There Is No Cat

As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Solidarity now, solidarity forever (oh wait, we're journalists)

So yesterday I mentioned in passing the lockout of around 5,500 workers at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the resulting explosion of blogs among the disenfranchised workers. I've actually been following this quite closely for the past month and a half that they've been pounding the pavement.

A little personal history first. I grew up in Detroit, where we were able to receive Canadian television. At the time, channel 9 in Windsor was a private station, aimed mostly at Americans, but to fulfill the terms of their license, they aired a fair amount of Canadian content as well, including a bunch of programs from the CBC, which was required of them, as the CBC had no other television presence in southwestern Ontario. So in addition to the usual suspects that all American kids watched, like Captain Kangaroo, I also watched Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant, two long running CBC kids programs. I also attribute a life-long attraction to the absurd sport of curling to this period of my life.

We moved away from Detroit when I was 11. As I got more interested in broadcasting as a potential career in my teens, whenever we visited Detroit, I made an effort to listen to the CBC radio station, and to watch the Canadian TV station, which was now a full-fledged CBC outlet, its former owners having been forced to turn over their license because they just weren't serving Canada nearly as well as they were serving their American advertising clients.

When I went to college in the early 1980s, it turned out that one of my broadcasting professors, the one I wound up taking a huge percentage of my classes from and who was pretty much my mentor, was one of America's top experts on Canadian broadcasting (admittedly, a pretty small field; there weren't too many professors in the U.S. studying it). He took one of his classes on a field trip to Toronto one semester, and even though I wasn't in the class, he invited me to join the trip. We visited the CBC studios in Toronto on the Friday and also the following Monday (TV on Friday, radio on Monday). I remember being absolutely blown away by the huge multitrack studio they had to make radio dramas, a form that was pretty much dead in the U.S. by that time. We even got them to open up the CBC employee store for us. I've long since outgrown my CBC sweatshirt, but my main keychain carried the old exploding pizza logo of the CBC for well over a decade after that trip before it disintegrated.

(Slight digression; one of the weirdest experiences I've had was while touring the CBC building in Toronto, in the newsroom where the national TV newscast was prepared each night, and seeing that on one of the monitors that was perpetually tuned to the PBS station in Buffalo, New York, the program that was airing was one that was being produced live at the studios of the television station I worked at on campus, a show that, had I not gotten someone to cover for me so I could take this trip, I would have been working on that very day.)

My location in Pennsylvania was not exactly close to Canada, but with my very sensitive receiver, I could hear the CBC station in Toronto all day long, and it's what I listened to (at least when I wasn't listening to the campus radio station that I worked at). I listened to CBC often enough that I found it worth my while to subscribe to their magazine, Radio Guide. And if I couldn't hear the programs on the Toronto station, Canada's international broadcaster, Radio Canada International, broadcast quite a few programs from the domestic CBC. I used to bring my shortwave radio over to my girlfriend's apartment, and we would listen to Sunday Morning together every weekend.

That's a long way of saying that me and the CBC go way back.

Which is by way of saying that I've found the blogs of the locked out workers pretty interesting. There's all kinds of stuff there, ranging from the observations of people who are taking menial jobs to make ends meet while they're locked out, to over-the-top rants about serious malfeasance at the highest levels of the corporation, and everything in between.

Unfortunately, there's another reason I find it all so interesting. Probably the major issue facing the workers is the CBC's insistence on using a huge number of temporary workers to create its programming (around 30% of the people who work on CBC programs). It's very easy to spend five, six, seven, or even more years working for the CBC as a contractor but doing so without job security, benefits, or any possible career development opportunity. If that wasn't bad enough, there's a caste of workers known as "casuals", who are the equivalent of day laborers, coming in on short notice to produce stories and such. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the CBC sends out a truck every morning to pick them up from street corners. I don't know how they can create anything treating a workforce that way; there's no continuity. The so-called casual workers don't get a phone, or a desk, or the assurance that if they start work on a story that takes longer than a few days to put together that they'll actually be able to finish it. Maybe that works when you're building a house, but I don't understand how they can make creative radio and television that way. The CBC wants to increase the number of people who work in these ways, making it harder and harder for anyone to actually become staff and gain the benefits and (relative) stability that comes with staff status.

I've spent more than half my career as a perma-temp (like their contractors, rather than their "casuals"). When I started at the large corporation where I've spent most of my career in one form or another, I worked for six years as a contractor before I hired on as a direct employee. Several years later, I was laid off; through a long and convoluted story I don't want to share online, I was hired, at a remove of four companies, to do exactly the same job I had done as a direct employee, but without benefits. So I sympathize very strongly with the workers here. I have a visceral understanding of what their fight here is about.

There are a lot of CBC lockout blogs out there, some of which I visit more often than others. Probably the best place to start reading is the CBC Unplugged blog, run by Tod Maffin, who in normal times is a technology columnist for CBC programs like Definitely Not The Opera. Maffin's pretense to be neutral in this is kind of disingenuous, but journalists are always uncomfortable when they become the story. CBC Unplugged serves as kind of a central switchboard for all the lockout blogs across Canada; there's a long list on the side of Maffin's page with links to most of them (he misses one or two, but it's pretty much as comprehensive a list as is available). Some of the blogs are written by talented writers (not surprising, since many of the locked out workers make their living writing for radio or TV). John Gushue in Newfoundland does a good job rounding up interesting information. He started blogging well before the lockout, so I expect his blog will stick around well afterward as well. Robin Rowland in Toronto works for the CBC's web site (currently truncated and not worth visiting; the managers removed most of the site's content when the lockout began) and is also an experienced blogger who will likely continue after the lockout ends. Philly Markowitz is the host of one of my favorite programs on CBC, Roots and Wings (about world music); she works part time as a contractor, largely from home, and lives a couple of hours outside Toronto in rural Ontario, so she has a different perspective from the people who are able to make it to the picket line more often. Jennifer Quesnel in Regina, Saskatchewan, goes by "jenkew" online, which sounds a lot to me like the Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian words for "thank you". :-) (Living on the Canadian steppes, where so many Ukrainian Canadians live, including cousins of mine, she may already realize that....) Dan Misener likes the radio, and is a recent college graduate working (before the lockout) as a contract worker in Windsor. When I was his age, I really wanted to work in radio too, so I kind of identify. "Aigle de Nuit" (more than a few of the lockout bloggers go by pseudonyms) works with the computer infrastructure in Toronto, and has a wicked sense of humor (the links section on her blog is a hoot after you've read about how CBC managers are filling all that air time). She pickets on the night shift, and has a really clever takeoff on the CBC logo for her site.

