The other day I saw a new book on the shelves; a tribute to Peter Gzowski. Gzowski was the long-time host of CBC Radio’s national morning show “Morningside” from 1982 to 1997, as well as a number of other TV and radio shows over the years. In 1958 he was the youngest editor to ever steer MacLean’s magazine.
I always liked Morningside. It presented Canada to Canadians in a way that was interesting, endearing, and (usually) not overly sweet or patriotic, although it occasionally scraped along the edge of that precipice. It was a mixed up show full of music, interviews, news, politics, arts, irreverence, and you name it, from all corners of this huge chunk of dirt and ice we Canadians call home.
Gzowski, although grizzled and gnarly, was well-read and well-liked, and was an honest and easy-going host. He was guilty of the occasional lapse into reverence, such his last interview with Pierre Trudeau – it was so fawning it made me cringe. But otherwise he was good to listen to. He never made the show all about him – it was always focused on the guests and contributing journalists.
Gzowski died last summer, of complications from emphysema. He was 67 years old and had been a lifelong smoker. He knew that he was a hopeless addict, and after being diagnosed he contributed several essays to books and magazines about his struggle with the killer weed. When he died, there was a huge outpouring of affection and lament for the loss of such a reliable voice of Canada.
And that’s an important role. After all, when the largest (geographical) country on earth has one of the lowest population densities, its very existence is something of a miracle. It has been said that two things have kept Canada together: the railroad, and wireless communications (radio and television).
After Gzowski left Morningside in 1997 it was reconfigured a few times as “This Morning” (perhaps most interestingly when Avril Benoit and Michael Enright cohosted – the contrast of the hip and savvy Benoit with the literate-but-Luddite Enright was fabulous). The most recent iteration was with host Shelagh Rogers. Rogers has been around the CBC block many times – and had been a part-time sidekick of Gzowski – so it’s no surprise she was the main contender for that coveted position.
Personally, I find it hard to listen to Shelagh Rogers for more than a few minutes at a time. She’s just too happy to be there. I really don’t like gushing hosts, and boy can she gush. I also don’t like the way she interrupts people when they say something she finds poignant or somehow über-Canadian, in order to make a big point of the über-Canadianess. It throws off the interviewee (usually some non-media-savvy “civilian”), who most often doesn’t realize why they were interrupted. That leads to an uncomfortable moment and a few hundred thousand palms slapping against foreheads all across the country.
Here’s an imagined example (based on a real one), involving Rogers interviewing a laid-off coal miner from Cape Breton:
Rogers: For how long did you work in the mines?
Miner: Well, I started when I was just a young ‘un, when me and me brudder…
Rogers: ME BRUDDER!!!
Rogers: I love the way Cape Bretoners say “me brudder!” I love that accent!
Miner: Uh… Uh… Well, uh… Umm…
Rogers: You were saying that you and your “brudder” started in the mines when you were young.
Miner: Yes! Um… like I said, ah… me and me bru… me broth… my brother were… ah… young. (Gulp.)
This fall the national morning show has again been reconfigured. CBC must have done some research that shows people love Shelagh Rogers and they interpret that to mean they love the über-Canadian aspect of the national morning show. The new show is called Sounds Like Canada and Rogers is front and center. She’s integral to the show’s identity, so much so that it seems that CBC, like the Pope, is in the business of premature canonization.
I don’t like way the new show is packaged and presented, largely because I hate this emphasis on the host and the show’s über-Canadianess. When Gzowski hosted Morningside it was understood that he was both the host and the spirit of the show, but it was rarely said so out loud. He built the show and its reputation by delivering good (although not particularly challenging) programing day after day, year after year. It was a show about people and things in Canada, with Gzowski hosting it. Sounds Like Canada, on the other hand, seems to be a show about Shelagh Rogers, and about Oh! Canada!
You see this in the name of the show (Sounds Like Canada — I wince just writing it) and its theme music – which has warbled bits of the national anthem woven into an otherwise slightly funky tune. It’s too over the top with the maple-leaf flag waving. It’s not part of the Canadian temperament to be so overtly patriotic and self-celebratory like that. We’re modest people who wear our national pride on the inside. We’re too smart to fall for blind patriotism. We’re more critical than fawning. That’s why people around the world like us so much!
The packaging of the show feels like it was put together by producers from the U.S., where embracing the flag is part of the national character. U.S.ers also display an abundance of reverence for celebrity, such that current affairs television shows tend to be as much (or more) about the hosts than about the events they report. We ain’t like that, and we don’t want to be like that!
Fortunately, the show itself is not so bad. In fact, it might even be good. Overall, it’s more upbeat, varied, and hip than its predecessor. It incorporates independent 30 and 60 minute shows such as C’est La Vie and Workology that are 100% Rogers-free. And they seem to have a lot of guest hosts, such as the very listenable Jennifer Westaway. So in the end it’s not the show I hate, it’s the packaging. And there’s the dilemma — part of me wants the show to tank, as a lesson to CBC about who their audience is and how they see themselves. On the other hand, it’s not a bad show, so I don’t want it to go under. What’s a boy to think?