“Radio broadcasting is about people talking to people,” Spry once said. A national broadcaster allowed Atlantic fishermen to share concerns with their fellows on the West Coast, teachers in Ontario to pick up tips from educators in Saskatchewan, loggers in BC to learn from those in Quebec, and, most important of all, families who were beginning to spread out across the northern half of North America in a search for work to stay in touch with each other’s realities.
When Canada joined the war effort in 1939, citizens across the country tuned in to CBC Radio—French and English—to stay informed. The basso profundo of Lorne Green (later to star as Pa Cartwright on the long-running NBC TV series Bonanza) brought the daily news to Canadians from coast to coast, keeping them in touch with loved ones serving abroad and in training or war industries across Canada. Matt Halton, Peter Stursberg, Marcel Ouimet, and others reported from the various battles, daily linking the nation to such an extent that the 1944 Parliamentary Radio Committee acknowledged: “In modern wartime, radio is a new and important weapon. By it the changing aspects of the war are brought to our people at home and the folks in Canada are kept in touch with Canadian troops overseas…. As a vital morale builder, the nation has no more powerful instrument.”
In the years following World War II, television broadcasting got underway in the United States, with four networks in fledgling operation by 1948. Canadians living close to the border began buying TV sets to pick up the American programs, creating a ready market for CBC-TV and TV-Radio-Canada, services that launched in Toronto and Montreal in September 1952.
The framework for Canada’s public broadcasting service was set.
In the decades since then, there has been radical change in the media services available to Canadians. Commercial radio, as well as television stations and networks, were licensed to provide greater choice. Analog electronic systems of distribution have been supplanted by digital media, available almost everywhere on tablets, phones, computers, and even radio and TV sets. The regulatory constraints that gave precedence to Canadian signals and services don’t apply to internet-delivered media, and advertisers are shifting online, abandoning newspapers, magazines, and the mass electronic media of radio and television.
With so many media options to chose from nowadays—Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Snapchat, Twitter—does Canada still need a national public broadcaster?
Yes. Even more than we did in the twentieth century. And the reason why is inherent in the name itself. Public broadcasting is about serving the public and the public interest with programs that engage, inform, entertain, and enhance the cultural foundations on which Canada was built: truth, equity, fairness, and balance.