When I was 14 and my parents divorced, there didn’t seem to be a lot of things that were really kickass going on in my life. I was an incredibly awkward kid with few friends. I had pretty much stopped playing sports outside of gym, and I went to a school where the value was less on core academics and more on String Art. In String Art, you banged tiny nails into premarked pieces of wood and then carefully followed a pattern to produce art. If you can imagine a Spirograph, but 1600 times more depressing, you’ve got it.
So my parents’ marriage goes up in smoke and instantly there’s this other guy named Bill in my life, and I have to figure out what in the sweet holy hell I’m supposed to do about that. To Bill’s credit, he never tried to take on the role of “Dad” or tried to assume some kind of control over me. What Bill did do was completely change my life by just being himself.
Bill is weird. Really, really weird. I know my Mom must just stare across the dinner table at him and think how has this guy lived this long without institutionalization? I’m not sure I have the answer to that one, to be honest. Bill’s initial presentation to me could be summarized as follows:
- Until he lived with my Mom, Bill had never in his life cleaned a toilet.
- Bill thought suspenders were totally cool, but not in ironic way – in a hold-your-pants-up kind of way.
- Bill seemed absolutely sure he had the right answer to any question you might have.
- Bill could cook, and could get me to eat mostly because I wanted to seem like I was cool and unflappable when presented with food that remained alive until you swallowed.
- Bill was obsessed with public radio.
For me, all of the above couldn’t be further from my Dad. It was like the Anti-Dad had presented himself before me, and I had to learn to negotiate that. One of the first ways I did that was through the radio.
My Mom loves her country, and so long as she was in the car or in the house, it was Country 105, nonstop, no breaks. The alternative – changing the station, thus defying her will – is still pretty unthinkable for everyone around her. To escape her All Seeing Eye, I used to run errands with Bill. Trips to the furthest depths of South Calgary, looking for a hot tub part. Trips to the Asian groceries along Centre Street, picking up bottles of Sriracha and fresh crab. The very second I got in the car, the radio was flipped to Radio One and the conversation stopped. We would sit in total silence, listening to whatever was on. The topic never mattered – with the exception of the dreaded Cross Country Checkup with Rex Murphy, aka. Canada Calls In (and you wonder how they figured out how to use the phone), silence reigned until we got out of the car. Once we parked, though, the conversation started, and that’s how I learned to love Bill.
The great thing about Bill – and CBC Radio in general – is that they’re curious. Every program is about telling you a story, or giving you a fact, or pushing you to think a little bit about something. Can you ever say that about for-profit radio? When was the last time you turned on a Top 40 station, and something happened that changed your mind about something, other than what kind of spray deodorant to mace yourself with before you hit T3H CLUBZ? When I was 14, that happened every day and just like that, I was hooked.
CBC was my first exposure to being an adult. For the next three years, I lived in a nonstop CBC Radio world, and it absolutely saved me. Bill and I would have a serious, seemingly adult conversation about what we had heard on Ideas, we would laugh together with Stuart McLean on Saturdays, and debate the politics of the day while my Mom tried to see if she could actually detach her retinas by rolling her eyes too much. Through it all, Bill treated me like a peer, not a gawky kid who had never done anything beyond placing second in a Science Fair in Grade 6 (first loser, yaay). I love Bill for that, how he trusted me to get it, the same way I love that CBC doesn’t talk down to its audience (or at least tries not to). CBC’s quirkiness – the strange hosts, the occasionally ridiculous topics (I once listened to an hour-long program on the mating habits of a type of vole that lives on Vancouver Island) – is as much a part of its character as Bill’s weirdness is a part of him. CBC has become so interwoven in the fabric of my family, my stepbrother has even been on it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about CBC lately because I’ve been looking at how things are going for Public Broadcasting in North America, and I can’t help but worry. In the States, Congress is voting to strip NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting of all federal funding tomorrow as a consequence of a secret videotape of one their primary fundraisers exposing a left-wing bias. While I understand the ideological reasoning behind it, talk about throwing out he baby with the bathwater. NPR will continue to do fine – federal funding makes up a minute percentage of its overall budget, and I will still get my All Songs Considered, Foreign Dispatch and This American Life. Meanwhile, Congress is defunding fucking Sesame Street – the goddamn program that taught me about how to respect differences and live with others – because somebody said in a private conversation that he thought the Tea Party were a bunch of racists.
In Canada, we’re not doing a whole lot better. The CBC is suffering a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of the last four Prime Ministers, with their funding dropping by an unbelievable 42% over the last two decades. Imagine trying to run your household on half the income you presently have! People can complain about the quality of CBC programming and moan about the golden years, but it doesn’t take much more than this graph to explain to me why the CBC is in trouble.
What the CBC is trying to do right now is the equivalent of asking Bill to run a triathlon after a double amputation. With another election looming, I hope that we realize what a wonderful job the CBC is doing and how grateful we should all be for having a national service that regards Canadians as equals, engaging them in a collective conversation without the expectation that they want to listen to pablum or cut-rate advertising. If the Conservatives can spend $26 Million of taxpayer dollars on a series of ads telling us what a lovely job they are doing, we can spend a bit of time telling them not to screw with the CBC.