When I’m at home, I listen to the CBC; when abroad, to the BBC. Naturally, while abroad I start to miss the CBC, and in Canada I miss the Beeb. And when I come back to them, they weren’t as good as they were – the effects of time on me and of cutbacks on them. Ok, so I winced whenever that guy who introduced The House in 2011 said Hawz.
When I was an undergraduate, my radio only knew classical music on CBC FM in English and French. Then one day a young man came to our apartment and while waiting for tea asked if he could put on Basic Black. He was incredulous that I didn’t know who Arthur Black was. So he tuned it in. It was love at first listen. After that I heard Don Herron and I was hooked on voice radio.
A confession. When I lived in Montreal, after finishing writing one particularly fine short story, during that short euphoria that follows finishing something new but before the next day when the story seems rubbish, I thought about what I would say to Peter Gzowski should he ask me about the story on Morningside. Sadly that will never happen. His questions during interviews with authors worked first to set them at ease and then to startle the truth out of them. Think of all the writers he interviewed, the writers whose work got a boost after their chat with him.
“Morningside was a kind of Canadian family reunion convened by Peter Gzowski,” said author Alice Munro. “It’s hard to think of too many other countries where a broadcaster and a program could have touched us that deeply.” (See Gzowski tribute.)
The wonderful thing about the CBC is that I, a mother in Ottawa, could hear Alan Maitland reading a story aloud, and so could someone in Fredericton and in Whitehorse. This is what it was meant to do, from its beginning in 1936: “Private or public, virtually all [radio stations] are dwarfed by more powerful American stations, and it will be a challenge for the CBC to ensure Canadians can hear their own radio. Brockington pledges to provide a wide variety of programming for listeners. “It is hoped that the radio in Canada will be a welcome guest at your family fireside, and not a skeleton in your family cupboard,” he says.” (CBC Radio Takes to the Air)
76 years later, despite cuts to its budget, the CBC still tries to reach us all. CBC’s website introduction to Quebec A.M. asks “How important can a radio show be?” and answers with community: “Judging by the hero’s welcome host Susan Campbell receives when she visits an outlying community, Quebec A.M. is an indispensable part of the morning for many English-speaking Quebecers. Quebec A.M.’s reach is impressive, encompassing a large number of Anglophone pockets across the province, from the Eastern Townships in the south to a string of Inuit communities in the north, and from Abitibi in the west to the easternmost Lower North Shore. Quebec A.M.’s journalists are always on the move, travelling from community to community.”
In a country whose population is scattered and mixed, the CBC (radio and television) has become the glue that holds the Canadian mosaic together.
But what has that got to do with Canadian Writers Abroad? The CBC supports and promotes Canada’s writers. Robert Weaver’s Anthology is reputed to be responsible for the excellence of the short story in Canada. Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company is Canada’s Paris Review. Shelagh Rogers gets writers talking on The Next Chapter. The audience participates in Reader’s Choice, and now also in the long-running CBC short story competition. CBC TV might have lost coverage of Hockey Night in Canada, but CBC still covers the Governor General’s Prize for Literature and the Giller Prize. Finally, when writing about Jane Urquhart and M.G. Vassanji, I went to the CBC website for interviews, reviews and news coverage. Finally, here is a link to Rewind, which looks at the literary history of the CBC.
The CBC is not perfect. Despite the rave review of Due South in the Guardian, it is hard to be proud of the quality of some TV programmes. The radio suffers from repetition: it is maddening to listen to the radio in the morning and then hear the same programme while doing the dishes in the evening. The loss of classical music is still grievous. Then there is the controversy over trying to switch to a younger audience. Still, CBC’s imperfections belong to Canada – it is ours. The upcoming federal budget may include a 10% cut to CBC’s funding. In a country where the question of identity is ever present, what will be the result of the loss of programming that such cuts would require? Will the mosaic become unstuck?
Rather than cutting the CBC further, I think it is time for uncuts.
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What is, or was, your favourite CBC programme? Click the balloon to comment.