, which operates all day from coast to coast, on radio and on television, in our two official languages.” They go on to remind us that, over the decades, the CBC has provided everything from children’s programs and indigenous television drama to comedy programming and forums for debate. All of this, crucially, has been provided without “geographical or financial barriers to listening”.
What we cannot get from anywhere other than CBC Radio is intelligent programming of a national flavour (and that’s flavour with the ‘u’).–Dave McCormick, CBC radio fan
Still, in what seems like a billion-channel universe, it’s easy to forget about local legends like Peter Mansbridge and Mr. Dressup. But despite the fierce competition, the CBC has a public responsibility to try and represent poorly understood groups. Take Little Mosque on the Prairie for example, a controversial sit-com that stars a Muslim family living in small-town Saskatchewan, post 9-11. As CBC executive director of network programming, Kirstine Layfield, states, “Just doing the series is a risk in itself, but one the public broadcaster should take on if we’re to help communicate [the] authenticity of living in Canada.” Though this authenticity varies between CBC TV and CBC Radio (the former has adopted more commercial tactics in order to compete), the struggle remains an important one. In the words of CBC fan Dave McCormick, “What we cannot get from anywhere other than CBC Radio is intelligent programming of a national flavour (and that’s [flavour] with the ‘u’).”
So why is Canadian-content such a rare bird? Let’s be frank: Canadian programming, particularly on television, is a lot less profitable than the well-established shows produced by American broadcasters. During prime time, Canadian commercial broadcasters—like CTV, Global and CHUM—are simply flocking to where the money is. Richard Stursberg, vice-president of CBC television thus asserts that the CBC is the only big broadcaster that actually has ‘shelf space’ for Canadian programs at a time when Canadians are actually watching. Creating a show like Little Mosque may be far less economically appealing than purchasing a safe and formulaic program, but it may be one of the only places where Muslim-Canadians can actually see themselves reflected. Still, you may be wondering, in a capitalist country, just how important are these non-commercial ideals?
There is no set answer to this question; rather, there is a familiar debate. This debate is much more complex than I can get into, but I can’t help but quote the MRC again on this one: “In this highly competitive environment . . . we believe that there will be an even greater need for a significant part of the broadcasting landscape to be clearly dedicated to public service (emphasis in original).” Plus, our neighbour to the South happens to be one of the most culturally influential nations in the world. Changes in the international media landscape have been so recent, rapid and radical that, taken together, they amount to an entirely new environment of unprecedented challenges—challenges that are global in scope.
The CBC is the only big broadcaster that actually has ‘shelf space’ for Canadian programs at a time when Canadians are actually watching.–Richard Stursberg, vice-president of CBC television
Call me crazy, but in light of this backdrop I think Canada must guarantee a place for a media organization that isn’t solely profit-driven. Remember democracy? Pretty sure it requires, minimally, a publicly funded forum where the diverse peoples of Canada may come together. I sincerely care about what’s happening in Nanaimo, Nunavut and Newfoundland! Broadcast content is extensive, but not necessarily inclusive.
It comes down to the fact that I distinguish between selection and choice—if we cannot choose to access information that is locally-based and reflective of the nation we live in, what can be said about shared imagination? Now, I’m not saying that we should completely change our media diets. I know we’ve developed a taste for imports. I’m merely suggesting that we balance that diet by throwing in some wheaty Canadian goodness (remember the ‘u’ in flavour?). Personally, I don’t want to depend on cultural hand-me-downs from mostly-American sources—especially now that I realize how much creative and intellectual power we have right here at home.
If we as Canadians don’t pay any attention, we are basically depreciating the value of our own voices. And if we continue down this path, we’ll only reinforce the rather depressing observation of our borrowed hero, Homer Simpson: “Canada? Why would I want to leave America just to visit America, Jr.?”
Is that all we think we are?
Get to Know “The Ceeb”: A Guide to CBC Radio One (99.1 FM)
I met Jonathan Goldstein at the Canadian University Press conference!
WireTap w/Jonathan Goldstein—Eavesdrop on Jonathan’s telephone conversations with brilliant, bold and bizarre personalities. From hilarious monologues to misguided meanderings, WireTap is an auditory indulgence.
The Current w/Ana Maria Tremonti—No idea what’s going on in the world? Jump into the Current and watch it live up to its name. More informative than sound-bites and more critical than common, this program takes an in-depth look at the important questions of our time.
Definitely not the Opera w/Sook-Yin-Lee—You may remember Sook-Yin from her days as a MuchMusic VJ. This seasoned personality now invites you to sign up for her crash course in both Canadian and international arts, culture and entertainment.
The Debaters w/ Steve Patterson—Featuring the best talents in Canadian Comedy, this program brings a whole new meaning to the idea of a stand-up debate. Enjoy your visit to a place where puns are intended and everyone must learn to laugh at themselves.
**Please note: a simple Google search of the (Program name + CBC) should bring up its up-to-date schedule. If you don’t live in Toronto, check out the podcasts. Happy listening!**
A version of this article was published the April 2008 issue of MacMedia Magazine,