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Chatting with Stursberg, My Ex-Boss and Arch-Nemesis

The former CBC veep shook up my work world, got fired and wrote a book. Time to catch up.

Kai Nagata 17 May

Kai Nagata worked at the CBC from May 2008 to Sept. 2010 as a radio researcher, radio reporter, radio producer, TV reporter, and videojournalist before resigning to take over the Quebec City bureau for CTV.

The Tower of Babble is published by Douglas & McIntyre.

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Richard Stursberg: Those hazel eyes haunted Kai Nagata's dreams when he was a young CBC journalist.

Richard Stursberg's new book includes one particularly perceptive passage: "They would look at me as though confronted by the Great Satan himself. The stench of sulphur and charred flesh seemed to follow me everywhere. Employees looked aside when I came into view."

He's describing the climate in Toronto after the 2005 lockout at the CBC, but that searing hatred never completely dissipated during his tenure as executive vice-president in charge of English services. He was the engine pushing toward a more populist, commercial CBC. He also oversaw the elimination of 800 jobs in 2009. Sitting across from him on the patio at JJ Bean, I ask if the ill will we wished him ever affected his day to day mindset.

"Yeah, it slowed me down dramatically," replies Stursberg. "The level of resistance within the news department, despite the fact it was failing, was unbelievable. I was very conscious of the fact that people were worried and resistant. But at some point it was pretty clear that if we didn't do something, the whole thing was just gonna kind of vanish."

Fort News

It was thus that under Stursberg's tenure, local newscasts were stretched from 60 minutes to 90 -- with the same staff. New, high-tempo graphics and music were brought in. And we had to be live, all the time. I remember as a videojournalist, editing my own news piece, having to abandon everything and run to the roof at 5:00 and 5:30 to deliver gasping, breathless "lives," before running back up for a third time at 6:00 to intro my barely-finished story. Some days in Montreal there were only four reporters to fill an hour and a half of airtime.

"When you look now at CBC News," I ask Stursberg, "do you see your vision realized?"

"Yeah, up to a point. But I had always thought there were two steps involved. One of which is, it had to be this sort of promise of breaking news, 24-hour-a-day breaking news. And going faster than the privates..."

I interrupt him. "I don't ask this out of disrespect, but have you ever broken a news story?"

"Of course not, I'm not a journalist. Why would I break news stories? I've never worked as a journalist in my entire life. But that's neither here nor there. I can still count. I can count how many news stories get broken."

Stursberg's book is called The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC. The frontispiece contains the inscription "For my father."

Peter Stursberg, the author's father, is one of the living legends of CBC News. The elder Stursberg filed from the front lines during WWII. Yet despite this pedigree, and the framed photo of his war-reporter father in his office (holding "a microphone the size of a pineapple"), Stursberg knew he would be seen within "Fort News" as an "ignorant meddler."

Back on the patio, I try a different tack. "It felt like, after the changes, we were doing shallower, less substantive work." Stursberg eyes me over his coffee cup. "Is it possible," I ask, "to be important and unpopular?"

"Why wouldn't you want to be important and popular?" he asks.

"Do you know any popular dentists?" I reply.

"This isn't the dentistry business, this is the media business," he laughs. "The idea that you have to choose [between the two] is a recipe for complete disaster."

It would appear that news ratings did climb as a result of Stursberg's changes. Whether the CBC now produces more important content is the subject of healthy debate.


Being that we're sitting in East Vancouver, I can't resist asking the former executive about Chris Haddock's cancelled CBC drama Intelligence. Starring Ian Tracey as a local drug lord turned CSIS informant, it was supposed to be the hit follow-up to Da Vinci's Inquest.

In Dec. 2007 the Tyee ran an interview with Haddock in which the writer/producer shared his belief that somebody high up at the CBC was trying to "bury" his show. Three months later, his fears would come true.

"Is it the fact that I'm talking about dope, the narco-economy?" asked Haddock. "Is it the deep integration theme [between US and Canadian spy services]? Is that too politically sensitive for Harper's Ottawa? Is it personal?"

I put the question to Stursberg. Was Haddock correct that someone at the top deliberately killed his show?

