The Born Freelancer on the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation, Part 1

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 


“If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’re never going to know where you are going” says Kealy Wilkinson, Executive Director of the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation. The Born Freelancer recently sat down with Ms. Wilkinson to discuss a wide range of relevant topics past, present and future of particular interest to freelancers in Canada.

Kealy Wilkinson, a self-professed “long-time broadcast person who decided early on that I didn’t like being on air; I wanted to do other things” has certainly done that. She has had a remarkable career beginning as an operator/announcer on local radio in the high arctic and including (but not limited to) broadcast management, system and service design, strategic planning for the CBC, and running both the Canadian Broadcasting League and the Alliance for Children and Television. She has long demonstrated a passion for Canadian broadcasting and a knowledgeable commitment to our radio and television history. Throughout all those years, says Ms. Wilkinson, she has never held a staff position, preferring instead the freedom and flexibility afforded her by being a freelancer.


What are the objectives of the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation?

It was created in 2001 as a national non-profit organization with the mandate to collect, preserve and celebrate the radio and television legacy of Canada.

Why is that important?

It’s the electronic record of our history. That’s the bottom line. We learn who we are, we share with each other, we get to know each other and places we will never visit, largely through radio and television in this country. It’s a huge country with a tiny population… Without radio and television it would have been impossible for us to hang together as a nation… Without the opportunity to develop the expectation that we knew each other, that we cared about each other, that we shared important principles of how to live and how to enjoy the things that we share, things that radio and television gave us, there would be less and less reason for us to remain a distinct and independent country.

Why do we know so little about our own broadcasting heritage?

Because we are the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have some kind of integrated national program, to preserve its national radio and television legacy. It’s an anomaly that must have arisen because Canada was so busy trying to extend its radio and television service across the country that we focused on the technology of doing that rather than making it a priority to preserve the programming.

And yet our national radio (and later television) services were as vital to uniting this country as was the railway.

If not more so, in fact. When radio came along in the 1920s we were drifting towards becoming the next American state. Most of our entertainment was coming from there on radio and every other medium. We didn’t have the cultural industries that we’ve developed since then… We developed a national audience as a result of people learning to use radio to keep in touch with what was going on across the country and the world. That happened subsequent to the development of radio in the 20s and 30s and coalesced during the awful happenings of World War Two.

What is the current state of archiving our broadcast heritage?

Most Canadians assume the federal government has a hand in this. And they should. We have Library & Archives Canada (which used to be the National Library and National Archives of Canada, but now they’ve been integrated into one federal unit). As part of that process they’ve redirected their priorities. It seems their new focus is almost exclusively only on the collection of federal government records. Which means the small amount of radio and television archiving that they were doing will probably be discontinued.

So the federal government has turned its back on archiving anything except its own political contributions to this country’s history?

That appears to be what’s been going on for the last several years. We only know this because they’ve been referring people to us who approached them about making deposits of radio and television material. They’ve been redirected to the CBMF… In the event of new leadership there, there’s a chance that things will be rethought but at the present time they are not taking in any radio or television material. Although I believe they may still be recording one nightly television newscast in English and one in French. And that’s it.

Why has it come to this?

I think it is a question of them simply having neither the resources nor the expertise. Ten years ago they still had people in that institution with a strong background in radio and television. They understood the history; they knew the names. They could recognize things when they came in the door – but they’re long gone. Those people have all retired. And they’ve not been replaced. When you have somebody who wants to make a substantial deposit of broadcast material you have to have people there who can tell you what it is. When you don’t have that any longer it’s pointless.

Can you talk about the importance of freelancers to Canada’s broadcasting legacy.

In the early days of radio and television, freelancers made it happen. There were no people “on staff” by and large to do the kinds of things that later became staff responsibilities. Almost all of the names that we’re familiar with from the 1920s, 30s,40s, 50s, the people who became icons in Canadian broadcasting – almost all were, in fact, freelancers. Reporters, journalists, people on the production side, even people like Harry Rasky – probably the most famous Canadian documentarian of the 20th century – was basically working as a freelancer for most of his life. Freelancing is where it’s at – and certainly now when things are changing and things are somewhat unclear both at the CBC and in the private sector. People in staff jobs are losing those jobs by the week… If you’re really keen to be a broadcaster, to work in television, radio or the web in any kind of role you’ll be doing it most likely as a freelancer and relying on your creativity, ingenuity and energy to build your career.

What can the freelancers of today learn from the freelancers of the past?

One thing is to never give up! If you have a good idea don’t ever give it up. Graham Spry, the father of Canadian national broadcasting, taught us that. He said, “Never, ever, ever forget about an idea you believe in. Just keep pushing it; eventually it will work. Eventually, you’ll find the right person who is interested and who will work with you to make it happen”. Of course, it transfers a great deal of responsibility of knowing everything you need to know, having the right equipment, having the necessary contacts, etc. to the individual freelancer. There’s no other way to do it because freelancers have no other infrastructure to rely on, unless of course you have a union. And they are extremely important.

What role have unions played in the evolution of Canadian broadcasting?

Going back to the early days there were no unions. The earliest union is what we know today as ACTRA which started out under another name, something like RATS. A most unfortunate abbreviated name! It is essential to have a union. The degree of collegiality that will help sustain you as a freelancer I don’t think you can find anywhere else. It is fortuitous that there is a union supporting both freelancers and staff [the CMG], it’s absolutely key. The whole question of employment in this sector is so fluid now that none of us can predict how it is going to shape up or evolve over even the next five years let alone the next decade or more. So just as unions were extremely critical in the past they will be even more so in the future.

Tell us what we can expect when we interact with the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation.

The Foundation spent some time looking at developing a “bricks and mortar” Canadian broadcasting museum in the early 2000s. We concluded that going that route would cost the earth… so we concluded that the best solution was to create something called Aireum which will be the online national broadcasting museum for Canada. It will be the exhibition or celebration focus for the National Broadcast Collection that we have been building since 2007. We have over 100,000 items in the collection and there are thousands and thousands more waiting to come in! It will be very much driven towards celebrating the creativity of the production community, the acting community, the performing community as well as the industrial community and the technologists who built the broadcasting system which we’ve benefited from for almost 100 years.

The CBMF website is here.

To be continued…

Posted on August 22, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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