What Is the cbc Good For?

Our pub­lic broad­caster charts its course in a world of Snapchat, click­bait, and teenage Youtube stars

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Tom Joki­nen

At the Cana­dian Broad­cast­ing Cen­tre in Toronto, I make a wrong turn. Third floor, east side: used to be the ra­dio news­room when I worked here ten years ago. Then, it was a fran­tic hub of cre­ativ­ity and hu­man dis­or­der, knee-deep in news­pa­pers and Sty­ro­foam Thai take­out con­tain­ers that popped when you stepped on them. To­day, it’s home to some­thing called Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Mar­ket­ing and Brand­ing, where peo­ple meet in glass board­rooms with catchy names. Sten­cilled onto the glass of the “Idea Room” are these words: Moder­nity. Tech­nol­ogy. Progress.

I find my bear­ings and make my way to the fourth floor, where staffers are hold­ing the morn­ing dig­i­tal-news meet­ing. Ifol­low the noise to a huge space with ac­tual walls. The vibe is ca­sual: fleece, hik­ing shoes, re­laxed ban­ter. Man­age­ment was kind enough to put in a foos­ball ta­ble, but there’s no ball for it. A TV mon­i­tor is perched on a stack of pho­to­copy pa­per. On the wall of the meet­ing room, an un­marked dry-erase board. On the ta­ble, an un­touched Globe and Mail. Thir­teen peo­ple are here, with one dis­em­bod­ied voice on a con­fer­ence call from Ot­tawa. It looks a bit like the old days, ex­cept for one big dif­fer­ence: ev­ery­one clutches a smart­phone and stud­ies it in­stead of mak­ing eye con­tact. Some clutch two.

The goal here is to re­view what hap­pened overnight, an­tic­i­pate what’s to come, and de­cide how to share all this with the Cana­di­ans who fol­low CBC News on­line and on their phones. Such daily hud­dles are cru­cial for a pub­lic broad­caster des­per­ate to stay rel­e­vant at a time when peo­ple are con­sum­ing me­dia in en­tirely new ways. “If we were start­ing over,” CBC pres­i­dent and CEO Hu­bert Lacroix said last year when de­scrib­ing Strat­egy 2020: A Space for Us All, the cor­po­ra­tion’s lat­est five-year blue­print, “the smart money would in­vest ev­ery­thing into dig­i­tal.”

It’s hard not to feel that the CBC is, in­deed, start­ing over. Strat­egy 2020’ s sig­na­ture motto is “mo­bile first,” which means mak­ing the smart­phone au­di­ence the top pri­or­ity, and cre­at­ing con­tent specif­i­cally for it. It’s a man­date that, by re­al­lo­cat­ing re­sources tra­di­tion­ally ear­marked for tele­vi­sion and ra­dio, prom­ises to trans­form the com­pany. Noth­ing will be spared: news, cur­rent af­fairs, en­ter­tain­ment, chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming. The aim is that by 2020, one out of ev­ery two Cana­di­ans — 18mil­lion peo­ple — will ac­cess the CBC dig­i­tally. What the CBC will look like if that hap­pens is any­body’s guess.

Yes­ter­day, po­lice in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, re­leased a dash­cam video of of­fi­cers shoot­ing an un­armed black man. “Run it on the web­site,” says one pro­ducer. “Do we ob­scure the video out of re­spect for the dead man?” asks an­other. “No need.” The video was shared ex­ten­sively on­line, unedited, be­fore any­one at this meet­ing got out of bed. The con­ver­sa­tion shifts to Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, who are both vis­it­ing the United Na­tions in New York to­day: Trudeau, to give his first UN ad­dress as prime min­is­ter, and Obama, to de­liver his fi­nal UN speech as United States pres­i­dent. The pro­duc­ers de­cide to carry the ad­dresses on Face­book Live. A new project by Gord Downie, of the Trag­i­cally Hip? The team de­cides to “push so­cial,” which means: get the story out on Twit­ter, Face­book, Youtube, and In­sta­gram. There’s plenty of nod­ding. What about the story the Globe ran about a new ex­tra­di­tion deal with China? There’s si­lence. “Sounds like talk at this point,” de­cides one edi­tor, which is a po­lite way of say­ing: noth­ing jumps out that will silk-purse this sow’s ear into a sexy dig­i­tal story. Leave it to ra­dio.

