Now, from this illustration of a 75th birthday cake, you might be forgiven for thinking I’ve anticipated a significant event in my own family by a few weeks, since I know someone who (if my math is correct) will be reaching that milestone at the end of the month, but … not yet. No, this is about the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which I’ve been hearing about every time I flick on the radio lately.
75 years ago, radio a brand-new technology. Of course, to someone like me who’s volunteered at VOAR where we’ve already celebrated our 80th anniversary, a mere 75 seems positively youthful (I can only assume that VOAR’s been around for 80+ years because the Adventist pastor in St. John’s in the late 1920s, Harold Williams, must have been a bit of tech-head who enjoyed fiddling around with new stuff to see what would happen — today we’d call him an early adopter). Still, it’s pretty darned impressive that when radio was still in the “Isn’t this cool, what should we do with it?” stage, the Canadian government made the committment to fund a national broadcaster which we’ve been using to tell our own stories to each other ever since 1936. Here in Newfoundland we got on the CBC bandwagon when we joined Confederation in 1949, and TV was added to the public broadcasting system a few years later.
I’m a hardcore radio person. I love radio, and it’s always seemed more natural to me to get information by turning on the radio than by turning on the TV or picking up a newspaper. Growing up at home, we almost always had the radio on. While we listened to VOAR for the Sabbath church service and religious music, the other six days of the week the dial was permanently set to 640 AM — CBC St. John’s. I grew up listening to news reports before I could understand them, hearing my country interpreted for me through the mellow voice of Peter Gzowski, feeling connected to a world that was as close as the CBC St. John’s studios on Water Street yet could tell me what was happening on the other side of the planet. Every major event I’ve lived through has been brought to me by the CBC, except for things that happened between 1983 and 1986, when I lived in the US and badly missed CBC coverage of the world.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back over how my young mind was shaped, it’s no exaggeration to say that after family, school, and church, CBC radio played the next-biggest role in my education. My politics, my worldview, my sense of what it meant to be a Canadian, a Newfoundlander, and a writer were all shaped by news, documentaries and interviews I heard on CBC radio. As a young adult, my fondest ambition was to someday be interviewed by Peter Gzowski. (When he sadly passed away before he could fulfill my dream, I transferred this ambition to Shelagh Rogers, a point I made sure to mention on the one occasion when I was lucky enough to meet her).
Even though radio was always my first love, CBC Television played a big part in molding the way I saw the world, too. When I was in junior high, watching the CBC movie Riel made me passionate and excited about Canadian history, and I began trekking off the library to check out books on Canadian history. Eventually, I got a degree in history, but I also found as I grew older that I identified myself more as a Newfoundlander than a Canadian. The CBC played its part in that too, from Wonderful Grand Band to Codco, from the original 22 Minutes with its all-Newfoundland cast to today’s Republic of Doyle (and yes, I’m still waiting for my chance to be an extra! Foiled again this summer!!) Then, just this fall, I got excited about Canadian history again by tuning into the CBC movie John A: Birth of a Country, which resulted in me putting Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald at the top of my to-read list. This is the public broadcaster doing what it should be doing: telling Canadians about ourselves and about each other, about our history and the issues that face us today, interviewing interesting people and sending us to the bookstore or the library to learn more.
That’s not to say I’ve loved everything the CBC has ever done. I’ve winced at my share of bad home-grown Canadian TV shows (naming no names). I have little tolerance for phone-in programs, even the venerable Cross-Country Checkup, because I’m not a generous enough person to listen to other people’s uninformed opinions for too long. But in these days of creeping conservatism at the highest levels of our country, I want to come out as an out, loud and proud supporter of public broadcasting. We need it, and while it can’t represent all of the people all the time, it represents a broad cross-section of Canadian stories, views and opinions that we couldn’t get any other way.
Just as I did, my kids are growing up with CBC radio always on the in background. When my now 13-year-old son was a toddler and I was a stay-at-home mom, I used to get him out of his crib when he woke in the morning to put him in the playpen next to my bed, and I’d try to catch a few extra minutes of sleep while listening to the CBC Morning Show. Jim Brown was the host in those days and he had one of those phone-in shows I never liked, but which formed part of the background of those early morning dozes. One morning I saw my son with a toy phone held to his ear, talking earnestly away. It took me a moment to realize that he was saying “Hello, Jim! Hello, Jim!” over and over, just as he heard callers on the show do every morning.
Today, my kids are prone to say, “Ohh Mom, can we put on some music instead of the news?!” when I have CBC on, and sometimes I let them — other times I say, “Sorry, I’m listening to this.” But once in awhile, if we’re driving around on a morning when there’s no school, they might ask, “Who is that Jian’s interviewing on Q?” and we’ll have a listen. Just yesterday, we were driving home from school and they begged me to drive a little farther so we could all stay in the car and listen to the end of The Debaters, and we all laughed ourselves silly as two comedians debated whether David Suzuki or Don Cherry was the greater Canadian icon.
Happy Birthday, CBC. And thanks for everything. Long may you broadcast.