AN IDEA FOR CBC RADIO

One of the good aspects of CBC Radio this fall has been the introduction of two shows: Search Engine with Jesse Brown (who used to work at the Sunday Edition, my old haunt at the CBC) and Spark with Nora Young. They’re both pretty good shows and they focus on geeky content – a refreshing change for the CBC. There should be more youthful shows just like them.

Which leads into a point I have about this year’s Massey Lectures. For those of you not in the know, the Massey Lectures are an annual mini-series on CBC’s IDEAS every fall. Basically, an esteemed intellectual in Canadian society talks about a given topic of their choice and has it broadcast on Radio One over a period of five nights, along with a published book of the lectures. It’s wildly popular and has been one of the CBC’s highest rated shows for years.

Thing is, though, the Massey Lectures tend to run hot and cold any given year in terms of their impact and interest among the general public (as opposed to pseudo-intellectuals like me). The series enjoyed two hugely successful years in a row in 2004 and 2005 with Ronald Wright’s bestselling megahit book A Short History of Progress and the next year with Stephen Lewis.

This year’s edition – Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words – is, like every other edition of the Massey Lectures, fairly interesting and has a potentially incendiary topic: the challenges in the modern world with respect to ethnic diversity and communities interrelating. His solution? The use of stories to find common narratives for communities.

The problem with the lectures this year, however, is that even at the end of reading the book, I’m not sure exactly what kind of prescription Manguel is trying to offer society to remedy the growing divides between ethnic nationalist communities. This is very problematic, given that the Massey Lectures are supposed to be short, crisp and to the point in nature. As bad as this sounds, the lectures this year sound like post-graduate theses as opposed to populist, accessible dissections of big ideas. This is a bad direction for the Lectures to take. After all, wasn’t the point of the Lectures to begin with more to do with engaging the general CBC listener? It wasn’t created to exist in an echo chamber for academics and the elite of Canadian society that rarely have to confront head-on the real, sometimes violent consequences of a divided population based on ethnicity. As the Toronto Star pointed out today, this year’s Lectures feel like it is skimming the surface of an issue without getting dirty in the process. An inoffensive idea that doesn’t challenge anyone is doing the Massey Lectures a great disservice.

This leads to another point with the Massey Lectures: the choice of topics and lecturers. It’s becoming more apparent that the topics on the Massey Lectures as of late, while interesting, are lacking the connections to potentially younger listeners. Why hasn’t the Internet been tackled? Technological innovation? The disengagement of young voters in the electoral system? The future of democracy? More on the environment? The risk here is that the Massey Lectures may turn inward into a kind of re-affirming vacuum of non-threatening liberal orthodoxy; if there is no room at the public broadcaster for discussion of ideas beyond the safety of the Academy, what’s the point of having the lectures in the first place? Are ideas not there to be challenging and interesting?

I only say these things because I love the Massey Lectures and I only want them to get better. It’s only my opinion, but I think there’s room for improvement.