Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Inside the CBC Tower of Babble with Richard Stursberg

“Through the course of my happy six years there,” began Richard Stursberg, former head of English Services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I was variously described as bad man, a sociopath, a spineless rat, and, on a number of occasions, even recently - a sort of mass murderer.” His book, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC , is a memoir of his tumultuous six-year ride at the helm of “English Canada’s greatest cultural institution”.


Tonight, Stursberg at first glance certainly appears to be an  “amiable fellow”, to borrow the words of Rob Russo, the evening’s host and Ottawa bureau chief of the Canadian press.  He wears glasses and looks a bit like an uncle, if your uncle were the type to wear tailored suit pants with a sheen.  It’s a rainy evening at Knox Presbyterian Church on Elgin, and the audience laughs easily when Stursberg, in a funny, staccato voice, recounts a comparison between himself and his successor, Kirstine Stewart, “she may seem milder than Richard,” he recounts part of an article in Toronto Life Magazine, “but then Khrushchev looked better after Stalin.” Stursberg smiles, “I thought it was a little bit tough to be compared to one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century for the sin of wanting to make television shows that Canadians might actually want to watch.”


Dictator-themed jabs aside, Stursberg is clearly proud of his time spent at the CBC.  Knowing what he knows now, would he take the job over again?  Absolutely.  Would he do anything differently?  Perhaps one thing. “Faster, further.” he says with reference to the changes made to Radio 2’s musical offerings.


Stursberg is direct and intense.  Even when friendly, his posture and inflection betray a fierce negotiator.  What’s more, he deflects criticism with humour, and, while entertaining, it’s a sure-fire way to raise the ire of people who don’t share his views.  It’s clear, however, that his fierceness is channelled in many ways.  Taken at his word, he is fiercely passionate about the CBC and its role as a public broadcaster.  When the question of the CBC’s mandate is broached, he is fiercely opinionated.  Direct approval from the Canadian public, he argues, is not only the ultimate litmus test of the public broadcaster’s success, but it was and is overwhelmingly good for business and for morale within the Corporation.

And so the debate opens.  Mandate and ratings.  Internal culture at the CBC and ‘the outside’.  Cultural distinction and popularity.  Are these pairings destined to be at odds?  Stursberg says simply no.


The ‘capital M Mandate” of the CBC that Stursberg recalls encountering in 2004 was in his view misguided, sporadic in its successes, and fundamentally disconnected from the public the Corporation was meant to serve. It had to be left on the cutting room floor. The Stursberg regime saw the introduction of a holy trinity of worthiness.  Programs had to be culturally relevant, distinctly our own, and, mostly importantly, consistently bring in ratings. “The root of the entire strategy,” he said, was to provide an as yet unprecedented “sustained push” in the development of quality Canadian television; a marriage of popularity and quality.


There was much resistance, there were “great flops”, but there were also resounding successes.  Unprecedented numbers of Canadians tuned into CBC television and radio, and are tuning in still.  Ask Stursberg and he’ll tell you that CBC is enjoying its golden age.  Radio and television are promoting one another, programs are not only popular, but they are smart and distinctly Canadian.  There is no compromise between numbers success and quality.  The two are mutually reinforcing.  On the April 22nd airing of Michael Enright’s The Sunday Edition, Stursberg defended television and his quest for a revision of the old CBC mandate, “We should respect television. We should admire it for what it is.  It’s an entertainment medium. This is the greatest popular medium that there is.”


So what’s next for the CBC? At the height of the success Stursberg describes, it has faced more budget cuts. A poor reward and a confusing message. Its future ought to be secured by a different funding system, he suggests. Out with arbitrary budgets and in with surveys of Canadians to define its role clearly and thus determine an appropriate allocation of funds.

As Stursberg’s talk comes to an end, he speaks with a warm intensity. He champions the CBC. "No organization does what the CBC does." "No one offers this quality of prime-time Canadian television, no one does CBC radio talk, no one offers CBC news coverage, no one provides such a varied portal to the arts, no one does Hockey Night in Canada." Like it's erstwhile executive, the CBC’s uniqueness is its armour. So long as the CBC’s content is unparalleled, there will always be a place for the public broadcaster.