I recently returned from New Orleans, ravaged nine years ago by Hurricane Katrina. Eighty per cent of the city was flooded. Whole districts were levelled. Nearly a thousand people died. The city’s population of roughly 486,000 was reduced by more than half.
This may seem an odd way to begin a column about CBC Radio reform, except that what my few days in New Orleans imparted to me was the regenerative power of catastrophe.
New Orleans is, today, a city undergoing an extraordinary renaissance. The city’s population is back up to 350,000, and a significant portion of this 100,000-person rise is made up of young people. The city has a burgeoning IT sector, is filled with galleries, and has seen an astonishing 70-per-cent rise in the number of restaurants since before the hurricane.
Where a culture is petrified or rotten, sometimes only the sort of radical change that might otherwise be considered “disastrous” is the way forward. Farmers burn fields for this reason.
Out of destruction, creation. Thus the Katrina Plan, you might call it, that I am advocating for CBC Radio. And believe me, it makes sense to have a plan. The alternative is the de facto government one of a thousand relentless cuts and out of such wilful destruction, destruction.
CBC is a sick animal and has been so for a long time. It’s not just the Jian Ghomeshi affair that has exposed as much. The nasty internal backlash against Fifth Estate broadcaster Linden MacIntyre, who had dared to remark upon the corp.’s celebrity culture, also showed it.
CBC News Network Managing Editor Jennifer Harwood (and also a couple of rival journalists) reacted vindictively. Her impetuous censoring of MacIntyre was swiftly overruled by CBC News editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire, who said Harwood had acted “in the moment” (presumably we pay top flight news executives to exercise good judgment “in the moment”).
The significance of that mishandling was immediately, if ironically, eclipsed by Ghomeshi’s appearance in a Toronto court, lucky them. But it was yet another symptom that the atrophy at the CBC is endemic, which is what happens when you lay off lots of people and can't keep the good ones you’ve hired. The rate of turnover that animates a company and keeps it dynamic slows to a trickle as many of the ones still working are not so much good at their jobs as good at keeping their jobs.
There are many bright lights at the CBC and some very accomplished journalists and perhaps even good managers, without question, but these are up against the obdurate culture of an institution under siege. Fighting to remain the same is not an option. Only radical change will save the place.
The reasons for the rot are several, though the consequences of the wrong people hanging on cannot be underestimated. Witness the way that the former executive producer of Q, Arif Noorani, was neatly shunted aside rather than made to account for himself, as he may well do, though it is as likely that another person who perhaps should no longer be in the building is.
This could not be more true than of the corporation’s top offices. It is astounding that Hubert Lacroix remains president and CEO despite so evidently not giving a toss. Heather Conway, the new executive VP of English Services appears an intelligent, sensible and composed leader but how much will she be able to manage when the staff around her is largely unchanged? I suspect not much — unless catastrophe provides the means.
Certainly, the latest revelations in the Jian Ghomeshi affair — of ex-Q producer Kathryn Borel’s piece in the UK daily the Guardian, in particular — suggest that a couple of CBC (and also Canadian Media Guild) executives should go. But don’t hold your breath.
The troubles at the CBC are compounded by a couple of other institutional tendencies — the deference, in a competitive marketplace, to celebrity, and, very Canadian in its essence, an inclination towards monopoly.
Great swathes of CBC airtime are handed over to single people. You would think, listening to CBC Radio, that only Eleanor Wachtel had ever read a decent foreign novel; that Bob McDonald was our only adjudicator of science and that Peter Mansbridge is the only person who can read the news. Similarly, Jian Ghomeshi was awarded every single trendy arts beat in the country ad nauseam. Did we really need the allegations of his beating women to discover that Rick Mercer could do the Scotiabank Giller job better? Will the latter now do that show forever?
The point is that there are huge numbers of qualified and entertaining Canadians ready to be discovered that the CBC is shutting out by its reliance on just a few people to do the work. Indeed, one of the pleasing effects of the vacant seat at Q is that — as is ordinary, for instance, at the BBC — the audience has been enjoying multiple hosts. It would be proper for listeners to be treated to more of this, but this too is unlikely as the CBC’s complacency in this regard is exacerbated by the tendency to chase the grail of high ratings that celebrity brings to it in its ailing state.
The CBC does many things well but needs to return to the principles of its public service role with alacrity. A major part of that mandate is making the network a platform for all kinds of new talent, but also to undertake a proper documenting of the country. And yet, at least for the moment, the documentary-making that provides the archival treasures of tomorrow — that is the more profound achievement of the long term — is, despite Ideas and Sunday Morning, an afterthought.
How to pay for the resumption and expansion of these pivotal roles is the question — and thus, the Katrina Plan.
Let the CBC get rid of its Toronto headquarters, a dysfunctional building with an enormous footprint in prime commercial real estate that is also, with its hollow core, the symbol of all that is wrong with its present culture, not least its treatment of virtually all criticism as mortal attack to which it must be impervious.
The Front Street building is lonely, empty and impractical on the inside and, squaring its shoulders to the Canadian public, its entrances small and hidden, absolutely the anxious fortress that it appears to be from the outside.
The CBC would be better off without it. Move its administration and studios, as was once the case, to an array of smaller buildings around the city and reanimate the regional offices that appear as unmanned warehouses in so many parts of the country. In so doing, open up the CBC in reality and in spirit to the Canadians it serves.
And, as with architecture, so with production: retain only a slim core of staff setting standards of excellence, and then make a very committed effort at buying in not a few but many programs on a regular and well-publicized basis. This is how CBC Radio can build and promote the radio culture this country already has, and regain the public trust. It can become, like New Orleans after the hurricane, what it already was — and better.
- Noah Richler's most recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, was nominated for a Governor-General's Award