"No, this is rubbish. In fact, it was exactly the contrary." As Stursberg talks about his conversations with Haddock, he methodically destroys a wooden stir stick, breaking it into thumbnail-sized pieces.

"The problem was, at the end of the day nobody watched it. The numbers were terrible, they just kept going down. It was not a vendetta."

This would seem to accord with the core logic of Stursberg's decisions at the CBC. "There would be only one measure of success," he writes. "Audiences." Hence his cancellation of arts shows like Opening Night in favour of reality fare like Dragon's Den and Battle of the Blades. Hence the much-maligned overhaul of Radio 2 and the abandonment of classical music. Hence the re-branding of Newsworld as CBCNN, with anchors striding to and fro in front of giant screens.

Despite the mantra about audiences, several top performing sports properties were lost on Stursberg's watch. Broadcast rights to the Olympics, the Canadian Football League, and curling were all snapped up by CTV. Each case, Stursberg says the CBC didn't have the financial leeway to outbid its private competitor.

Political appointees

Now the contract with the NHL is winding down, and the private networks appear poised to snatch Hockey Night in Canada, too. If so, 400 hours of content and half the CBC's ad revenue would disappear overnight. In the face of this looming calamity, on top of brutal budget cuts, the broadcaster's board and current managers appear paralyzed. Their life raft is a vague five-year plan titled "Everyone, Every Way." Could the dysfunction at the upper echelons be deliberate?

"You seem, in the book, a little bit mystified at Hubert Lacroix's appointment as CBC president." Stursberg smiles. "I was a little mystified at his appointment."

Lacroix, a Montreal lawyer, was tapped by the PMO to take over from Robert Rabinovitch in 2008. A basketball colour commentator for Radio-Canada TV and radio during the 1984, 1988 and 1996 Olympic Games, Lacroix contributed more recently to a French-language show about amateur sports. "Are you less mystified now?" I ask Stursberg.

"No, I'm still mystified.

"I think I lay out three criteria in the book that an ideal president of the CBC would have. One, they know something about media. Two, they would have run a large organization. And three, they would know something about the mysterious and byzantine ways of Ottawa. And as far as I can tell, Hubert doesn't have any of those qualifications."

Stursberg's eyes twinkle behind his sunglasses. "It would be like if I phoned you up and said, 'Hey, I have a really great job for you. How would you like to come run a cement factory?'"

Popular or elite?

Insubordination, he writes, is one of the reasons he was fired. Near the end of the book, Stursberg describes that day in Aug. 2010. "Hubert Lacroix came up to my office. He said, 'We are parting ways.' 'Really,' I replied as insouciantly as possible. 'Are you leaving?' He looked darker than ever. What happened after this, I cannot say. The terms of my separation agreement forbid me from describing the moment."

I myself made the decision to leave the CBC a month later. I ask Stursberg if the disintegration he describes near the end of the book -- the endless Kabbalistic parsing of the mandate, the wasted consulting fees, the personal rancour -- if any of that felt engineered. He takes a few moments to answer, fidgeting with the handle of his cup. Finally he says, "I don't think there's a plan to sow confusion."

In the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, God sabotages construction by mixing up the languages of the workers. It would appear Stursberg does not blame divine intervention.

"Honestly I don't know what it is. I mean some things just seem so straightforward. Why people are uncomfortable being clear about what they want, I don't know."

The PMO, he speculates, doesn't know what it wants from the CBC any more than its appointees on the board. "You know, it's a broadly populist government is what it would like to be. It's a government that wants to reaffirm Canadian-ness, particularly in its historical dimensions. And it's a government that's very interested in reaching out to all the different kinds of communities in the country. The great vehicle for doing all that is the CBC."

"I think what the government should be doing is something really simple. They should stand up and they should say look, this is the kind of CBC we want. Not whispered in corridors, or where people have to slaughter chickens and examine entrails to figure out what the government wants. They should just stand up and say, 'We want a popular CBC' or, 'We want an elite CBC.' Choose, and then say it, and have a conversation."

There is certainly something to be said for conversation. I walk away from ours with a grudging respect for Richard Stursberg. One might not agree with all of his decisions, but at least he was capable of making them.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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