Death by a Thousand Cuts?
CBC Radio is already a shadow of its former self. If it doesn't get a cash infusion soon, the prognosis is grim
Three minutes before airtime. An editorial assistant darts up to the host and points at a clock. With only three minutes left he really should be in the studio, but he doesn’t budge. Two and a half minutes before airtime, the host waits for his scripts. Two minutes, still waiting. Hearing the printer, he grabs the pages as they emerge and sprints to studio 302. Seven, six, five, four, three…. “This is Canada at Five. Good afternoon. I’m Bernie McNamee.”
Ten minutes later, the “fish edition” of Canada at Five-broadcast at 4 p.m. from Toronto-has been aired in the Atlantic. McNamee strolls back to his desk in the national radio newsroom at the headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. He runs his hands down the front of his green khaki pants, sits down and takes a deep breath before starting to write for the second edition. Maybe this time there will be a couple of minutes to read through all of the scripts before he heads for the studio again. In 1985, whenCanada at Five started, there were six people working, leaving more time to read through the research, says David Tweedie, the producer and only other person working on the show. But, of course, that was in the “salad days” of the CBC, he says. At this, McNamee turns toward Tweedie.
“What is it now?” he asks. “The Twilight Days?” Indeed, the CBC has seen brighter times. After the creation of the public broadcaster in November 1936, CBC employed 142 people and spent less than $1 million in its first five-month, partial fiscal year. At that time, only half the country was able to tune in to the modest radio service. But over the years the CBC expanded. In 1990, almost six decades after its creation, the number of permanent staff exceeded 10,000, expenditures totalled $1.4 billion and 99 percent of the country was within broadcast reach. From a single radio network of 1936, audiences could now choose among four radio networks (CBC Radio and CBC Stereo in English and SRC AM and FM St?r?o in French), two TV networks (CBC Television in English and La T?l?vision de Radio-Canada in French) and CBC Newsworld through cable subscription.
The years following, however, have been a sort of Dark Ages in the history of the CBC. Miserly budget slashings have resulted in severe cuts to staff and resources at a time when the nation’s public broadcaster is more needed than ever. While the recession of the early 1990s drove several private broadcasters off the air and forced others to amalgamate to cut down on costs, most private radio stations shifted their programming focus to attract advertising dollars. Radio journalism virtually disappeared. In this environment, CBC became the last bastion of Canadian news and information programming, which is reflected in the Broadcasting Act of 1991: CBC is supposed to provide “programming that informs, enlightens and entertains” that isn’t offered by private Canadian broadcasters. But with the budget cuts, this mandate may be threatened.
December 5, 1990, is known as Black Wednesday for obvious reasons: that day, the CBC board of directors told staff that over 1,000 of them would lose their jobs. Never before had the corporation issued so many pink slips. Then, during the fiscal year 1994-95, the CBC declared that more and even deeper cuts would have to be made. From April 1995 to April 1998, $414 million in federal funding was axed and 2,300 permanent jobs across the corporation were lost. For CBC Radio-considered the country’s most important cultural institution-this meant one third of its staff received layoff notices and the budget was gutted by 21 percent. Twilight fell over the jewel in the crown corporation.
The English component of CBC Radio is divided into two networks: Radio One and Radio Two, formerly called CBC Radio and CBC Stereo, respectively. The two major areas of Radio One are news and information. (Radio Two concentrates mainly on classical music, performing arts and culture.) The largest news-gathering organization in Canada, CBC Radio broadcasts the national news reports World Report, Canada at Five, The World at Six and The World This Weekend. (Regional CBC stations air their own hourly news with local coverage as well as national and international news from CBC Radio’s syndication service.) What CBC calls information programming is a separate unit, with its own shows and staffs. Defined as anything that isn’t hard news, it encompasses analysis, documentaries, sports and current affairs, with shows like Quirks & Quarks, Ideas and This Morning.
For CBC Radio’s news and information departments, this decade’s budget cuts, layoffs and restructuring meant that national information programs such as Morningside, Sunday Morning, Gabereau and Now the Details came to an end. Regional radio stations cancelled local shows, foreign bureaus were closed and remaining staff were often put into slots for which they didn’t have experience-reporters started editing tape and editors began reading newscasts. Almost overnight the staff had to become multiskilled, and journalists started to worry about the quality of the product they were putting on the air.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, on June 29 last year, senior radio management revealed an accounting error amounting to $3 million of the news and information budget. Managers never pinpointed how the mistake occurred or if spending was under control after the incident. Results from an inquiry into internal reporting and control systems were never released either to the staff or the public. As a result of all this, management had to cut another 14 positions and reduce spending in various areas, such as foreign coverage and travel.
