Friday, May 9, 2014

Me and the Ceeb

There's been quite a bit of chatter over the last several weeks about funding cuts, mandate shake-ups and other changes at the CBC. As a result, I wanted to re-publish a review essay I wrote a couple of years ago of former CBC honcho Richard Stursberg's memoir The Tower of Babble, which was originally published in the Winter 2012/13 issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ). Some of the details are now out of date: several shows mentioned have now been canceled, and commercials have now appeared on Radio 2, much to my mortification. Still, I'm posting this here because while the essay is a review of Stursberg's book and his time at the Ceeb, it is also my cri de coeur about public broadcasting and my contribution to the current debate.


Tower of Baubles: Richard Stursberg’s Quest to Transform the CBC

Let’s begin with an adage: When Canadians think about the CBC, they fall into two general camps—those who believe that the Corporation should not exist at all, and those who believe that it should change. I’ve never heard anyone argue in favour of the status quo when it comes to our public broadcaster; nor has anyone pointed out to me a single epoch in its 70-year history and said, Yes, that was when the CBC was perfect. Indeed, there is no status quo at the Corporation (aka “Mother Corp”; aka “the Ceeb”), since it remains under perpetual and relentless transformation, not only in the programs it produces or the types of programs it produces, but in its very reason for being and what it all means to Canadians.

Enter Richard Stursberg, hired in 2004 as the head of English services to shake things up at the Ceeb, and then fired in 2010 for doing exactly that. It’s reflexive to place Stursberg in the second of the two camps mentioned above. After all, he came into his role looking to unleash a more populist ideology at CBC (I dare not use the term ‘mandate,’ since this is one of words that Stursberg banned from the corporate culture during his tenure there) in the hopes that the network would be able to compete more effectively with commercial broadcasters. But the fact that Stursberg has named his memoir of those six tumultuous years The Tower of Babble (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012) tells you everything you need to know about his opinion of Mother Corp. It’s tempting to accuse him of not falling into the second camp at all. Reading this book conjures another adage, one from the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” Stursberg’s low-grade contempt for, or at least sarcasm fobbed at, the CBC, its employees and union, and the old-guard philosophies that have helped shape it as a public institution, is evident in virtually every chapter of this book.

Yet the man was on a mission, and an engaging and riveting one at that. If Stursberg does actually believe that public broadcasting has no place in the hyper-capitalistic, culturally fragmented, anti-intellectual and technologically accelerated nation that Canada has become, he does a good job of hiding it. His intentions were clear—to introduce more popular programming to CBC and get a wider audience of everyday Canadians tuning in. He goes after this goal with all the cunning of a shark, even if he possesses the imagination of an accountant. Indeed, Stursberg’s yardstick for success is as one-dimensional as it gets:

Our job was simple. We should make great Canadian content for Canadians. Nothing more. We would know whether we had won or lost based on whether Canadians watched, listened or read what we made. They were the only judges who counted. Enough with all the drivel of “mandates” and “quality” and “higher purposes.” It was time to commit ourselves completely to the essential thing, the brutally hard thing, the only thing that could ever count: making content that Canadians found compelling. And there could be only one way to know we had succeeded: audiences. Everything else was self-absorption and entitlement.

In other words, only ratings matter. The above passage would be a respectable mission statement for any commercial broadcaster in the country. So if it can be equally applied to our public broadcaster, then why the heck are we all shelling out 10 cents a day in taxes to finance an institution to give us something different?


One night while in the middle of reading Stursberg’s book, I went out for drinks with a videographer friend who has had his fair share of freelance experience with the CBC. We went to a pub in downtown Toronto that specializes in locally produced craft beer and real ales, and it seemed a fitting venue for me to vent about dwindling choice in mass-produced media. As we perched on barstools and leaned over our pints, with me in a tweed coat and my friend in a motorcycle jacket, I began pontificating about Stursberg’s intentions and my own vaunted opinions on how to fix the Corporation. My friend cut me off. “Nah man, it’s got to be commercialized,” he said. “Otherwise the CBC would be nothing but six-hour documentaries about single-mother lesbian walruses living on the coasts of Nunavut.”

