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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Comparing Public Broadcasting in Canada and the US

After a number of years in Washington DC with NPR, I am becoming reacquainted with the CBC again here in Toronto.

I suppose the better comparison is between CBC Radio and NPR. CBC TV and PBS are much more dissimilar in their programming. But a look at how CBC Radio sounds to me after eleven years in the American pubradio system might be instructive.

But let's admit that you can't go home again and other appropriate cliches. There is no good reason to think that CBC Radio should remain the same as it was when I last worked there in 1997. If it were, then the challenges now facing the CBC would be even greater than they are and they are considerable. The recent resignation of the head of CBC News after only fourteen months on the job is an indication of some serious struggles in CBC's upper management.

Moreover, the media landscapes in 1997 and in 2008 are about as different as they could possibly be. Technological changes, economic pressures, and market driven values have moved public broadcasting light years away from its origins in both countries.

Given that, there are still more shared values between NPR and CBC Radio than differences.

The premise of both organizations is that they must be a significant public service form of programming and journalism. They both have the goal of creating community and providing reliable information. They both agree that the aim of the service is to create an informed and enlightened citizenry. How they each achieve this remains the question.

But funding is a critical aspect that I believe defines the values of both organizations.

Canadians are somewhat disdainful of the US approach to public broadcasting fundraising. Sniffily, Canadians dismiss the public appeals to donate as "beg-a-thons," something that would never happen in Canada where annual Parliamentary appropriations fund public broadcasting. Threats of funding cuts are seen as undue political interference in the independent status of the CBC - the so-called "arm's length relationship" between the CBC and the government of the day. The length of that arm has varied with the political issues of the day. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have used the CBC as a whipping boy at various times and for their own political needs, usually to the detriment of the CBC's credibility with the public and with its own employees.

In the US, there are some important historical reasons why public radio stations ask the listeners to support them financially. First, NPR owns no stations and cannot bny the rules of its own governance, financially support any of them. NPR is uniquely a content provider and the stations must pay for the programs they air.

The CBC of course, own and operates all its stations. Its programming is decided by senior management based in Toronto and Montreal. The stations produce local programs, but their formats are determined at the network headquarters.

NPR member stations are free to air as much or as little NPR programming that they want and can afford. They are free to run the programs as they see fit (except for newscasts which must be aired live). US pubradio stations can buy from other producers (including the CBC) as well as from independent programmers. There is a much more varied and diverse range of programs in the US. As a result there is great local loyalty to the local station which is seen to be an integral part of the communities in a way that CBC stations are not.

But a more profound reason for these differences is the powerful American instinct to distrust central authority, especially those that come from Washington, DC. Localism, and it's related cousin, volunteerism are deep values in American life. The public radio station suits those long-standing values to a tee. Suspicion of Ottawa is also a factor in Canadian life, but nothing like the antipathy many Americans express about Washington.

In Canada, government supported programs are seen as part of Canadians' inalienable rights and entitlements. American pay taxes and complain. Canadians pay taxes and demand they get something in return.

Canadians may bitch and moan about the CBC, but they also expect it to be part of their cultural landscape. The fact that CBC funding comes from Ottawa doesn't bother most Canadians, in survey after survey, especially when it comes to CBC Radio. CBC Television has less public support, possibly because it is increasingly less distinct from the rest of the tv offerings.

Why the difference?

I think it's because the American Republic was created in rebellion while Canada was created by an act of the British Parliament. Canadians relied on government more consistently and for longer than American who created the cult of self-reliance. In Canada, Ottawa would provide. In the US, the citizens would look after themselves.

So it is in public broadcasting in each country to this day.

One huge difference that I have noticed is that Americans (of a certain demographic and cohort) refer to NPR constantly. It is a cultural and political definition for a certain class in America. The educated middle class in America are frequently heard to say, "You know, I heard on NPR today..."

But in the six months since I've been in Canada, I have not heard anyone refer to CBC Radio in a similar fashion. And I think my range of acquaintances in Toronto is similar to the one I had in Washington.

What could CBC Radio learn from NPR? And vice versa?


  1. On a comforting note, I have people not only refer to hearing stuff on CBC radio constantly, but people are often sending me links to stuff on the CBC website - esp. TV docs. I had an insurance agent (today) send me a link to a Marketplace item on mortage insurance.
    On a disconcerting note, I think its becoming a depressing, exhausting, oppressive place to try to be a journalist.
    Thanks Jeffrey - we miss you terribly.

  2. Regardless of whether he is hearing listener/viewer/surfer feedback on the street or not, Dvork's comments are essential reading for regional CBC O&O radio management and staff.

    Increasingly, as CBC reinvents itself and brings new and younger blood to the network, current affairs programming of substance is falling to the O&Os to provide. To my ears, they are not doing it well.