Back at his of­fice, Brodie Fen­lon, a se­nior news di­rec­tor, dis­cusses the meet­ing with me. Time moves quickly for his team. De­ci­sions are made and de­ferred, but the point is to come to some agree­ment about what to ob­sess over to­day. In the past, they had two ways to show­case those ob­ses­sions: ra­dio and TV. Now there are “plat­forms.” Take Face­book Live, which streams live video to so­cial-me­dia sub­scribers. It didn’t even ex­ist a year ago, says Fen­lon, but it’s al­ready “an in­te­gral part of our as­sign­ment.” This is the CBC’S new re­al­ity: get fa­mil­iar with the dig­i­tal

land­scape, and fast. “We place our bets and fig­ure out what works,” says Fen­lon. “When we get there, some­thing else comes along — like Snapchat.”

Snapchat is a so­cial-me­dia app that al­lows peo­ple to send pho­tos or video as mes­sages. Once viewed, the “snaps” self-de­struct — a trick that has made the com­pany the undis­puted global plat­form for dick pics. But the app has big­ger plans. Snapchat Dis­cover, first in­tro­duced in 2015, has be­come a sought-af­ter ve­hi­cle for me­dia com­pa­nies who want to reach a younger au­di­ence. Es­sen­tially a dig­i­tal news­stand, Dis­cover’s of­fer­ings in­clude doc­u­men­taries, in­ves­tiga­tive fea­tures, and ar­ti­cles. Up­loaded daily, the con­tent van­ishes af­ter twenty-four hours — but not be­fore the more pop­u­lar posts have cap­tured mil­lions of views.

If Strat­egy 2020 takes hold, the CBC will prob­a­bly have to fig­ure out how to pack­age the range of its re­port­ing for Snapchat, as news out­lets like the BBC and CNN have done al­ready. But by the time you read this, the au­di­ence may have moved on to a newer, flashier plat­form— In­sta­gram Sto­ries, say — and Fen­lon and his team will be scram­bling to get their heads around the next fad. “We’re build­ing the car while we’re driv­ing it,” he says, “and it may turn out to be an air­plane.”

That’s fine. One ex­pects a pub­lic broad­caster to pay at­ten­tion to cur­rents and tides. But rather than ex­cite­ment about new tech­nol­ogy, there’s a very dif­fer­ent feel­ing in this build­ing: anx­i­ety. The new cor­po­rate strat­egy pro­poses a fu­ture in which ev­ery­one is on dig­i­tal, con­sum­ing their news and en­ter­tain­ment on de­vices. But what if it’s wrong? You only have to look at the Toronto Star’s ex­per­i­ment with cre­at­ing a tablet edi­tion of its news­pa­per to see how the rush to dig­i­tal can end up be­ing a colos­sal, ex­pen­sive, and em­bar­rass­ing dis­as­ter. Launched in 2015 and ag­gres­sively mar­keted, Star Touch was shut­tered this year be­cause of low read­er­ship. It was a 20 mil­lion dol­lar mis­cal­cu­la­tion that ended up cost­ing roughly seventy peo­ple their jobs.

Walk­ing on the sec­ond floor be­tween colour-coded el­e­va­tors, I see a pic­ture in an of­fice win­dow, held in place by closed Vene­tian blinds. It’s like some kind of tal­is­man of the past — a faded pub­lic­ity shot of com­edy duo Wayne and Shus­ter. I am not a fan of nos­tal­gia: glory days usu­ally prove never to have ex­isted. But the pic­ture’s pres­ence seems re­bel­lious, be­cause these tuxe­doed corn­ball ge­niuses — who got their first CBC show in 1946 and were off the air by 1989 — don’t fit into an evolv­ing im­age of a for­ward-look­ing, plugged-in, hip CBC.

Since its founding in 1936, the CBC has rou­tinely been ac­cused of stodgi­ness. But as the broad­caster adapts to chang­ing me­dia con­di­tions and grows more elab­o­rate, it har­bours am­bi­tions that threaten to out­strip its own abil­ity to de­fine it­self. Jef­frey Dvorkin, once a man­ag­ing edi­tor of CBC Ra­dio News and now head of the jour­nal­ism pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Scar­bor­ough cam­pus, puts it this way: “When me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions lose sight of their pur­pose, they em­brace tech­nol­ogy without re­ally un­der­stand­ing what it is.”

