Static on the CBC

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1944

Static on the CBC

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1944

Static on the CBC



CANADIAN Broadcasting Corporation men, hearkening to the murmur of public opinion, must often recall that immortal remark of the Two Black Crows, who foreran Amos ’n’ Andy some 20 years ago: “Boy, even if dat was good Ah wouldn’ like it.”

No matter what the CBC does it seems to get kicked around. National radio was begun, about a dozen years ago, largely because commercial programs were monopolizing the air. A lot of people said this was terrible and there ought to be a law. Yet today the unregenerate listener still gives a 45% popularity rating to Charlie McCarthy and only 10% to a highbrow public affairs forum like “Of Things To Come.”

Every year in the parliamentary radio committee, critics train their guns on the amount of time CBC sells to commercial sponsors. It’s regarded as a sin. But eight commercial shows—McCarthy, Jack Benny, Lux Theatre, Henry Aldrich, Bing Crosby, the McGees, Bob Hope and Familiar Music—all rate higher than the most popular CBC sustainer, the Sunday Week-end Review. Three other big commercials rate between the CBC champion and its nearest competitor. Apparently showmanship, even when interrupted by advertising plugs, can still draw a bigger crowd than the urge to uplift one’s fellow man.

All shades of politician have moaned about the CBC at one time or another, and most of them are still doing it. Liberals came into power in 1935 in a white rage against the old Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, which had allowed a dramatized political script to call Mackenzie King "an old hen, always cackling and never laying.” They axed the old CRBC and made CBC to their own specifications — yet now Liberal M.P.’s are complaining that CBC news builds up the CCF “to the exclusion of other Parties.”

Conservatives, pre-and post-Progressive, have often rent their garments over CBC curbs on political broadcasting, which denied the air to Arthur Meighen at Winnipeg and John Bracken at Hamilton. The CCF, like the Progressive Conservatives, thinks CBC Governors and management let the Liberal Government push them around. Le Bloc Populaire, Quebec’s Nationalist Party, has never forgotten that the CBC refused network time to spokesmen of the “No” vote

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What is the matter with the CBC? Here are the pros and cons of an argument that agitates politicians, critics, John Public—and the CBC itself

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in the 1942 plebiscite campaign. Le Bloc also thinks that the new CBC rules for political broadcasting were tailored especially to keep Le Bloc off the air. Social Crediters are peeved because they too, like Le Bloc, appeared to be excluded by the revised rules, though their recent election of a national leader gives them some claim to national status.

Equally confusing are the protests of ordinary citizens. Many have rapped the CBC for not doing enough to unify Canada, yet CBC correspondence files can produce a letter from the Maritimes calling the CBC “the most dangerous and sinister instrument of Upper Canadian intrigue, with its propaganda on behalf of Confederation.” Beside the letters of U. E. Loyalists, who huff that the war Isn’t being played up enough, they put a letter from a pacifist farmer in the West: “All war talks should stop at once . . . Can those dreadful BBC bulletins.” Jive fans write in, sneering at symphony; longhairs take pen in hand to deplore jazz. Local patriots send complaints that Susie Bowsqueak isn’t given a chance to fiddle on the national network, and these arrive in the same mail with music lovers’ appeals for less local talent and more good recordings.

For Or Against?

WELL, what do we want? Are we really fed up with national, publicly owned broadcasting? Do Canadians want to ditch this particular noble experiment, go back to private ownership and undiluted commercials?

Curiously enough, the answer Is a definite, unmistakable, NO. By every

available test of opinion the majority of Canadians want a public radio system in principle, very much like the one they’ve got.

Sir John Aird, president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and never accused of being a pink, laid down the principle of public ownership for radio in the Aird Report of 1928. Every parliamentary committee ever since has endorsed it; likewise every political Party. Even the president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, organ of the private stations, broke down last winter to the point of admitting that undiluted private ownership in radio would be “difficult.”

As for John Q. Public, he’s heavily in favor of the CBC principle. Last Gallup Poll on the subject was taken a year and a half ago. It showed public ownership favored by 56% of all Canadians, and by 71% of those who had made up their minds. Less than a quarter wanted to go back to private ownership.

