It was a modest start, but my fabulous career at the CBC began at the old Parliament Street radio studio in Toronto where each Friday night the Nimmons “N” Nine Jazz Trio played a fantastic live jazz concert. I was playing saxophone for a group called the Downtown Collegiate All-Star Band at the time and I could see my future was in music.
A couple of years later, my career careened off course as my sax teacher got banned for five years by the musicians’ union for playing “gigs” at union shops (like Casa Loma) and not paying us a lot. Well, nothing at all, as I recall. Kind of like being an intern today. I loved it. Part of that excitement was to see how it was really done at the CBC.
My job at the CBC was called “audience relations person.” That meant I took tickets at the door or showed people to their bleacher seats and advised them not to fall.
A year later, still in high school, I graduated to “Front Page Challenge,” which was a much bigger deal: Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy, Toby Robins, and Gordon Sinclair with Fred Davis hosting. This was the big time. Before each show they would bring in a comedian, or maybe a producer, who would warm the audience up for the show. One night no one showed up to do the warm up. I did it. I have no idea what I said or did. It was the highlight of my career. I peaked at 18.
The CBC has been central to my experience of this country ever since.
The Radio One network has kept me informed, educated, disillusioned, inspired, curious, and grateful my whole life. Although not as sharp as it was 10 years ago, it remains brain food and a window on the country and the world with a Canadian perspective and temperament. I cannot imagine Canada without its public broadcasting system.
We need to put the massive layoffs and cutbacks in perspective.
There used to be cultural policies in Canada to encourage Canadian content in an American media world. There were policies for magazines, radio, television, cable, books, movies and theatre. The idea was to allow Canadian talent to flourish and be accessible to Canadians. These strategies included tax policy to encourage Canadian advertisers to support Canadian magazines, radio broadcasting rules requiring minimal percentages of Canadian content on the radio, cable TV rules (simulcast rules) to leave some room for Canadian drama on TV, Canadian ownership rules for book-publishing companies, subsidies for institutions like the National Film Board and the Canada Council to support writers and playwrights and theatre.
It was messy and muddled and confusing but spectacularly successful. The international success of our writers and musicians has been a direct result of these policies. It simply would not have happened without federal government courage, creativity, purpose and leadership. People forget; just like they forget our banks would have been owned by Americans and would have drowned in the last recession if it was not for restrictions on foreign ownership and common sense regulation that has been the envy of the world.
We didn’t skate by the worst effects of that economic meltdown by accident. It was by design. The world is now adopting Canadian policy. We didn’t win the Nobel Prize for literature this year (Alice Munro) by accident. We willed it and we paid for it. We made sure Canadian writers got published.
Two things have happened to Canadian cultural policy in the last 10 years: a) the federal government no longer cares about it; and b) Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, cell phones and iPads have made legislating a Canadian voice in a digital world almost impossible.
The one exception is the CBC. The Teutonic shifts in advertising from television and radio and newspapers, which are bringing thoughtful legacy media to their knees in Canada and around the world, need not be an issue for the CBC. The issue is leadership.
Do we want any refuge from the dumbing down of media or not? Do we want a place to go where product placement is not the norm and Canadian creativity is welcomed, appreciated and nurtured? It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the CBC to Canada. It is about culture and priorities and life itself in this vast land.
We live by immigration. How do our new citizens come to understand this country? Sportsnet? Entertainment Tonight?
We are fools to allow this Canadian bulwark to be destroyed.