Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy


John Laycock

Radio whispers in Canada's ear, the quiet voice of reason amid the national clamour of television and publications and the rest of the cultural shouters Like poetry, the medium is so portable and personal that it can hide in the country's inside pocket, speaking its piece in private earplugs at the pleasure of the occupant. Unlike poetry, it is not required reading on the scholars' lists. Scrutiny is left to the number-crunchers of the advertising business, dissecting Canadian radio atom by atom to assemble their nuclear-powered sales pitches. Commercial stations now function on mathematical equations that generate the hologram of personality, an illusory swirl.

The great and secret strength of contemporary radio, however, is that it is so easy to turn off or turn away, a private squelch of that ghostly commercial apparition. Radio is everywhere, talking to itself in the background. It can be tuned out even when it is on. Like wallpaper.

Commercial radio rarely makes the claims (or the profits) of film or TV, the great attention-grabbers. Radio does not have to be insistent, except during the commercials, since most commercial radio functions as the home-stereo of the ether, a wireless music distribution system. When it steps forward it is for sports, news, or the telephone hot-line shows which allow anonymous complainers to raise a noise in the night. Vancouver, the most la-la city in Canada, just up the coast from San Francisco, is particularly partial to phone-in shows featuring defrocked or aspiring politicians.

Most audience participation, however, consists of punching the car radio push-buttons while commuting to work. That's the element of choice again, the "tune-out factor" which terrifies the programmers. Because listeners have such a choice, they take a great deal for granted, like newspaper readers who feel no obligation to look at each story or advertisement before flipping the page. Many Canadian radio consumers have lots of choice, a dozen or more local stations plus whatever slops over the US border. Where I live, just across from the city of Detroit, there are more than 50 local radio signals. Most Canadian centres aren't quite so crowded with babble, but even so there aren't nearly enough ideas or styles to go around. The stations are eager to be just a little bit different, an urge to self-imposed conformity that justifies the listener in taking them all for granted.

Although exaggerated, my situation is typical enough of Canada, a country that can't agree on what it is, only where it is: too close to the United States. But don't anyone ever dare to try to somehow cut off that American importation.

Following the historical model of the country, radio evolved out of the British model, strong on government control, but fertilised by US influences. The mature hybrid does not exactly resemble either of its forebears. Commercial radio has been legislated into carrying a quota of Canadian content, to the benefit of the pop music industry, even though many of the artists can be identified as Canadian only by their birth certificates. The federal broadcasting service, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), has no counterpart in the United States. It long ago broke its emotional ties to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and now seems more like a distant cousin than a direct offspring.

Canadians love this sort of comparison. We are more comfortable deciding on what we are not, rather than what we are. But radio comes closer to knowing what we are than the average Canadian might acknowledge. Radio is a whisper, not a roar, but it is a distinctive voice when heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I turn now to that channel, with the sort of devotion that distinguishes its style from the moneymaking broadcasters.

By "we" I mean my side of the bicultural bifurcation, the English-speaking culture. French Canada, and more particularly Quebec, will express no such doubts about identity. That province, or "distinct society" as our current constitutional debate wishes to characterise it, is convinced of its own identity. The existence of two founding (or at least conquering) cultural groups remains Canada's most distinguishing characteristic in comparison with Australia et al. It could also split the country apart, encouraged by the Quebecois' absolute certainty about their identity.

The Quebecois intelligentsia can be heard scoffing at suggestions that the rest of the country, the anglo part, has a culture other than that negative insistence on not being part of the United States. They should listen more to radio, at least to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's networks. Sometimes, in the transistorised emptiness, an English Canadian culture can be heard expressing itself loud and clear. Well, clear, anyhow.

The CBC, like the rest of the country's formal structure, is divided by language. The Corporation runs both English and French radio and television networks, the French division being called Radio-Canada. The services never meet except in the corporate boardroom to complain that the government is cutting back its subsidies again. Even when Radio-Canada operates a French radio station in a primarily English-speaking city, the staffs function separately down the hall from each other in the same building I doubt they even share coffee, never mind any sort of bilingual co-productions. (The Corporation also runs a Northern Service for the icier portions of the country which must deal with the native peoples and languages it serves. It is a story that we in the south know too little about. The international short-wave service, battered by budget cuts, has been moved to a different arm of the government.)

