I was saddened to hear a few days ago that another round of staff and program cuts are being inflicted on the CBC. Although I am sure the current federal Conservative government would be happy to see the CBC disappear, it’s worth pointing out that the Liberals were not much friendlier when in power; hacking away at the CBC budget seems to be a popular past-time. A national new organization has a lot of clout (or, at least, is viewed by some as having a lot of clout), and those in power in Ottawa prefer to have their own message reproduced without question. They want the CBC to be a lapdog, rather than an independent voice. Seems to me we are all better off in the long run with a national public news organization that is as independent as possible from political interference.
I’m a long-time fan of CBC Radio – I recall listening to CBC broadcasts delivered to Fredericton via CFNB back in the early 60s, before the area got its own CBC station. I remember (as a teenager!) tuning in to CBC radio most evenings to hear As It Happens, way back when William Ronald was the host. Today, I am still a fan, but a disappointed one (sort-of what it must be like to be a long-suffering Leafs fan). Given the recent cuts, I think it is more important than ever to examine how CBC Radio functions in this part of the country and whether some re-jigging can compensate for some of those budget and staff reductions.
I realize I am no longer in the demographic that media searches to capture, but surely some things are worth keeping – for example, the idea that facts matter and have more weight than uninformed opinion. In this day and age, when social media force individuals to ‘pick a side’ on the basis of emotion or anecdote, surely it is even more important than ever for CBC Radio to bring us the data on the issue. I also realize that, more and more, people tend to listen to those who share their pre-conceived views on issues. They don’t want real dialogue – they have made up their minds and seek reinforcement. Consequently, groups on one side or another of an issue end up reinforcing their own self-delusions and resentments; to the rest of us they offer propaganda and refuse to consider that some of their ‘facts’ might not actually be facts.
The concepts of honest debate and the ‘public good’ seem to be disappearing. Perhaps it is quixotic of me to think so, but CBC Radio has to lead the way back to rationality. What are the actual facts on a particular issue, and what do subject experts say about those facts? It might be more entertaining to listen to politicians barking at each other, or hear outraged yahoos bellowing about potholes and teenage vandals, but I’d rather that CBC Radio delivered more expert-based analyses. That doesn’t mean we can’t have music and entertainment on CBC Radio, but ‘infotainment’? No, we don’t need that. And when I say ‘experts’, I don’t mean to say that every university prof is an expert worth listening to – far from it. It’s one thing to have an opinion, but if you want to be regarded as having expertise, then you’d better have a substantial list of fact-based publications on the subject matter. Being a master of the rhetoric and a master of the facts are two different things. So, no, I am not particularly interested in listening to a sociologist from STU prattle on about how rural NB is being horribly mistreated, unless he or she can bring some real data to the discussion. The morning program (Information Morning) from the local CBC Radio outlet in Fredericton does a fine job of telling people what they want to hear; either the host or the local manager certainly knows how to get the feel of the local pulse and find the ‘correct’ side of any issue. That is perhaps the way to better ratings and ‘love your show’ comments, but that is not the proper job of CBC Radio, in my opinion.
[As an aside here, I’d like to acknowledge that CBC Radio is, of course, not the only media presence in the province. The Irving newspapers certainly dominate the hard copy press and, while they have some very good reporters, it is just not a good idea to have such a large proportion of the media controlled by interests that also operate some of the province’s largest companies. I’d also point that while there are bloggers and other ‘amateur’ media sources available, the issue really is not a shortage of voices, the issue a shortage of good, professional investigating and reporting.]
One of the better ways to bring more data and less emotion to stories on local radio is to utilize a cadre of well-trained and motivated reporters/researchers to investigate the issues of concern. CBC Radio in NB has a small group of reporters, and while some of those are based in various regional offices and report on those ‘local’ issues, others appear to have broader provincial mandates. While the latter generally do excellent work, I think they are spread too thin with too many responsibilities. I’d suggest adding more reporters with provincial mandates and I would hire specialists with backgrounds appropriate to their mandate. For example, given the shale gas and forestry issues, CBC Radio could really use reporters with more training in environmental sciences and economics. Reporters should have enough background in a subject area that they can properly question a proponent or opponent, as opposed to simply giving us a ‘he said, she said’ report.
Now, a CBC manager reading this might immediately say, ‘yah, great idea, but where do I get the $ to hire those folks?’. True enough, but consider this: CBC Radio One in New Brunswick has three outlets – Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton. According to my calculations, that is about one outlet per 170 thousand Anglophones (or about 250 thousand residents per outlet). Ontario, by contrast, has one outlet per approx 1400 thousand Anglophones (or about 1900 thousand residents per outlet). Even Nova Scotia has nearly double the number of residents per outlet. In short, compared to most other parts of the country, we are over-served by CBC Radio. So, I’d suggest freeing up more resources for reporting by merging those three outlets in New Brunswick into one (located, I’d suggest, in Moncton). At the very least that would free up two ‘local host’ salaries for redistribution.
Perhaps by doing this, we can have some more intelligent discussion around issues in this province. Who knows, perhaps the level of discourse will be raised to such great heights that even the Political Panels on CBC Radio will once again be worth listening to!