In the CBC’S past, we find ex­am­ples of ex­cel­lence in which new or emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy barely fig­ured: Morn­ing­side, This Hour Has Seven Days, The Great East­ern, and, more re­cently, Wire­tap. These shows were about writ­ing, per­for­mance, the va­garies and com­plex­i­ties of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion — not elec­tron­ics. It’s a legacy the broad­caster ig­nores at its peril.

Heather con way, the CBC’S ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent on the English side, has a mod­est of­fice on the sev­enth floor of the cor­po­ra­tion’s Toronto head­quar­ters. I wait for her in an open car­peted space the size of a bas­ket­ball court. It’s empty but for two black vinyl couches pushed close to­gether as if mark­ing a spot on the car­pet where one might build a fire for warmth.

The space is un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tion as the CBC shrinks its foot­print in the build­ing and rents out of­fice space it no longer needs. The mood is ghostly: hu­man be­ings used to work here, be­fore the down­siz­ing and re­con­fig­ur­ing — all the eu­phemisms for peo­ple los­ing their jobs.

It’s im­por­tant to note that de­spite the CBC’S cut­back tar­gets — it aims to shed 1,150 full-time po­si­tions by 2020 — it also plans to hire 300 new em­ploy­ees “in the next years” to im­prove the com­pany’s dig­i­tal skills. Whether that will mean more coders, more in­ter­ac­tive jour­nal­ists, or more thought lead­ers who would help shape the com­pany’s ul­tra­mod­ern ethos re­mains un­clear. What Strat­egy 2020 does make clear is that the CBC wants its cre­ative peo­ple to think, a lot, and of­ten, about smart­phones and what to put on them. To drive home the point, TVS hang near most el­e­va­tors in the build­ing, show­ing the lat­est Chart­beat met­rics on how Cana­di­ans are us­ing cbc.ca: 57,852 con­cur­rent vis­i­tors at 11 o’clock in the morn­ing, grow­ing to 60,832 an hour later. Is this good? It’s just meta­data, but the ef­fect is of watch­ing koi in a pond, see­ing where they feed, for how long, and in what parts of the in­for­ma­tion pool.

A story about the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line, for ex­am­ple, has 1,251 views. But the top story on the CBC, with 4,109 views, is about a Kingston land­lord up­set that his ten­ants have been keep­ing live­stock in their apart­ment: a goat, rab­bits, chick­ens, “def­i­nitely” quails, ac­cord­ing to the land­lord. The rea­sons one story has four times as many clicks as the other are not all that com­pli­cated. One story ad­vances your un­der­stand­ing of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic forces in Canada. The other you can prac­ti­cally smell, and is more likely to show up on your Face­book time­line.

The ques­tion is: Which of those two sto­ries rep­re­sents the fu­ture of the CBC? It’s the clas­sic click­bait dilemma. Do you draw peo­ple in us­ing cat videos, then hit them with the hard jour­nal­ism they need? But the strat­egy is flawed. You end up with a news ser­vice that’s all over the map, try­ing hard to be liked. When I talk to Fen­lon about met­rics, he says, “It’s healthy and good to do a gut check with what we think is im­por­tant and how that’s play­ing with the au­di­ence, but it’s just one of many fac­tors.” Which is to say that, in the news­room, an edi­tor’s in­stinct about news value will be in­formed, but not de­ter­mined, by num­bers. Still, by the el­e­va­tor, there’s the in­sis­tent sta­tis­ti­cal hum that tells a pro­gram­mer what peo­ple re­ally want — and it’s not pipe­lines. Who doesn’t want to give peo­ple what they want? Es­pe­cially if you’re look­ing to round up 18 mil­lion of them by 2020.

“Peo­ple’s view­ing habits are shift­ing away from sched­uled con­tent to on-de­mand con­tent,” Heather Con­way tells me. “In ra­dio, they’re shift­ing from lin­ear lis­ten­ing in the car or home to stream­ing.” She holds up her smart­phone. “I have one of these,” she says. “Most Cana­di­ans have one, too, and they check them all day long. And one of their favourite things to check is CBC. So by the time you get to the sup­per hour, you ac­tu­ally know the news. What you’re in­ter­ested in is what’s next.”

