Meet two people who invisibly influence the future of CBC

Robert Ballantyne / Popjournalism
Canadian Media Guild's Jonathan Spence and Kam Rao Robert Ballantyne / Popjournalism

Love it, hate it or barely notice it: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's future continues to stir passionate national political debate. Even the public broadcaster's biggest supporters can't agree on its role in a fractured media landscape dominated by non-Canadian conglomerates like Netflix, American networks and YouTube.

Beyond the polarizing conversation from politicians, the public and various media columnists from either the left- and right-spectrum of opinion, the voices of CBC's thousands of employees are nearly invisible. Publicly, at least.

It's now been over a year since the CBC was promised a $675 million infusion of cash from the Liberal government over five years after significant downsizing, and the internal debate over how that money should be spent is ongoing between CBC managers and union leaders representing the public broadcaster's employees.

The Canadian Media Guild (CMG) represents the vast majority of CBC's employees — journalists, producers, technicians and freelancers — and two of its elected leaders are directly responsible for bringing the voices of those workers to CBC management. Those leaders are Kam Rao, 47, national president and Jonathan Spence, 49, CBC branch president. The pair are long-term CBC employees and started their new union roles on Jan. 1st and will play a huge role in helping to define the future of the CBC during their three-year terms.

Popjournalism sat down with Rao and Spence to get a sense of their vision and the struggles ahead for the public broadcaster and its employees.

Do you think CBC workers' voices — the people most deeply involved with creating its content — have been heard amidst public debates over the future of the public broadcaster?
Jonathan SpenceCBC's history, size and structure doesn't always scale in tandem with the times. Individual voices within the CBC have their own ideas on how the money should be spent, and while management likes to hear from workers and encourages feedback on whether the corporation is moving in the right or wrong direction, the corporation's vertical structure makes it a challenge to hear that in a robust way.
Kam RaoI don't think our members' voices are considered as much as they should be. Reinvestment should be more in consultation with our members because nothing happens at CBC or gets to air without CMG members… The CBC received an additional $75 million last year and $150 million this year. It's a shame that too little of it is going to places where we believe it should go. Wherever I go, from Whitehorse or Prince George, members want to see the money spent back on producing morning shows and evening shows. We believe that's not happening on the scale it should be. The real gift that CBC can offer Canada, because it is the largest journalism organization in the country by far, is to be the gold standard for journalism in Canada.

Obviously, as union representatives of CBC's employees, you'd be expected to advocate for more jobs. But what kind of jobs? And where?
Jonathan SpenceWe've lost hundreds and hundreds of jobs in recent years and the reinvestment in people makes our [work] more robust.
Kam RaoFewer and fewer people have been working on the same programming and they're working too hard… Our members take pride in their work and they don't just give up on an interview because it's five o'clock. [Anecdotally], we've heard from members working overtime, working through lunches to make up for the recent staff cuts. It's too much. Whether you work in downtown Toronto or the farthest region from there, we simply need more people to do the work.
Jonathan SpenceI'd like to see a reinvestment in local programming. I recently went to a small bureau in Ontario and the local graphic designer was laid off and now they have graphics sent from Toronto. You lose the artist's connection to the region. Look, businesses look for efficiency where they can, and the CBC is no different. But there's a dissonance between the union and management — we don't see the CBC as a business, but as a national mission.
Kam RaoYou can't have quality, nuance and creative journalism and media work without the time and space to do that work… When we say more jobs, we mean rebuilding programming teams that are hanging by a thread. The expectations to keep the standards high are still there — and they should be — but it's only fair to reinvest in those teams across Canada so they can continue to do that work.

How do each of you influence or bring those concerns to management?
Jonathan SpenceI regularly meet with CBC management and members. My job is as big as you want it to be. I work with the CBC branch board [made up of other CBC elected staff] and help shape policy, to resolve problems or give our workers a voice.
Kam RaoMy influence as national president is to let Jonathan and the CBC branch do their work, to put power behind their asks. That's what our members need. How I view my job is that I hold the line and back up our members. I get to be only concerned with members and getting members results — it's Jonathan who has to have a good working relationship with management.
Jonathan SpenceI always need to communicate what people on the floor think. There should be no surprises between Kam or our members or management with what I'm discussing.

Author's note: While I remain neutral and report in the interest of objective journalism, in the interest of disclosure, I was a former CBC employee and former CMG board member.

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

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