Two events in the past few weeks have made me wonder about the future of the CBC.
The first is the U.S. House of Representatives vote to stop funding NPR (National Public Radio). NPR is my primary source of information whenever I am in the United States. Outside of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and maybe Boston and Chicago, it is very difficult to find a decent newspaper that covers major national stories, never mind international news. NPR does all of that and does it well.
The stated thinking by the Republican dominated House is that public, non-profit radio should not be funded. There are better uses for taxpayers’ money. We all know the real reason has more to do with the Republican’s perception that NPR leans far to the left, especially when it comes to national U.S. issues and politics.
As an irregular listener and a Canadian it seems to me that NPR is hardly left wing. By my great white northern standards NPR seems pretty centrist, leaning somewhat to the right on international stories, especially those that involve the United States.
According to Jeffrey Dvorkin, who should know, he headed the news at NPR and went on to become the NPR ombudsman, the big stations in places like New York and L.A. will be able to carry on with listener, corporate and charitable donations. In smaller centers the stations could disappear. In other words, where there is an alternative to NPR it will still function, where there is no alternative it may disappear leaving hundreds of millions of people with only extreme right wing shock jocks, religious programming and centrally programmed music stations.
As first world countries go, America looks to me to already have the most ignorant population when it comes to politics, both internal and international. This decision, if it stands will surely make the problem worse, leaving no radio alternative to the Rush Limbaughs of the broadcast world who peddle lies and half-truths on the important issues facing Americans.
CBC Radio is basically NPR in Canada. Sure there are differences, but it gets the same sort of listeners, albeit a heck of a lot more than NPR by percentage of the listening audience. Is it possible, could a Stephen Harper majority government look south and say to themselves, what a great idea? We could save a bundle of dough by cutting CBC. A few years ago I would have laughed at the prospect. Even when CBC TV was going through major problems, strikes, Stursburgian leadership issues, the radio service was being hailed as an example of how the CBC gets it right. That was before the dismantling of Radio 2 as a classical music station that resulted in the loss of up to 50% of the audience and a move by CBC Radio One to broaden its musical and content horizons to get more youthful listeners. Radio One has managed to hold most of its audience because of shows like As It Happens which have been around for decades. But there is much unhappiness with CBC radio among the people I talk to. They still listen, maybe not as much as before, but there is little else to listen to if you are a news and information junkie.
The numbers say that the changes have not drawn in new young listeners. So with less enthusiastic listeners and dropping numbers could Stephen Harper get away with major cuts that spell doom for CBC? I’m not sure, but it does worry me.
The second event that got to me was an appearance on a panel discussion about media and topical events that I took part in on CTS. The show is called Behind the Story and is deftly hosted by Richard Landau. You should have a look at the program if you get an opportunity, you may be pleasantly surprised. In any case, one of my fellow panelists was National Post Columnist Lorne Gunter. His columns are thoughtful, provocative and generally make excellent arguments, even when I disagree with them. Lorne is based in Alberta. At one point in the show he said that the CBC was irrelevant to anyone outside southern Ontario and Quebec. He said he looked forward to the end of the CBC under a Harper government .
He surprised me for two reasons. First, I always thought the success of CBC was stronger in rural Canada and I do know that historically the CBC gets its best numbers in Manitoba and Newfoundland. I spent four years in Nova Scotia and CBC radio dominated. My wife is from New Brunswick and she grew up listening to only CBC radio and watching CBC TV.
The second reason is that CBC, even at just over a billion dollars per year is highly underfunded and frankly costs each Canadian a pittance for a service that has the ability and mandate to bring Canadians together and showcase Canadian talent. I’m sure Lorne believes like many in the Tory party that CBC is a left wing cabal. That doesn’t make it true, and more to the point, I like reading columnists I disagree with and hearing what politicians and opinion makers on the right and the left have to say. As a journalist and a broadcaster I have always believed the more outlets available and the more money being spent on getting the best stories and angles the better off we all are.
During the last CBC lockout I was having a lunch discussion with a CBC staffer who lamented the lack of public interest into the loss of CBC programming on both radio and television. He said that if the strike had happened 10 years earlier many in the public would be demanding an end to the strike or at least would be upset by the loss of programming.
There is a lesson in all this. The CBC is losing its place in the Canadian broadcast scene. It may be the programming, it may be the underfunding, it may even be the pointless chasing of younger ears and eyeballs. I suspect it is all of the above. But with a Harper majority government a strong possibility it behooves the CBC to take a hard look at itself. I suggest that the corporation go back to basics: a news service that is respected and viewed; journalism that sets the standard in Canada; a leadership role in documentary production; excellent drama that enlightens and informs; coverage of things that no one else will cover because of cost or interest like the arts and amateur sports. First the CBC has to become indispensable again…then it can grow and prosper.