When CBC/Radio-Canada announced plans in the spring to cut 657 jobs, it dispatched a handful of executives to deliver scripted talking points on how the broadcaster would need to do more with $130-million less annual revenue. As much as possible, the executives avoided giving details on how its programming might change.
But late last month, one CBC Radio journalist took matters into her own hands and went off script, telling listeners in the farthest reaches of Northwestern Ontario exactly what those cuts would mean to them.
Sitting in as a guest host on Voyage North, a popular two-hour afternoon show on CBC Thunder Bay's Radio One service, Heather McLeod, a freelancer who had been laid off in a round of cuts five years ago, said bluntly: "This show is being laid off." She explained that, as of Monday, Aug. 11, local listeners would no longer hear a locally produced show. Instead, the tiny staff at CBC Sudbury, more than 1,000 km away, would begin broadcasting a show it hopes will appeal to listeners across a vast expanse: from the Manitoba border in the west to the Quebec border in the east, and from James Bay in the north to Fort Frances in the south.
Voyage North, which had existed in some form for more than 40 years, aired its last show on Friday afternoon; Superior North, the two-hour morning show, is now the only locally produced CBC Radio program in Thunder Bay. While the loss of CBC programming may not be big news in overstuffed media markets, it has a greater impact in communities such as Thunder Bay and the Maritimes. A rally last May in Sydney, N.S., attracted about 200 CBC supporters, including Mayor Cecil Clarke and MP Rodger Cuzner.
"CBC is a service owned by and paid for by the listeners," said McLeod in an interview this week, explaining why she spoke out. "I felt like the need to clearly state to your audience what's happening had kind of gotten lost."
An amiable drive-time show, Voyage North featured chats with local musicians and artists, as well as upbeat stories from around the region. But it also had its share of darker reports that seem unlikely to be duplicated by the few privately owned radio stations in town.
"Private radio here does a great job of celebrating community, and plugging it as best they can within their mandate," acknowledged McLeod. "But their mandate is not to reflect who we are and reflect where we come from and keep as broad and deeply informed a window on this world as possible. Their mandate is just to entertain and engage – and sell advertising. Those are pretty different things, and when a community knows itself, even its uncomfortable truths and its true realities – the stuff that doesn't sell advertising – then they can really address weaknesses and build on strengths."
In late June, more than 100 people turned out for a mock funeral in a local park to mark the death of Voyage North. Mourners dressed in black carried a coffin with a picture of a skeleton bearing the CBC logo. "The local population is going to miss out hearing about events, all the smaller sort of niche groups that really make the fabric of the community, that's who's going to be losing," said Jean-Paul De Roover, a musician who works as a festival and event organizer with the city of Thunder Bay, and who helped mount the protest. Those losing out, he said this week, would include groups such as "the quilting guild, and local musicians who are going to be releasing new CDs, who [would have had] an interview."
The senior managing director of CBC Ontario noted that the station is not closing down. "CBC Thunder Bay is remaining open, with a strong local morning show, local news, and digital service," said Susan Marjetti. "The new Ontario North regional show out of Sudbury has a mandate to tell the story of all Northern Ontarians, and Thunder Bay will continue to have its voice and stories heard locally, regionally, and nationally."
Listeners aren't comforted by that reassurance. Even the city's politicians, whose goings-on are sometimes covered aggressively by CBC Thunder Bay, are mourning the move: City Council passed a unanimous resolution calling on the federal government to reconsider its cuts.
"This kind of programming makes up part of the Northwest's cultural, social, and environmental fabric. It's part of our collective DNA. It tells our stories, reaffirms our strengths," said Andrew Foulds, a councillor who sponsored the resolution.
"With all due respect to Sudbury, it is the Northeast, and they have their own history and culture and strengths and idiosyncrasies, just like we do. By doing a pan-northern show, everyone is going to lose."