– 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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