Nowhere in Canada could a majority be found against national radio. In Quebec and Ontario, where private stations function best, exactly half the people wanted the CBC principle, 27% and 29% in the respective provinces preferred private ownership, the rest had no opinion either way. Out West the vote for national radio was two to one over all. A rural-urban breakdown showed two thirds of the farmers for the CBC and more than half the city people. Canadians paid $4,243,000 in license fees in 1943 and there is no evidence that the overwhelming majority of licenses were not paid willingly. Only one half of 1% of fees had to be collected by legal methods.

Apparently, then, Canadians want a CBC, but they’d like to improve the CBC. And since the average listener appears a little confused as to how this ought to be done, it seemed a good idea to look for an answer from the people whose profession at once acquaints them with CBC problems and prevents

them from urging solutions. I mean the anonymous rank and file of the radio business in Canada.

What follows is no one man’s opinion. It’s a consensus, a sort of distillation for which I take sole responsibility, of offthe-record chats with several dozen men and women in radio. Probably no one of them would endorse it all, but it’s what I conceive to be a majority view. The question was, “What’s wrong with the CBC?” and here are the answers:

Number One lack is a strong Board of Governors. Offhand I can think of few people who didn’t begin with that. “If we only had a strong Board,” they would say, or, “If we had some leadership ...”

Mainly, the present Board’s faults appear to be negative. Its nine members may be good citizens, but in the public mind they’re nobody in particular. From the time Leonard Brockington left the Board chairmanship in 1939, until B. K. Sandwell was appointed a few weeks ago, not a single name in the list of new CBC Governors would mean anything to the average Canadian. Some are well known in their own cities or districts, others aren’t even that.

On top of this their political records are against many of them. There is no special reason why a man active in politics should not be a CBC Governor. But if such are admitted, critics remark, they should be recruited from all Parties. Present CBC Governors, if they have any politics at all, are Liberals. The chairman, Rene Morin, is a former Liberal M.P. One sitting member is, or was, president of his local Liberal Association, another is a well-known Grit ward worker; two others who recently retired also headed Liberal Associations in their ridings.

This makes the Board suspect when, as often happens, the CBC gets into an argument with the Government. Rightly or wrongly, critics think the Board a political pushover. Worse

still, it is subject to pressure not only from the Government but from political groups in the various regions.

As lately as January an example cropped up to show what grief this can cause. Affiliation of a certain western station to the CBC Dominion network was recommended by the responsible CBC man on the spot, and by a senior official sent out from Toronto to look the situation over. Their choice was confirmed by the acting general rmtnager. But the Board of Governors, not one of whom has any professional knowledge of radio’s technical problems, reversed these judgments and gave the network affiliation to a rival station. CBC men, bitterly watching development of the trouble they predicted if this were done, are convinced the Board’s interference was a surrender to local lobbying.

Political Tightrope

This, they say, is serious. Under the Broadcasting Act of 1936 a strong Board is a prime necessity. By its very nature national radio must always be walking a political tightrope. It is publicly controlled—but it is not, and must not become, Government controlled. The Broadcasting Act solved this problem by making the Board of Governors an independent, policymaking body, responsible not to the Government but to the Parliament of Canada. Idea is to prevent the national network from being the tool of whatever Government is in power.

There has been evidence from time to time that politicians, even in fairly high places, have not understood this. CBC officials have been rebuked in so many words, by men who should know better, for “not giving the Government a break.”

Most of these attempts at political interference have failed. For instance there have been occasional manoeuvres to influence the national news bulletin. Political spokesmen, probably overzealous underlings, have been known to make suggestions as to what should go in or what should be left out. All these have been frustrated. The CBC official on duty invariably tells the enquirer, or instructor, that CBC takes its news from The Canadian Press or British United Preas, and news releases —especially on politics—should • be made to these agencies alone. CBC management has never failed to back up officials’ refusal to bow to political expediency in newscasts.