For pro­gram­mers at the CBC, the mes­sage is sim­ple: Think about dig­i­tal. All. The. Time. But mak­ing ra­dio and TV with that in mind is more chal­leng­ing. A ra­dio pro­ducer I know there tells me that, so far, she’s had lit­tle guid­ance about how to, as she puts it, “up the dig­i­tal game.” The com­pany should ap­peal to younger lis­ten­ers, one man­ager told her. That same man­ager said, vis-à-vis the vi­sion thing, that in five years peo­ple will be us­ing driver­less cars, so the CBC needs to think about cre­at­ing pro­gram­ming for peo­ple who are in cars but don’t have to fo­cus on driv­ing. “I have hon­estly tried

to un­der­stand our mis­sion or man­date,” she says, “but the mes­sage from man­age­ment has been vague and con­fus­ing.”

All she knows, she says, is that ev­ery Fri­day, she gets an email an­nounc­ing the top dig­i­tal sto­ries for their divi­sion (of­ten the quirky ones), and that ev­ery­one wants to be men­tioned in this re­port and are gut­ted if they’re not. “Our num­bers suck,” she says of the ra­dio show she works on. “So a group of us tried to fig­ure out how to bet­ter mar­ket our show. We’re not mar­ket­ing ex­perts, but no one else is do­ing it for us.” They hashed out ways to make Twit­ter more ef­fec­tive in boost­ing their num­bers. But, she asks, “Are we even mak­ing ra­dio any­more?”

Those con­cerns sounded fa­mil­iar. I heard sim­i­lar things in 1992, when I started as a ra­dio pro­ducer. At that time, the cor­po­ra­tion’s pres­i­dent was Gérard Veilleux. His idea, which he had cooked up with pen and pa­per on a Cana­dian Air­lines flight from Ed­mon­ton to Ot­tawa the year be­fore, was even­tu­ally dubbed “repo­si­tion­ing.” At the time, the tele­vi­sion au­di­ence was shrink­ing, and the fear was that things would only get worse thanks to satel­lites — nick­named “death stars” — which could broad­cast hun­dreds of spe­cialty chan­nels for ev­ery taste, leav­ing gen­eral-in­ter­est net­works like the CBC in the dust. New tech­nol­ogy called for change, so Veilleux and his se­nior pro­gram­mers dreamed up a brand­ing ex­er­cise that, they said, would win back view­ers by re­mind­ing them of how dis­tinc­tive and vi­tal the CBC was.

It was a rat­ings dis­as­ter. A de­ci­sion was made to move the flag­ship news­cast The Na­tional from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. be­cause it was as­sumed that view­ers’ habits were chang­ing (Veilleux claimed they were go­ing to bed ear­lier). A new logo was cre­ated. Other than that, very lit­tle di­rec­tion was of­fered to the pro­gram­mers who were ex­pected to re­po­si­tion the net­work: they re­ceived no clear set of march­ing or­ders to help them ad­dress, through their craft, what it meant to live, work, and raise fam­i­lies in Canada. “Noth­ing was spelled out,” com­plained the late Knowl­ton Nash in The Mi­cro­phone Wars (1994), his his­tory of the CBC. Ger­ald Ca­plan, a pub­lic-pol­icy ex­pert who co-chaired a govern­ment task force on Cana­dian broad­cast­ing in the 1980s, called Veilleux’s shakeup “a way to make sure I watch as lit­tle CBC Tele­vi­sion as pos­si­ble. And,” he con­tin­ued, “it’s work­ing.” The Na­tional even­tu­ally moved back to its old slot, and Veilleux moved on to an­other job. The new logo re­mained.

The plan ex­posed the CBC for what it was, and in some ways still is: a pub­lic broad­caster in a state of tech­no­log­i­cal panic. “Each new wave of man­agers that come in,” says Barry Kiefl, pres­i­dent of Cana­dian Me­dia Re­search Inc. in Ot­tawa and for­mer head of re­search at the CBC, “get caught up in these met­rics that they think are mean­ing­ful be­cause oth­ers in the in­dus­try use them.” In other words, the CBC’S cur­rent strug­gle to gauge suc­cess us­ing terms like “con­cur­rent vis­i­tors” and “en­gaged min­utes” isn’t so much about me­dia man­agers adapt­ing to tech­nol­ogy as it is about their be­ing se­duced by the fu­ture and all its buzz words. The ar­chi­tects of Strat­egy 2020 might want to pay at­ten­tion to the wrecks in their rear-view mir­ror —if only to make sure that some­thing like repo­si­tion­ing doesn’t hap­pen again.

