Columns

What the Gzowski fuss says about Canada

Charles Gordon June 23 1997
Columns

What the Gzowski fuss says about Canada

Charles Gordon June 23 1997

What the Gzowski fuss says about Canada

Columns

Another View

Charles Gordon

There was all this Gzowski stuff in anticipation of his last show. Then there was all the Gzowski stuff about the last show. And then, because this is Canada, there was the anti-Gzowski stuff, the what’s-all-the-fuss-about stuff: don’t you know this is Canada, and we don’t allow stars here? And now there’s the rebuttal, the what-do-you-mean-what’sall-the-fuss-about stuff.

That’s a lot of stuff for one little radio show, Morningside.

It says a lot about the country, though, that we can feel so strongly about one radio show, one radio person, actually, that the departure is both a day of national mourning and the beginning of a medium-sized national debate.

In the coverage so far—and there will probably be lots more—two themes emerge that come close to illustrating major strains in Canadian life. First, there is the notion that Peter Gzowski’s show represented all that was good about Canada—the quiet love of country, the sense of the landscape and of history. Second, there is the notion that this first vision of the country is outdated, that Canada is a faster, darker place, with divisions and points of view that the Gzowski show did not represent. In this view, Morningside represented a diminishing and outmoded group of Canadians.

Proponents of the first view want the next Gzowski show, whoever runs it, to continue along the same gently patriotic course. They don’t want it to be Americanized, all hip and ironic. This, not to intrude, is the right view.

Adherents to the second view want a program that is sharper, has more edge, more anger. Rick Salutin, writing on this in The Globe and Mail, phrased his comments as a critique of public broadcast culture, rather than Gzowski himself. “ . . . I maintain you can show respect without including affection and that in fact many people are relieved to hear hostility on the air, given how much of it they have to repress in an average day at work or at home,” Salutin wrote. “Its niceness didn’t always serve the show well, for instance, during the free trade debate of the 1980s, when more heat might have produced more light.”

What this all shows is how important the Gzowski show had become to Canadians. Some of this we know in a tangible way. Publishers would move heaven and earth to get their authors interviewed on the show. They knew that it moved books in a way that no other type of exposure did. And it was the same for politicians, musicians, representatives of interest groups and just plain folks. The Gzowski show was the place to be heard.

No wonder, then, that every Canadian had an idea of how the show should be. Some wanted it to be cool and urbane; others wanted it to be hard and edgy; others wanted it to be soft and rural. That is

The CBC enjoys a monopoly over a certain type of programming. Because of that, it has too much influence.

too much of a burden for any one program to carry. The Gzowski show couldn’t be everything people wanted. And people wouldn’t have placed such insane demands on it, had it been one show of many. But it wasn’t. There was the Gabereau show in the afternoon and Gzowski in the morning and all those expectations out there.

Because Gzowski’s audience is so completely CBC-oriented, many people failed to make much of the fact that there are almost no private radio equivalents, certainly not on a national level. There have been some noble experiments in the past on private radio but nothing that has lasted. In recent years, any pressure from regulating bodies, such as the CRTC, has ceased. If private radio has no public affairs component, other than the incessant phone-in shows, that seems to be fine with the regulators.

Presumably, advertisers are not beating down the doors of private stations and demanding that they do more of the programming that would attract a Gzowski-style audience. So it continues. Although many more people listen to private radio than to the CBC, the CBC enjoys, by default, a monopoly of a certain type of programming. Because it has a monopoly, it has too much influence in certain areas. A show like Gzowski’s was too important, too critical to the success of Canadian authors and publishers, for example. This was not Gzowski’s fault. It was not his fault he was so good. It is not even the CBC’s fault; it is the fault of the private sector competition for not getting into the game, and it is the fault of the public for not demanding it, for making demands only of the CBC.

The departure of Gzowski will change the chemistry. For one thing, so much of the savethe-CBC movement had Gzowski as its emotional foundation. With Gzowski gone, the movement will be changed, if not diminished.

Meanwhile, the need for good Canadian talk on the radio continues. Even Gzowski’s grouchiest critics concede that his program gave a voice to Canadians who didn’t have one, exposed talent that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, communicated one region to another. It is probably too crazy an idea, but wouldn’t it be interesting if some of the energy that has gone into raising money and collecting signatures to save the CBC were channelled into pressure on the private broadcasters to launch their own Gzowski shows and on advertisers to support them?

Convinced that some CBC listeners could be persuaded to touch the dial, someone out in private radio land might take a chance. And there is a younger audience out there, attuned to private radio sounds, that might eagerly listen to Canadian voices, as well as add their own. There should be many Gzowski shows, at many points on the dial.\

To say that we need the CBC should not be the same as saying we need only the CBC. We need the CBC, and more.