CBC Radio: One of the wonders of Canada

 

 

I am still on the first day of our trip to Arizona. I really enjoyed listening to CBC radio’s Sunday Morningas we drove. Their excerpts from past shows to celebrate their 1,000thedition of the show inspired me to think about past radio shows I loved.

I have long believed that CBC radio (CBC TV not so much) is one of the blessings of living here. It is a fine example of what I call “the commons.”  Things we enjoy in common are among the finest things.  The same goes for our national parks, our universal health care (despite its flaws), public education, our libraries, and many other things. Often these things are worth morethan things we own privately. I believe in private property. But I also believe in communal property–i.e.–the commons.

I know some people hate the CBC, but for the life of me I don’t understand why. It costs Canadian taxpayers about a billion dollars per year. That is a lot of money, but I think it is worth every penny. At least the radio portion of it.

 

 

I first encountered CBC radio in 1974.  I had just graduated from Law School, and was hired as an articling student at law by a lawyer in Steinbach, my hometown. I had never expected to work in Steinbach, but there I was. I was actually not sure I wanted to work there.  But I had completed my studies at the U of M, had a young wife Christiane, who had supported me for 3 years while I went to school, and now I had to contribute. I needed a job and the lawyer offered me one.

The lawyer who hired me did not pay me much. Less in fact than the green as grass secretary he hired to work with me. But he actually paid me morethan the going rate so I did not complain.

Chris was now temporarily unemployed so we lived modestly. We lived well but cheaply. For a while we did not even own a TV. My sister Diane had leant me one, but negligently I had broken it. She did not offer to lend me a second one. Who could blame her? One night I accidently discovered CBC radio. I was startled to learn it did not have commercials. Nor inane top 40 hits. But it had great conversations. And great music.

In those early years of radio I listening to a treasure trove of great radio shows. I loved As it Happens with Barbara Frum. Through her inquisitive mind I learned a lot about the news stories of the day, as they happened. There was a great comedy show (whose name I have forgotten) with ultra intelligent guests who astonished me with their vast knowledge of absolute trivia delivered with elegant flourishes and razor wit.

One of my favorites was Anthology hosted by the learned Robert Weaver. It was a fantastic literary show on Friday nights. We had such a boring life I often spent Friday night listening to the radio. For decades, literary editor and radio producer Robert Weaver gave a helping hand to many young Canadian writers by broadcasting and/or publishing their work. By listening to that show I learned about writers like Alice Munro, Morley Callaghan, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and many others.  Morley Callaghan was a regular book reviewer. I loved his book reviews.

Another favorite was the Danny Finkleman Show, again with wonderful guests and conversation. I first encountered Danny Finkleman on his Saturday morning show. Surprisingly, he graduated from the law school at the University of Manitoba in 1967, 4 years before I started.Then he came to his senses and became a CBC guy. He weekly interviewed a wide array of interesting guests including a book reviewer whose last name I have forgotten but whose first name was Ruthie. They were the reviews of an ordinary person, not a stuffy intellectual. Later he hosted Finkleman’s 45s, which I also liked, but not quite as much. In that show he would play a song from the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s and then delivered a rant between each song. He called them, “fat opinions,” and I have shamelessly used that label for my own modest opinions. My favorite  rant was his story about the how the exercise he loved the best was a “stroll”  with his dog while smoking a cigar. His shows were all very informal without any pretence at great erudition. He said that after the early Beatles, starting with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, music began to sharply deteriorate. That’s why he never played more recent songs.

I also came to enjoy The Radio Show with Jack Farr, who, of all things was also a Winnipeg lawyer in his other life. He was also a friend of Danny Finkleman and I figured they must have met in law school. Originally he started out as a regular guest on Danny’s show. There he played the role of a big sports fan called Joe Fan who spoke without plural words, for some inexplicable reason. In other words he did not put the letter “s” at the end of plural nouns. I could never figure out why he did that.

