Friday, August 6, 2010

Richard Stursberg: early thoughts about a demonized man and his impossible job

Richard Stursberg fired. Those words aren't in the official CBC release (see italics below), but they might as well be. Reports are that he was escorted out of the building today. I can't think of a more significant development at the CBC in years.

"Hubert T. Lacroix, president and CEO of CBC/Radio Canada, announced today the departure of Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president, English services, from CBC/Radio-Canada effective today."

Stursberg has been the head of English-language programming since 2004. I often thought of him as the Dick Cheney of the CBC, in the way he approached his power, his influence and the way he was openly derisive of different points of view. He took on battles that changed peoples lives, yet he seemed oblivious to the impact he had.

Most significantly, Stursberg took the CBC -- our public broadcaster -- down a very commercial road. It was his way of dealing with tepid funding and unreliable support from the federal government. Programs were judged as successful only by ratings, not by the value they may contain for public discourse or the public record. In fact, he rarely talked about the CBC as a public broadcaster. He once referred to programs about Rene Levesque and Pierre Trudeau as "goddamned legacy programming" in one heated discussion with me about his approach to public broadcasting.

Under his tenure, the CBC locked out its employees in 2005, shut down the CBC design department in 2007 -- ending the CBC's own ability to make sets and create costumes and props, and hired U-S based TV consultant Frank Magid to advise local news programs about how to be quick and snappy -- and talk alot about crime and weather.

Yet it should be said that Stursberg resuscitated local TV programming too by creating the 90-minute supper-time newscasts and the 10-minute late night newscasts -- even if wasn't necessarily because of the value of local journalism but because of the chase for the elusive eyeballs. He brought a lot of in-house production back to the network (even if he dismantled the department that supported that production).

He was a lightning rod for all kinds of opinion, a man easy to demonize. He was mercurial and surprisingly undiplomatic in meetings with staff.

Yet at the end of the day, what matters is why he's leaving.

"We are in the midst of developing a new strategic plan that will guide CBC/Radio-Canada through the next five years. This is the opportune time to bring new leadership...." the release says.

It seems apparent by reading between the lines of the CBC release is that the "new strategic plan" is linked to his departure/firing. What is that strategic plan? Let's hope it's a departure from the overly commercial approach that Stursberg pushed for so many years. Let's hope the new strategic plan values programming that's made in the public interest as much as for the potential "eyeball" numbers. Even better, let's hope this marks the end of the "Ottawa isn't going to give us any more money, so let's just deal with it" approach that's particularly depressing. It's time for this CBC administration to move forward post-Stursberg by embracing its public mandate, by reaching out to Canadians and working with them to make a strong case for a really public public broadcaster.


  1. Well said, Lise. As giddy as I felt when I heard this news (as one who walked that picket line, ended up getting laid off, and still believes passionately in public broadcasting and the importance of the CBC as a cultural institution), running the English network IS an impossible job. But I hope that Stursberg's successor will understand that the CBC's strength lies in its ability to be an ALTERNATIVE to all the other stuff on the airwaves in this country, not a COMPETITOR.

  2. I remember when Mr. Stursberg first visited Vancouver. He came into the plant and promply ignored anything that was said, pushing forward his agenda, regardless of the questions or comments contributed by his co-workers [underlings]. He excelled at non-answers or total ignorance of what was suggested or offered by the non-Stursberg appointed staffers. I still remember his comment about CBC Radio ... He didn't know CBC had a radio network. I've happily moved on since I worked at CBC Vancouver [a victim of the 2009 purge] but regret what those who should have know better allowed Mr. Stursberg to do, first to television and then to the radio services. The CBC was created as a public broadcaster not a commercial network. What the CBC could once do "in-house" can no longer be done without beg-borrowing-stealing from other sources. The Beachcombers, Air Farce, Dr. Bundolo, regularly scheduled Regional Radio Drama productions, and network specials are now all but impossible without hiring outside help or sub-contracting to independent companies. I spent over 30 years dedicated to radio broadcasting in Canada and contributed to many international award winning programs and I am truly saddened by what has occurred under the reign of "King Richard".

  3. As a young contract worker in the Toronto newsroom,I once ran into Stursberg in the hallway and asked him how people like me can stay on contract knowing that we have no benefits/medical/maternity? His answer to me was "when I married my wife, I gave her a foil ring"..."now look at me". I have no clue why he would say that!

    But now that I have left the CBC, I would say it was the best career decision, as I have work-life balance and can raise a family now without worrying about being locked out!

    The lockout opened my eyes as to how the future of CBC was going eventually become.

  4. Love him or hate him, Richard Stursberg, CBC’s recently axed head, understood the writing on the wall: the CBC cannot afford to continue with an umblllical dependence on funding from the government. Richard’s passionate vision was for a public broadcaster who was financially self-sufficient. To that end ratings mattered, simply from the point of view that eyeballs bring advertising revenue. And more revenue means more money that can be channelled back into programming. When Richard appointed Scott Moore as the new leader of CBC’s Sales & Marketing, Scott took a department that was nothing short of an industry joke, and turned it into a respected, money-making venture. CBC has never, in it’s history, seen the kind of advertising sponsorship that it has right now, nor has it ever been taken as seriously in the industry as it is now. But with Richard’s departure, all that could easily change – and the CBC could, once again, become totally dependent on the government for funding.

    Richard believed that in order to survive, the CBC had to produce entertainment that was on par with what the US produced. He believed it was possible. He was committed to entertainment as one of the keys to achieve a certain financial independence. He viewed CBCNews as an extension of this entertainment strategy. He believed the CNN version as the future. This didn’t sit well with the old-school news department who still, almost a year after relaunching CBCNews, have not embraced the new CBCNews strategy – a strategy that could have allowed the news department to change the news paradigm. Instead many of them bury their heads in the sand, wishing for the clock to go back to a time pre-Richard.

    CBC Radio is far from suffering. Under the little-appreciated tenure of Chris Boyce, CBC Radio One has revitalized programming, and the highest ratings in its history. Richard (and a host of other senior team leaders) realized that CBC Radio 2′s classical audience wasa DYING. It’s an audience that is not replacing itself. As numbers dwindle, year after year, they believed it is a public broadcaster’s responsibility to change and adapt, and in the process, re-invent the classical music service, while trying to find a new audience for its musical offering. Many people inside the CBC were against this move. And many still believe it was a mistake. But any broadcaster who ignores audience research studies and the feedback from hours of focus groups is behaving irresponsibly. The writing was on the wall there too. I don’t believe they are “there” yet, but Radio 2 is the ONLY Canadian radio station (excl. CBC Radio 3) that is FULLY committed to airplay for Canadian singers and songwriters. Isn’t that the mandate?

    It’s not surprising to see Richard’s critics hovering over his dying legacy. Hubert’s commitment to the CBC is a populist one. But I wonder which segment of the population is now driving the future strategy of the CBC? CBC itself will not be objective enough. Under Richard’s watch, the CBC was slowly growing a much needed younger demographic – don’t forget, the internet may end up being the future of all broadcasting. And that 18 – 39 demographic is not watching traditional television. And they are not watching nature documentaries. I respect the opinions of his critics. Richard ruled the CBC like a petulant king. His senior management team was described as a “wheel-less spoke”, with each spoke a division that was deliberately not connected to the others. His management style was brutal. His demeanor cold.
    Lise, I respect your opinion of him. But I wanted to present the other side of the story. I hope time is kind to his legacy, because I worry that one day, the reign of King Richard will go down in history as the CBC’s last shining moment – the final days of broadcasting camelot.


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