The hoopla surrounding the 75th birthday of the CBC last week provides a good occasion to recall how and why Canada got a national public broadcaster in the first place.
Radio was a new technology in the early 1930s — about as young, exciting and full of promise as the Internet is today.
In Canada, politicians, educators, business people, labour leaders, women’s groups farmers’ associations — you name it — were thinking about the best way to organize this new and dynamic form of communication.
The country, and the west in general, were in economic turmoil and social unrest was beginning to make itself felt. Much like today. Oh, and in Ottawa, a Conservative government was in power.
There were a few dozen radio stations in operation, nearly all of them privately owned, many by newspaper proprietors like those who owned Montreal’s La Presse. Some of the private stations were starting to affiliate with American networks such as NBC, which had a plan to extend its orbit into Canada.
A royal commission headed by the president of the Bank of Commerce, Sir John Aird, had recently made the bold recommendation that all broadcasting in Canada be organized as a national public service, but the government was dithering. Not surprisingly, the station owners were opposed and they had a strong lobby in Ottawa, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, formed in 1926.
In this context, an unlikely pressure group was born. The Canadian Radio League’s goal was to promote the idea of broadcasting as public service and the recommendations of the Aird Commission. Broadcasting should be put to educational and social purposes, and if a foreign model was to be followed, the BBC provided a more interesting template than U.S. commercial broadcasting.
The Radio League mobilized across class and linguistic lines and successfully set the tone of the public discourse. Its dynamic 30-year-old chief organizer, a former Rhodes scholar and future CCF activist by the name of Graham Spry, described the issue this way:
“Let the air remain as the prerogative of commercial interests and subject to commercial control, and how free will be the voice, the heart of democracy. The maintenance, the enlargement of freedom, the progress, the purity of education, require the responsibility of broadcasting to the popular will. There can be no liberty complete, no democracy supreme, if the commercial interests dominate the vast, majestic resource of broadcasting.”
The League argued that broadcasting was potentially so powerful an agency of communication that it should be publicly owned and operated, “that it should not primarily be adapted to narrow advertising and propagandist purposes by irresponsible companies subject to no popular regulation or control.”
Apparently, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett agreed, or at least he said he did. The prevailing nationalist feeling in the country at the time certainly helped the cause. Echoing the Aird Commission, which had written that “Canadians want Canadian radio,” Bennett told the House of Commons on Feb. 16, 1932, that the existing system was unsatisfactory, that “Canadians have the right to a system of broadcasting from Canadian sources… The enormous benefits of an adequate scheme of radio broadcasting controlled and operated by Canadians is abundantly plain.”
A few months later, parliament adopted Canada’s first Radio Broadcasting Act. Presenting the legislation, Bennett stated that “no other scheme than that of public ownership can ensure to the people of this country, without regard to class or place, equal enjoyment of the benefits and pleasures of radio broadcasting.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The Act established a national, publicly owned commission, which in 1936 became the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or CBC. It also provided for the eventual nationalization of all broadcasting under the ownership and authority of the public broadcaster.
Of course, that never happened and whether it would have been a good or a bad thing is impossible to say. What we do know is that public broadcasting in this country, for all its wonders and successes, has occupied an ever shrinking space in the overall broadcasting environment.
As Canada celebrates the 75th anniversary of the CBC, it is good to recall the original promise of public broadcasting. As we contemplate the new media landscape that is now taking shape we might consider that there could be a role for some combination of bold public leadership and popular pressure in shaping that landscape for the public good. Maybe the best way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the CBC would be to create a 21st-century Canadian Media League.
Marc Raboy holds the Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications at McGill University. He is the author of Missed Opportunities: The Story of Canada’s Broadcasting Policy.