CBC Radio has been free of commercials for about two decades, while the television networks sell advertising. There are no licensing fees. The Corporation consumes many millions of tax dollars to keep the airwaves waving. Even though the TV network has increased its advertising revenues at the same time as it decreased its American and other program imports, it is not economically feasible to pay for a "full-service" network stretching across thinly-populated regions all the way up to the Arctic. Especially not if a fully-bureaucratic management is to be maintained.

It is a big country. CBC's English-language radio network covers six time zones. The prime evening newscast has five separate editions. The AM network runs 33 stations (with an additional seven privately-owned affiliates) while the FM network, devoted to classical music and arty discussions, has 10 stations. The main stations are spread by more than 400 rebroadcast transmitters. The 1991 Corporation publicity handbook claims 2.7 million listeners a week for the AM network and 1 million for the FM, together representing a 12 per cent share of the national audience in English-speaking Canada. In the mathematical Looking Glass that ratings go through, however, those calculations do not mean there is ever an instant in time when 2.7 million actual persons, from a population approaching 26 million, are tuned in. Ratings are rather like political platforms, offering something for everyone when the planks are broken down. Enough to say that the FM network is kept well secret by its listening elite.

The AM network, however, has evolved into something approaching a genuine vox populi. Not all the people, certainly; not even a majority. Still, that voice does speak for a significant section of the population; rather than speaking at that section, in the patronising manner which comes naturally to state-run broadcasting.

The lingering assumption that Big Mother knows what is good for you, whether you like it or not - a genetic inheritance from the BBC - was finally scrubbed out of CBC head-office thinking in the mid-'60s, a little after the Union Jack was pulled off our flag. English accents became a hindrance about the same time. By the end of the decade the AM network was being turned into a day-long variety show where personalities mattered as much as facts and where music had to prove its popularity as well as its pedigree to get played.

Commercial radio boomed in the 1970s and so did cable TV to meet Canadians' demand for American TV signals. In that competitive atmosphere, the CBC was battered by nationalist demands for more Canadian TV content while its potential audiences cheerfully demanded more American signals. Radio, the poor child on the CBC homestead, was left to fall back on its own devices. Financial necessity became the mother of CBC Radio's success. The AM network found its identity because it couldn't afford to be anybody else. In the last two decades, it even began to recognise itself. And so have some of the choosier listening audiences.

One man's face expresses the identity of CBC Radio. He contradicts the old wisdom that radio personalities never resemble their voices. Peter Gzowski looks exactly how he sounds: like an old sheep dog after a good run in the bush. Yet when he put his face on view, by trying to transfer his radio success to a CBC Television talk show, he was a crashing failure. Now, firmly back on radio, he ranks as one of the country's rare cultural heroes (without a hockey stick, that is). Gzowski is English Canada incarnate, and incidentally a self-commentary on the nature of the radio medium.

Each weekday morning, for three hours, Gzowski ties corners of the country together. Politicians, led by the prime minister, line up to be interviewed. Regular correspondents talk about current affairs in Cape Breton Island and Moose Jaw. One panel of experts very nearly makes sense of Canadian economics; another set of political back-room boys has turned their weekly discussion into the most influential political forum in the country, including Parliament. Sometimes the show serialises a play, or stages a cross-country singalong. A couple of years ago an astonishing autobiography of incest in a small town took the show's collective breath away, the narration shining with the sort of crystal urgency that explains why diamonds are so hard. Lots of musicians, famous and obscure, are invited to the microphone; actors less frequently, and TV stars hardly ever (revenge!). Gzowski's years as a journalist and magazine editor equip him for the practicalities, especially with extensive contacts in the new Quebec, but it is his unfailing curiosity for rhododendrons and fly-fishermen and whether a cow can be blue that has put his broadcast in unique touch with the country. He loves a character who has an enthusiasm, no matter whether it is Mennonite cooking or mountain climbing. Radio, being ephemeral, invites the listener to join the group, so the conversation sounds as if it's taking place at your own kitchen table, in a haze of Gzowski's cigarette smoke (he's ashamed but addicted), the place kept cozy by the rasp of a voice that has chugged too many coffees at 5 a.m. You can just see him scratching the bristly white beard as the eyes prime for a chuckle, going down-home with never a hint of the rustic or the coy.

