Last night on CBC Radio, I heard a replay of Jian Ghomeshi’s riveting interview with film critic Roger Ebert, who died earlier this week.
Through a computerized voice, Ebert offered an honest account of how his life had changed as a result of thyroid cancer, which left him speechless, disfigured, and unable to eat.
The populist Ebert and the more highbrow Gene Siskel delighted a generation of film fans by giving either a thumbs up or a thumbs down to what they had seen on the big screen.
Ebert clearly loved movies, but he didn’t shy away from letting the public know when there was a stinkbomb at the local cinema house.
Ghomeshi's interview with Ebert got me thinking about how much I love and, on rare occasions, dislike the CBC.
Overall, we have a great public broadcaster in Canada—far better than what's offered in the United States and, I would venture, in most other countries. As a former employee of the Mother Corp., I've never lost my affection for its role in educating Canadians about their country.
But like Hollywood, CBC sometimes tosses a stinkbomb in our midst, which will make me want to turn the radio dial or the TV channel.
So in honour of Ebert, here are my purely subjective choices of what deserves a thumbs up and a thumbs down on CBC Radio and CBC TV. Because I listen primarily to the English-language CBC Radio One and watch English TV networks, I won't comment on the other CBC offerings.
Evan Solomon: Thumbs up As host of The House on radio and Power & Politics on TV, Solomon is invariably well-prepared and often breaks news on his programs. The House has become far more compelling since he joined the show, and his interview with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is one reason why the government’s Internet-surveillance bill was put on the back burner. I appreciate his impish inquisitiveness, though some Straight readers will probably feel he's still a bit too mainstream for their tastes.
Wendy Mesley: Thumbs up Despite reaching the pinnacle of the Canadian broadcasting world, she hasn’t lost her irreverence, nor her willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. Mesley still seems to see the world through the eyes of average Canadians. It makes me wonder if her fight against breast cancer broadened her horizons and made her an even better journalist.
Eleanor Wachtel: Thumbs up The host of Writers & Company is this country's quintessential books interviewer (no disrespect intended toward Shelagh Rogers, who's found her niche on The Next Chapter). Well-read, gracious, and curious about the entire world, Wachtel seems to understand the intimacy of radio. Exceptional hosts start out as welcome guests in people’s homes, but over time, they become familiar friends to the listeners.
Peter Mansbridge: Thumbs down His obsequious interviews with Benjamin Netanyahu and Conrad Black, not to mention his handling of the war in Afghanistan, have turned me off. On the upside, Mansbridge appears to have a good sense of humour and he’s demonstrated curiosity about a wide range of subjects. I don't know what he was thinking when he decided to attend the Bilderberg conference in 2010. It provided a huge hit of oxygen to every conspiracy theorist in the country.
Michael Enright: Thumbs up He used to irritate me as the occasionally pompous host of As It Happens, but he seems to have hit his stride on The Sunday Edition. The show’s languid pace allows him to showcase his intellect and breadth of knowledge. He and his producers offer up some of CBC’s most imaginative programming.
Rex Murphy: Thumbs down This curmudgeonly contrarian has a way with words, but in his soul, he's a Ralph Klein–loving, climate-change denier who’s best suited for the pages of the National Post. That's why I usually can't stand his commentaries on The National. On the upside, he's not a bad host of Cross Country Checkup except when talk turns to global warming or the Alberta tar sands.
Stephen Quinn: Thumbs up The host of On The Coast in Vancouver is clever, curious, funny, incredibly versatile, and he has a great radio voice. I would prefer a little less entertainment and more current affairs on the show, but he's a terrific broadcaster.
Carol Off: Thumbs down I find that I’m turning the dial more often when I hear trivial interviews inserted to lighten the mix on As It Happens, especially when the majority of these stories seem to come from the United States or the United Kingdom. Off, a veteran foreign correspondent, occasionally adopts a cloying tone of voice when she’s speaking with a guest with whom she clearly agrees and who's been victimized in some way. But it’s still a must-listen-to show at 6:30 p.m. for its lead story. And I really like those rare occasions when the brainy and internationally aware Laura Lynch sits in as host.
The National’s reporting: Thumbs up The CBC’s flagship news program has a strong group of journalists, some of whom fearlessly tread into the world’s hottest conflict zones. To name a few: Nahlah Ayed, Adrienne Arseneault, Kelly Crowe, Duncan McCue, Neil MacDonald, Diana Swain, Sasa Petricic, Curt Petrovich, and Susan Ormiston are reliable and trustworthy. However, I dislike the way CBC management is creating a cult of personality around its reporting team. That's apparent in how the journalists' faces are being inserted in stories to an absurd degree. But when it comes to the journalism, the ones mentioned above are very good, though I wish The National would take on the establishment more often.