In July, almost 300 employees signed an open letter to the CBC board of directors. Journalists demanded that a special investigation into the incident be undertaken by the auditor general, and they wanted to meet with the board to draw its attention to their “grave concerns about the deteriorating quality of CBC Radio’s news and information programming.” The board did not grant any of these demands, nor has it addressed the staff’s concerns.
In news, the budget cuts over the past few years have caused four big problems:
- Journalists work with little backup producing newscasts, increasing workloads.
- With fewer staff members, there’s less time for checking, which in turn leads to factual and language errors on the air.
- With announcers gone and sound technicians on the endangered-species list, journalists now read news and perform technical jobs, a policy known as “multiskilling,” often without adequate training. Some people don’t know how to read on the air, and many taped segments are of poor sound quality.
- With fewer Canadian foreign correspondents, and those remaining burdened with greater workloads, non-Canadian freelancers and wire services are increasingly becoming the source for world news.
Some of these problems apply to information programming as well. There are fewer documentaries being made and more items are being repeated. Some interviews are run longer, whether justified or not. Instead of producing original material, journalists find their time is increasingly eaten up with filing, tracking down guests and rewriting stories from the wires. Some argue that quality has declined because management decided to cut too quickly and in the wrong places. Given the problems associated with the budget slashing over the past few years, can CBC Radio live up to its mandate? Can it maintain the quality of programming that sets it apart from the privates? No, say many journalists who work, or have worked, at CBC Radio.
Bernie McNamee is one of the journalists who have opted for staying in the arms of Mother Corp. But he’s had reservations. Before becoming host of Canada at Five last September, he was host of The World This Weekend, a show that started in September 1994 with two producers, an editorial assistant, a host, an arts reporter and a sportscaster. By last year, there were only two people left: McNamee and Jim Handman, the producer. After the $3-million shortfall last summer, newsroom management told McNamee that Handman was going to be reassigned and not replaced. Instead, management discussed reconstructing the program.
“I was led to believe I would be a producer/host,” says McNamee, although that job description doesn’t exist within the CBC. He questioned how only one person would be able to research, write, edit, produce and host two half-hours of original programming every weekend and still maintain quality. Running a one-person newscast “is contrary to even the most basic journalistic standards,” wrote employees in a petition distributed last summer to the CBC board of directors. When an opportunity to replace Barbara Smith as host of Canada at Five arose, McNamee took it. Today, there’s still no permanent replacement for McNamee on The World This Weekend, and the program’s focus and direction are in question.
With fewer staff and staggering workloads, checking facts and scripts is in question too-it’s more and more becoming a thing of the past, increasing the potential for mistakes. Last fall, a news segment about the Health Protection Branch and results from a study into bovine growth hormone was aired on World Report in anticipation of a Senate hearing on the issue. But the hearing had been cancelled two days before the item was broadcast-which no one had time to check. The time spent on the story could have been devoted to something relevant that day. But there are lesser mistakes made all the time in language, grammar and pronunciation.
McNamee and David Tweedie put together the nine-and-a-half-minute Canada at Five newscast-which airs live in five time zones-with the help of writers and editors from other national news programs. There’s little time for vetting, and sometimes McNamee goes on the air without having read the copy beforehand. If he makes mistakes while reading on the air, it’s usually during the “fish edition.” Even if the second edition has one or two new stories, he’s already familiar with the rest. Still, errors slip through that shouldn’t.
In November, on a special phone-in segment on the noon-hour show Ontario Today, Alex Frame, then director of programming at CBC English Radio, took listener complaints and comments about the service. One loyal listener from Haliburton asked Frame if anyone in management is listening. There are errors on the air all the time, she complained. Pronunciation is inconsistent. One announcer, she said, trying not to be personal, refers to Radio “Niewn.” A second announcer drops his voice at the end of every sentence. “It’s depressing,” she said, referring to the dumbing down of CBC Radio.