Sometimes political interference has reached first base, but so far such victories have been boomerangs. Most recent was the “Of Things To Come” case last fall. Liberals, believing the list of speakers had been weighted in favor of the Left, made the tactical error of complaining to the Minister of National War Services, General L. R. La Fleche, instead of to the CBC.

This may sound trivial, but it isn’t. If the complaint had been made to the CBC it would have been simply a legitimate criticism which any citizen has a right to make. Channelling it through the Minister, however, converted it from a proper complaint to an attempt at political pressure. And things weren’t improved any when General LaFleche, after calling Dr. Augustin Frigon, acting general manager of the CBC, took it upon himself to issue a statement saying that “Of Things To Come” had been “suspended.”

Actually not much harm was done in the long run. General LaFleche’s announcement called forth an instantaneous howl of protest, with the Liberal Winnipeg Free Preas leading the chorus. The program was quickly restored, with only two of the speakers

dropped. Even at that, signs are that neither General La Fleche nor the Government has heard the last of the incident, and that both heartily wish the thing had never come up.

Another case of Governmental interference, more successful on a shortterm basis but even more disastrous in the end, was the 1942 plebiscite campaign. You’ll remember that the plebiscite was held to determine whether or not the Government should be released from its pledge not to institute conscription for overseas service. At the insistence of Quebec Cabinet Ministers, and against Dr. Frigon’s judgment, the “No” vote in Quebec was denied a hearing on the CBC network. That muzzling has not been forgotten. It created a profound resentment—which is still a long way from evaporation in French-speaking Canada—that the CBC was a Government tool.

CBC men think that either of these cases would have called forth a blast of protest from a strong, independent, nonpolitical Board. The present Board uttered not a peep.

Second only in importance to a strong Board of Governors, in the view of CBC men, is a strong general manager, a chief executive with powers well-defined and the ability to use them. They think the CBC has been unfortunate in its general managers, too, during a rather stormy eight years of existence.

First to hold the job was W. E. Gladstone Murray, brought here from the BBC when CBC was created. Murray was removed from the general managership in 1942, in accordance with the recommendation of a parliamentary committee which had probed the whole setup of the CBC and made some sharply critical suggestions. He was shifted from the top job into a new position called “Director of Broadcasting,” but soon resigned from the CBC altogether.

Board Rebuked

Murray was succeeded by Dr. James Thomson, president of the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the CBC Board of Governors. There were some acid remarks at the time about the Board, which had been pretty severely rebuked by the 1942 radio committee, appointing one of its own members to the managership. Otherwise, though, no one criticized Dr. Thomson’s appointment.

But Dr. Thomson did have one serious disqualification—-he didn’t want the job permanently. He agreed to take it for a year, making it plain that at the end of that time he was determined to go back into the academic field where all his ambitions lay. Thus the whole Thomson regime was an interregnum, a period of waiting, and of speculation on the permanent appointment which up to the time of writing still had not come. It’s hard to see how any executive, however talented, could build for the future in these circumstances.

Supposedly, the year of the Thomson managership provided time for decision on a permanent incumbent. If so, it was wasted —no such decision was made. When, last fall, Dr. Thomson left on schedule to go back to his college job, Dr. Frigon, assistant general manager since the CBC’s inception, carried on in an “acting” capacity.

Dr. F’rigon is an engineer, a radio executive of experience and ability who represents Canada very ably and creditably on such occasions as the Havana Conference, where wave lengths and frequencies are allotted among the nations. Few, if any, Canadians know more about the

technical side of radio than he. Also i he has had the dominant voice on i programs for the French network ever since the CBC began.

But Dr. Frigon himself is the first to ! admit his ignorance of English-speaking program standards, entertainment : preferences, and modes of thought. He ! will tell any enquirer that the last thing he wants is to be responsible for either policy or programs on the English j network. Once policy is laid down he will execute it, but he wants the course carefully charted.

However, finding a man to put into the managership over Dr. Frigon’s head would be a difficult, delicate task. And even if Dr. Frigon were content there would still be the political peril of offending potent Quebec by a seeming slight to one of her sons.