Greg Weston: Thumbs up I suspect that the veteran print reporter is a secret right winger, based on his book about John Turner and his obsession with Chinese government surveillance. But he's added some much-needed unpredictability to CBC newscasts. You just never know what Weston is going to come up with next. There aren't many reporters who constantly have a capacity to surprise you with their revelations. Weston is one of them.
Frédéric Zalac: Thumbs up The fluently bilingual Vancouver-based investigative journalist breaks some of the corporation’s biggest stories, including this month’s shocker about how wealthy Canadians have squirreled money in offshore havens outside of the view of Canadian tax collectors. His probe into the use of tasers helped bring about new policies that have saved lives. He may be Canada's most underrated reporter.
Terence McKenna: Thumbs up His documentaries are few and far between, but they’re always compelling and original, and invariably focus on issues of grave importance. Who can forget his look at the Khadr family long before most Canadians even knew of their existence? Let's hope CBC never lets him go in any round of budget cuts.
Anna Maria Tremonti: Thumbs up The flagship morning-radio show, The Current, has been far more willing to examine controversial human-rights issues than The National. If you want to learn about waterboarding, honour killings, and the advancement of same-sex partners' rights, this is the program for you. The host, Anna Maria Tremonti, is an experienced investigative reporter, and it shows in her interviews. She's a serious journalist for serious times.
Jian Ghomeshi: Thumbs down Ghomeshi's radio program Q is far too obsessed with Americana. As a listener, I get the sense that the producers are more interested in generating ratings than in nourishing Canadian culture. A refreshing exception is the Canada Reads series, when Canadian commentators discuss Canadian books. But most of the time, it sounds like an American show to me. I also can't stand Ghomeshi's trademark opening, "Hi there", which always sounds a bit forced to show that he's a cool guy.
The fifth estate: Thumbs down This is a very reluctant thumbs down because over the years, the fifth estate has been responsible for some of the CBC's finest journalism, including Harvey Cashore's incredible revelations about the Airbus affair. In recent years, there have been too many stories about crime and death for my liking on the fifth estate. I wonder if this is designed to boost ratings. This season, only one episode really put the federal government's feet to the fire, and it concerned cost overruns on the F-35 fighter jets. Nevertheless, I appreciated Gillian Findlay's recent investigation into businessman Russ George's alliance with the Haida to seed the ocean with iron. She and cohost Linden MacIntyre remain two of Canada's best investigative reporters.
Marketplace: Thumbs up This show has found some bite ever since Erica Johnson started teaming up with the now-departed Wendy Mesley. I loved how Johnson, who is one of Canada's best health reporters, recently took hospitals to task for their outrageous parking fees. She rightly pointed out that they really amount to a tax on the sick. Johnson's cohost, Tom Harrington, seems to be just as rough on the rip-off artists. This show is not only informative, but it also makes for highly entertaining TV.
At Issue: Thumbs down The panel of Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Bruce Anderson is too conservative for my liking. Coyne never seems to shut up about government spending. Anderson's history as a lobbyist, pollster, and communications consultant makes him poorly suited to be a regular commenter with two journalists on a panel of this nature, no matter how articulate he may be. And Hébert sometimes appears to be far more interested in politics than policy. The panel improves with the presence of either Althia Raj, who provides a progressive voice, or reporters Jennifer Ditchburn or Rob Russo. If I had my druthers, those three would be the weekly At Issue panelists because they seem to be more in touch with average Canadians than the incumbents.
The Bottom Line: Thumbs up The National has created a balanced panel of bright, independent thinkers to discuss important economic issues. Jim Stanford can always be counted on to wave the progressive flag, and Preet Banerjee is also willing to take unconventional positions. Patricia Croft is positioned as the voice of the establishment business community, but even she can be unpredictable in her analysis. And Amanda Lang has a loveable charm, even though she's not nearly as left wing as the CBC's resident right-wing blowhard, Kevin O'Leary, likes to make her out to be. The Bottom Line panelists are honest, not overly egotistical, and there is a real chemistry between them. They've been a positive addition to The National.
Kevin O'Leary: Thumbs down Ayn Rand is his favourite author. Enough said.
The Insiders: Thumbs up Liberal David Herle, Conservative Jaimie Watt, and New Democrat Kathleen Monk offer revealing insights into what goes on in the backrooms of political parties. Each is a partisan, but sometimes it seems that the very bright Monk is a little less willing than the others to really lay out some of the tricks that New Democrats have used to win over voters. I would still prefer more documentaries over the never-ending panel discussions on The National. But if there has to be a panel, the producers could do a lot worse than bringing us The Insiders.
