The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC

by Richard Stursberg (Douglas & McIntyre, $32.95, 288 pages)

You don’t even have to read it – the very existence of a book like The Tower of Babble proves the author’s thesis that the CBC is broken.

Employees of every enterprise with the word “corporation” in its name sign confidentiality agreements, on the day they’re hired, and the day they’re fired. Boilerplate strictures forbid current and former staffers from revealing company secrets.

Now open The Tower of Babble at random, and behold: budget figures, program ratings, and the results of “eyes only” studies. Even in the epilogue, in which the former head of English services surveys how the CBC is doing without him, we’re treated to loads of “insider” information.

If the Mother Corpse can’t even nail down industry standard employment and severance agreements, how (and why) do we expect it to produce programming the average Canadian can be proud of?

The Tower of Babble makes for depressing and revelatory reading. If you’ve always suspected that the CBC is staffed by incompetent, unimaginative knee-jerk “liberals,” whose idea of what Canadians want to see and hear is based upon a combustible combination of nostalgia, sentimentality, and elitism, then The Tower of Babble is the book you’ll want to have on your lap the next time your socialist sophomore nephew or Croc-wearing aunt comes for Thanksgiving dinner.

Stursberg toiled at CBC’s Toronto headquarters for six years, and by his own admittedly self-serving account, accomplished more than anyone could have expected.

The year Stursberg was shown the door, “television’s share was up by more than 50 per cent in prime time, and radio was enjoying its highest share ever.” Enthusiastic CBC employees claimed to be prouder than ever to work there, and that was after Stursberg cut 400 jobs and $80 million.

So naturally, he was fired.

Reading The Tower of Babble, one is surprised that Stursberg lasted as long as he did. I wore out a pen underlining horror stories I’d hope to include in this review; space restricts me to two representative excerpts:

“When I (first) met with the producers of The National, they said that they heard I was bid on audiences. I allowed that I was. They asked what performance I would like for The National. I replied that 750,000 Canadians a night watching would be good. They asked how they were doing. I asked why they were asking me the question.”

Stursberg was duly informed that the crew on The National had never seen the show’s ratings, or “overnights.”

“I was advised that this was so, since top management did not want them to be discouraged by what they might see.”

Near the end of his tenure, Stursberg sees almost all his successful innovations dismantled by old-timers who insist on doing more studies, and hiring more consultants to help the CBC recapture its mythical “mandate” mojo.

Some genius on the board suggests they review the wording of the Broadcasting Act for clues. Stursberg reminds the board that he’d helped draft that Act, during his time as assistant deputy minister of communications. He is waved away, and instead, “dictionaries are sent for.” The board and their high priced Bain consultants proceed to “engage in an almost Talmudic exegesis of the words” of the Broadcasting Act, consulting the French translation of the Act for additional semantic clues. “I understood one of the board’s in-camera dinners was wholly devoted to the meaning of ‘enlightenment,’” writes Stursberg. “Mercifully, I was not there.”

We can roll our eyes at such hair raising tales in The Tower of Babble, but anyone who’s worked for any sizable Canadian concern (public or private, profit or non-) will recognize the corporate “culture” immediately. The allergy to excellence, the “tall poppy syndrome,” the unions and time-serving bureaucrats pushing back against innovation and creativity, the well-meaning but bumbling, out of touch management who just want to make it quietly to their cushy retirement – none of these are unique to the CBC.

That we’re obliged to subsidize that culture is what grates, especially since, as Stursberg reveals, CBC staffers believe that ordinary taxpayers are too stupid to appreciate the marvelous programming foisted upon us.

I defy anyone who reads The Tower of Babble to think up a “solution” to the CBC “problem” that doesn’t involve controlled demolition. It would be fitting, however, if the Corpse was miraculously revived by producing a television adaptation of Stursberg’s book. Such a mini-series would be thrilling, funny, and its “con” couldn’t get more “Can.” The ratings would be huge, and even CBC haters would love it.

So it goes without saying that we’ll never see such a thing.

Kathy Shaidle, co-author of Tyranny of Nice, blogs at