But the political argument against the existing situation is even stronger. Dr. Frigon is a French Canadian. So is the chairman of the Board of Governors, Rene Morin. So are General LaFleche and Hon. J. E. Michaud, the two Ministers who are liaison men between the CBC and Parliament in matters of policy and of licensing, respectively. Even French Canadians concede that to perpetuate this allFrench-Canadian leadership of the national radio network is out of the question.

At the first meeting of the current sittings of the House of Commons radio committee at Ottawa, it was indicated that a compromise had been hit upon. It was suggested that a fulltime chairman of the Board of Governors should be appointed, with a salary of $15,000 a year, presumably to have charge of policy. Dr. Frigon, presumably, would then be confirmed in the title of general manager, and it’s understood Mr. Morin would be willing to resign under those circumstances in favor of an English-speaking Board chairman. Dr. Frigon would carry on much as before, living in Montreal and running the French network. Ernest Bushnell, general supervisor of programs and the nominee of some people for the general managership, would, it is assumed, become assistant general manager and have fairly full charge at Toronto.

CBC men on the French side think well of this scheme, which would require amendment of the Broadcasting Act. They hope the radio committee will bring down a recommendation to this effect.

On the English side the weight of CBC opinion seems to be against it. They say the CBC has had a bellyful of divided control. That was what wrecked the old CRBC, with its threeman commission setup. It was the bane of the late Murray period, when all control of finance was taken away from the general manager and given to a Controller who happened also to be assistant general manager, and the result was that nobody was sure who was bossing whom. English-speaking radio men take a dim view of any scheme to recreate such a situation.

Root of Weakness

Matter of fact, a good many CBC men burn up at this whole business of racial and political overtones.

“The root weakness of our whole system,” one senior man told me, “is this saw-off between the French and English. The Broadcasting Act provides for appointment of a general manager and an assistant general manager, both named by order-incouncil. That’s wrong. We ought to have a general manager named by order-in-council, and no one else. Make one man responsible for everything, and let him pick his own staff.

“So long as the manager has an

assistant whom he didn’t choose and can’t fire, you’ll have a division of authority.”

He and the other Toronto men i seemed to think the notion of a paid Board chairman, on top of the present hierarchy, would just make a bad matter worse.

Well, that’s how things stand at the moment. And with such a queer situation at the top it’s no surprise to find a j few kinks in CBC machinery underneath.

One trouble seems to be that the CBC is run on Civil Service lines. Radio is creative work, hard to classify —one man’s work is worth double another’s. Private chains in the United States recognize this fact with the commensurate salary schedules. In the CBC, on the other hand, if you are not part of the program talent— performers, musicians, script writers— you start at Grade I like a Civil Service clerk, with a stipulated annual increment unless your qualifications call for a higher grading. If you live long enough you work up to be “reclassified” in the “establishment” as Grade II or Grade 111, each with its stated range of pay. At journey’s end there’s a pension. In all 807 CBC jobs, only 13 have no ceiling on the salary.

In his presentation to the radio committee last month, Dr. E'rigon put some stress on the fact that “we even have some categories of employee, among them Contract Artists and Producers Grade IV, whose salaries have no ceiling. Any time we know of an exceptional person who can really do valuable creative work for us, we can make special arrangements without being bound by a rigid salary classification.”

But when you turn to the salary breakdown, which Dr. Frigon tabled the same day, to find out how many of these “exceptional persons” are on the CBC payroll, you find there aren’t any.

This is probably one reason for the fact that the CBC has always suffered a steady hemorrhage of good men at junior and intermediate salary levels. There is nothing inherently wrong with the slow-hut-sure methods of reward that are followed in the Civil Service, or with the long-term security that they give. But this much is true: Such methods tend to encourage the Civil Service virtues of silence, caution, discreet loyalty and devotion to routine. They do not tend to encourage the show business virtues of flair, an intuitive grasp of what the public wants, and a willingness to gamble on an idea.

One observer, outside the CBC but in a good position to watch it, put the case this way: “You should never let the accounting department get hold of any creative enterprise. It’s fatal. If the banks had known what Hollywood would do with the money they loaned it, they’d never have loaned it a penny—and movies would still be nickelodeons. Show business has got to be a little bit crazy. Otherwise you end up with a tidy balance sheet, but no show.”

