Growing up in Halifax, I was a public radio nerd, and pretty much the only one I knew. I’d put myself to bed, listening to the honeyed voice of Allan McFee on CBC Radio’s “Eclectic Circus” just as the low, grumbling baritone of the harbour’s foghorns began to rise.
Other kids would tune into one of maybe three private stations, playing endless loops of Top 40 hits. Not me. Give me some academic yakking about the fall of the Roman Empire on “Ideas”, or a dollop of late-night jazz, and I was good to go, drifting sweetly off to la-la land.
When American radio icon Garrison Keillor announced earlier this year that he was formally retiring, after 42 years, from hosting National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” none other than U.S. President Barack Obama told the 73-year-old announcer, “One of the reasons I miss driving is that you kept me company. (The show) “made me feel better and more human.”
That’s a bit like how I feel whenever I tune into CBC Radio’s Moncton-based morning program, or the Maritime-wide afternoon call-in show, or the drive-time rolling-home broadcast out of Saint John.
So, I’m always momentarily alarmed when Mother Corp. – which gets the bulk of its money from taxpayers – enters one of its periodic phases of existential angst, as it has just recently. As a panel of Ottawa politicians examines the condition of the news industry in this country, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission has issued a statement that, in part, reads: “The emergence of new digital technologies has made access to news and analysis from around the world easier than ever and presents many new opportunities. Digital technologies are empowering individuals, allowing them to tell stories that are in the public interest and to share them instantly with millions of people.”
Still, the CRTC reported, “Many Canadians . . .emphasized that local programming, particularly local news, is of great importance to them and a primary source of news and information. In one survey, 81 per cent of Canadians indicated that local news is important to them.”
Within this mix enter the usual suspects of mostly Conservative critics. Tory leadership runner, Kelly Leitch, declared last week, “The CBC doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be dismantled. So long as the CBC continues to distort the market by consuming advertising revenues and having its operations underwritten by the taxpayer, the market is uncompetitive.”
Of course, the CBC’s own research tells a tale of relevance. (What would you expect?) A survey it conducted a couple of years ago reported “80 per cent of Anglophones and virtually all Francophones (98 per cent) who responded to the questionnaire feel that CBC/Radio-Canada is important. Seventy-three per cent of Anglophones and 91 per cent of Francophones who participated believe that public broadcasters will continue to be important in the future.”
At the same time, “42 per cent of Anglophone participants prefer that CBC/Radio-Canada provide the most appropriate regional services into 2020, whether they be online, radio, television, or a combination of all or some, while 38 per cent want continued regional services in all formats (TV, Radio, and Digital).
People like Ms. Leitch (indeed, there appear to be quite a few of them) are welcome to their opinions, but a public broadcaster plays an important role, especially in lightly populated areas such as the Atlantic Provinces. Through it, we know ourselves as members of a larger family of Canadians.
To snag the words of the outgoing U.S. president, it makes us feel better and more human.