The Born Freelancer on the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation, Part 3

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. 


Recently The Born Freelancer sat down with CBMF Executive Director and lifelong freelancer Kealy Wilkinson to discuss a number of important issues relevant to freelancers in Canada today as seen in the context of our broadcasting heritage. Today in the third and final part of our three part wide-ranging conversation Ms. Wilkinson expresses her conviction that if there is still hope for the CBC (and continuing work opportunities there for freelancers), it may well be as a result of public input at the most recent CRTC hearings just wrapped up entitled “Let’s Talk TV”. Part One of our conversation is here; Part Two is here.


Does it really make any difference to get involved in a public forum like “Let’s Talk TV”?

It’s all we’ve got. And if we don’t make our views known, if we don’t play a role, then we can’t blame anybody but ourselves for what happens. The CBC isn’t solely to blame for the mess we’re in. It’s been functioning in an environment that’s almost 30 years old under legislation that is completely inapplicable today. Successive governments of Canada have completely failed to grasp the need for updating that legislation.

And what is the single most important element to update?

I think you have to start by looking at the CBC’s mandate to determine if the mandate of a contemporary national public broadcaster would be identical to the mandate detailed in 1991. Times have changed. We have the web. There’s a whole lot of different ways now that people use media. It may well be that certain of the CBC’s delivery systems could be changed over time, to eventually be transferred from transmitters to web-based delivery systems. But we have to be really careful about that.

Without transmitters we have no emergency broadcasting back-up. When the power goes out, if it wasn’t for radio nobody would know what is going on without “over the air” radio. We know the weather is getting worse, a little bit more threatening perhaps and I think the availability of emergency radio has never been more critical. You can’t do that on the web. It would be folly for the CBC to think about transferring all of its radio services to internet only systems. Doing that would put the nation at risk [in times of emergency].

Looking at the private broadcast and print sector, working conditions appear to be getting more and more onerous. Big corporations buy up smaller outlets and there are fewer and fewer jobs to go around.

It’s been a 40 year trend. It didn’t start yesterday and it didn’t start with Bell and Rogers. It’s been going on since the 1970s. There’s been some opposition to it expressed all along. Unfortunately, the bottom line is dominant. Canada has now concentrated [media ownership] to such degree that it doesn’t allow for any further activity like that. You’d see the Competition Bureau step in for starters and it still has teeth. Just watch them after the next election. The fact is there’s nobody who can buy Bell; there’s nobody who can buy Rogers or Videotron except for an American giant moving in, and there’s where the danger lies.

It’s getting harder and harder to work as a successful freelancer in the private sector these days but it would be even worse if all our media outlets were owned by any of the American megaliths because they simply wouldn’t care. But what happens when Bell’s investors decide they want to divest of their interests? What happens when Rogers’ shareholders get fed up with the idea that they’re supposed to be making money out of hockey and they paid too much for it? Who’s going to buy? There’s no Canadian enterprise big enough to do that.

There is a new limited trend among some corporations to dump their unprofitable small town operations and allow them to return to local ownership.

The question is can they make enough money to operate? That’s always been the issue. That’s always the issue. My fingers are crossed. What could happen is that you may see smaller conglomerates developing. But as long as they rely on making enough of a profit to attract investors, it’s always going to be tough, especially as a small operator unless there are ways to carve up new sources of revenue and that may be a possibility. That’s where the regulator comes in.

Is it important for Canadian broadcasting to even have Canadian content regulations?

You need a platform on which to share your views and perspectives. You need an avenue where you can share triumphs and disasters and a place that people can go to find out who they are. Every other country takes it for granted. Because we live next door to the elephant –  the USA – we are forced to create regulations to insure that at least a minimum of content on our broadcasting media is domestic in origin… I’ve never met anyone who has questioned the need for regulations. They may not like the content some people provide in order to meet the quotas, and for that I wouldn’t blame them. But there are very few people in the business or outside of it who would want to see an environment in which Canadians didn’t have the opportunity to express their opinions, to express their creativity, their excitement about life, to provide avenues to educate their children.

In the 1990s we were the second largest exporter of television to world markets, all based on the fact that Canadians had become the best producers of children’s television in the world. Nobody could beat us. We’re doing less of that now because the regulatory priority has shifted.

Speaking of our broadcast heritage, you mentioned Graham Spry earlier in our conversation. You worked with him late in his career. Who was he and what role did he play in the founding of our national radio system?

Graham Spry was born in 1900. After WW1 he found himself at Oxford with a number of other young Canadians including Lester Pearson, Eugene Forsey, Frank Scott and others who used to meet once a week and talk about how Canada should evolve now that the war was over. One of the things that was developing at the time, in the early 1920s, was radio. When Graham came back to Canada and became Secretary to the Association of Canadian Clubs, people were just beginning to build their little crystal sets and listen to radio. It was a new hobby. Most of what they were listening to was American because we didn’t have that much in the way of radio in Canada yet. So he and his young colleagues, all under thirty, decided that what Canada needed was a national broadcaster, a national radio system. And, by gosh, they decided to make it happen! And they did. They set up a lobby group in Ottawa called the Canadian Radio League. Its objective was to create a national public radio system, with the government’s support, that would deliver Canadian programming to all parts of the country.

They convinced organizations all across the country as well as the Conservative government of the day under R. B. Bennett that this was absolutely essential. Their rallying cry was “The State or the United States”. The Radio League won the day and in 1932 the government of the day created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission which evolved by 1936 into the CBC/Radio-Canada. That was the brainchild of Graham Spry, Alan Plaunt and their young colleagues. Graham remained a strong advocate of public broadcasting until his death in 1983.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this three part conversation – past, present and future. And we’ve discussed the significance played by freelancers in Canada’s broadcasting history. Any parting words of advice for Canadian freelancers reading this today?

Even when things look grim there is always the possibility to make things better. Coming out of the latest round of CRTC hearings – and following the elections with new people in Ottawa – I anticipate a renaissance of radio and television. It’s really tough to produce good web content without that kind of creative base.

I think people are getting the message that you need the degree of intelligence, creativity and fun that radio and television count on in order to make good web content as well. So I think there is always going to be work. In the next few years there will be more opportunities for people with freelance skills than there have been in the last decade which, I acknowledge, has certainly been pretty bleak for everybody.

And, lastly, you can’t possibly exist as a freelancer without entrepreneurial skills. Nobody is going to find you a job. That’s up to you to do. So it’s a question of not letting yourself become depressed; looking at the possibilities rather than the disadvantages; and never giving up on a good idea!


Thanks to Kealy Wilkinson for this interview and also for her work preserving and celebrating our broadcasting heritage via the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation.

The CBMF website is


Posted on October 3, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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