Some people think that’s what has happened, in a good many instances, to the CBC.

CBC has a tidy balance sheet— always a surplus, all debts retired in five years, and so on—but its men find it hard to get money for projects. For i instance, they’d like to spend $5,000 or ! $10,000 on a reference library, what j newspapers call a “morgue.” No big j newspaper would try to operate with¡ out one, but the CBC has none, j Another $10,000 project Is a thorough I survey of audience reaction, rural as j well as urban, not a commercial “rat1 ing” but a real job of research. CBC

men believe this particular item has even passed the Board of Governors, but management has yet to do anything about it.

Red Tape Blight

It’s not only in matters of cash that the Civil Service blight lies on the CBC. Red tape clogs most operations. For instance nobody can be hired or fired except through Ottawa. Sometimes it takes so long that the prospective new man gives up in disgust and takes another job before his appointment goes through. The better the man is, of course, the more likely this will happen.

After you talk to CBC men for a while about their troubles, you begin to wonder how it is the CBC has done as good a job as it has.

For after all, we have to remember, Canadians for all their grumbling are pretty well-pleased with their national radio. They want to improve it, but not to change it. And it might be well to end this catalogue of drawbacks with a list of some things the CBC has accomplished in its eight years:

First, it has surmounted technical difficulties which are hardly equalled anywhere. We have five time zones, one more than the United States—an eight o’clock concert in Toronto reaches Halifax at nine, Vancouver at four in the afternoon. We have a thinly populated country 4,000 miles wide, and programs have to be carried on telegraph lines at an annual cost of some $800,000. We have two languages and cultures, requiring two more or less separate radio chains. We have the lethal competition of the richest country in the world at our southern border, spending millions a year on English-language entertainment, and always ready to hire away our best talent at salaries no Canadian chain could match.

Under these handicaps the CBC has brought Canadian radio to more than 90% of the Canadian population, half of whom got no radio at all in pre-CBC days. It puts on more than 100 live programs of its own a week, relying mainly on Canadian talent and making an effort to build up our resources in that field. It has cut commercials to less than a quarter of broadcasting time—though program men point out bitterly that of the day’s best two hours, 8 to 10 p.m., only about three half hours a week are not pre-empted by commercial programs. Moreover, to those who favor commercials as having more entertainment value, CBC can retort that many of the most popular of U. S. commercials are now carried over the CBC network to thousands of listeners whom private broadcasting either hadn’t thought it worth-while to serve or had been unable to serve.

CBC is proud, too, of its record in restraining the more nauseously vulgar of the commercial programs. One of the most popular “soap operas” of recent years, for instance, was barred from the CBC on grounds of its sheer bad taste. Informed of this decision the American chains thought the matter over and decided to can the program themselves. Many other commercials, especially those advertising the content of drugs and similar programs, have been deodorized by CBC regulations to the benefit of Canadians and Americans alike. Also, no program can go on CBC with an advertising content of more than 10% of its time, which has tended to reduce some international plugs to everybody’s satisfaction.

On the vexed question of popularity ratings, they admit they can’t compete with the top American programs like Benny or Bergen-McCarthy. But they

I have two comments to make, neither of ! them easy to dismiss:

First, they say the CBC hasn’t the money to compete in this field. They point with considerable pride to the fact that War Loan programs, sponsored by the National War Finance Committee, for the most part use CBC talent and compare in popularity with some of the higher U. S. ratings. The difference, say CBC programmers, is in the extra money the War Finance Committee has to spend on cast, rehearsals, etc.

Second, and even more pertinent, CBC men contend their prime function Is not popularity. They want to make their programs attractive to as many people as possible, sure—but not at the sacrifice of program quality, and not at the sacrifice of cultural values. They’re not really trying to compete with Charley McCarthy. Their aim is to produce a different type of program, make it as good as possible, make it attract as many listeners as possible— but accept the fact that no matter how well they do, their audience will still be relatively limited.

All in all, CBC men feel that in spite of their admitted faults and failings they haven’t done too bad a job. What they want most, right now, is a chance to do a better one.