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simon houpt: media

The president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is standing in a place where people lie for a living, telling a bunch of hard truths.

All morning, Hubert Lacroix has been here on the set of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, which has been commandeered for a series of town halls with local staff. An overflow crowd of French-language employees filed out a few minutes ago, and now about 100 English-language colleagues are nibbling on free pizza, sombrely challenging the boss on his vision of their future at a time of smaller budgets and industry turmoil.

Lacroix's jacket is off and he's swigging from a bottle of water now. He seems almost energized up there at the front of the studio, like his old days as the coach of McGill's women's basketball team.

If you were being cynical, you could say he's learned how to play this scene. In March, 2009, only 14 months after taking office, a cut in federal funding forced him to slash about 800 jobs. "It was a mess," he acknowledges later. But in April of this year, when CBC announced that a $115-million funding shortfall over three years would result in about 175 fewer hours of original TV programming, as well as an end to drama on radio and the need to run ads on Radio 2, there was something different: a whiff of confidence.

"We're in a much better place than we were last year," he tells the staff. "At the end of the day, we're gonna be bruised, but we're gonna be okay."

Lacroix can speak like this because of two achievements that eluded his predecessors: a three-year commitment for funding from the federal government (albeit at reduced levels), and a strategic plan developed on his watch that articulates the organization's goals. Lacroix believes deeply in planning. François de Gaspé Beaubien, whose family company, Telemedia, had Lacroix as its chairman in the early 2000s, likens the CBC president to the master chess player Garry Kasparov. "I'm pretty good at [seeing] a few moves ahead. He's very good at multiple moves ahead."

He'll need to be, for the challenges, as the implementation of the cuts begins this summer, are manifold. CBC's critics, including Québecor Inc. and its Sun News Network, have won some nasty legal battles against the broadcaster, and they continue to personally taunt Lacroix on a regular basis. In the spring, his former head of English-language services Richard Stursberg promoted the book The Tower of Babble by spilling secrets about the broadcaster and Lacroix, who had sent him packing in 2010. The Conservative government has made it clear funding will not increase. At the same time, technology and the economic environment have given vertigo even to media organizations that aren't required by the Broadcasting Act to fulfill a sprawling mandate.

Lacroix seems to believe that the best defence is a good offence. So he is in the midst of transforming the CBC into a nimble model for the whiplash digital age. He may well be Kasparov. But what if the chess board itself is evaporating before his eyes?

That would be a cruel trick, for the broadcaster is by some objective measures in very good shape. Seven years ago, it limped through a two-month labour lockout that left a toxic residue through the entire organization. Now, the president of the Canadian Media Guild's CBC/Radio-Canada branch praises Lacroix for creating a new era in labour relations. "Other presidents have had breakfast with the staff once in a while, but I can't remember a president spending the kind of time with staff, one on one, or in groups, or sharing information the way he has," says Marc-Philippe Laurin. "Hubert Lacroix is a forthright, honest individual, a man of his word, and somebody who really cares about and understands the CBC."

This is how forthright he can now be: Asked at the town hall if he will guarantee there will be no more job losses after the current round of 650 ends in 2015, Lacroix says plainly, "Absolutely not. You know that. Because in the normal course of any organization, as you evolve and you get better, things change."

If he was bred in the boardroom – he served for two decades as a mergers and acquisitions specialist with the law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP – Lacroix has earned the respect of the rank-and-file in part by targeting the sort of inefficiency that embarrasses the entire corporation, like a request to sell a spare piano that landed on his desk already bearing 12 managers' signatures. "Be accountable," he says at the town hall. "Sometimes we're spectacular for changing, turning on a dime. Other times, we're really, really slow."

This sort of organizational management challenge animates Lacroix, who relishes his role as a coach. And not just for basketball. He's completed 18 marathons, and begins management confabs with group jogs, where he can often be found at the back of the pack, encouraging the laggards. (Stursberg says Lacroix soured when on him when it appeared he was not interested in being a "team player.")

Lacroix would rather bring people onto his team than face off against them. By all accounts, he has a good working relationship with the Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore. Some critics say the diminished federal funding is a function of his weakness, that he hasn't fought hard enough. "A public fight with a minister or government – a prime minster, on the first page of the paper, doesn't really get the agenda moving," he says.

He raves about a deputy minister in the Department of Heritage who he says has a sharp grasp of how to manage change. And he has imbibed Silicon Valley's start-up spirit that has seen large corporations spawn innovation labs within their midst. Last month, CBC unveiled the first of its new local services, a digital-only hub covering Hamilton which it is suggesting may be a model for the way it can expand to other communities it doesn't yet serve.

"If we fail in trying things, like a Hamilton, like a revamp of a program – I'm all for that," he says at the town hall. "We have to take some chances. We will support these kinds of experiments 100 per cent. And you know what? That's the way we're going to win this. We're going to transform ourselves into something that nobody in this room knows what will be like in seven or 10 years."

Lacroix seems to have won the room. The only problem is, if it's a convincing rallying cry to marshal the troops, it is not a unique mission statement for a public broadcaster. And as he continues, it's not clear if he can articulate one that would satisfy all the demands it would have to bear now, in a world of endlessly fragmented media. It may be that nobody could.

Still, he has that 2015 Strategic Plan to show the way. And though its adoption will be slowed by this spring's cuts, its key pillars have support from audiences and the CBC's government masters: Canadian programming in prime time, a stronger embrace of digital technology, and a deeper involvement in local markets.

"I believe in what this corporation does every day. I believe – and this isn't corporate speak – I believe in joining Canadians," says Lacroix. He is sitting in his office now, a couple of hours after the town hall. "When I go to St. John's, Newfoundland, and have a conversation with them, and they say – we saw something on The National and it was about Saskatchewan and we understand now why potash was such a big thing for them … I think nobody else does that, on the broadcasting side."

"I believe that if we do a good job, we will make [you] a better voter at the next election, or a better person with more substance in his views about important issues in the country," he says, sitting now in his office, a couple of hours after the town hall."And whether it's through our programming, through our music, through our arts and culture, or through our kids programming – that's how we have to hook you in."

He likes to say that he was hooked as a kid by a guy named Bobino. That was the title character in a sort of Quebec version of The Friendly Giant, a kindly vaudevillian who would chat playfully with a puppet named Bobinette and introduce animated shorts. In the early 1960s, when Lacroix was a kid in Montreal, "every day from 4 to 4:30 when you came home from school, it was cookies and milk and Bobino."

Lacroix, 56, is not living in the past: He understands things are radically different now, that kids have a groaning board of programs catering to their tastes, available at the touch of an app, 24 hours a day. And yet he recently took his four-year-old daughter Margot to visit the La Salle, Que. set of Radio-Canada's kids show Toc toc toc. "The magic in those eyes was the same magic I had for Bobino," he says, a paternal twinkle in the eye. (He also has a one-year-old daughter, Juliette. "I'm either a young old father, or an old young father," he jokes.)

"It used to be that CBC was for people growing up like me, or Radio-Canada, it was everything. It was sports, it was news, it was Bobino," he explains. "Now? Radio-Canada can't be that. For the people who are growing up, it might be sports, it might be radio, it might be online, it might be our news, it might be Toc toc toc, but it needs to be something special for everybody out there.

"If we can't create this relationship," he says, "then we fail and we're not relevant and we go."

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