This is the prevailing stereotype of the Ceeb among those who don’t really consume its products—that it’s ponderous, dull, vaguely moralizing, and out of touch with common tastes—and one that Stursberg exploits to great effect in Tower of Babble. His choice of enemy is not a single person or group of people within the organization but rather the typecasts of its independent board, which Stursberg labels the Constituency. He describes it thusly:

These were serious people. They were deputy ministers, important lawyers from big firms, executives from respectable businesses, publishers of thoughtful newspapers, bishops and moderators of established religions, judges and university professors. They like to read and listen to classical music. They went to the ballet and attended plays. They bought wine and collected art. They played bridge and golf. They did not sit around watching TV. They were an odd group to be in charge of the country’s greatest entertainment medium.
Stursberg mocks the board, saying that he explained his strategy to change the CBC to its members and they nodded with enthusiasm without fully understanding what they were agreeing to. Stursberg points out, rightly, that the Corporation’s ratings, employee morale and general impact on the Canadian public had by 2004 reached a kind of nadir. And he uses this fact to justify a wholesale transformation of the place, one that will touch every department—news (which he unaffectionately refers to as “Fort News”), television, radio and the Ceeb’s burgeoning online properties.

The strategic goal of this change is mentioned above: ratings, ratings, ratings. While Stursberg often professes a pure intention behind his move to popularize our public broadcaster—that it will connect with more of the citizens who pay for it and for whom it is meant to represent—one can’t help but see a more political bend to his objectives. Stursberg doesn’t hide his detestation for the Ceeb’s liberal biases, and he identifies them as a serious impediment to his plans. He writes: “[I]ts soft left, anti-business … politically correct cultural assumptions created significant problems for the Corporation.” But these prejudices are common among public broadcasters around the world, and so they should be. If a public broadcaster has any function at all—and again, we’re not sure upon reading Tower of Babble that Stursberg believes it does—surely it is to provide an alternative to commercial media, both in its types of content and in its slant. Commercial broadcasters have, for example, no vested interest in being anti-business; and a lot of “journalism” produced by commercial media in Canada is little more than expansive PR for private companies. Our nationally funded public broadcaster can help provide a crucial and far-reaching alternative message, a different point of view, a counterbalance to Canada’s growing homogenization of (right-wing, pro-business) values.
Stursberg doesn’t see this at all. The lineage of his thinking is straightforward: you make the CBC more pro-business and less slanted in one direction, and this makes it easier to introduce more commercially oriented programs, which in turn bring in larger audiences. And larger audiences connecting with their publically funded broadcaster is inarguably a good thing. But I cannot allow that this thinking is so necessarily clear-cut. When it comes to public broadcasting—indeed, when it comes to most of our publically funded arts institutions—it’s not so much about the quantity of the audience as it is about the quality of that audience. This can be true of libraries, theatres, symphonies, publishers of literary fiction and poetry, and, most especially, the CBC.

But as I halfheartedly state this, I can just see Stursberg and others who share his sensibility rubbing their hands together and ready to ask: But how on earth do you define the quality of an audience, let alone measure it? And it’s true. Left-leaning eggheads like myself have had a terrible time stating the case for intangible metrics, for allowing them equal footing when “measuring” the effectiveness of public institutions. This is especially true as these institutions adopt more of the strategies and ideologies that the business world (to varying degrees of success) has used. Thankfully, I don’t have to state the case, because Stursberg does it for me. There comes a point in Tower of Babble, when he’s talking about CBC Radio One, that Stursberg articulates the very heart and soul of the whole Ceeb—a single passage that sums up exactly what Mother Corp should be and the kinds of audiences it should attract. It is a beautiful, exquisitely written passage that would warm the souls of anyone who believes in public broadcasting staying public. And while this statement doesn’t necessarily nullify everything else Stursberg has to say in Tower of Babble, it certainly lends an additional dimension that may yet prove vital to the future of the organization.

But before I quote from this passage, I think it important to take a look at the some of the transformations (“changes” seems too weak a word) that Stursberg brought about to different departments of the Corporation. It’s important to see whether these new approaches to programming dovetail or contradict the raison d'être that Stursberg has so perfectly (if perhaps inadvertently) enunciated.


When I was a small child, I sometimes fantasized about being allowed to stay home and watch CBC TV all day and all night, from test pattern to test pattern. Even as a youngster, I understood that the network was something different, a wonderfully walled garden full of unique delights. I also understood that its programming followed a logical arc across the length of the day: children’s programming in the morning, brainy talk shows in the afternoon, local and national news at the supper hour, and prime-time shows that covered Canadian history, biographies, science and the arts at night. Not only did this station provide me with a window into the country that I was just becoming conscious of, but it also seemed genuinely committed to making me a smarter, more well-rounded person. And how wonderful was that!

