TORONTO — It’s 1928, and the Canadian government is in a panic. It’s issued radio licenses to Canadian stations since 1922, but most Canadians are turning their dials to American programming. What to do? A royal commission on the future of broadcasting was convened, and eight years later, after a brief incarnation as a state-owned national broadcasting network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was born.
Its mandate: to reflect Canada to Canadians.
Today, the service covers 99% of Canada’s 3.8 million square miles and creates audio content in the country’s two official languages — English and French — as well as eight aboriginal languages across six time zones.
“Our challenge is how you provide service to people in all of those different communities and yet at the same time knit together a sort of common Canadian experience,” said Chris Boyce, executive director of CBC Radio & Audio, from his Toronto office. “The life you live up north in Iqaluit is very different to the life you live in downtown Toronto or in a logging town in British Columbia.”
How does a national broadcaster make content that appeals to all its listeners when, as the first CBC chairman, Leonard Brockington, quaintly put it in his inaugural broadcast, “The lady of the house in Halifax is often busy with her domestic tasks before the gentleman of the house in Vancouver has finally settled down for the night.”
In a word, hockey. Or, more accurately, the wildly popular Toronto Maple Leafs announcer Foster Hewitt and his trademark, “He shoots, he scores!” The program that would eventually become “Hockey Night in Canada,” another Hewitt turn of phrase, moved to television in 1952, and CBC Radio’s focus shifted to news, music and cultural programming. Today Radio One does news and cultural programming, Radio 2 jazz, classical and folk music and digital-only Radio 3 takes care of Canadian indie, folk, pop, hip-hop, country and electronic music. There are also three French-language stations operated by the CBC’s French division, Radio-Canada, that are similarly themed but are programmed independently.
The music broadcasts are the same all over the country, but Radio One mixes local and national content. As a public broadcaster, the CBC doesn’t have to concern itself with the commercial viability of hyperlocal content such as the aboriginal language programs in the north. “Some of those languages are down to a few hundred speakers, but [the radio] is an absolutely vital source,” Boyce said, “because it’s an oral tradition and the programming that we provide is the only place that it exists.”
Since 1974, there have been no commercials on CBC Radio. Rather than rely on pledge drives and charitable foundation donations as is the case with National Public Radio and PBS in the States, the CBC, a crown corporation, receives an annual parliamentary appropriation to cover its expenses. The $1.1-billion current grant (in Canadian dollars) — up from $800 million in 2000 — covers all CBC media, including radio, television and the Web, in English and French.
The amount and scope of the appropriation regularly exercises Conservative MPs and conservative news outlets, and calls for the CBC to be dismantled and privatized are as predictable as the seasons. The Canadian people, on the other hand, are having none of it. In a recent survey commissioned by the Canadian Press news agency, 69% of Canadians polled said they wanted the level of funding to stay the same or increase.
And the public funding is relatively modest. “I think CBC Radio does face a big challenge in that we have a very wide mandate but only two radio networks. Which does limit how you connect with audiences. So in that respect I am envious of the BBC or ABC in Australia who have more outlets for their content,” Boyce said. “And one of our biggest challenges is that on a per capita basis, support for public broadcasting in Canada is among the lowest of any industrialized country in the world.”
CBC Radio’s commitment to being a broadcaster in the truest sense of the word goes against the conventional radio wisdom. “To me, it’s fascinating in a world where most broadcasters are going to narrower and narrower niches that we are able to have a successful service that delivers really compelling content to the broadest possible audience,” said Boyce.
This approach is not without pain. In 2008, the programming on the much-loved, nearly all-classical Radio 2 was broadened to include jazz, world and folk music as well. The changes were hugely unpopular with many of the more hard-core classical fans, who decamped to new pastures online. Despite this and the increasingly fragmented media world, CBC’s listener share of the Canadian audience has gone from 5% in the 1960s, when there were few choices, to 12% today.
And in a delicious twist, it seems that the broadest possible audience includes the United States, with more than 100 American public radio stations broadcasting CBC Radio programs.
One of the most popular of these shows is “Q,” an arts and culture show hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, formerly of the folk-rock group Moxy Früvous. When the show launched in the U.S. last year, there was concern on both sides. Said Ghomeshi, “It’s perhaps an extension of our own Canadian inferiority complex that we at times assume that others wouldn’t be interested in us and by extension, a misread by their own programmers that Americans wouldn’t be interested in what’s happening in other countries.”
Radio is an intimate medium, and its listeners are loyal and highly engaged. “God forbid I pronounce the name of a Canadian town wrong,” said Ghomeshi. “I hear about it immediately. Once I get over the initial weeping in the corner of my room in the fetal position, I take it as a compliment.”
The reach of public radio and the real-time interaction between listeners and hosts via social media and email means people like Ghomeshi are uniquely positioned to view Canadian culture as a whole.
“There are very few obvious links that bring Canada together from coast to coast to coast, and I really do think CBC Radio fosters that unity,” he said. “Listeners outside of our borders are experiencing the reality of what Canada is, rather than the stereotypes that exist about us. And by what Canada is, I mean a very diverse, largely urban, relatively sophisticated and quite progressive-thinking country of people.”
First published in the Los Angeles Times