The youtube space at Toronto’s Ge­orge Brown Col­lege opened in April 2016. On one Fri­day the fol­low­ing win­ter, I show up for an event hosted by the CBC. The room is loft-like: white walls, an ex­posed ceil­ing, track light­ing, and what ap­pear to be car­peted blocks for cre­ative young peo­ple to sit on.

I’m clearly the old­est of the crowd, which num­bers about thirty. Most of the other at­ten­dees pro­duce Youtube videos on their own chan­nels: how-to, com­edy, mu­sic (“Do you do metal? I do metal”). One of them makes video com­pi­la­tions of con­tent from other Youtube cre­ators. Ex­am­ple: the top five videos of peo­ple flip­ping plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles so that they land upright, the twen­ty­five fun­ni­est acts of van­dal­ism, the top fif­teen ghost videos. He’s here to see whether the CBC wants to do busi­ness with him. He has nearly 2mil­lion sub­scribers. For con­text, CBC News on Youtube has 361,000 sub­scribers, and The Na­tional has 119,000.

These Youtu­bers are be­ing scouted as free­lancers for the CBC. It’s all part of what Abby Ho, then head of the CBC’S Cre­ator Net­work, calls “fa­cil­i­tat­ing emerg­ing tal­ent” — or, if you will, sourc­ing un­con­ven­tional fare for use on spe­cialty chan­nels, both on­line and mo­bile. “Our goal,” says Ho, “is to cre­ate a range of dig­i­tal con­tent that meets the needs of Canada’s di­verse pop­u­la­tions.” The busi­ness model seems ob­vi­ous: drive the kind of traf­fic that legacy me­dia can only dream of. A grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple have given up on tele­vi­sion al­to­gether and are look­ing for fresh ma­te­rial on Youtube or via Face­book and any num­ber of other apps. The pro­duc­tion model is also ap­peal­ing: young peo­ple who might never oth­er­wise have scored a con­tract at the CBC are get­ting their work shown there af­ter all, and a lot of them are gifted.

One such cre­ator is Toronto-based Wendy Liu. Through her Youtube chan­nel With wendy, which has 540,000 sub­scribers , Liu teaches peo­ple to sew clothes and ac­ces­sories, such as mini-back­packs and wrap dresses, from scratch. On one episode of her CBC Life show, Dol­lar Store DIY, she of­fers in­struc­tions on how to make an “adorable and easy” ad­vent cal­en­dar from low­cost ma­te­ri­als. The grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of such Youtu­bers among younger au­di­ences has led the broad­caster to part­ner with an Amer­i­can me­dia com­pany called Fullscreen, which claims bil­lions of video view­ings an­nu­ally and pro­duces such orig­i­nal shows as Mak­ing Moves (about a dancer who “nav­i­gates the cut­throat LA dance scene and high stakes world of in­ter­net star­dom”) and King­dom Geek (a talk show with a co-host who “breathes geek cul­ture, es­pe­cially all things su­per­hero”). The Youtube and on­line en­trepreneurs who work for Fullscreen — the com­pany boasts a ros­ter of 70,000 cre­ators from across the globe — will sup­ply ma­te­rial for the CBC’S TV net­work and dig­i­tal chan­nels. The main hope is that the traf­fic will cre­ate a so­cial-me­dia gateway to the CBC’S own prop­er­ties.

We watch a “siz­zle reel”— a tightly edited mon­tage of var­i­ous CBC Youtube chan­nels. Clips from web-based sit­coms

What does it mean to tell Cana­dian sto­ries “the way we do”? This ex­is­ten­tial puz­zle has dogged the cor­po­ra­tion for decades.

and makeup tu­to­ri­als. Footage of flam­boy­ant vlog­gers and young peo­ple in Uniqlo­like garb. There’s an em­pha­sis on di­ver­sity, and the whole thing is set to a high-en­ergy rock track. Some of the mon­tage looks and sounds fa­mil­iar, but much of it doesn’t. In a way, it’s re­fresh­ing — up­beat, dy­namic. The qual­ity is high. Yet dur­ing our talk, Dvorkin ex­pressed un­easi­ness with the “mo­bile first” ma­nia driv­ing in­ter­est in such con­tent. Of his old em­ployer, he says, “They have anx­i­ety about be­ing ac­cused of be­ing elit­ist and are con­vinced that be­ing pop­u­lar and hav­ing rat­ings is the only def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess.” Be­sides, he con­tin­ues, CBC man­agers are “just like any con­sumer.” They get wowed by new tech and gad­gets.