In the past, there was a separation between announcers and journalists. It wasn’t until 1985 that reporters in the national newsroom started reading the news they’d written. Traditional announcers, or “golden throats,” argued that journalists wouldn’t sound as professional. But many journalists, including Vince Carlin-a CBC veteran and current chair of Ryerson Polytechnic University’s School of Journalism-can deliver a newscast with more authority than an announcer. (Peter Mansbridge, Alannah Campbell and Russ Germain are examples of good reporter/announcers.) This, however, depends on a commitment to training journalists, which as a result of the cuts isn’t always the case. “The presentation of a newscast is as important as its content,” says Carlin, who was the first person qualified as a “broadcast journalist” in national news. “People who make a lot of mistakes on the air don’t sound authoritative, no matter how good a journalist they are.”
With multitasking a reality at CBC Radio, journalists not only take on announcer jobs, they’re also forced to become skilled in technical areas. Those who still have jobs must learn how to edit tape since there are now fewer technicians to do it for them. Although the technical aspect isn’t as complicated now that digital sound is replacing analog tape, some say quality isn’t always up to the same standards as before. Paul McInnis, the technical associate producer on the Ottawa morning show, says sound quality isn’t as polished since reporters started doing their own tape, and sometimes reporters bring items that can’t be used at all. A few days a week there are feeds-taped items filed from other stations-that have to be thrown away.
On Ontario Today’s phone-in show, a listener from Manotick told Alex Frame that technical problems are common, particularly on the news side. Taped items differ hugely in volume compared to the live voice of the announcer, and some of them are so low they’re almost inaudible.
Dave Stephens, host of Ontario Today, worries CBC Radio is getting too thin on the technical side. When his program was in Toronto last fall for live broadcasts from the Royal Winter Fair, there weren’t enough technicians to do troubleshooting. When a problem occurred, the show went off the air from the site for 15 minutes. Someone in Ottawa had to fill in by reading scripts from the studio.
But it’s not only the national and regional newsrooms that have been affected by the cuts. International news coverage is being reduced. Ten years ago, CBC Radio had five full-time staff foreign correspondents: one each in Washington, Moscow and Johannesburg, and two in London, which is considered one of the most important locations in the world. The South Africa bureau disappeared three years ago. Today, there are only four full-time staff correspondents: Jennifer Westaway in Washington, Mike Hornbrook in Moscow, Patrick Brown in Bangkok and Rick MacInnes-Rae in London. Joan Leishman reports half-time for CBC Radio from Mexico City (she also reports for CBC-TV). But this is about to change. Come summer, the only full-time staff correspondents left will be Brown, Hornbrook and Westaway. Due to the mysteriously missing $3 million, MacInnes-Rae is being reassigned to Toronto. And in February, TV management unexpectedly decided to call back three of its correspondents, including Leishman. Yet, Frame, who was promoted to vice-president of English radio in January, insists foreign coverage is “operating at a consistent level.” By comparison, the British Broadcasting Corporation has 250 foreign correspondents and is now expanding its international coverage. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation boasts 22 full-time staff correspondents, nine of whom report for radio and four who file equally for radio and TV. Even Sweden, with a population less than a third of Canada’s, has a public radio service that employs 13 full-time correspondents and three contract stringers.
In response to journalists’ concern that foreign coverage would shrivel as a result of the $3-million debacle, CBC Radio management promised that “pocket bureaus” would be opened as events in far-flung countries warranted them. “That was the same bullshit they said when they opened the Delhi and South African bureaus,” says Michael McIvor, a CBC veteran with almost a decade’s experience as a foreign correspondent. “Where are those pocket bureaus? I’m not seeing them-it’s a fraud to pretend foreign coverage is sustained, because it isn?t.”
As in any other department of CBC Radio, the accumulated budget cuts have resulted in foreign correspondents doing more with fewer resources. McIvor remembers the effects of the early rounds of slashing. Correspondents were filing more and more stories for CBC Newsworld and the main TV network at the same time as they were filing for radio. “When you’ve got to file three or four times a day for radio as well as a television piece and a couple of question-and-answers for Newsworld, when is there time to do the original reporting?” asks McIvor.
Aside from spreading themselves too thin, foreign correspondents must devote more time to administrative details. With shrinking travel budgets, they’re often forced to stay in their offices, relying on feeds from wire services. But that’s no slight to the correspondents. Westaway’s work on the Clinton scandal, MacInnes-Rae’s stories on Iraq, Brown’s reporting on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hornbrook’s ongoing coverage of the crisis in Russia demonstrate they’re among the best the CBC has.
