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Richard Stursberg on top of the CBC building in Vancouver in 2008. (The Globe and Mail)
Richard Stursberg on top of the CBC building in Vancouver in 2008. (The Globe and Mail)

Review: Memoir

The last lord of the CBC? Add to ...

When I arrived in Canada as a refugee from Czechoslovakia in the early 1940s, I would put myself to sleep listening to the Eaton’s Catalogue radio I got from my parents for my 11th birthday. I couldn’t speak much English then, but it was the CBC that taught me about Canada.

While my love of country abides, the national broadcaster is no longer part of that equation.

Late at night, long after my parents thought I was asleep, with the radio turned right down (its dial light removed so there would be no telltale glow), I tuned into the plays and documentaries of Andrew Allan on Sunday evenings. His Stage series opened a new world, the Canada of my dreams.

Those magical excursions were followed on the radio dial by remote pickups from ballrooms across North America, where the big bands were swinging high. When I finally fell asleep, I would dream haphazardly about John A. Macdonald, Benny Goodman, Wilfrid Laurier, Tommy Dorsey, Mackenzie King and Stan Kenton, certain that this would always be my country and my music.

There followed a golden age of CBC Radio, when Peter Gzowski ruled the airwaves and set the national agendas. But that, too, is a bygone pleasure. I didn’t abandon Mother CBC; she left me, becoming an irrelevant distraction in a world of instant realities that were more accurately portrayed without the downtown Toronto bias of the artsy-fartsy crowd that expropriated our “national voice.” The player piano from The Happy Gang days is long gone from the CBC headquarters lobby. But only posters have taken its place.

On July 7, 2004, into the programming maelstrom of valid intentions but drastically reduced audiences, stepped the controversialist Richard Stursberg, a cultural icon with balls of platinum, to shake things up. His Himalayan mission was to rescue the shaky remains of the days when the CBC mattered, those far-off halcyon times when a fixed dose of sensitive programming could be traded for a sprinkling of grace.

Stursberg’s tough and eloquent memoir is as much an elegy as a chronicle of his stormy half-decade at the helm of CBC’s English television. He was, as one of the blurbs on The Tower of Babble’s jacket rightly proclaims, “a one-man wrecking ball.” But his adventures in the hallowed halls of hollow happenings are well worth recording.

He arrived with a revolutionary notion: “I only have one idea: Audiences matter.” This was heresy to the powers-that-be, and his well-documented memoir is an inexorable succession of salutes to the proposition that, with enough talent and a healthy measure of commitment, he just might be able to transcend the CBC’s 30-year decline.

He visualized the troubled broadcaster not so much as a network that expressed the smugness of the balmy marketers of vanished civic dreams or the high priests of the electronic culture’s frantic fringes, but as an enduring interpreter of our lives and times.

When Stursberg arrived, the place looked and smelled like some shoddy papier-mâché invention run by preeningly smug brainiacs, anxious to recreate a CBC that never existed. He was all too aware that decades of mismanagement had robbed the state broadcaster of its natural following, leaving behind a coterie of devotees, reluctant to replace nostalgia with contemporary sensibilities.

Inevitably, he cast himself as a roaring lion in winter, defiant in his iron will to entertain and recharge the spirit of his listeners and viewers with sensory awareness of a time out of joint which caught the absurdities of the present tense. (His motto might have been Miguel de Unamuno’s admonition: “To achieve the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.”)

The volume’s most devastating profile is that of CBC president Hubert Lacroix, who emerges as a prevaricating blockhead capable of setting the broadcasting world on fire only by accident. “Where there had been ambiguity, everything suddenly became clear,” Stursberg noted after one of his many presidential showdowns. “Where accommodation had been possible, it now evaporated. It was stark and obvious. Hubert Lacroix wanted the CBC mandate that I detested.”

The two men, on a terminal collision course, frequently disagreed. Lacroix was an impossible boss: He was always implacably certain of exactly what he didn't want, but lacked the gift of inspiration or the will to table alternative suggestions. Richard must have recalled the advice of his father, Peter Stursberg, a distinguished CBC war correspondent who had warned him: “My dear boy, do not go there. It is a snake pit.”

To anyone reading his memoir, which struggles to remain factual but understandably succumbs to bitterness, Stursberg's achievements shine through. They were mainly in the arena of entertainment programming, including two of the network’s brightest searchlights – Rick Mercer and George Stromboulopoulos – as well as such deserved successes as Heartland, Little Mosque on the Prairie, The Border, Sophie, Republic of Doyle and Squeezeplay.

Among Stursberg’s smaller victories was his attempted salvage of the CBC’s defining showcase, The National. The visible improvements seemed to begin and end with Peter Mansbridge reading his Teleprompter standing up instead of reciting it from a sitting position. Mansbridge is knowledgeable enough, but he lacks the gravitas of such predecessors as Stanley Burke and Knowlton Nash.

The most noteworthy addition to the CBC’s public affairs function has been Evan Solomon, the early-evening host, whose profound intelligence shines through his elegant manner.

Stursberg’s enforced departure from the halls of media power in the fall of 2010 marked not just the termination of his watch, but his stormy stewardship arguably signalled the CBC’s final creative punch. To insiders, his departure was a kind of death in the family – not because Stursberg was that popular, but it must have been comforting to have someone in charge willing to stake his career on fresh ideas instead of perpetuating the babble that strangled every CBC attempt to reform itself.

“We play life,” Louis Armstrong once said about jazz, and that was exactly the affinity most of the shrinking retinue of CBC supporters felt about Stursberg's daring attempts to salvage the reach and significance of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. His tenure may well have been the CBC's final burst of lustre and eloquence, now out of favour with the government, facing newly enriched broadcasting rivals and stuck with having to kowtow to inferior superiors. Richard Stursberg's rage dominates his crackling autobiography – as does his grief for the lost network's unfulfilled promise.

The author of 25 books, Peter C. Newman is currently at work on Hostages to Fortune: How the Loyalists Invented Canada. He was offered the CBC presidency by prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, but turned them both down – even before reading Stursberg’s memoir.

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