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Reviewed by:
  • David Goodman
Canada before Television: Radio, Taste, and the Struggle for Cultural Democracy. Len Kuffert. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016. Pp. viii + 334. $110 cloth, $34.95 paper

Canada before Television is an impressive and substantial book, benefiting from sustained research and writing. It engages with recent revisionist interventions in American and British radio history and with the work of distinguished predecessors in Canadian broadcasting history. It is based on deep research in Canadian records and in international sources (notably the British Broadcasting Corporation (bbc) archives) that shed light on Canadian broadcasting. Len Kuffert tackles the questions of [End Page 837] taste, class cultural hierarchy, and national culture building that preoccupied him in his earlier work and that have been inescapable themes for historians of broadcasting everywhere. Canada before Television is written in a notably direct and engaging way, wearing its extensive research lightly. Its structure is thematic rather than narrative or chronological. That works very effectively to draw our attention to some key issues and structures; at a few points, however, some (especially non-Canadian) readers might need to look up a key name or event elsewhere. Throughout, Kuffert gently nudges us to question received wisdom and established oppositions, compelling us to think anew about the complexity of the issues covered while offering sensible yet nuanced arguments in plain language. We hear from listeners through the book–quotations from letters expressing views on programs and policies are skilfully interspersed through each chapter. This is not primarily an audience-centred study, however, and we hear significantly more from the broadcasters and policy makers. We hear more about the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (crbc) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (cbc) than about the private commercial stations–appropriate because of their national importance but, no doubt, also because of the better archival preservation of public broadcasting.

Canadian readers will appreciate the details of the internal history of Canadian broadcasting, the insights into the behind-the-scenes conflicts, and the ideological arguments between advocates of the national public broadcasters and the commercial stations. Readers from outside Canada may be most interested in the analysis of the distinctiveness of the Canadian system–not nationalist interest in uniqueness or "identity" but, rather, insight into how the particular systemic configuration of broadcasting in Canada shaped outcomes. Many aspects of the history of Anglo-Canadian radio broadcasting before television were similar to those in other Anglo-sphere nations. The intimacy of radio, for example, was a discovery made and much discussed everywhere. In Canada, as elsewhere, broadcasters most often imagined their audience as consisting of small family groupings clustered around a living room radio, although the cbc was also actively programming for organized listening groups.

So what made Canada different? Kuffert observes that having "public broadcasting (operating alongside a commercial system and regulating it) and commercial broadcasting (operating alongside a public system and influencing it) made the earliest phase of Canada's broadcasting history more diverse and, hence, more open and responsive to more listeners" (23). He also observes early on that the Canadian system [End Page 838] was "distinctive, at least in North America. It was neither bbc-style monopoly nor us-style 'open' market" (31). But there were (and are) other mixed systems–France and Australia, for example –and comparisons within the mixed group would also have been illuminating. Kuffert reports, for example, that Canadian commercial stations felt themselves relieved of public service responsibilities to some extent because of the existence of the cbc (54). That put them closer in situation to Australian commercial broadcasters than to the Americans in this period, who, lacking a national public broadcaster, had to at least appear to the regulator to be paying some attention to public service.

One thing that is distinctive about Canadian radio is its proximity to the United States and the clustering of population along the border within reach of American stations. The cbc decided it could not fight the appeal of American shows–it broadcast some itself and built its own offerings assuming some familiarity with, and access to, American shows. Kuffert has a chapter exploring American programming, which skilfully steers a course between sympathetic reporting of nationalist...


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