The Canadian perspective on world events is also being lost. With fewer staff correspondents travelling a lot less than before, CBC Radio has to rely more on freelancers, who are most likely to be American or British. If Hornbrook hadn’t been in Moscow last summer, Canadians might not have heard what the crisis there meant to our economy. Or if Leishman hadn’t been covering Latin America, Canadians might not have learned that of the 1,500 Canadians living in Colombia, none was hurt in the January earthquake. Freelancers are often skilled journalists, but they aren’t going to take the time to put news into context for one particular country or network. The more stories they file, the more they get paid. McIvor recalls a journalist in Moscow working for a major international newspaper who also filed for 20 other media outlets, making only minor changes to each story.
News is not alone on the budgetary operating table. Information programming has been hit too. The sports department, for instance, is down from 29 people in the late 1980s to seven today, with jobs lost across the country and in Toronto. To fill the loss in the regions, programming now originates in Toronto, increasing the workload of that now understaffed unit. Afternoon and evening sportscasts have disappeared, and weekend sports has been reduced to one segment on the Saturday edition of The World This Weekend. To fill more than 40 sportscasts each weekday morning, staffers now have to rewrite wire copy. Critics in the department say sports stories aired by CBC are no longer distinct from those of the private broadcasters.
Meanwhile, in the past five years, the science program Quirks & Quarks has had its staff reduced from three producers and one host to two producers and a half-time host (one producer was lost after the budget bungling last summer). It’s now more difficult to find content and guests for the show, and what might have been a feature story a year ago is more likely to be an interview today. Instead of one investigative story every week, listeners may only hear a handful per year. Quirks & Quarks staff complain that programming has been reduced to filling airtime rather than exploring complex ideas and creating a forum for discussion. Interviews are longer to make up for fewer items. “The program isn’t as good as it once was,” says Ann Stewart, one of the two remaining producers. “But I try not to think about it.”
Other information programs affected are This Morning and As It Happens. This Morning produces three hours of original programming every day except Saturday. That’s the same amount of airtime that Morningside andSunday Morning offered combined before they were folded into This Morning in September 1997. This Morning, however, has a staff of 26, about half the number working on the previous two shows. Michael Enright, who co-hosts This Morning, says radio can’t take the hit it has over the last five years without this having an impact on programming. If resources aren’t there anymore, you have to change the show.
In the case of This Morning, hard-hitting documentary series like the one on mental health in Canada that was aired last fall are becoming a rarity. Producers don’t have the opportunity they had on Sunday Morning to cover Canada and the world, since This Morning doesn’t have a travel budget. “Now, if we want to put one of our producers on a plane,” says Ira Basen, This Morning’s executive producer, “we have to apply for special funding.” The most recent time such expenses were granted was for the “Russia in Crisis” series in January, and before that for Israel’s 50th anniversary last year. Basen is concerned much of the programming consists of interviews from the Toronto studio, when the objective of journalism is to go places, get different points of view and have an analytical journalist figure out what’s going on. But it’s cheaper to produce interviews than sending somebody to a remote area of British Columbia to do a documentary on the Nisga’a treaty.
As It Happens has also shrunk, both in staff size and programming. Today, the show has 14 staff members and broadcasts nine to 10 items each day compared with 18 persons putting 12 to 13 items on the air three years ago. George Jamieson, a senior producer on As It Happens, says the show can put a program on the air with fewer bodies, but it can’t replace curiosity. One fewer brain means fewer ideas. Cutbacks have also meant that As It Happens has lost individuals with expertise in certain areas: one was a fluent Spanish speaker, another had covered Parliament for 10 years and knew the insiders, and a third spoke five languages and had grown up in Europe and southeast Asia. In their own ways, each of these individuals had strong journalistic backgrounds and was able to provide access to hard-to-find sources and countries that are difficult to penetrate.
When As It Happens started 30 years ago it was revolutionary. To call people about what had happened in the news that day hadn’t been done before. Instead of calling official spokespeople during the bombings in Northern Ireland, As It Happens researchers phoned local pubs. And the day Iran’s government put a bounty on Salman Rushdie, says Alan Guettel-a former producer on As It Happens now with the radio syndication unit-researchers were going full speed to get somebody at one of the Iranian phone numbers the show had on its Rolodex. One of the researchers dialed the wrong number but was fortunate to get someone on the line willing to be interviewed. Enright, who was host of As It Happens then, was rushed to the studio. “We got somebody on in Tehran!” That somebody wasn’t an official spokesperson, but an English-speaking Muslim architect who was glad to talk. He would have been honoured to take Salman Rushdie’s life. He would have done it for Allah.