View­ers wit­nessed some of the per­ils of this tech gid­di­ness last Oc­to­ber, when for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Nahlah Ayed was as­signed to a refugee res­cue ship in the Mediter­ranean. She worked up ma­te­rial for The Fifth Es­tate, but she also ap­peared on Face­book Live, re­port­ing from the deck in the mid­dle of the morn­ing, Toronto time. View­ers were in­vited to send ques­tions. A num­ber of com­menters were in the mood to rat­tle on about the CBC. “Why go live when you refuse to run sto­ries hon­estly... zero in­tegrity,” wrote one viewer. “It’s TIME to cut the lib­eral news sta­tion loose,” an­other said. The rest ar­gued over the is­sue of refugees. Dump them in Italy, tell them Canada is full, screen the boat for ter­ror­ists, send them back home — and all this while Ayed was en­gaged in a risky as­sign­ment.

Not, per­haps, what the CBC had in mind for this ex­per­i­ment. But it was in­struc­tive. On the one hand, it’s a bold move to take a re­porter in a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion and put her in a live video on a so­cial-me­dia plat­form that just this year hit 2 bil­lion users world­wide. On the other, ed­i­to­rial con­trol suf­fers when such projects turn into fo­rums for trolls. That’s one of the flaws of “mo­bile first”: it en­cour­ages peo­ple to think about the plat­form first, then plug in the story and hope for the best.

The other flaw is more fun­da­men­tal. The glossy Strat­egy 2020 fea­tures a photo of joy­ful young peo­ple ly­ing on grass, hold­ing tablets and smart­phones. But what if the brave new world where ev­ery­one smiles at a de­vice is, if not a fic­tion, at least over-imag­ined? “The un­der-re­ported sur­prise story in this pe­riod of great tech­no­log­i­cal up­heaval,” says Gre­gory Tay­lor, a pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Me­dia, and Film at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary, “is the con­tin­ued re­silience of tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion. Yes, cable has seen a drop in num­bers, but many of those are peo­ple who sim­ply moved to new ser­vices: Bell Fibe, Telus Op­tik. Since Net­flix launched in Canada, tra­di­tional TV view­ing has dropped from 28 to 27.4 hours a week — hardly a dis­as­ter.” In other words, the tech­no­log­i­cal change that is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing might not be enough to war­rant “flip­ping” the CBC’S pri­or­i­ties by 2020. Putting dig­i­tal first ig­nores how peo­ple use the ra­dio for com­pany, while do­ing chores or pre­tend­ing to work. It ig­nores how peo­ple keep the tele­vi­sion on dur­ing a crisis, how much au­thor­ity it car­ries.

One mis­take the CBC lead­er­ship made in 1992 with repo­si­tion­ing was to try to fight the death stars by be­com­ing one. As well as mov­ing the time of The Na­tional, they di­vided the TV sched­ule into spe­cialty blocks: kids pro­gram­ming blocks, adult en­ter­tain­ment blocks, in­for­ma­tion blocks. View­ers were be­wil­dered. The CBC’S cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal panic could pro­duce a sim­i­lar re­sult: the cor­po­ra­tion is push­ing con­tent onto so­cial me­dia be­fore it knows whether it’s build­ing a car or an air­plane. To­day, the CBC of­fers French, English, and Indige­nous ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, as well as spe­cialty and me­dia-part­nered pro­gram­ming. Pod­casts, too. Com­mis­sioned en­ter­tain­ment is big bud­get, like Schitt’s Creek, or low bud­get, like With­wendy. The CBC is news on the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line pro­duced by pro­fes­sion­als. The CBC is vi­ral con­tent on Youtube pro­duced by am­a­teurs. The CBC is, in a word, ex­haust­ing.

Not that the CBC has cor­nered the mar­ket on over­do­ing it. The Globe and Mail pro­duces pod­casts, such as Colour Code, hosted by Denise Balkissoon and Han­nah Sung, which fo­cuses on race in Canada. This is a news­pa­per mak­ing ra­dio. The Na­tional Post pur­chases video-news packs by the Cana­dian Press and then posts them on its web­site. This is a news­pa­per be­ing a tele­vi­sion sta­tion. Snapchat is work­ing on an orig­i­nal re­al­ity show called Sec­ond Chance, in which cou­ples who are no longer cou­ples dis­cuss why their re­la­tion­ships didn’t work. This is a photo app be­ing ev­ery spe­cialty lifestyle chan­nel you don’t watch. “Ev­ery­body’s do­ing ev­ery­thing,” ad­mits Fen­lon, which is as good a de­scrip­tion of the me­dia land­scape as any.

