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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Exchange on CBC vs NPR

An old comrade in arms, David Gutnick from Montreal, wrote to present a different view of public broadcasting in Canada and the United States. I have much time and respect for David who is a brilliant radio producer.

Here is our exchange:

Salut Jeffrey,

David Gutnick here in Montreal. The next time you are in Montreal and in the neighourhood give me a shout as i would love to go for a drink I would love to hear about your American years. I did follow your columns on the NPR website and found them fascinating.

Over wine I'd also like to talk about public broadcasting back here and hash out why I very much disagree with some of what you wrote in the Globe this week.

i agree with a lot of what you say when it comes to CBC television. i believe the present CBC leadership is way too tied into ratings and not nearly conscious enough of serving the larger public good, what you so eloquently describe what PBS and NPR do in the States.

Despite CBC television broadcasting more Canadian content than ever there is no sense that what we offer will be noticeably different than what the private networks offer.

Television should be more like PBS.....granted.

But Jeffrey CBC radio already does exactly what NPR does and what you want us to do. We are tied to listeners, to communities and so on. i hear lots of people talk about how radio is their lifeline. Lots of people tell me "I heard it on CBC radio." We already make programs that do fit what people want and need. I listen to a lot of NPR and we do a much better job of reflecting the regions, reflecting minority cultures and reflecting the world. NPR can be elite radio because that is who pays for it. We struggle between between populist and elitist because we have to serve everyone and keep high standards, both challenge authority and challenge those who challenge. i rarely get that impression from NPR.

i really think the NPR finance model would be a disaster for radio. We don't have the same money culture, we don't have the same population etc to make it viable. Even community stations here in Montreal are subsidized, drives do not work.

i agree with you though that the american mode might be the only way to keep television afloat.

or a radical rethink that would make publicly funded television really public...bye by Jeopardy, hello more investigative stories about mining in Nunavut...

But then as Alec Frame [a former CBC Radio program director] used to say, the powers that be will who are already uncomfortable with being challenged will like us even less.

Radio is the loser right now because our fortunes have been so tied to that ship which is TV. We are more and more nimble while televison is heavier and heavier. We are tied together for political and not practical reasons right now and that is at the heart of why we are so lacking in direction as a corporation....twins who are not being allowed to walk our separate ways even though we share common blood.

And we haven't even spoken yet about the INTERNET which is going to change television in the next few years in ways which are yet unimaginable. My own teenager and her friends rarely look at television, they just download and watch it on their laptops.

It is nearly 6. i have to run out to meet a guy in his twenties who wants to talk about a pilot for radio. Imagine!


And my response:

Hi David -

Very good to hear from you.

I don’t think we disagree essentially on how CBC Radio and CBC TV have become entirely different creatures and yes, I think that CBC Radio serves communities well in some cases, but...

1. The core values of CBC (service, citizenship, communities) are in Radio and the longer that Radio must partner with tv, the values become reversed to become ratings, budgets and commercialism.

2. The values of the Corporation (as distinct from the CBC) are entirely Ottawa focused. That’s normal because that’s where the money and power emanate from. But those values have deformed the public broadcaster into a government department that, like all ministries, must satisfy all stakeholders and never upset the status quo. Hardly the framework of an information oriented public broadcaster which must be about serving the audience as citizens first...

3. The definition of success at the CBC is now entirely commercial in both Radio and TV. It’s all about ratings because only that way can the Corporation can please its political masters. Once you change that definition, or at least modify it, you will rediscover the values that once allowed for that service and its values to re-emerge.

My worry is that (CBC) News and Current Affairs is being marginalized because the Corporation wants to show that it will not do anything that might embarrass or upset anyone. The fifth estate [CBC TV's flagship investigative reporting program] has been moved to Friday night, newscasts in radio are being shortened, budgets are being deflected to support reality programs, music is replacing current affairs in significant parts of the radio schedule. A re-evaluation of all news programming is underway which, I fear will simply
plug the “reality entertainment” values into the news and current affairs departments so they become “entertaining reality.”

The corporation has hired Frank Magid to “revitalize” supper hour tv shows to concentrate on weather and crime.

I know Magid and his reputation from the US. He is the one that came up with “eye witness news” and I-Teams 30 years ago which have been discredited and dropped. So he came north to keep the business going. We hear a lot more the crime stories on the news now on Radio and TV, not because they aren’t occasionally compelling. But because they are supposed to scare the audience into watching and listening.

It will do quite the opposite and there have been some important studies that show this to be the outcome.

CBC’s crime reporting is done not because it’s significant. But because it’s cheap to do at a time when crime rates in Canada and the US are going down (and have been since 1970), crime REPORTING on tv has gone up around 800%!

So, yes, there is still some great work done by excellent journalists on CBC. But the environment is not optimal and that’s why I needed to say something about finding a disconnect between the CBC and Ottawa as a possible solution to the problem.

When I got to NPR, we decided that we could not and should not be all things to all people. We weren’t funded to do it. So in consultation with the stations (who own NPR) we agreed that news and information of the highest quality would be our goal. From 2000-2005 we stopped taking money from Congress, we tripled the ratings while deepening the audiences’ sense of loyalty. It still has problems (what organization these days does not?) but it’s worth looking at and listening to.

There’s more to tell. I didn’t mean to go on so long, and I hope we can get together soon to keep this discussion going.

Best always,



  1. I have to agree with Jeffrey in his evaluation of CBC and its unfavorable comparison of with US public broadcasting. Not only TV but also Radio seems to have lost its way over the years. I'm ready to fight to stop erosion to the Corp's budgets, but sometimes I suspect that the community connection of public broadcasting in the US (through the much-spoofed fund-raising drives) keeps things a lot more honest on the broadcasters' side.

    Royal Orr,
    Hatley, Qc

  2. Although I seldom listen to radio, I have noticed a marked difference between CBC and NPR. CBC seems very dumbed down; when I hear it I get a Reader's Digest headache. When I listen to NPR my brain is happy.
    Laurie Rendon
    Denman Island, BC