That kind of luck doesn’t happen accidentally. Three researchers called Iran nonstop that day. “It’s much easier to take wire copy and say, ‘A bounty was put on Salman Rushdie’s head. Human-rights activists are aghast,'” says Guettel. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you haven’t done the job that could be done.”
Another information item that’s becoming rare on the public airwaves is radio documentaries. Radio documentary makers in Canada today broadcast their stories primarily on This Morning, Ideas and Out Front.(Before This Morning existed, they were also aired on Morningside and Sunday Morning, with the latter being their prime focus.) But the Sunday edition of This Morning airs only one documentary each week, compared to six or seven a week a decade ago on Sunday Morning. Documentaries are time consuming and a drain on shrinking resources, says Ira Basen. It’s difficult to take producers off the daily work to spend three weeks making a 25-minute documentary.
There are also more repeats of documentaries. Listeners responding to the Ontario Today phone-in show last November complained of hearing the same episode of Ideas three times. “We don’t have the money to do the number of additional editions of Ideas that we would like,” explained Alex Frame.
The people who make radio documentaries are hard to find at the CBC these days. Steve Wadhams is one of a handful of full-time documentary makers left. He was one of the founding journalists on Sunday Morningwhen it was launched in November 1976, and is one of a group of people who started specializing in documentaries for the show. With the budget squeeze of the 1990s, staff documentary specialists were let go to make room for freelancers. Now, Wadhams says, 80 percent of his work is taken up doing what he calls “documentary midwifery”-helping freelancers bring their stories to life, making sure no parts are missing. Many of the freelancers he works with now have very little experience with the genre or even with the medium. As a result, some pieces are inspired while others barely meet the CBC’s high standards. Using more freelancers means opening the doors to new ideas, but at the expense of established and skilled documentary makers.
Not all documentaries are expensive to produce. Alan Guettel points out that Sunday Morning was “a product of the cassette case.” You could put a fairly reliable machine in your bag, go into the prison that was the centre of Idi Amin’s terror and walk out with a nationally acclaimed documentary. In 1979, Wadhams toured Amin’s prison with a survivor. “Yes, this is blood on the floor. I think these are people who were murdered. You can even see the remains of their heads there. That one belonged to a boy. They brought him here thinking he was a guerrilla when he was just a student going to Kenya.” All it took to describe a boy who had been reduced to a stain on the floor was a cassette recorder and a plane ticket. “But we don’t have the plane ticket anymore,” complains Guettel.
With fewer plane tickets, foreign correspondents and technicians, inadequate training for multiskilling and less time for journalists to find and break stories, CBC Radio is struggling to keep up its image as Canada’s last fortress of serious journalism. But there are those who say the cuts are good. “Welcome to the real world,” says Ken Rockburn, host of Ottawa?s afternoon drive-home show and formerly employed by a private broadcaster. What exactly does he mean by “the real world”? Is the real world American-style commercial radio or is it news and information that matter to Canadians? Is it Howard Stern’s outrageously sexist “jokes” or is it a documentary on mental health in this country? If CBC Radio doesn’t offer programming that informs Vancouver stockbrokers about the life of Cape Breton miners, Toronto wildlife enthusiasts about prospecting in Temagami, Montreal shopkeepers about language laws or hemophiliacs about tainted blood, nobody will. Higher profit margins, not a higher purpose to inform the public, is what drives private radio. “That’s not a mandate that holds the country together,” says Guettel. Twilight hovers over the national public broadcaster. Or is that the shadow of the Grim Reaper coming closer?
Bernie McNamee sits in front of the computer, writing for the second edition of Canada at Five. On his desk there?s a six-inch mini colour TV showing Newsworld. Beside it is a photo of the original crew of The World This Weekend and a few issues of Toronto?s Star and Sun. The top national story this afternoon is the first test flight of an old Labrador helicopter, grounded since another Labrador crashed and killed six crew members last fall. A producer from The World at Six asks McNamee if there’s a clip from CFB Greenwood, where the Labrador took off. “Is there good helicopter sound?” asks the producer. McNamee pounds his fists on his chest like King Kong. As he speaks, his voice imitates the sound of a helicopter. “If you don?t have the sound, you make it,” he says, and the newsroom fills with laughter. Improvising sound effects may become a regular practice at CBC Radio if the budget cuts continue. Or perhaps the cuts will leave CBC Radio facing the same fate as the Labrador: it will disappear from the air.
Susan Nerberg was a Managing Editor, Production for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.