“It’s a crowded place,” he says of the so­cial-me­dia turf the CBC cov­ets, “and ev­ery English-lan­guage pub­lisher is ba­si­cally com­pet­ing for at­ten­tion with ev­ery other English-lan­guage pub­lisher. But no one tells Cana­dian sto­ries the way we do, and no one is in Canada the way we are.” This is the CBC’S trump card: if it’s pre­pared to be un­abashedly Cana­dian in a mi­lieu where no one else sees much com­mer­cial value in do­ing the same, it will en­joy the ben­e­fits of be­ing dif­fer­ent. But it’s im­por­tant to say this out loud, and of­ten — at least as of­ten as CBC man­age­ment uses the term “mo­bile first.” Bet­ter to say “Canada first,” on ra­dio, tele­vi­sion, and mo­bile.

What does it mean to tell Cana­dian sto­ries “the way we do”? This ex­is­ten­tial puz­zle has dogged the cor­po­ra­tion for decades. In the 1950s, a time when the de­bate over pub­lic broad­cast­ing was in­tensely po­lit­i­cal, the Massey Com­mis­sion opted to de­fine the CBC in the neg­a­tive: it was not Amer­i­can. Be­yond that, things have stayed vague.

“When I drive across the coun­try,” says Heather Con­way, “I don’t even need to hear the call let­ter. I know how to find the CBC, be­cause it sounds like noth­ing else on the dial.” She’s right: the sound and look of the CBC are not an ac­ci­dent, and have al­ways been de­lib­er­ate. Peter Gzowski had it, Stu­art Mclean had it, Michael En­right, Rose­mary Bar­ton, and Matt Gal­loway have it: they un­der­stand there is re­ally only one lis­tener or viewer. The re­la­tion­ship is in­ti­mate.

Where some pri­vate broad­cast­ers go wrong is in think­ing of an au­di­ence, of the many, and then hol­ler­ing ma­te­rial over ev­ery­one’s head to the back of the hall. It’s like hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a stage actor who’s still in char­ac­ter. At times, the CBC makes the same mis­take. But its legacy is the voice in your ear, the feel­ing that some­one is talk­ing di­rectly to you. The CBC could use its own Jane Ja­cobs, some­one who could put a halt to the fran­tic con­struc­tion of hi-tech ex­press­ways and look again at the old neigh­bour­hoods to see what’s worth pre­serv­ing. In the old neigh­bour­hoods of the CBC, there has al­ways been quiet re­spect for hu­man dig­nity and the power of lis­ten­ing. Only af­ter that comes re­spect for im­age and sound: the craft. If the CBC wants to be “mo­bile first,” it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that there’s never

been a more in­ti­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool than the smart­phone. It is most of­ten held, watched, or read by one per­son. It is not a place for broad­cast­ing. It is a place for one-on-one con­tact.

It’s also worth re­mem­ber­ing that if Cana­di­ans are drawn to the CBC, it’s not for its tech­no­log­i­cal savvy. Chris Boyce was the di­rec­tor of ra­dio and au­dio for English CBC. He left two years ago in the wake of the Jian Ghome­shi scan­dal. Now he’s coowner of a pod­cast com­pany based in Bri­tish Columbia. He sug­gests that Strat­egy 2020 may not be a rad­i­cal move that will put the CBC on the cut­ting edge so much as it is a new ex­pres­sion of the on­go­ing con­fu­sion the cor­po­ra­tion has faced in the mod­ern era: Why are we here? What do we do, and how do we mea­sure our suc­cess at do­ing it? “In my pe­riod at the CBC,” he says, “a lot of time was spent run­ning in cir­cles be­cause no­body could fig­ure out if we were do­ing what we were sup­posed to be do­ing. And in the ab­sence of an ar­tic­u­lated vi­sion, ev­ery­one filled in the blanks in the way they wanted, or the way that fit their view of what pub­lic broad­cast­ing should be.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. The BBC, too, has made dig­i­tal a pri­or­ity, shift­ing to a “mo­bile-first propo­si­tion”—as de­scribed in its 2017 an­nual plan—that fea­tures “short­form jour­nal­ism and visual sto­ry­telling.” But the BBC also says it will em­pha­size “slow news”: a deeper, long-form fo­cus on cur­rent events and is­sues. While the CBC uses words like “trans­form” and “in­no­va­tion” in its Strat­egy 2020, the BBC is declar­ing up front that it will keep do­ing what it does best, damn the met­rics.

