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Americana on Canadian airwaves

by admin January 17, 2011

Chicago Public Radio’s popular series This American Life has made its way onto CBC Radio One. Through the use of field reporting, essays, interviews and the occasional short fiction, the radio program travels the United States telling of stories hidden in the nooks and crannies of Americana and reveals the hopes, fears and lives of Americans. As is generally the case with any radio related announcement, the news of the show airing on CBC has been met with little fanfare. However, the announcement does bring to light the role of public radio in Canada.

The show possesses many of the essential paradoxes of great public radio; shamelessly humble, fascinatingly mundane, precisely meandering and topically obscure while thematically universal. Together with excellent reporting and subtle tongue-in cheek humor, the show is both critically acclaimed, winning almost every prize for radio, and holds the title of the most listened-to show in the United States. Host Ira Glass has also been named best host in radio by Time magazine.

Quite popular among Canadians with 25,000 podcasts downloaded every week, the show appears rather American for Radio One, a network whose mandate is to produce “predominantly and distinctly Canadian content,” and “contribute to the shared national identity and consciousness of Canada,” as stated in the 1991 Broadcasting Act of Canada. Not only does This American Life cultivate a culture that is not Canadian and hence does not pay for the CBC, it cultivates American culture – the culture the CBC is trying to escape.

Radio One’s incorporation of This American Life is definitely not part of the irreversible aftereffects of Richard Stursberg’s controversial tenure as head of the CBC. Stursberg wanted to make the CBC “less elite” and bring in a younger audience by reconfiguring the news and placing television programming at the mercy of ratings.

Contrary to the issues of dwindling market shares and revenue issues that plague CBC television, Radio One is free of advertising to begin with and hence does not have the burden of increasing their listeners to gain ad funding. Furthermore, as humbly boasted on occasion, Radio One has a higher percentage of Canadians listening than ever before.

That being said, the primary purpose of public radio according to The Broadcasting Act is to “inform, enlighten and entertain” with a particular stress on that order. Contrary to the decisions of Stursberg, Radio One has increased listeners without debasing itself and sticking to that order. Meanwhile, the show continues with the tradition of informing, enlightening and entertaining as well as “[contributing] to the flow … of cultural expression,” as stated in the Broadcasting Act. Not to mention, it “reflect[s] the multicultural nature of Canada” in the roughly 10,000 American Expatriates that arrive every year.

The show fits nicely into the CBC’s narrative tradition. The CBC already has a roster of similar Canadian shows such as the coast to coast nationalization of small town legends in Stewart McLean’s Vinyl Café and the neurotic and hilarious musings of This American Life contributor Jonathan Goldstein on life in Montreal on his show Wiretap. If anything, This American Life complements those shows, as grappling with the cultural behemoth to the south is inevitably part of Canadian culture.

Radio One, as those insomniacs among us already know, airs foreign content in the form of BBC news during the night. With increased listenership through the use of providing good content, perhaps the content that is primarily informative is more harmful than that of cute and quaint Americana. If This American Life was bad radio, the apprehension towards it would be understandable.