“the broadcaster formerly known as the CBC”

Michael Geist thinks that the CBC needs to be reformed, or it may become, “the broadcaster formerly known as the CBC”:

The CBC can chart its own path by rethinking what it means to be a public broadcaster in the Internet era. Notwithstanding the importance of providing greater access to its content on all media platforms (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation provides a model by featuring an online portal with more than 20,000 video clips and access to 12 radio channels), the CBC would do well to innovatively collaborate with Canadians to bring their creativity to a wider broadcast audience.

Robert Paterson has just gone through a process of looking at the future of public radio in the US – a different kind of public radio from our publicly-funded model. Robert and his team worked for 10 months in engaging over 1,000 members of the NPR family and engaged them to create their own future, in light of their current situation:

The audience for public radio has grown substantially in the last 10 years from about 15 to 30 million. It is comprised of well educated people on the whole but its main characteristic is that its audience are curious. They have become fed up with the pablum, inanity and spin of commercial radio. Public Radio has become the most trusted source of news in the US and has been attracting some of the best journalists to its ranks such as Ted Koppel – who themselves are fed up with spin and trivia.

In the last year however, listener growth has halted. Some say that public radio has become too middle aged and too bland. With more choice, maybe people are going elsewhere? Many stations and NPR are trying new avenues such as Podcasting and Vcasting. Some are trying Blogging. Some like MPR have enlisted 17,000 volunteer Public Insight Journalists to help augment their newsroom.

I know that in its early days as a our national radio broadcaster, the CBC actively engaged a broad segment of the population. Two of the more populist programmes on early CBC radio were the Citizens’ Forum and the Farm Radio Forum.

Farm Forum innovations included a regional report-back system, whereby group conclusions were collected centrally and broadcast regularly across Canada, occasionally being sent to appropriate governments. In addition, discussion – leading to self-help – resulted in diverse community “action projects” such as co-operatives, new forums and folk schools. Farm and community leaders claimed that the give-and-take of these discussions provided useful training for later public life. In 1952, UNESCO commissioned research into Farm Forum techniques. Its report was published in 1954, and consequently India, Ghana and France began using Canadian Farm Forum models in their programs. [source no longer available]

Even as a one-way medium, CBC used innovations such as programme guides by mail one week in advance, local discussion groups and national feedback on individual responses that kept people actively involved. Imagine a group of farmers gathering at a neighbour’s house, bringing food for a communal supper, and then discussing issues of great social relevance, like the possibility of medicare.

If the CBC is truly to rethink its role in our society then it needs to engage in a process similar to what Robert did with NPR. The last thing we need is an internally focused review or something akin to a royal commission (remember how the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was lampooned on the Dead Dog Cafe?).

So here’s my question. Can our government and the CBC establishment actually carry off something that is open, engaging and transparent and truly rethink the CBC?

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