In Review: The Tower of Babble

5 mins read

Richard Stursberg controlled the CBC’s English-language services from 2004 to 2010. Shrewdly hired by then-president Robert Rabinovitch to update the programming and increase ratings, Stursberg revamped nearly every aspect of the behemoth public broadcaster. He championed populism, notably reality shows, making a star of twinkly moneyman Kevin O’Leary. He promoted the likes of Jian Ghomeshi and Evan Solomon, put Molly Johnson in a DJ chair and got the CBC into feature films—there was Barney’s Version, and Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children arrives this fall. He rode Little Mosque on the Prairie from a bang to a whimper. He made Don Cherry a better guy (yes, he used force). He got more viewers. And for his pains, he was abruptly fired.

In his wittily titled The Tower of Babble, Stursberg has written a breezy, insightful and unabashedly self-serving business-bookcum-memoir of his tempestuous tenure. He convincingly outlines just how difficult his job was, and succeeds in making you truly care about the CBC-–an impressive feat. He is wistful at times, and you sense he’d like to return to finish his work. As it emerges from these pages, the reason for his dismissal, ostensibly for insulting CBC president Hubert Lacroix while at his “post-holiday insistent worst,” was his imperious management style. He appears to relish being a jerk.

Known as King Richard to his hapless employees–-who knew the CBC had so many republicans?—Stursberg had good ideas and boneheaded ones, which he applied with equal royal dictum. Pity the producer of a series on the 1970 FLQ crisis who received a call from Stursberg detailing his “brainwave” of setting the drama in the present day. They would save a fortune on period sets and car rentals. The same could be done with the war of 1812, just move the story to the now. No more “boring old history!” Then there was his thwarted plan to move a desk for himself onto the newsroom floor, all the better to keep an eye on “Fort News,” his derisive term for the CBC’s elite division.

It emerges that his most notorious move, putting Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy on the prime time schedule, wasn’t his idea in the first place. He reveals, generously, that the idea originated with Kirstine Stewart, the “programming thug” (a positive phrase in the Stursberg universe) now occupying his job. He argues for the U.S. game shows logically, but is blind to the symbolism, or so he would lead us to believe. (Perhaps coincidently, the two shows were dropped not long after the publication of this book.)

It is disappointing that Stursberg often trucks in a disingenuous anti-intellectualism. He pretends to represent some sort of common man who would otherwise be shut out by the nefarious “elites,” or what he darkly calls “the Constituency,” apparently people who enjoy opera and talk about “mandates,” though it would seem to include everyone who listens to CBC Radio. Does he really think the readers of his book are all chomping on their maple crullers at Tim Hortons, chuckling sympathetically? A veteran bureaucrat and son of legendary newsman Peter Stursberg, Richard comes from privilege and enjoys his collection of modern art (a fact not mentioned in the book, but pointed out by Michael Enright in a testy radio interview). In the closest he gets to the personal, he gushes over sitting in front of Harvey Weinstein at the Oscars as “a little English guy from Toronto,” and you wonder who he thinks he’s fooling.

He delights in skewering the CBC board of directors, and we are invited to share his sarcastic outrage as he details the hours the board spends figuring out the meaning of the word “enlightenment.” He mocks heartily, but it’s hard to see what’s wrong with their intellectual curiosity. It’s too bad they couldn’t all get along. Stursberg could use a little more enlightenment, and the CBC, as we’ve seen, could always use fresh thinking.

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