on April 27, 2012
The tower of Babble by Richard Stursburg is a exciting and interesting read about Stursburg's six years as president of English language services at the CBC.
I really liked this book for a number of reasons.
As a CBC consumer I found a lot of his stories touched me through my personal experience watching the CBC
Stursberg writes well and clearly. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. And that makes for an exciting read.
And the CBC continues to occupy a key place in Canadian culture and his role is worth reading about.
His account stretches across many areas of interest. For examples begins with is enough inauspicious start in 2005 which leads quickly into the CBC strike and cutbacks. He is particularly good at discribing the bysantine world of internal CBC politics and the protectorates that had grown up at the CBC.
For those students of media bias in particular is worth reading to sections: first his part about the extremely unfair coverage reporters gave him during the CBC strike, and secondly his efforts to convince the Harper conservative government that English CBC was no more biased than the other two main networks. )This did not go well)
Hockey fans will be fascinated to read about the bidding war the rights to hockey night Canada and how CBC was outbid by CTV for the Olympic games rights.
Perhaps the most striking part of this book for me was how much I continue to consume of the CBC in my household-for example the CBC show "Heartland" is a big hit in my household. We have purchased several seasons of its DVDs. It turns out heartland was a key part of Stursberg's plans to make the CBC more relevant.
I can't attest to the accuracy of this first-person account. It certainly seems as if Stursburg is an excellent self-promoter. But, with that in mind, I think that his audacity has made for agreat read.
on October 1, 2012
Mr Stursberg's telling of his years (2004 - 2010) as head of CBC English services will be of interest to anyone who sees
"public" broadcasting as important in Canadian society. His story illustrates very clearly the difficulties faced by
anyone charged with deciding what the CBC should or can be doing, and how to do it. The first difficulty is that there seems to be no consensus among the Canadian public, politicians and the CBC board and executives as to what the purpose of
the CBC is.
When Stursberg took on the job, the CBC audience, especially for English TV, had been decreasing for years to a pitiful
level. "Why should public money be spent on such a minority audience" was a fair question. Some CBC tradionalists would
answer "the mandate", "quality" and "a higher purpose", which Stursberg calls "drivel". His answer was to promote popular
entertainment shows. "I have only one rule. Audiences matter." To the question "Why compete with the commercial stations
in producing light entertainment, which is already available in super abundance?" he answers that the popular shows on the
commercial channels are almost all American, because that's the cheapest way to make a profit. He did have significant
success in pushing the creation of Canadian shows, such as "Little Mosque on the Prairie" and several others, that gained
much larger audiences. This surely was a positive change. But he did also introduce "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune".
He felt that Radio 1 was doing well, having a substantial audience, mainly because commercial radio offered little besides
light music. But he did shake up news gathering and presentation on radio and TV. Radio 2 had become almost completely
devoted to more substantial music (colloquially called "classical"). Stursberg clearly has no interest himself in this
more serious music, saying that Radio 2 had become "a museum for the celebration of famous old European masterpieces",
whose composers were "long dead". He felt that the small audience could not justify this policy when contempory Canadian
music (by which he means what is colloquially called "pop" music) was not being broadcast by the CBC or commercial radio.
This again illustrates another basic question about the purpose of public broadcasting. How far should it go in catering
to minority interests? Those who enjoy more substantial music are also paying the taxes that support the CBC.
His stories about negotiating for sports contracts and trying to convince the CBC board to follow his lead are fascinating.
Indeed his job was very demanding. Eventually he lost the fight with the board and was fired. He thinks the future is bleak. If the CBC loses its last sports franchise, hockey, they will have no funds to fill the gap.
I found his style clear, simple and entertaining. The organisation into chapters on various aspects of the job: the strike,
news, radio, TV, money etc. works much better than a chronological arrangement would have. He is unashamed to show off some of his personal preferences, e.g. he can not understand why the news people think that the word "terrorist" is a
political epithet and prefer to use " ", he would not have minded opening up CBC radio to advertising and, as already noted, he has no sympathy for more serious music. But this only adds to the interest.
Myself I would love to see a strong public broadcasting system in Canada, with a budget sufficient to cater to various
segments (large and small) and interests of our population, indepentent of both the goverment and commercial interests.
It would also be nice if they really broadcast, i.e. they did not require me to pay a cable or satellite company to get
their signal. Of course no such thing is likely in the near future. But it can be done. The British pay seven times
as much per person as the Canadians do for the BBC (the "sainted" BBC as Stursberger calls them) and are richly rewarded
for that. Just look at the BBC web site and the variety they provide. The population of the UK is no more than twice the
population of Canada. Canada can do better. In the mean time, could we just have one show as exciting, moving and informative
as say "Garrison's Law"?
on May 11, 2012
I was quite surprised when I heard about his book on the CBC program Sunday Morning and wondered about his motivation for publishing it. As a CBC employee in English Services, I was eager to read Richard Stursberg's account.
I can't attest to the accuracy, completeness and impartiality of the CBC/SRC historical passages, but don't have any reason to doubt them. These accounts are used to frame his own personal experiences and provide excellent background and context. Even though I work there now and know something about the organization's evolution, I found it very educational to learn how his striving to drive change related to past events.
While I used to watch Richard Stursberg lead our "town hall" meetings, I was impressed by his swagger and confidence. It's amusing in the book how he demonstrates he's fully aware that some people view him as pompous. It's interesting to consider how likeability relates to his drive to both define success and to then succeed.
There are many funny passages that you don't have to be a CBC "insider" to understand and enjoy; the book is very accessible. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who has strong feelings about CBC. Though it doesn't leave one hopeful about the organization's future, it provides an excellent snapshot of management struggles behind the scenes and how they link to the audience experience.