CBC Radio badly off track with too much personal storytelling

August 24, 2017
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By Nick Filmore / A Different Point of View.

During CBC Radio’s 81 years the public broadcaster has been the country’s most important life-line, unifying the nation and helping us understand each other and the important issues of the day.

I am lucky to have worked at the CBC for more than 25 years. I held several positions, including Canadian Editor of The National, working as an investigative journalist, as a radio documentary producer, and as an editor with National Radio News.

Today CBC Radio is more important than ever. With newspapers failing to do their job, journalism in Canada is in crisis. Media organizations are failing to provide communities with news and analysis that is necessary for democracy to function properly.

(Note: If you too disapprove of what’s happening to CBC Radio, I’ve provided emails at the end of this article where you can send your protests.)

CBC Radio is proud of the success of its podcast, Someone Knows Something which explores cold cases after people have disappeared.

As always, I’ve been listened to Radio One this summer. My favourite programs, which include The Current, As It Happens, The Sunday Edition and Ideas, are doing a good job.

However, I’m puzzled and dismayed by most of about a dozen new summer programs. A couple of them – the Doc Project and Now or Never – provide some interesting stories told from a personal point of view.

Too much “personal issues” radio

Otherwise, the remaining 10 new programs are not the kind of shows that should be so prominent on the CBC. Too many dwell on the sad stories of people who have had a difficult life. People ramble on about their feelings. There’s lots of talk about “human connections”, and advice for people with problems.

Here is a sampling:

  • Love Me with with Lu Olkowski. “Deep down we all just want to be loved, so why is it one of the toughest things to get right?” says the program description. “Love Me is a podcast about the messiness of human connection.”
  • Road Trip Radio, both a podcast and on Radio One, is described as “a family friendly podcast celebrating all things Canada!” Produced by the team behind CBC Radio’s This is That, most of the episodes have been humourless and an embarrassment.
  • Out in the Open with Piya Chattopadhyay. The program claims to tackle one timely subject each week with “energy, wit, and journalistic rigor.” A recent episode: “Hair Care: Shaving, waxing, threading, plucking, sugaring, electrolysis.”
  • Sleepover with Sook-Yin Lee. “In each episode one stranger takes the spotlight and presents a problem from their life. The other two offer advice and bring up related experiences from their own unique perspectives.”
  • Seat at the Table with Isabelle Racicot and Martine St-Victor. “A weekly talk show where the hosts bring you honest conversations with guests shaping pop culture.” One episode featured an interview with Laura Wasser, Hollywood’s divorce lawyer.

I’m not surprised that many of my friends have abandoned CBC Radio. I think traditional listeners are leaving in droves.

“I used to listen to CBC Radio all day,” says a former CBC producer/friend. “Now, I listen very little. The personal storytelling and victimhood are irritating and are in much of the schedule. A former colleague remarked recently that CBC Radio has never met a victim it doesn’t like.”

Weak programming

Critical analysis is non-existent in these programs. They have very little redeeming value.

With the CBC strapped for cash, Radio One is sinking a whack of  money into these programs. More than 25 hosts and producers work full-time, part-time on on contract on these shows, and some of them travel across the country.

This money should be used to add programs that explore major thematic issues week after week. It’s practically criminal that the CBC Radio does not have a program on the climate change crisis.
Excellent programming can be inexpensive to produce. A top notch broadcaster interviewing interesting people can result in great radio.

Why the dramatic changes?

So why are we getting this strange hybrid of broadcasting at CBC Radio?
Says an insider: “Over the years, management, at least on the English side, has devalued “intellectual’ content. They think it’s boring, high-minded, ivory tower stuff. They want ‘stories’ – compelling, if well told, and cheap to do. The mantra at CBC Radio is, ‘Tell us your story.’”

The insider says the CBC’s commitment to a strong digital presence and on-line audience is one of the reasons behind the interest in storytelling. It’s proud of the success of podcast Someone Knows Something , an engrossing and entertaining program that looks into unsolved crimes.

CBC Radio is fixated on building an audience by providing trivial, entertainment-like. For many managers, numbers are more important than content.

“We have Chartbeat running on TVs all over the building,” says a CBC staffer. “It basically tells you how many people have clicked on a story online. Its real time instant feedback, and program leaders take it seriously. That’s how decisions get made these days.”

The front-line person responsible for this approach to broadcasting is Leslie Merklinger. A veteran of 35 years in media, she’s now Director of New Programs and Talent Development at Radio. Merklinger has been on the job for just over two years and has taken a lot of heat because she has never worked in radio.

Off-base programming values

In an e-mail, Merklinger writes about “building bridges through empathy,” and a program, Sleepover, that she says “literally connects strangers in a provocative and powerful social experiment format.” She likes shows that “bring topics and taboos in the public spotlight in an effort to build empathy and understanding.”

Marklinger describes her unorthodox plans for CBC Radio on You Tube.

These programming ideas are shared by many of the radio producers she supervises.

“The younger generation of radio producers, 25 – 40,” says a long-time CBC senior producer, “were brought up on This American Life and its many offshoots and imitators, such as The Moth. For them, storytelling is king, and it’s all they want to do.”

Many journalists from my generation, starting work during the 1960s and 70s, entered media because they had a strong social conscience. Today’s young CBC journalists are more interested in telling stories about people and their issues. .

For many years CBC Radio has had documentary makers who were great storytellers but that used the format to explain complex issues.

For instance, the late Stuart McLean won an ACTRA Award in 1979 for “Operation White Knight,” his documentary drama about the Jonestown Massacre.  (It’s unfortunate that too few docs from this era are available online.)

Changes needed in fall schedule

I’ve witnessed a lot of disasters at the CBC over more than 40 years in journalism, but what’s happening now in radio is the worst I’ve ever seen. Senior managers must be held accountable.

While a number of senior producers have input into decisions, the person with the final say is Susan Marjetti, Executive Director, Radio and Audio, CBC English Services. Marjetti has had a long and productive career in the CBC. She is credited with making important improvements to local Toronto shows, with the morning program topping the ratings.

Marjetti’s boss is Heather Conway, executive vice-president of English Services of the CBC. She came to the CBC in December 2013, having been chief business officer at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

CBC Radio’s wandering off into a journalistic sub-culture must be curtailed. At most, radio’s schedule should include a couple of the storytelling programs. When new programs for the fall and winter period are announced, CBC Radio must be back on track.

I would like to ask readers put pressure on the CBC. If you too are disgusted with the misguided radio programming, you can send e-mails to:

If you like, send me a copy: [email protected]

We must see if we can play a role in getting the irreplaceable CBC Radio back on track.

Related Bios

Nick Fillmore

Nick, an award-winning investigative reporter and a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), was a news editor and senior producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for more than 25 years. Early in his career, Nick was publisher/editor of The 4th Estate newspaper in Halifax, worked with Reuters in London, Canadian Press in Toronto,…