Southam lecturer champions public broadcasting

- Darcie Scollard

“You can’t know how nervous I am, so it’s really great to see some friendly faces here,” said popular CBC radio host and current Harvey Southam Lecturer in Journalism and Nonfiction Jo-Ann Roberts as she opened her public lecture “Public Broadcasting and the Public Good” on Jan. 30.

As part of her duties as this year’s Southam Lecturer, Roberts also teaches a course on issues in journalism that holds the same name as her lecture.

Host of the popular CBC radio show All Points West [], Roberts spoke passionately and comprehensively about current issues in Canadian public broadcasting.

Roberts stressed that she was not representing the CBC in her lecture. “I am not speaking on behalf of the CBC, I am speaking as an individual, as a journalist, as a taxpayer, and as someone who has worked for the CBC off and on since 1978.”

In a voice made for radio, she recounted some of the rich history of the CBC. “I want to go back to the environment that existed in the 1920s, when radio was just beginning and the factors that led to the birth of the CBC.”

She explained that the CBC was born in 1936 to protect the public resource of radio that was in danger of being overtaken by broadcasting coming in from the United States.

Roberts said the type of service that we know as the CBC began on another Canadian connector, the Canadian National Railway. To encourage people to ride the trains, they broadcast live music, speeches, and, of course, hockey games.

Radios quickly became commonplace in Canadian homes, and within months the CBC went from broadcasting only two hours a week, to one hour a night.

Of course there was some criticism, and in the early 1930s the attacks on the CBC broadcasts from anti-French groups centered around condemning bilingualism. Other attacks according to Roberts were more frivolous. She says, “Critics sneered at the syrupy crooners and that ‘trashy jazz’ that made up much of the music programming.”

When speaking about her experience researching the history of the CBC, Roberts said, “the more I study about the history the public broadcast in this country, the more I come to believe that it’s only the players and the technology that have changed.”

More than just reciting statistics, Roberts emphasized why it is important that average Canadians should connect with public broadcasting. “In many ways the values and the issues at the heart of the debate over public broadcasting in this country—that were there in the beginning—have remained the same. I also believe that this is a conversation that we should continue to have.”

Roberts frequently said throughout her lecture that now is the time to take action and start saving a part of our culture that is struggling to survive.

Following a long round of applause as Roberts concluded her lecture, the brief question-and-answer period brought forward a former CBC employee who began working in 1946. He conveyed his sadness over the increasing budget cuts and negative political attitudes towards the CBC. He concluded by asking the young students in the room to support public broadcasting.

Roberts reinforced the former employee’s points by saying, “I appreciate what you are saying. When I talk about encouraging a conversation, I don’t think the conversation should be to blame someone or to make it solely a political issue, but I would challenge those who are involved in politics to come up with some creative ways to provide a funding model that takes some of the politics out of it.”

Roberts concluding slide brought home the point of her lecture. The slide simply showed the audience a picture of a clock with the caption, “It’s time to consider the cost of cuts and talk about the future.”


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Keywords: journalism

People: Jo-Ann Roberts

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