cbcs new fm transmitter a giant step backward

As a general rule, all you need to create a political disaster is a federal government with its head stuck so far up its ideology it can't see the harm it's doing to ordinary citizens.

As a general rule, all you need to create a political disaster is a¬ federal government with its head stuck so far up its ideology it can’t see the harm it’s doing to ordinary citizens. But if you want a real mess, throw in a couple of junior levels of government, and if possible have them similarly blinded.

You couldn’t find a better illustration of this rule than the case of the CBC Whitehorse AM transmitter. Our story begins in Ottawa, where earlier this year the Conservative government took a brief break from throwing money at floundering private corporations – supposedly in the name of protecting jobs—to slash the CBC’s budget, forcing layoffs as well as cuts in service.

According to a recent Pollara poll, 88 per cent of Canadians believe that in the face of deepening ties with the US, it’s important to preserve our own culture, and 81 per cent consider the CBC a good tool for the job. Seventy-four per cent want to see the national broadcaster strengthened in their region, and 76 per cent rate CBC’s performance in fulfilling its mandate as “good, very good, or excellent”.

It’s not customary for pollsters to call Sussex Drive, but if by any chance Stephen Harper were among those polled, it seems safe to assume that his was a voice on the minority side. Canada’s prime minister makes no secret of his low regard for the public broadcaster, as witness the fact that he’s forced the corporation into a $200-million shortfall this year.

Enter the Yukon territorial government. CBC Yukon’s AM transmitter sits on Yukon government land, but not for much longer. The Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources has notified CBC that the lease will not be renewed this fall. By October 1, 2009, the corporation must make some new arrangement for its transmitter.

Here is where the third level of government comes in. The territorial land on which the transmitter sits is in the path of a new residential subdivision, under development by the city of Whitehorse. Energy, Mines and Resources insist the decision on the disposition of the land lies with the city. The city refuses to consider leaving the transmitter in place.

There are reasons to object to a transmitter tower in a subdivision. The extremely strong radio signal can interfere with electronics and other radio stations and the tower takes up land that could be a residential lot. CBC was prepared to reduce the footprint of the tower, and had offered a simple technological solution to the interference problem, but Whitehorse refused to budge.

Strapped for cash, CBC North has applied to the CRTC for a permit to scrap the AM service altogether and replace it with an FM service that will have a much reduced range.

As the Pollara survey shows, most Canadians appreciate the CBC. But for a few, public radio is much more than a cultural good; it’s an essential service. Out beyond the telephone lines and the power poles there are Canadians who depend on CBC Radio for matters both quotidian and crucial.

Whether it’s a frost warning that reminds you to cover up your garden or a forest fire warning that saves your life, bush-dwellers depend on the CBC, the only mass communication service available.

Even for city dwellers, CBC Radio is an important service. With our thousands of kilometres of roads patrolled by a handful of Mounties, up-to-date information on fire, flood, or forty-below weather saves lives, and for most of those kilometres, only CBC provides it.

This is a multi-government mess if ever there was one. The most obvious solution would be for Harper to give CBC North a tiny fraction of the treatment he gave the American auto-giant, General Motors. Then they could buy more land, move the transmitter, and keep on providing one of the most important services in the North.

The territorial government could help if it quit pretending that maintaining a service so essential to Yukoners is none of its affair, and the city of Whitehorse could come to the table prepared to compromise on something that matters to its citizens every time they leave the capital.

There are so many opportunities for somebody in government to stand back and look at the mess they’ve created between them, but the lines are now drawn, and nobody’s budging. It falls to CBC North to come up with a plan. The plan they’ve come up with is a lousy one, but it’s about the best they could do in the circumstances.

If CRTC were to reject this application, CBC would be in an untenable position. Then again, if they pass it, so will Yukoners. In the great age of communication, with the sky full of satellites and the city streets full of cellphones, the Yukon will have taken a giant step backwards.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.