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Happy birthday to me says the CBC

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation gets older, but what about its listeners?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) officially turned 75 yesterday, but only after teasing Canadians with anniversary-themed events and special programming for the past couple months.

There was the “1 Day” documentary project in August, which stitched together media footage and viewer contributions to produce a portrait of Canadians (young and old, unknown and famous) living their lives on April 30.

There was the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s performance, with Cirque Éloize, in early September, broadcasted live on CBC’s radio, television, and online programs.

There was even a movie about John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister.

Few Canadians deny that the CBC’s impact on communications in Canada has been huge. Today, gets almost 200 million page views per month, and its programs and hosts – such as Peter Mansbridge and The National – are household names.

Still, this fall we’ve seen the CBC’s relevance and accountability questioned on several fronts. Some Conservative MPs have surveyed their constituents about the CBC’s value and the Federal Government has the broadcaster to cut costs by between 5 and 10 percent. Two parliamentary committees have been investigating the broadcaster’s economic and cultural importance as well as its handling of access-to-information requests and related legal battles with Canada’s Information Commissioner.

But what does this mean for us – as Canadians and university students? Does the CBC still matter to us? And do we matter to them?
On November 4, 1936, two days after the CBC replaced the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, Chairman Leonard Brockington delivered a speech on air that outlined the new broadcaster’s roles:

“If Canadian radio makes no lasting contribution to a better understanding between the so-called French Canadian and the so-called English Canadian, between the East and the West, between the town and the country, between those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege of labour and those of our fellow citizens who through no fault of their own are denied that opportunity, then we should have faltered in our stewardship.”

But Brockington also mentioned the importance of entertaining young audiences. “We will never forget that Canada is a country of youth,” he said. These words ring true, even today, as the baby boomers retire and the country’s population ages. Without TVs or portable radios, most university students get media on their computers. Therefore, the CBC will have to adapt to this reality in order to survive in an evolving digital world. “Any public broadcaster has to change with the changes in technology and with the changes in the audience,” said Ian Morrison, spokesperson for FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting.

Much of the the CBC’s special anniversary programming and online features have ties to Canadian history as well as to the history of CBC’s coverage in Canada. Some of this might interest us, but most won’t. Are we thrilled to learn that 1966 was the first year Hockey Night in Canada broadcast its games in colour? This fact might excite our parents, maybe, but our generation? Probably not.

“I would hazard a guess that the CBC is afraid of cuts that the Harper government may be about inflict on it,” Morrison said. “It is trying to use the 75th anniversary as a way of appealing to the voting public in order to cause the government to think twice about zapping public broadcasting.”

Nevertheless, while the anniversary festivities might be geared towards the older voting public, the CBC still understands that appealing to youth might determine whether or not it makes it to that 100th birthday.

In 2008, for example, CBC Radio 2 redesigned its programming schedule, moved classical music from prime time to the 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. timeslot, and introduced online-only stations and concerts on demand. CBC Radio 3 was created in the early 2000s with young people in mind, and through its blogs and other interactive components has evolved into a thriving community of people linked by the love of new independent Canadian music.

Morrison was surprised to see so many young people support FRIENDS’ recent “I Love CBC” campaign, which responded to Conservatives’ threats towards the CBC’s relevance and funding.

Young people might not be celebrating the CBC’s 75th with enthusiasm, but they still think the CBC is relevant, and the feeling is mutual.