In the bush I come across a loon sitting on her eggs, motionless as a large black and white shell, protected only by the low overhanging branch of a balsam. She turns her head calmly to look at me. Her mate fishes back and forth anxiously off the shore, at sunset sending up a single plaintive cry which is caught up and elaborated by other loons around the lake, building quickly into an oratorio, a wild hysterical Messiah. The crows begin at sunrise from their nest high in the tallest spruce tree, landing on the cottage roof to emphasize their point, big birds rising to do battle with invading ravens and win, sending them screaming back to their granite cliff at the far end of the lake. My father lies on the veranda with the earplug to the radio running like an umbilical cord from his ear to the transistor on the table, sleeping in the sweltering sun, listening to the CBC, our sole lifeline to the world of man.
It’s only in the woods, cut off, no TV, no telephone, no electricity even, lulled by the sound of lake water lappinand tlu ; 'c;sant him' of rn.-squitoes, that I appreciate the meaning of CBC radio, the human voice defying the wilderness, trying to impose order and reason on the cacophony, to create a civilized nation in a savage land where, for the most part, outside our cities we are unimportant. It is, at best, a fragile and tenuous connection; the wilderness is winning.
This was indicated last year when, having discussed changing its name to Radio Television Canada, the CBC felt it needed an identifying sound, a radio logo, to go with its new name. Someone suggested that a bird call would be appropriate and a committee of senior executives was formed to choose bird calls to represent the various provinces — the booby for Newfoundland, the meadowlark for Saskatchewan, l’alouette for Quebec and so on — so that, before the news, for instance, instead of the traditional “This is the CBC radio network” we would get, depending on where we lived, the cluck of a prairie chicken or the squawk of a seagull. The Loon at Eight. Birdnews. As a result of deafening birdcalls and other rude noises by various CBC personnel, the
plan was discreetly abandoned.
Six years ago nobody could be found with a good word to say for CBC radio — now everyone praises it, even if they don't listen to it. That change is partly because of two successful programs, This Country In The Morning and As It Happens, and because CBC radio has maintained its integrity, fending off the hype commercialism that has vulgarized so much of CBC television. The CBC has clung to the concept of programs, isolated blocks of time with a unifying theme and content, rather than the amorphous and repetitive “sound” of pop radio, and it’s an approach that is beginning to come back into favor with people numbed by the intellectual vacuity of commercial radio and TV. The CBC does have its own sound, quiet, dignified, responsible, slow — all those pear-shaped announcers trying to sound like Lamont Tilden — unafraid of big words, dull interviews, silence, rolling along with the ponderous majesty of the St. Lawrence, not embarrassed to tell lame jokes and miss the punch line, or to play half an hour of the Mills Brothers in prime time or an hour of Brahms concerti by a Canadian pianist or a two-hour documentary on death.
I felt strange listening to all those people talking cheerily about death, watching the crows fly back and forth carrying bloody bits and pieces of dead creatures in their beaks to feed their young. The CBC has that oblique kind of relevance; it’s on the right topic but misses it somehow, managing to make even dying dull. There is a necrophilic quality to a lot of CBC radio programming, a rooting about among the rags and bones of dead civilizations, a chewing of the cultural cud which has already passed through the gut of every magazine and newspaper in the country (Anthology and CBC Tuesday Night are not accepting much new material because they’re already booked up two years ahead), an apparent belief that traditional radio has to be a museum, a gathering together of scraps of arcane information and bizarre curiosities. Some CBC programs appeal to such a small minority they are almost said to be perverse.
Some people believe that there is a conspiracy to destroy the CBC, that the government will simply squeeze off its money until the network is forced to sell to private broadcasters, a prospect which was being seriously discussed within the CBC itself six years ago. This summer $446,000 was chopped from the English-language radio budget as a result of over-
spending last year. Some programs, especially in the area of arts and music, will disappear, others will be cut back. It means increased hardship for the actors, musicians, writers and freelance broadcasters who depend on CBC radio for much of their income. The cutback is partly CBC management’s way of expressing its disapproval of the quality of much CBC radio broadcasting, a simpler method than firing the producers or developing new program concepts. “It's a chop in the neck,” states one radio producer, and it has damaged the morale of all producers in the corporation, especially those looking for money to experiment with new ideas: local programs, which have been among the CBC’s best in the past five years, lost an incredible $80,000 in the budget cuts.
CBC radio is in trouble. The radio revolution (remember it?) has lost momentum; the energy and excitement that created This Country In The Morning and As It Happens has not been allowed to spread to the rest of the schedule. They are in danger of being swamped by the benign platitudes and mushmusic that characterize the rest of daytime programming, growing audiences vanishing in the grey fog of pedantry which rises from the highbrow evening shows. There is talk of another task force to determine what ails the network.
The concept of CBC radio is brilliant and necessary. Even a partial decay is a disaster. Its friends, the people who built it in the Thirties and know what it meant then, grow older and fewer. But such a network is worthless as a monument to an imperial civilization layered on the wilderness like so much varnish; it is valuable only if it understands itself, its
audience and the country. Radio that nobody listens to is silent.
THIS MONTH’S RADIO SHOWS
Listen to: The Danny F i n k 1 e m a n Saturday Show, the CBC radio network, Saturday, 10 a.m.
The Entertainers, the CBC radio network, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Listen for: A new version of This Country In The Morning, only with a new producer, Ann Gibson, and a new host, Michael Enright.
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