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Too Toronto – and CBC – Oriented, Personal Tale Not Personal Enough
From Coast to Coast: A Personal History of Radio in Canada,
by Sandy Stewart, CBC Enterprises, 191 pages, $17.95.

Reviewed bv Kevin Marsh

 

Sandy Stewart loves radio. He loves the magic that seems to be generated by radio when it is done well; more vibrant than print, more demanding and thus more engaging than television. At one point he held the most magical job of all, that of sound effects technician — the role which transcends the line between producer and performer. Although he sneers a little at the title devised to boost sagging morale at the CBC after the arrival of television, he takes a lot of pride in "the senior service." Perhaps this is why From Coast to Coast often sounds as if it were an apology: "I'm sorry I left you, old friend, and took up with the painted lady of television."

In tracing radio's history, Stewart describes the years between the middle '50's and 1970 as "The Dark Ages." He bemoans the loss of revenue as advertisers took their money across the street to Videoland, plunking down what had been the creative cash for radio on dancing cigaret packets and chimpanzees drinking tea. Radio orchestras were reduced to trios or soloists as the best talent was lured away by big salaries and bright lights. And. horror of horrors, "now we found ourselves dealing with Unions." The "idiots" in television apparently made their crews so unhappy they formed unions for protection and the disease quickly spread to radio.

It's a little harsh to blame the famine in radio on the gluttony of TV. Any business that sets out to serve the public must face the fact that tastes change. The formulas that once worked so well lose their vitality over time. And despite the solemn pronouncements of the moguls, the media are first and foremost in the entertainment business. Slick sells, whether the product is aspirin or international disaster. If this were not so, The Journal would have no need of sets, squeeze-zooms and satellite links. With the birth of television, radio simply could not compete with the novelty of moving pictures in the home. The "Renaissance of Radio," as Stewart terms the years after 1970, arrived when radio discovered it could have an identity of its own. It offered an alternative with its own strong points and its own brand of slick.

From Coast to Coast begins with the story of Reginald Fessenden, the brilliant Canadian inventor whose work on radio telephony was somehow lost in the electronic shuffle. Marconi's more primitive dots and dashes took the historical credit for the invention of radio. And perhaps as galling, Marconi was able to get substantial Canadian backing for his work while Fessenden was denied the credit for giving us what we now know as radio. He died in Bermuda, his patents bought out by Americans who recognized the genius never appropriately acknowledged in his homeland.

Stewart then details the beginning of private radio in Canada leading up to the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission and finally the CBC. From this point on. From Coast to Coast is almost entirely devoted to the CBC and herein lies the major flaw of this "personal history of radio in Canada," as the book is subtitled. Radio as broadcast by the CBC is not indicative of radio in Canada; it is the anomaly rather than the norm. Its mandate and resources make it far different from the hundreds of independent stations across the country. And working in Toronto, as Stewart did for most of his radio career, creates another false picture of the nature of radio in Canada. CBC radio listeners in Toronto are almost blase in comparison to their compatriots elsewhere. In small towns and in major centres outside Toronto. CBC Radio is revered for what it should and can be — a link with the rest of the country.

Although Stewart tries to keep an eye on the people involved, too often From Coast to Coast falls back on the various studies and reports which have shaped the CBC, especially over the last 20 years. In tracing the roots of the institution, the people involved seem to fall by the wayside for Stewart. His treatment is better suited to a sociological monograph. For a book such as this — one trying to capture on paper the magic of the airwaves — the convolutions of policy are best left aside. This is the reason that Signing On by Bill McNeil and Morris Wolfe works better than does From Coast to Coast. Signing On is a true personal history with the key players telling their own stories.

Perhaps the basic problem with From Coast to Coast is reflected in the choice of maxim which the author uses to open his book. "The only thing that really matters in broadcasting is program content." contended the Fowler report of 1965; "all the rest is housekeeping," to which Stewart adds his Amen. It's a nice sentiment, but dreadfully simplistic, revealing a trap into which too many broadcasters have fallen. Content without a high standard of presentation becomes meaningless. The result is the trivialization of important matters or. just as offensive, the translation of genuinely interesting things into pedantry. In a way, it is the problem which Reginald Fessenden never overcame; he had the goods, as it were, but not in the right package. To put content above presentation is to lose having the two elements as equal partners. Shakespeare as performed by Laurence Olivier is very different from Shakespeare as performed by Joe Doakes. Broadcasters or their bosses who ignore this fundamental principle cannot help but turn out an inferior product despite the best of intentions and subjects.

Kevin Marsh is a CBC announcer in Toronto. His collection of vintage radios puzzles his friends.

 

Published in Sources, Summer 1985



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