Mark Starowicz is rarely at a loss for words, but on Tuesday, as he contemplated his imminent departure from CBC after 45 years, his face flushed briefly, his eyes turned watery and something seemed to catch in his throat.
He was thinking about the moment on Friday afternoon when he was due to walk out of the Front Street doors of the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto to meet up for a photograph with two people who were so important to his career: Peter Herrndorf, who made Starowicz the first executive producer of CBC-TV's newsmagazine The Journal in 1982; and Margaret Lyons, who hired Starowicz in 1970 and threw him together with a bunch of similarly minded young rebels to remake a little-known and flailing live radio show called As It Happens.
"People took chances on me. They took chances on a lot of my colleagues," said Starowicz, 68, reflecting on a CBC era in the late 1960s and early 1970s that came to be known as the Radio Revolution. He was in a booth near the back of Le Sélect, a bistro popular with media folk on Wellington Street, moving his way methodically through a mushroom omelette.
"Peter Gzowski had been fired as the editor of Maclean's. Barbara Frum had been fired from the suppertime show. We were the misfits, and in some cases the losers of previous battles. Margaret was the pointy end of the stick that started the Radio Revolution. They called us Lyons's Kindergarten, because we were all kids."
In time, it was Starowicz who hired the talented kids and misfits – hundreds of them. After three years with As It Happens, he created CBC Radio's Sunday Morning, then went to The Journal for 10 years, and on to head up TV documentary programming, where he commissioned independent documentaries and oversaw the in-house doc production unit for shows that included Life and Times, The Nature of Things, Doc Zone and Witness.
He originated, pounded the table for, and executive-produced Canada: A People's History, the $25-million, three-years-in-the-making epic that brought together the CBC's English and French networks for a rare moment of shared purpose. In 2012, he produced 8th Fire, the well-received four-part TV series about the aboriginal experience in Canada.
Over the past few years, it has become harder to keep focused on the work itself, as the CBC has endured a series of cuts to its federal government funding. It is now in the second year of a five-year series of layoffs that will reduce staff by about 1,500, or 20 per cent. Last year, CBC management decreed there would no longer be any in-house documentary production.
Starowicz said he had been mulling an exit for a few years. He stayed until his final staff member left last month; on Thursday, the official announcement went out that he would be leaving to start his own doc production company.
"I want to set up a little boutique company; I want to work with younger people," he said. "I want to work with my daughters, who are both film school graduates."
Starowicz denied that the CBC family fight over the doc unit's fate has left people bitter. "I think 'regret' is the word. There's a sadness that comes from the realization that the institution has been totally starved. Starved. The price is extraordinary in what's not being produced. Will we go back to cross-cultural programming? We did 100 hours of it."
He adds: "Right now, we're deciding which children of ours to pull out of school and send to the factory. Which station to close regionally. There isn't a cross-cultural project between French and English. Not out of anybody's conviction – [CBC president Hubert] Lacroix is a big believer in that. The place is running on fumes."
Critics of the CBC argue that it has outlived its usefulness; that, in an era of abundant content, there is no longer a need for a public broadcaster. Starowicz doesn't roll his eyes at what he calls the "technological despair" embedded within that argument, but he might as well. The CBC, he notes, was created in response to a technological challenge – the strong radio signals flooding across the border from the United States – and it has responded to each successive technological challenge by rising rather than shrinking from the fight.
"The response every time has been, 'You gotta get out there, you gotta produce Canadian content, make room for Canadian stories, Canadian news, Canadian drama, Canadian comedy, all of that – just as part of the equipment of being a sovereign country.' As [author and broadcast executive] Bernard Ostry said, 'Yes, it's a global village. And in a global village, we're going to need an address.'"
And Starowicz sees no contradiction between the notion of a high-quality public broadcaster and populism. Canada: A People's History pulled in an average of 1.5 million viewers – impressive numbers for a 32-hour history lesson. And he recalls with glee that, many years ago, after As It Happens did an interview with a New York senator who was manoeuvring to make the beaver that state's official animal, the program launched a campaign to prod Parliament to claim the beaver for Canada.
"We had big canvas mailbags of petitions coming in, drawings of beavers by schoolchildren. We had a French horn quartet come in to play [an ode] for the beaver."
They brought in a live beaver, which proceeded to urinate on co-host Alan Maitland during an in-studio segment, prompting peals of laughter from Frum – all of which did indeed lead to a successful private member's bill in early 1975 recognizing the toothy rodent as an official symbol of Canada.
Starowicz has plenty of these old stories, but he would prefer to focus on the future. Still, he admits to a little apprehension.
"I can't write an article without 10 people around me yelling, clacking on computers," he said. "I have no idea how to get an idea except as a function of an argument with three other people. What I'm scared of most is not being in [that kind of] place." He jokes that maybe he'll rent a desk at The Globe and Mail.
"It's going to take a while," he acknowledged. "But you know, I just love working in the field with a crew. You go for supper together, and you start plotting the next day. You win, lose, bob, weave. You know, the fraternity, the collaboration, the unity of purpose. That's what I want to go back to."