Yesterday was Andy Barrie's last as host of CBC Radio's Toronto morning show. It's a shame. The shame isn't that he's going after 15 years. He has good reasons. It's that he wasn't there for 15 years before that.
Andy is like the Platonic model of what Canadian public broadcasting should be. This is despite the fact that he grew up in the United States, came here as a deserter in the Vietnam years and spent most of his career in private radio. Or maybe it's because of those things.
He says when he first arrived (he'd been a conscientious objector serving as a medic and only left when ordered into the indefensible hell of Vietnam), it was like coming home. So he's a sort of transnational. As if he had felt like a Canadian trapped inside a U.S. citizenship. He learned to talk Canadian by listening to the CBC. He valued it because we did; it wasn't just a boutique like NPR or PBS in the States. He was able to esteem what is here because it was fresh and new. While in private radio, he did an April Fool's debate based on a U.S. net, ABC, taking over CBC and calling it ABCBC. CBC never did anything as puckish or pertinent about its own role.
He's also the model of a public intellectual, a vague, overused term. Usually, it means a guy who talks like a prof but doesn't work at a university, or someone with tenure who goes on TV a lot. But it suits Andy: The intellectual part since, when he's on air, you sense a mind at work in real time, a rare thing in media. (It's even more interesting on TV, where you almost never see it. Make that never. No one ever gets an idea on TV. They spout ideas they already have.) The public part, because he treats us as citizens who share public, social concerns; we aren't just individual dorks preoccupied with buying things or extending our lifespan medically.
Contrast this with recent innovations at CBC News itself. They promise us news that "matters to you." This assumes we are shallow consumers who care only about bargains or health. So The National now leads with items on suspended drivers' licences in Toronto or the launch of the iPad. World stories zip by "in 80 seconds." I find myself turning, amazed, to CTV for serious reporting. CBC journalists (sic) wear rictus smiles; all their standing up is based on U.S. TV game shows such as Family Feud. They emit no sense that what "matters" equally to us may be justice, equality or planetary degradation. Andy's show grabbed and held first place in its slot based on respect for his listeners' intelligence. I presume the Einsteins who dumbed down the rest of CBC plan to move in and relevant it to death.
Tuesday, Andy did a typical interview with the U.K.-born ice dancing coach of a Toronto pair who finished 14th in Vancouver. He turned a delightful phrase: "Their inner children play together on the ice," since they've skated together since childhood. Later, he asked, as he said, a "strange" question: According the rules, it's always a man and a woman; why not same-sex? The coach, who we could tell was a trad type, said it would just feel wrong to him, although he admitted he often skates with the lads to show them how -- but he doesn't put on a dress to do it. Very gentle, kind of fun, it revealed something but it was up to us to decide what. At the end, the coach was effusively grateful, mostly for the respect shown him, I'd say.
Outside the CBC building in Toronto is a sculpture of Glenn Gould on a bench -- another CBC presence whose mind you could see at work. Edward Said says the humming on his records is to show us what he was thinking as he played. It was about an active mind, not a finished product. He never minded talking. He phoned CBC people at all hours. I imagine Andy sitting there with him. They talk, listen and think, as the world moves past them on Front Street.