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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2008

Singing the Blues: The CBC & The Universities

By William Bruneau
All my life, I’ve thought of the CBC as a kind of university of the air, says William Bruneau.
All my life, I’ve thought of the CBC as a kind of university of the air, says William Bruneau.
In March 27, 2008, the CBC sent an emissary to Vancouver. He was Mark Steinmetz, the head of CBC Radio music. This highly-placed bureaucrat came to tell the CBC Radio Orchestra that it would be disbanded in November.

The orchestra has a 70-year history. Its players are virtuoso musicians and its conductors a who’s-who of Canadian concert music. Its budget once allowed for biweekly studio broadcasts and recording sessions. It has been heard and loved across Canada, decade upon decade.

In earlier times, there were other CBC radio orchestras, including the Toronto-based CBC Symphony of the 1950s and 1960s. But for some years now, the Vancouver-based CBC Radio Orchestra has been North America’s only broadcast ensemble.

The orchestra commissions and performs new works and showcases exceptional Canadian performers and conductors in addition to presenting established classics of the last 500 years to a national and international radio audience. The orchestra could — and still can — do this because its players are excellent and because it need not win popularity contests with commercial radio stations.

In short, the orchestra became a poster child for the Mother Corporation, living proof the CBC understood its mandate and lived up to it.

It is worth noting there are more than two dozen radio orchestras in Europe and the Americas, with a dozen in Germany and Austria alone. Politicians and cultural leaders in those countries find good reasons to keep their orchestras alive and well. There’s a broad consensus that they operate at little cost — the price for our orchestra was about $500,000 in 2007-2008 — and produce hugely positive results.

Warning for What’s Coming

Now the CBC Radio Orchestra is destined to die. It is something of a canary in the national mineshaft. It has been happily committed to playing the best music and especially the best Canadian music. It is a flagship of Canadian creativity and community. Its concert last year in Nunavut made points about sovereignty that any number of naval vessels could not do. Besides, it’s fun to hear them play. In November, it passes out of this mortal coil.

The singing canary is a loyal creature. It sings until and unless it is deprived of oxygen or overcome by poisonous mine gas. In this case, the oxygen is cash and the gas is a form of short-sighted populism. Steinmetz insists the CBC must change — that it wants to be a mirror for musical activity in Canada. But the unhappy fate of the orchestra “canary” means the whole purpose and mandate of the CBC are at risk.

CBC management believes that to be a “mirror,” CBC must restrict the hours when classical music can be played and must dissolve the orchestra. If the CBC is to be a mirror of Canadian culture, it means giving in to the creed of populism. In that creed, pop, rock, hip-hop, easy-listening and world music are good just because they dominate the airwaves and the listening habits of young Canadians.

It’s a tempting and insidious idea. After all, many Canadian artists perform pop, rock, folk, traditional and world music. They deserve to be heard and not only on commercial radio. But what a huge difference between a station where hosts spin records and a radio that features the thinking music of a nation — our music, our composers and our performers.

By now, readers of the Bulletin will recognize unpleasantly familiar sounds and smells.

For the CBC story begins with budget cuts, continues with “mandate slip” and confusion in governance, and ends with the evisceration of a public institution. Surely the recent history of Canadian public post-secondary education offers analogies in all three of these aspects.


Provincial governments hit Canadian universities and colleges with sharp cuts in the early 1970s and again in 1983-1985. By 1983, the University of British Columbia would close an entire department and end the appointments of 13 tenured faculty members. UBC did it with regret, but they did it.

The cuts produced not only a lengthy crisis in faculty morale, but also, as the facts show, a deep crisis in the governance of higher education.

So with the CBC, where the loss of mandate-driven programming began with federal finance minister Paul Martin’s funding reforms and continues under management able and apparently happy to lop off whole entities (viz. the orchestra) and revise programming to suit the “market.” It is a failure of governance when a whole department can be “lopped off.” Similarly, it is a failure of governance when a public broadcaster gives in to populism, managerialist fantasy and budgetary convenience.

Mandate Slip

By 1995, as core funding dried up, university presidents found themselves under pressure when became obvious they would not receive significant new federal or provincial funding.