Stuart McLean: Thumbs down I have a love-hate relationship with Stuart McLean, host of The Vinyl Cafe, even though I've never met him. Right now, I'm in one of those phases when I just don't want to hear his love letters to some small Canadian town because after all these years, they sometimes sound a little forced to me. But then McLean will turn a phrase or tell a tale that still manages to touch my heart. I appreciate how he consistently showcases Canadian musicians on The Vinyl Cafe. He's a national institution and notwithstanding the thumbs-down rating (which could change tomorrow), I hope the CBC never gets rid of him. But I am turning the dial more often nowadays, unless he comes on the air while I'm scrubbing the bathroom. He's perfect for times like that.
Mary Hines: Thumbs up In the Harper era, the CBC has to run a program on spirituality or else it just might get its budget cut even more. So if that's the case, it couldn't do much better than Tapestry, which provides thought-provoking, eclectic coverage hosted by Hines, a long-time sports journalist. She's well-suited to this show—sufficiently inquisitive and yet respectful enough to lure a skeptic like me in as a regular listener.
Steve Patterson: Thumbs up When I first heard that CBC was going to put comedians on the radio to debate various issues, it made me groan in disgust. But The Debaters has turned into one of my favourite programs thanks to the extremely witty host, Patterson, and an amazing depth of comedic talent in Canada. For what it's worth, I thought Vancouver's Charlie Demers was ripped off when he wasn't named the winner of a recent debate on whether it's okay to imitate someone's accent. But hey, Patterson has the final word, so who am I to question his wisdom?
Jonathan Goldstein: Thumbs up The host of WireTap is a true original, offering constant hiliarity as he talks over the phone with a host of characters. Recently, I haven't been hearing as much from his irritating friend Gregor, who's probably the most amusing presence apart from Goldstein on the show.
George Stroumboulopoulos: Thumbs up Hey, it's a talk show with a snazzier set than most. Strombo is pleasant enough and he doesn't take himself too seriously. And I like the way he genuinely tries to promote Canadian talent.
Sook-Yin Lee: Thumbs down She's fun, she's sometimes wild, and she's possibly the most unpredictable presence on CBC Radio. There are also some very good segments on her increasingly theme-oriented DNTO. But Sook-Yin Lee's show just doesn't stimulate the grey matter in my brain in the same way as other CBC Radio offerings. It's a bit too puerile for my tastes and, possibly, for my age. It's also the most visible example of the dumbing down of CBC that occurred under the leadership of former English-language programming head Richard Stursberg.
Paul Kennedy: Thumbs up The Ideas show keeps rumbling along year after year with Kennedy at the helm. It's the antithesis of DNTO, proving that shows that aim high can draw very good ratings.
The Saturday Radio One lineup: Thumbs down Individually, there are some great shows, including The House, Quirks and Quarks, Under the Influence, and The Debaters. I also enjoy Randy Bachman's Vinyl Tap. But there's not enough current affairs and politics on Radio One on Saturdays. It's a procession of mostly entertainment-oriented shows, likely reflecting the tastes of some of CBC's key decision makers. White Coat Black Art with host Dr. Brian Goldman has a more serious edge when it's in the lineup, but it's almost entirely focused on medicine, not politics. Day 6 occasionally gets serious, but it's hard to take the host, Brent Bambury, very seriously. CBC management should never have cancelled the great internationally oriented show Dispatches. If it's ever revived, it should be plugged in somewhere late in the day on Saturdays. That will keep me from switching as often to Sean Leslie's solid weekend current-affairs show on CKNW Radio in Vancouver.
The Sunday Radio One lineup: Thumbs up Cross Country Checkup, Writers & Company, Spark, Tapestry, C'est la Vie, and The Sunday Edition give CBC Radio One listeners far more intellectual nourishment than what's on the menu on the previous day. If you have a bunch of chores to do at home, I recommend choosing Sunday because you'll have a better mix of programs. Saturday is best for dipping in and dipping out, but not for spending the entire day with CBC Radio on.
CBC TV shows: Thumbs up I confess to not being a huge viewer of CBC's entertainment-oriented TV programming, but I've liked what I've seen. Arctic Air's Adam Beach is fun to watch on screen. I like the rock-em-sock-em attitude on Republic of Doyle. Rick Mercer still has the capacity to amuse, plus he does a good job of showcasing the country. More often, though, my bias is toward the current-affairs TV programming and Radio One, which is why I didn't go into detail in this area.
I could keep blabbing on about CBC, but that's more than enough for now. If you made it this far, you're probably guilty of being just as much of a CBC junkie as I am.