I don’t watch CBC TV anymore and haven’t for a long time. (I’m more of a radio man, now, when I can stand it.) It feels as if the network has become all but indistinguishable from its commercial counterparts, at least in prime time, and this occurred long before Stursberg took the helm of English services in 2004. There were programs that still attracted me for a while: This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes is less about cracking jokes than it is about using satire to hold public individuals to account; and the supper hour news in my native Prince Edward Island, which has kept its unique moniker “Compass” despite various nationally driven revamps through the years—remains a household mainstay when I’m back there to visit. 

But I can’t help but feel a little alienated from the crop of “entertainment” shows that Stursberg ushered in during his tenure at CBC. The problem is, these shows by and large feel like imported concepts with a light Canadian glaze. The critically acclaimed Republic of Doyle was a P.I. comedy-drama set in Newfoundland. Little Mosque on the Prairie was a hugely popular sitcom, albeit with a somewhat improbable premise. The frothy comedy Being Erica seemed to be, as far as I can figure, a show about a troubled young woman in Toronto who travels to alternate dimensions in order to cheat on her boyfriend. To their credit, these programs did bring in massive audiences, at least by CBC standards, and they did hold to the idea of being “uniquely Canadian.” Yet one is tempted to see these approaches to programming as going a bit too far for a public broadcaster, especially since it also included a bevy of “reality” TV shows. The worst of these is Dragons’ Den, a concept imported from Japan, where struggling businesspeople pitch their ideas to venture capitalists who display varying degrees of surly incredulousness. The lead (i.e. the meanest) dragon is Kevin O’Leary, who has gone on to become a prominent element of the new CBC’s pro-business image. While Dragons’ Den may present itself as extolling entrepreneurial “values”, in essence it is what the very worst of all commercial reality TV is—humiliation porn. It belongs to a perverse concept of game show (think Survivor or Fear Factor) where people tune in to see who loses, not who wins. It taps into a very base human desire to watch others fail, and seems incongruous on a publically funded broadcaster.

Of course, the issue is that all of these shows have been some of the most popular programming in the history of CBC TV, and this is important because the network still (and unfortunately) relies on advertising for a huge portion of its budget. Yet to his credit, Stursberg points out that even popular dramas and comedies lose money for the network—something to the tune of $200,000 for every hour of on-air time. This loss is somewhat mitigated by the Ceeb’s sole ratings juggernaut, Hockey Night in Canada. And while I admit to being a member of Stursberg’s dreaded “chattering class” who questions whether the NHL in its current incarnation—let’s call it Concussion Night in the American South—has any place on the CBC, I appreciate the way he lays out exactly what kind of financial hit the network would take if it lost the show:

It can be seen, then, that if four hundred hours of hockey were replaced with four hundred hours of drama, the CBC would need to find an additional $80-100 million. At the same time, the Canada Media Fund would have to be supplemented with another $80-100 million, and the government’s television production tax credits would be further drawn by a comparable amount. In other words, if the government wanted the CBC to eliminate hockey and replace it with original Canadian drama, the costs would be somewhere between $240 million and $300 million.
Yet one of the most irksome aspects of Tower of Babble is the way that Stursberg paints all facets of the Corporation with this same cut-and-dry, financially motivated and ultimately populist brush. The most troubling are his attacks on the CBC’s news department. “Fort News” had been garrisoned away from wider management because it sees itself—quite rightly—as a fiercely independent, arms-length journalistic entity within the Ceeb and a pillar of Canadian democracy itself. These bragging rights are well earned: the CBC’s news coverage is some of the best in the world, and despite accusations of a “liberal bias,” it actually presents some of the most balanced and thoughtful journalism you’ll find anywhere.

