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The Who, What, When, and Why of Canadian Public Broadcasting

The Who, What, When, and Why of Canadian Public Broadcasting

Written by
Kealy Wilkinson
on
January 9th, 2019

Kealy Wilkinson details the colourful history of public broadcasting in Canada and shows why, despite all the changes to the media landscape over the past century, the medium is as important as ever.

The Who, What, When, and Why of Canadian Public Broadcasting

When radio emerged on the scene in the 1930s, the technology swept the nation. For Canadians, spread out across the vast country, broadcasting became a critical medium. It was a window onto the world; a unique tool for knowledge and nation-building.

In the early years of the twentieth century, most national radio was a public service, designed to inform, enlighten, and entertain audiences with engaging programs on a broad range of topics. The cost of developing national transmitter systems and the necessary program production capacity required significant investment. Here in Canada, the challenge had been more than just financial: how could we get radio signals from the Atlantic to the Pacific and into all the small communities scattered throughout?

AM radio signals travel by line of sight, which meant that building a national network had to include constructing transmitter towers on heights of land from one coast to the other, from north and south, and into rural and remote settlements—a truly monumental and expensive task. But it had to be done, because if Canadian broadcasting was going to be underwritten by everyone who paid their radio licence fee—a requirement when buying a radio— then with that fee came the right to receive its programs.

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Initial development of a public broadcasting service in Canada was spearheaded by a group of young Canadians, including Alan Plaunt, Eugene Forsey, Frank Scott, and Graham Spry, who had recognized in the 1920s that their country, emerging from the struggles of World War I and faced with mass immigration, desperately needed a way to get to know itself better. Excited by the possibilities offered by radio, they formed the Canadian Radio League and, gathering support from business, education, religious, and financial communities, convinced the Conservative government of the day to invest in a national public broadcasting system for Canada.

When Parliament appointed the Aird Commission to determine how the system should be developed, Spry urged the creation of one that would reflect Canada’s unique identity and be independent of the influence of American business. “The choice before the committee is clear,” Spry affirmed. “It is a choice between commercial interests and the people's interest. It is a choice between the state and the United States.”

With coast-to-coast support, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) was created in 1932. Four years later, when the growing financial pressures of the Great Depression made the institutional shortcomings of the CRBC clear, it was reorganized and reborn in 1936 as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)/Société Radio-Canada.

When Parliament appointed the Aird Commission to determine how the system should be developed, Spry urged the creation of one that would reflect Canada’s unique identity and be independent of the influence of American business.

“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.

Audiences who follow the news on public rather than commercial media are measurably better informed, more likely to be knowledgeable about the world they live in, and more likely to engage in the democratic process by casting a ballot at election time.

Social media outlets, which are prevalent today, are driven by a commercial imperative—a manic rush for clicks that can be counted and sold as evidence of “value” to advertisers. Neither designed nor intended as public services, they are highly successful enterprises whose goal is ever-increasing returns on investment. Social media provides daily access to millions of stories, facts, and rumours—but how to tell one from the other? And only a fraction of the messaging is shared with colleagues, family, or friends, unlike with radio. They are “narrowcasts,” designed for individual receivers, rather than broadcasts, which aggregate audiences to achieve a common or shared experience of exchange, of talking to each other.

Decades of academic research demonstrate that, when measured against commercial media, public media delivers more hard news, international coverage, political and current affairs stories, as well as more substantive analysis of contemporary public policy issues—with less sensationalism and more balance. As a result, audiences who follow the news on public rather than commercial media are measurably better informed, more likely to be knowledgeable about the world they live in, and more likely to engage in the democratic process by casting a ballot at election time.

Not surprisingly, the populations of those countries with well-resourced and well-regarded public broadcasters tend to demonstrate stronger social cohesion and trust, with less evidence of political extremism. This makes the role of the public broadcaster in our fragmented digital age even more critical, especially when it is relieved of reliance on advertising revenue.

Many years after Spry’s radio achievement, he gave an address to the Royal Society of Canada, saying: “Without communication there is no society, be it a troop of boy scouts, a hive of bees, a Bar Association or a nation.”

Communication is the essential function of public media. And it’s imperative—as it was in the tumultuous aftermath of the First World War—for Canada’s national public broadcaster to once again become the trusted frame on which we continue to build a unique and cohesive nation across the northern half of North America.

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