The CBC has been given its money back. That is to say, the immediate infusion of $75 million announced in the Liberals’ budget last month, plus the promise of a $150 million increase each year through 2021, more than makes up for the money leached from it by the Conservatives.
Various ideas have been floated for how the CBC should use its fresh funding. The Canadian Media Guild wants it to scale back the 1000-1500 job cuts planned over five years, something CBC President Hubert (“No I’m Not Nervous Since the Last Election, Why, What Have You Heard?”) Lacroix has declined to commit to. Heritage Minister Melanie Joly thinks the CBC should be more Vice magazine-like, whatever that means. (She explains what she means here; we still have no idea what she means, though we join the cultural community in thanking her government for throwing the national broadcaster a life line.)
To those suggestions let me add another: Bring back Radio Drama. Just don’t call it that.
The CBC jettisoned its Radio Drama department in 2012 — one of its earliest sacrifices to the cost-cutting Conservatives. Voices were raised in protest, but disappeared in the wind. By then CBC Radio Drama had been largely centralized in Toronto, and adopted the team-written series model used in TV (which actually resulted in some good shows, like the long-running Afghanada). At one time, though, it had been a true National Theatre of the Air.
A lot of us cut our teeth working for CBC Radio, in my case as a writer, first in Edmonton and then later in Vancouver, in other cases as actors. CBC maintained a corps of radio drama producers around the country, most of them directors who had worked in theatre. In cities that had little in the way of a film and TV scene, radio drama was a way to keep working between stage gigs and to be heard, if not seen, elsewhere. And it paid well; the first decent money I made was on a CBC Radio contract.
It was never possible to get a read on the size of audience listening — at least, I never could. I’d ask, but nobody seemed to know. But when you had something tagged on to the end of Morningside, or in the Nightfall series, which had a cult following internationally, you knew a lot of people were listening. And by the time Afghanada ended its run, which was pretty much also the end of the run for radio drama at the CBC, it was reportedly averaging 300,000-600,000 listeners per episode. Not Hockey Night in Canada numbers, but neither was radio drama just a make-work program for artists; it had fans.
It would have even more now, just four years later. About the time CBC was decommissioning Studio 212, radio drama was making a big comeback, via the internet. Which meant, of course, it needed a new name altogether; say, audio drama (the BBC does). Audible.com had already whetted our appetite — earppetite? — for a new range of listening experiences. A faux and funny horror series called Welcome to Night Vale had just launched and was on its way to becoming the No. 1 podcast on iTunes. And podcasts themselves were two years away from reaching their tipping point with Serial — not a drama, but a show that forced millions of people to finally figure out how to listen to a podcast.
So if you were to bring CBC Radio Drama back, it wouldn’t even have to be on the radio, which would fit just fine with the CBC’s new digital-first strategy. And as The Tyee’s Shannon Rupp has pointed out, it would provide some relief from the generally dire state of CBC Television drama. “It’s not that Canadians can’t do good TV drama,” she wrote in 2014; “it’s that CBC apparently lacks the will to do good TV drama. Meanwhile, it has cut the radio drama service at which it was once internationally acknowledged to be pretty darn good.”
But if we are to have its return, let’s make it a truly national theatre once again, emanating from all points in the country. That would fit with the CBC’s intention to return some money to “the regions” (their euphemism for any place west of Mississauga and east of Scarborough). They probably mean they want to put it back into local news, and there would be nothing wrong with that, but the CBC has traditionally played a role in the cultural and imaginative lives of those cities as well. It owes it to artists across the country to do so again, and I mean literally owes it — federal money for the arts is meant to be spread around. And Radio Drama (er, Audio Drama) can bring Canadian stories to Canada and the world a lot more cheaply and ubiquitously than TV can.
It’d take just a fraction of that new money to do. The effect would be to return the CBC to doing one of the things it has always done best. And to bump it into the future, where a whole new audience awaits, earbuds at the ready.