Still, Stursberg is mortified by what he discovers when he finally penetrates the walls of Fort News. He’s aghast by the fact that CBC newsrooms don’t obsessively pay attention to what local (i.e. commercial) competitors are reporting on during supper-hour news, opting instead to have CNN and the BBC playing on newsroom televisions. He’s dumbstruck that TV, radio and online would keep separate pools of reporters instead of streamlining them to save on costs. And he can’t believe that the Ceeb eschews a lot of the more “popular” news stories targeted by commercial media. Yet Stursberg shows a harrowing naïveté towards the 365-day, globalized nature of the news game. At one point, when discussing time shifts for the CBC’s flagship evening news program, he writes: “If [viewers] wanted to see The National, they could watch it on Newsworld, our all-news channel. Besides, it was the middle of summer. There was no news.” Anyone with a journalism background would cringe at that last sentence. Worse, Stursberg allows his freshly hired head of news, John Cruikshank, to conduct a survey of Canadians to find out what they want in a newscast. He writes:

[Cruickshank] surveyed Canadians about their perceptions of CBC news and how it compared to that of Global and CTV … He asked what mattered to Canadians, which topics were most relevant and important, what they wanted to know more about and they wanted to know less about. He poked and prodded the Canadian public relentlessly to try and understand what would work and what would not.
But asking the general public what they look for in journalism is rather like asking a nine-year-old boy what he looks for in a vegetable. Does it really behoove a news organization to ask the masses what they wanted to know less about? What if the answer were fewer “boring” international news items in favour of celebrity gossip and shopping tips? Journalists are serious professionals who train very hard to find news that transcends the fleeting whims of what we want to know. They work to make their audience more engaged and well-rounded citizens. Many journalists find themselves hamstrung in this pursuit by the commercial demands of their commercial employers. But we should—and indeed do—demand more of our publically funded broadcaster.

Thankfully, the only perceptible difference that Stursberg made to Fort News is that Peter Mansbridge, The National’s august and well-respected anchor, lost his chair in favour of roaming the news stage freely, a la what you’d see on CNN or Fox News. The decision was rightly mocked by the wider Canadian press.

I come now to the crown jewel of Mother Corp, that one department that seems to fully embrace the ideals of public broadcasting: radio. While I’m a fan of many of Radio One’s programs—the evening news magazine As It Happens with its wonderful mix of the humorous and the hard-hitting; Eleanor Wachtel’s brilliant Writers and Company; and Jian Ghomeshi’s hip urban daytime show Q—it is Radio Two that has been my lifeline to sanity for years. When the Stursberg regime introduced (and heavily promoted) the “New 2”, I tried to remain cautiously optimistic. After all, the programming decisions appeared to mirror my own daily arc of music consumption: classical in the mornings to wind oneself up intellectually; roots/singer songwriter to get through the long afternoon hours; and jazz in the evenings to wind oneself down intellectually.

What Radio Two has instead become is a colossal act of Orwellian doublespeak. “Commercial-free radio!” the commercials declare, often preceded by ads for radio shows, ads for TV shows, ads for apps and other online properties, ads for Mother Corp itself—all delivered through the infantile croon of “promo boy”. The fact that these commercials advertise CBC products makes them no less commercials. (And indeed, by time you read this, external advertising may well have returned to CBC Radio—a result of government cutbacks. Ads are already creeping in to the online presence.) The network boasts “four hours of classical music” during weekdays, spread between Julie Nesrallah’s show Tempo and Tom Allen’s bifurcated program Shift. But it’s only four hours if your definition of classical is loosey-goosey enough to include the theme from Superman and instrumental pieces by Paul McCartney. Should you have a staunchly conservative definition of classical, then it is significantly less than four hours. In fact, if you audit a sample of the daily playlists on (should you actually get them to load), you’ll discover it can be less than two hours a day. The weirdness continues in the late afternoon. “Music you won’t hear anywhere else!” the ads profess, moments before Rich Terfry—a hip hop artist who replaced the avuncular Jurgen Gothe on the drive show—plays “Life is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane. If I’m not mistaken, that tune was in heavy rotation on commercial radio turning my lonely, lonely adolescence.

And all of this is merely a quantitative assessment of the New 2. Shall I foist an actual opinion on its programming? A lot of it is great, I won’t deny it. Canada has some fantastic singer-songwriters—David Francey, Catherine MacLellan, Rose Cousins, Elliot BROOD, The Be Good Tanyas, Joel Plaskett, among many others—and these artists are getting their due on CBC Radio. But a lot of it’s crap, too, and the result of changes that Stursberg introduced. Nesrallah’s show is often problematic. Her delivery lacks the musicological rigour of colleagues’ like Peter Togni, Katherine Duncan and the aforementioned Tom Allen. Indeed, she often speaks to us as if we’re all in kindergarten. And her playlists are downright anemic: how many times can one listen to Mozart’s Symphony N25 in one week? Stursberg would argue that I’m free to jump over to and sample from its multitude of audio streams. But again, this aggregator of musical “content” is buggy and also provides no context, no musicology at all. Plus, there are tons of ads. If I don’t like what I hear—either on traditional CBC Radio or the website—I just turn it off. I have no other place to take my tastes.