    With notably exceptions in larger centres, CBC O&Os often rely on a 'friendly' style on-air personality to forge the link with listeners, and at the same time, stay too cautiously within the strick bounds of decades old, network established morning, noon and afternoon formats, even as social issues become more complex and interlinked around them.

    Far too often, I hear public radio on-air people voice their opinions, or agree too readily with their chosen interview subjects. I overheard one host recently begin a political planel (with a CBC reporter and local newspaper writer) by saying, "Well, lets talk about this mess in Ottawa", referring to the constitutional/ economic struggles of the people who are trying to govern Canada. Some may think it is a mess, while others think it is parliamentary, democratic process working things out. Regardless, it is not for a host to declare what he or she thinks is going on.

    Instead, I believe a host's motto should be "Its not about me!". A host and unit's job is to provide information. It's the listener's job to make up his or her own mind based on the information provided.

    Many CBC regional stations risk loosing listeners because the host's expressed views and/or attitudes are setting the programming agenda. That's the kind of complaint I hear on the street. "Who cares what he/she thinks?"

    Public radio listener loyalty will be gained by hosts and units doing a good, fair, balanced, gracious and creative job on air, not by resorting to being the listener's pal, the neighbour who lets you know their opinions whether you've asked for them or not.

    That is not to say personality is not important: but the mainstays of the personality exhibitited on public radio should be a willingness to listen and guide guests, helping them to present their ideas and opinions, whether the host agrees or disagrees.

    Neither do established formats deliver all of what regional listeners need. We (the listeners) need more variety in local programming formats than just the usual 5 minute interview segment and local panel responding to today's headlines. This is especially true as Radio One network programming turns toward softer current affairs (The Point) or popular culture (Q).

    We need regional stations to help us meet the agendae setters and decision makers in local industry, business, politics, community, culture and recreation in a more in-depth manner, not just when their issues happen to correspond with today's news agenda.

    CBC radio and telvision needs public engagement and support if it is to survive the economic and political times, not just the 'loyalty' of those who happen to agree with the views expressed.

    I used to marvel at how Gzowski and Fromm handled people they disagreed with -- courtiously, graciously and attentively. Certainly if the guest was over the top or abusive, G and F would let it be known by the tone of their voice that this was unacceptable.

    Let's be clear; it is one thing to probe and challenge guests; its another to agree and disagree with them. Its a fine line, but one that is a public radio imperative, especially as the regions carry more of the weight of informing the public.

  3. I can't speak to Toronto, but I can't recall a day where I'm neither listening nor referring to Radio One in conversation here in Ottawa going back at least 3-4 years now. Certainly, a lot of the material I listen to has been worth the time to listen to, and more than a tad useful.

  4. I live in Yellowknife.. we do have three other radio stations here.. A francophone community radio station with one employee; an "oldy, mouldy, goldy all the same hits all day every day" station and an aboriginal station.... in addition to CBC North...

    Thank god (or the feds) for CBC... at least their news has some local content and is mostly right...

  5. *fervently thankful tone*

    George, I am so glad to read that note! I've got CBC North bookmarked here on my machinery already, but it's good to have a reason to keep it in place.

    */fervently thankful tone*

  6. When I lived in Calgary, I was really impressed with how seemless the programming flowed between local, provincial and national sources. It was very inspirational to me, and I wish we had stronger state and local programming here in Virginia. I certainly think there's a need for it.

  7. I am a twenty one year old in Santa Cruz, Ca. Feel free to stereotype me, but I found this book at the Goodwill called Global Order: Values and Power in International Politics. It's by a Lynn H Miller. It's published by Westview Press, and I think it might be a graduate level textbook. I have a copy printed in '84, but there are new editions. It goes way deeper into stuff than NPR does, for damn sure. It threatens to make everything else I've heard (including NPR) seem superficial, short sighted, irresponsible, and ignorant. Apparently it is about political science. I figure that the guys in "washington" or "ottowa" know this stuff.
    As a case in point of the implied American distrust of central government, I would like to add that it is a distrust of the elite, the man, the privileged, the educated!
    If "the point" of all this democracy is for us to have a say, we should have access to the same knowledge. (with the assumption that "knowledge is power"). If "the point" of public broadcasting is to inform the people, why doesn't it proclaim it's own shortcomings like it should? Why That would be the responsible thing to do. I don't know if it is misled enthusiasm or manipulation, but it does seem fishy.
    Another guy, Matthew R. Kerbel, writes some books I hope to read, such as "PBS Ain't So Different: Public Broadcasting, Election Frames, and Democratic Empowerment"

    So my question is, "what is 'the point'".? Has anyone read of these things or heard of these people?

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