Is the CBC di­lut­ing its mis­sion by tak­ing on too much? For Boyce, that’s the dark heart of the mat­ter. He thinks the great tragedy of the CBC is that it is ut­terly un­able to free up re­sources to do things it ab­so­lutely must do to re­main rel­e­vant. “Does it make sense to con­tinue cre­at­ing sup­per-hour news­casts?” he asks. “Is that the most cost-ef­fec­tive way to reach Cana­di­ans with lo­cal CBC con­tent?” Boyce doesn’t think so. “But no­body wants to be the ex­ec­u­tive that killed lo­cal sup­per­hour news on CBC.”

Also, the coun­try’s changed. There are six times more peo­ple in Sar­nia, On­tario, than in Grand Falls–wind­sor, New­found­land, but it was only the lat­ter that had (at least un­til last year) a CBC sta­tion. There are shows on CBC Ra­dio and Tele­vi­sion that have been around for­ever and that are ex­pen­sive to pro­duce, but that no longer com­mand au­di­ences the way they used to. “We don’t live in a world of limitless re­sources; we live in a world where we needed to make tough de­ci­sions about what to stop do­ing, so we could start do­ing new things,” says Boyce.

But do­ing new things also means un­der­stand­ing why you’re do­ing them. The CBC has asked the fed­eral govern­ment for an­other $400 mil­lion to run an ad­ver­tis­ing-free op­er­a­tion, which it ar­gues would stim­u­late the cre­ative mar­ket­place: more doc­u­men­tary and en­ter­tain­ment pro­gram­ming would have to be com­mis­sioned to fill all the freed-up time on TV, ra­dio and smart­phones. If the cor­po­ra­tion wants that money, it re­ally needs to come up with a vi­sion —whether it’s one that in­cor­po­rates lessons from the past, or one that reaf­firms that front­line pro­gram­mers can be trusted to fol­low their in­stincts.

What the CBC can’t do is re­peat the mis­takes of repo­si­tion­ing and ex­pect tax­pay­ers to wave it through. Gra­ham Fox, CEO of Mon­treal’s In­sti­tute for Re­search on Pub­lic Pol­icy, and an oc­ca­sional CBC pun­dit, says talk of vi­sion must come be­fore any talk of money. “Let’s first de­cide what the CBC’S man­date should be in the so­cial-me­dia age,” he tells me, “and then we can come to an agree­ment on what that costs. Un­til we know what we want the CBC to de­liver, a de­bate on how much fund­ing it should have is a point­less ex­er­cise.”

At the dig­i­tal-news meet­ing, be­yond talk of “push­ing so­cial,” there is dis­cus­sion of an­other story: a Rus­sian man is con­sid­er­ing a head trans­plant. Ques­tions arise. First of all, is that the right term? Should the pro­ce­dure in­stead be called a body trans­plant? Also, a head trans­plant was tried on a dog decades ago and the dog died, so there’s that. Some see the Ital­ian sur­geon as a vi­sion­ary ge­nius. Oth­ers say he’s a dan­ger­ous crack­pot. So there’s nar­ra­tive ten­sion. But no one is talk­ing about how it will be pack­aged on­line. That’s for later. Right now, they’re still search­ing for the hu­man heart of the story: So­crat­i­cally, sar­cas­ti­cally, rhetor­i­cally.

That’s what the CBC does best: put a bunch of peo­ple in a room and force them to hack through the weeds un­til they find a story worth telling. That’s its man­date. Ev­ery­thing else is a dis­trac­tion.

left Em­ploy­ees watch a dispir­it­ing news­cast on April 10, 2014. cen­tre An in­ter­ac­tive ex­hi­bi­tion pre­views the CBC ’s 2013–2014 lineup. right Hu­bert Lacroix speaks at the 2015 an­nual pub­lic meet­ing.

left Peter Mans­bridge ap­pears in a promo shot for 1982’s Quar­terly Re­port: The Elec­tronic Web. cen­tre Knowl­ton Nash hosted The Na­tional from 1978 to 1988. right Staffer Jeff Keay walks through the news­room in 2009.

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