And this brings us back to that wonderful quote from Tower of Babble that seems, at least to my eye, to capture the very essence of public broadcasting in general and the Ceeb in particular. Here, Stursberg is comparing and contrasting Radio One with private broadcasters in terms of talk radio, but upon reading it I cheered for the bigger statement it makes about the Corporation’s reason for being:

There is no national private talk-radio network. There are no national talk-radio newscasts or sportscasts, let alone national talk shows on science, current affairs, drama, books, culture, politics or humour. There are simply none. There are local private talk-radio wheels of news and call-ins with peculiar arguments. That is all.
In this sense, CBC Radio One has no competitors. The private sector does not compete with the CBC in talk except at the local level, and even there the shows are totally different. They both offer news, weather and traffic, but there the similarities end. CBC’s local shows during the “drive” hours from 6:00 to 8:30 in the morning and 3:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon do not run on “wheels.” Rather they follow a magazine format, offering local current affairs, documentaries, interviews and investigative pieces. They cover everything from municipal politics to the local arts scene and developments in social services. Their range of materials and topics is far wider than that of their competitors in the private sector. 
In this sense, CBC Radio One is in a class by itself. For many of its listeners, the private radio stations do not constitute an alternative at all. If they turn on Radio One and they do not like what they hear, they turn off the radio. They do not go elsewhere. They do not turn the dial to see if there is something else they might like.

Exactly. This is exactly how I feel about public broadcasting and my relationship to it as an audience member. I don’t want to go elsewhere; I see the Ceeb as an oasis from the commercial exigencies of private networks, their limiting world view. And what I glean from being in that oasis helps me as a citizen to contribute a broader dimension to the country, a different perspective on the world. I hold this to be true not only of Mother Corp, but of literary publishing, of theatre, of libraries, and other institutions that transcend the crude abacuses of profit and loss.

Nowhere in Tower of Babble does Stursberg explain why this programming philosophy, which is by his own admission a roaring success for Radio One, could not be applied across the entire network. Indeed, most—though not all—of his changes have garnered the opposite result. Not digging tonight’s Dragons’ Den? Why not flip over to American Idol? Don’t like who Erica is flirting with this week? Why not see what’s happening on New Girl? Don’t want to listen to “Life is a Highway”? Just change the dial over to Q10whatever.

This is not real choice.


But of course, everything boils down to money. The CBC stands as one of the developed world’s most underfunded public broadcasters. Stursberg rightly points out that “The BBC … receives seven times as much money per capita as the CBC to provide broadcasting services in only one language and one time zone.” Yet Stursberg did not see it as his place to petition the federal government to raise the Ceeb’s funding to an acceptable level. “[I]t seemed unwise to spend any time lobbying for an increase in the appropriation when I joined the CBC,” he writes. “Rather, it seemed a much better idea to focus on earning more money.”

Really? One would think that lobbying the federal government for more funding would be, like, 50 percent of the job. If that does not fall to the head of English programming, then who does it fall to? 

The truth is, any discussion on strengthening the CBC is meaningless if it doesn’t include a massive increase in federal funding to the mix. I say the allocation should be at least doubled, and all commercials (including ones for its own products) be expunged from every facet of the Corporation. But of course this is a pipedream, and one that Stursberg doesn’t even share—to say nothing of our neoconservative federal government.

And so we return to asking which camp Richard Stursberg falls into: the one that wants the Ceeb to change, or the one that doesn’t think it should exist at all. After reading Tower of Babble, we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that if the Corporation faces a future of total privatization and commercialization, then Stursberg has contributed greatly to the groundwork for this. Moreover, he seems to have done it out of spite, an act of aggression against an amorous stereotype of Canadian embodied in the CBC’s board, in its loathsome Constituency. But CBC’s real Constituency is made up of a healthy minority of well-informed and curious Canadians. This healthy minority includes social workers and scientists, artists and doctors, playwrights and students; and, yes, even progressive business moguls. They are the “chattering class”, i.e. people who take the time to form nuanced opinions and then share them with the world.

But I can just hear Stursberg harrumphing: Well, it doesn’t matter; not enough of you were tuning in anyway. To which I would answer: What are you talking about, Richard? We were all tuning in.

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