One interesting aspect of the lockout blogs is that a number of workers, in the old journalistic tradition of the strike newspaper, have taken to podcasting programs. Some of them are better than others; particularly in the early days of the now-45-day-long lockout, the podcasts were a little too much inside baseball, almost entirely about the lockout, too self-referential. But some of them are, unsurprisingly, quite good. You can subscribe to the lockout podcasts by searching for "CBC Unplugged" in iTunes, or by visiting Tod Maffin's CBC Unplugged site, which pretty much serves as podcast central.

I haven't seen a whole lot of discussion within the blogosphere about how the locked out workers have taken to blogging. I'm not even sure how much good its done them in getting their message out; most of the comments on the blogs seem to come from fellow locked out workers. So it may be that the most important aspect of the blogging of the lockout of '05 was in creating and sustaining the community of workers, rather than in propgating the workers' take on what was happening to the Canadian public at large. But it may have had a larger impact than can be seen from the comments; the lockout appears to be in its final stages, with the Canadian government finally starting to bang some heads together, and the consensus seems to be that the workers and their union have won the public relations war hands down. Some savvy communications researcher may want to study the role of the blogs and podcasts in the whole affair at some point. And it will be very interesting to see how this explosion of use of the Internet affects CBC's outreach to its listeners when the workers eventually return to their jobs. I expect that most of the lockout blogs will disappear, but some of the workers have promised to continue, and some of them were blogging before the whole thing started and will probably keep blogging afterward as well. Perhaps CBC will have some kind of official presence in Blogistan when this is all over. It bears watching.

Posted at 11:53 PM

Comments

Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

Most just set up the blogs in August after hearing that they could/should/would to keep in touch.

I like Jen Q ( Jenkew) blog out of Regina and her eclectic selection of blogrolling.

Maffin is full of himself, more so when he is in charge and has no editor, producer.

The French language services are out west of the Ottawa River so SRC--the French service now has no capital correspondents. And the small stations to the west housed in the same CBC buildings are just repeating Montreal feeds rather than the national feeds. To fill the late night, the French service often repeat the afternoon shows until sign-off which is a treat if you missed them while at work during the day.

There are a few French language blogs that you mind find, but it is a minority. A good site to start from gcmottawa.blogspot.com/ and its side links (identified by language)

The English CBC, radio and TV is looking quite shabby and they are dipping shallowly into the archives for recent programs and bits they can repeat, but they don't have any historical sense or feel for radio.

It is odd to see or hear managers from the regions flown in to Toronto to do national fill-progrommming, or the news. Some look uncomfortabe and well they may be when the workers come back to work with the nooses and torches marching up the hill to slay the inhuman thing of CBC mis-management.

Posted by anonymous at 2:47 PM, September 30, 2005 [Link]

I too am allergic to cats!

And I'm half-Ukrainian to boot.

After the first few weeks of the lockout, I didn't really try to keep up with what the politicos were doing. Instead, I decided to stick with the blog-as-therapy approach. It makes me feel all warm and happy to find out you actually read my ramblings.

The union and managers now have a tentative agreement, but we have to stay on the picket lines till we vote on it, and till the management dudes figure out how to bring us back in.

This warm/happy feeling is A Good Thing, as those prairie steppes are definitely starting to get colder and windier.

(in a cross between a sneeze and a Slavic thank-you...)

jenkew!

Posted by jenkew at 1:07 PM, October 4, 2005 [Link]

Jen,

You're welcome! :-)

I'm delighted to see that the lockout is all but over, and from what I read, it's the CMG in a rout. I understand your personal situation may be a little more unsettled; I hope that clears up soon.

I'm really glad that not all the blogs were keeping up with every gyration of the mucky mucks; I think your blog highlighted some of the more human aspects of the situation. I really look forward to reading it each day. Some of your posts really made clear to me, and presumably to the taxpayers who pay for the CBC, the cost to the workers and the Canadian public of this whole "casual" day worker thing; I personally think that CBC's approach pre-lockout on that was reprehensible, and I'm pleased to see that there was some significant movement on that issue.

I hope that you'll be among those who decide to keep blogging once this is really all over.

Posted by ralph at 6:26 PM, October 4, 2005 [Link]

Oh, and I'm just under half-Ukrainian myself (great-grandpa married a Polish girl, doncha know....) If you ever come across someone whose last name is Zurbyk, they're (distant) cousins of mine. My understanding is that everyone in Canada with that name is descended from a couple who settled in Elphinstone, Manitoba, back around 1901; they were my grandmother's aunt and uncle, and when my grandmother left Ukraine in 1930, she stayed with them in Manitoba for a year or so until another uncle figured out how to get her across the border to Detroit.

Posted by ralph at 6:30 PM, October 4, 2005 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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