Gzowski has changed the network by proving that a nobody in Red Deer, Alberta, can be just as interesting as the media professional who knows all the receptionists in the big-city production centre. Letter-writers with passion, the show has found, are as eloquent as the authors with books to sell and publicists to help them do it. Gzowski has drawn out the voices of erudite, cosmopolitan characters in the strangest corners of a country full of corners. As the years have gone on - he's 57 and has been running the show for nearly 15 of the last 20 years, on and off - the listeners have come to recognise those voices as having an identity of their (our) own.

Gzowski has compiled four popular books from the broadcasts. He has been awarded seven honorary degrees but seems prouder of his golf tournament. This benefit for a literacy campaign has turned into a small industry with games across the country, including one in the High Arctic that must be played before the thaw when the course melts. His name no longer sounds Polish - an ancestor was a famous engineer in the young country - so it is appropriate that Gzowski has formulated the master definition of a Canadian. That's someone, he maintains, who apologises when you step on his foot.

The whole network has taken on a certain shade in Gzowski's shadow. The news shows have become news magazines; the music shows offer country or folk or '60s rock where the host and the music merge personalities. Classical music must be light classics or move to FM. Even the evening show for the intellectual elite, portentously named Ideas, is followed by a one-hour "best-of" repeat of the morning's Gzowski offerings. And the network, like Gzowski and his constituency, is sincere but uncertain when trying to deal with the emerging native-peoples issues. It, and he, take the multicultural nature of Canada so much for granted that the show and the network rarely touch on the issues until there are news headlines. In Toronto, for instance, fully a third of the population has neither English nor French as its original language and is unlikely to be listening either to CBC Radio-for-WASPs or to Radio-Canada.

Yet the CBC radio network at least has tried to catch up to where we are as a society. It works. My unofficial demographic survey (I asked my relatives) verified what Gzowski has found out: his audience is far more varied than the bored housewives who supposedly dominate mid-morning commercial radio . For one thing, housewives are not necessarily bored, or boring. He has a 30-and-up crowd, who have rediscovered gardening and are sympathetic to green appeals yet have met the pragmatic consequences of surviving, whether in politics or economics or poetry. They are engaged, and therefore engaging, in ways the big-city movers and shakers would never guess.

The bland English-Canadian stereotype, it turns out, is a protective mask. And it is an audience that is quite happy to conjure up Gzowski's face in their own imaginations, without the extra information of the TV screen. Less, indeed, is more, especially when the 'more' carries more restrictions. The extra information of television cashiered the Gzowski charm, just as it turns Canadian TV drama into American clones. Gzowski explained one morning recently how the TV camera tyrannised him: 'I was no good on late-night television until I got cancelled. Then, when I didn't care and just did what I wanted, I wasn't so bad after all .' Fewer restrictions; more choice - radio invites a participatory sense of family.

Most of all, it is an audience which has chosen to be there by committing intelligence and attention to a form that cannot insist on such devotion. Radio is an amorphous medium, especially when given a minimum degree of freedom from money. CBC Radio has shaped itself into a joint enterprise where listeners pay attention as well as taxes. It has made Peter Gzowski the most trusted person in a country where that quality is in scarce supply. Maybe only one in ten is listening, but they like what they hear. Even the prime minister can't claim that.

Works Cited

Statistics are taken from the 1991-92 press information handbook from the CBC. The Gzowski section was backed up by a profile in the Globe and Mail daily newspaper, 14 September 1991 by H.J. Kirchoff. Gzowski and the network were the subjects of the last film for the National Film Board by prominent Canadian documentary film-maker Donald Brittain, shot in 1989 and completed after Brittain's death by Robert Duncan. The one-hour film, called Family: A Loving Look at CBC Radio, was broadcast by CBC Television in August 1991.

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