On his own show, Farr grandiosely styled himself “Captain Radio.” Some called his show “an electronic pub,” or “a radio Chautauqua.” Farr believed in light entertain, eschewing anything like the ‘heavier’ CBC shows. He interviewed a wide range of guests including a person who grew huge pumpkins, a person who reported an attack by wild cows, and oddball inventors, among many others. He mocked the story of wild cows, but I always wondered if this was an early case of “mad cow disease” a very serious illness. One of his regular commentators was Billy Casselman who spoke about words and delivered some fantastic rants including a memorable about gun lovers. He mocked how brave he-men hunters carrying huge guns engaged in mortal combat against a “1-foot duck.”  He also said, “the bigger the gun the smaller the you-know-what.” Another regular guest Alan Fotheringham favored us with outrageous political rants. Farr regularly interviewed a purported Vatican Priest by the name of Father Guido Sarducci. When he appeared on television he wore dark sunglasses and chain-smoked cigarettes under a big floppy black hat. He looked like on the spies in Mad Magazine’s comic stripSpy vs. Spy. John Doyle in the Globe and Mail called Farr “a sort of Peter Gzowski from hell.” The show often had debates of no consequence, such as whether or not curling was actually a sport. In other words the show was mainly about nonsensical trivia. My kind of show.

I also loved Eclectic Circus with the delightfully irreverent and pathologically odd, Allan McPhee.   It was heard late at night. He had some very strange habits. He often talked to an imaginary mouse, or what he called a “small grey presence” that appeared to live in his pocket. Amusingly, he played a variety–an eclectic variety–of strange mystifying musical selections. He also made very unusual sounds including an imaginary chicken. Or was it real? He often referred to himself, without any false modesty, as “your delightful host”. For some reason he referred to his audience as, “all those out there in vacuum land”.

 

On Sunday mornings besides Sunday edition I also listened to Gilmour’s Albums, where Clyde Gilmour, a TV critic in his other life, played his personal musical albums from his vast collection. He had a vast and varied collection of music. Through him I learned that there was more to music than the rock music or folk music that I was accustomed. I even got to like classic music! I remember my mother could hardly believe that happened. I could hardly believe it happened. I even began to think there mightbe something to opera.

All of these CBC shows made it feel like we were a part of a highly intelligent conversation. And we were. In later years the more serious show Ideas became my a favorite. I have heard some of the most fascinating discussions on that show on an amazing variety of topics–from the obscure and profane to the sublime.

My favorite show of all time though was the two versions of Peter Gzowski. First, This Country in the Morningand later Morningside. On both shows Gzowski interviewed all of Canada’s finest artists and most brilliant thinkers. I particularly loved his weekly political panel with Liberal Eric Kierans, Conservative Dalton Camp, and social democrat Stephen Lewis. The discussions were scintillating, but never mean spirited or wildly partisan. Each of them respected the others, unlike similar shows in the US today. This was Canadian political debate at its finest, without rancor.

Gzowski also added eclectic spices to the mix of his show including: a wide array of Canadian novelists, commentator Stuart MacLean who started out on CBC radio as a travelling reporter, celebrations of Canadian music, talks about the north, and a great variety of friends of Gzowski. At least they all seemed like friends and so did we the listeners. That was the point. On one astonishing show he had Chili cook-off around the country. At the same time and live CBC broadcast people cooking Chili in studios right across the country. On the radio where we could taste nothing. How is that possible? Can any other country do anything like it? Another treasure was Gzowski’s interview with Stuart MacLean who had gone to great lengths to collect some live bugs that he brought on the show in a small box and unhappily one died accidently. Gzowski and MacLean could not stop laughing. The bugs did not seem to see the humor.

I have been a lifelong CBC listener ever since. I have always felt that CBC radio was what connected Canada together. How else can such a large country with so few people connect? Radio is the only way, or at least a great way, and they have always done it with a deft flourish. it sure makes long road trips more fun. Long live the CBC!

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