Administrators were nevertheless expected to use performance indicators and ew “accountability” measures, if they were to receive any public funding. Grants, page counts, good PR, high graduation rates, high graduate employment rates, patents and an invention’s commercial potential, all of these became dominant considerations in university governance and in the daily life of classroom and laboratory teaching.

It was possible during the past three decades to neglect the central mandate of public post-secondary higher education: to provide excellent instruction in all fields of inquiry, to make that instruction accessible to every Canadian citizen capable of benefiting from it, to conduct research in every area of art and science, to build cultural strength and sustainable economic activity and to serve the public interest.

The mandate may be understood and interpreted in different ways in different regions of the country, yet the mandate remains. Or does it?

In the last 30 years the post-secondary mandate has noticeably weakened. The drive to build our reputation in Asia and Europe and to keep our ranking in lists such as the Times Higher-QS “World University Rankings” has been a distraction. So has the pressure on universities to show direct economic utility and the unceasing demand that universities be quick and nimble in their dance to the job market’s tune.

None of this has helped lower tuition fees, reduce class sizes, encourage a sensible professorial workload, encourage participatory university government, or provide for transparency in the universities’ relations with corporate Canada.


Our common experience — with the CBC and the universities — is easy enough to see: Martin’s cuts, the fiscal donothingism of the present Conservative government and the endless triumph of managerialism.

The parallels are striking, but so are the differences.

In the post-secondary education sector, we live in a strange world of vast expansion and endless cuts. In British Columbia, five universities were created this spring. In Quebec and Ontario, the overall number of places has risen significantly in the past 15 years. Funded research is now a crucial element in the budget-balancing work of universities across the land.

Similarly the CBC has been funded to increase its reach across Canada and through the Internet, to the world. New universities . . . new FM radio stations.

Still, it is dauntingly difficult to know how and why universities are using their provincial grants and their endowments and how and why the CBC board of directors chose to axe the Radio Orchestra and reduce its commitment to classical music.

At the CBC the ridiculous fixation on audience numbers — that is, with performance indicators — has undermined, and will continue to undermine, the autonomy and the intelligence of the public broadcaster. In my experience, Radio 2 has become nearly unlistenable for much of the day. One wonders how, in even the remotest of senses, its activities could be argued to follow from its legislated mandate. Under Steinmetz et al., it has become a purveyor of idiocy in the evening, and Kulcher lite in the afternoon.

I judge CBC is in worse shape than the universities.

Our governance arrangements have helped to keep us autonomous and less susceptible to mandate slip. Our sheer size also helps. The CBC budget in 2007-2008 was $1.7 billion, whereas in 2006-2007, the University of Toronto spent $1.2 billion and UBC had revenue of $1.57 billion. Our canary is not going to expire this year or next.

The CBC has few potential sources of new income since it is politically inexpedient to reintroduce advertising on CBC Radio. Worse, its board of political appointees operates inside a kind of black box. Still worse, its upper management is willing and able to accept as gospel that the latest management trends and their own take on the Canadian cultural “temperature” are enough to guide them in making corporation policy.

The CBC Radio Orchestra may be the next victim of underfunding, of mandate slip and of managerialism gone amok. In six months the axe falls on the orchestra, and in the time remaining a national campaign may save it, and with it, an intelligent and culturally responsible Radio 2. On the other hand . . .

All my life, I’ve thought of the CBC as a kind of university of the air. Indeed, we had a programme of that name when I was in high school. For a music-lover, the appearance in the 1960s of CBC FM (later Radio 2) was a dream come true, since it gave us a remarkable medium for musical, literary and general cultural expression showing what our country was and could be.

The universities and the CBC really are all about the common, or “public” good. In the short term, we owe it to ourselves to pay close attention to the CBC’s fate and do what we can to save it — from its own managers, if need be. We may not be heading ineluctably down the CBC road, but we must be vigilant to ensure we choose a different and better road.

For information on a series of national campaigns to save the CBC Radio Orchestra and to resurrect Radio 2 as it ought to be, see

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a member of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.