Photo: Sonia Recchia/Getty Images
Over the weekend, a major sex scandal broke in the high-stakes world of Canadian public radio — and I fully acknowledge that the combination of the words Canadian, public radio, sex, and scandal might seem, at the least, incongruous. The short version: Jian Ghomeshi, the 47-year-old host of a very popular, mostly culture-related radio show called “Q” (which airs in New York on WNYC on weeknights at 10 p.m.) was fired abruptly by his employer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the publicly funded broadcaster that produces television and radio. Ghomeshi released a long statement on Facebook on Sunday, claiming, in essence, that he’d been fired due to a campaign orchestrated by an ex-lover to expose his bedroom practices, including consensual BDSM. The Toronto Star then published an article, which had been in the works for several months, in which three anonymous women detailed serious allegations of sexual misconduct by Ghomeshi, including workplace harassment.
To the American observer, the bare details of this scandal might seem familiar, recalling, in one form or another, cases from Clarence Thomas (charges of potentially criminal harassment) to Marv Albert (career censure over embarrassing sexual revelations). In fact, the most befuddling aspect to American ears might be the consistent referrals to Ghomeshi as “a radio superstar,” a phrase that sounds oxymoronic. “Radio superstar” is a position in the Canadian celebrity firmament that has no obvious analogy in American popular culture. However, the idea of a “radio superstar — in particular, a public-radio superstar — is crucial to understanding just what an emotionally fraught situation this is for Canadians.
Obligatory disclosures: I grew up in Toronto and worked in Canadian media for ten years; I’ve appeared on “Q” a few times; and while I don’t know Jian Ghomeshi personally, I’m friendly, to varying degrees, with many people who work on “Q,” as well as several journalists covering this story. And while Canadians may want to step in here and correct me, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Canadian public radio is the country’s single most treasured cultural institution. I’ve argued elsewhere that novelists are the rock stars and movie stars of Canada rolled into one, and I stand by that — though radio hosts are not far behind. In part, this is because authors work in isolation, out of sight and out of mind, and their work is enjoyed later, in private, at a temporal and physical remove from its production and its producer. Radio hosts, by contrast, are in your home, in your ear, nearly every day, seducing you.
Take the example of Peter Gzowski, whom I’m confident you non-Canadians out there have never heard of. Gzowski hosted the CBC morning radio show “Morningside” for roughly 20 years. When he died in 2002 — of emphysema; he was a famously heavy smoker, and did an emotional and candid series of farewell interviews in the months before his death — I struggled to explain to my American friends just what he represented. I think the best formulation I came up with was a cross between Walter Cronkite, Garrison Keillor, and Walt Whitman. His Wikipedia entry notes, off-handedly, that he was “known colloquially as Mr. Canada”; his biographer, perceptively, once described the effect of his show as like “Ronald Reagan on radio.” He was the epitome of the avuncular journalist: a wise and endearing and nearly infallible (and disembodied) uncle to the entire country.
It’s similarly difficult and tricky to formulate an analogy for Jian Ghomeshi. You can pretty much discard all American radio personalities up to, and perhaps including, Ira Glass. The “This American Life” host is certainly an icon to a certain segment of the public-radio-loving public, and his impact on radio as a storytelling medium is immeasurable; many American public radio shows now may as well be called “This American Lite.” But he doesn’t enjoy the cultural centrality or authority of, say, the Cronkitian or Brokavian network anchor in his prime. Even current network anchors don’t enjoy that cultural centrality or authority (just ask Katie Couric). And their parallels on cable (your Anderson Coopers; your Sean Hannitys) are, almost by definition, revered by one half of the political spectrum and reviled by the other.
Further complicating this attempt at an analogy is the deep and complicated relationship Canadians have with the CBC and, in particular, CBC Radio. Because the broadcaster is funded primarily by the government, CBC is both a lightning rod for persistent criticism and the beneficiary of an enduring sense of national communal ownership. (Please note: “Communal ownership” is not the automatic-socialist-Drudge-siren-red-flag in Canada that it has become in the States.) So CBC Radio belongs to everyone and ties together a vast and diverse country. It is also under near-constant attack from (typically conservative) politicians threatening to further twist shut the spigot of public funds.
I imagine people in the U.K. have a similar relationship with the BBC — you grew up with it, it’s like an element, it just is — but I struggle to think of a cultural equivalent in the USA. Weirdly, I keep coming back to The Tonight Show — and while the comparison is imperfect (for starters, one’s a broadcaster and one’s a show), the differences between the two (one is commercial-free, occasionally staid, and thoughtful, often to a fault; the other is a showbiz institution built on glitz, laugh lines, and a nonstop parade of celebrities; basically, a perpetual-motion machine designed to manufacture entertainment) says something about the distinct cultural characters of these two neighboring nations that strikes me as fundamentally true.
But back to the lurid sex scandal! The allegations are serious and deserve to be heard and, ultimately, answered. But what is so unnerving to Canadians about this Ghomeshi situation — in a way that, for example, the clownish antics of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, while perhaps deeply embarrassing, never felt existentially undermining — is not that Ghomeshi personally is some sort of infallible saint or that the CBC has haplessly bungled the situation. It’s that the scandal represents a further undermining of a treasured — possibly the treasured — national cultural institution. It’s a tremor that shakes the fortress and leaves it more unstable. Lots of listeners like and even revere Ghomeshi, but their relationship with CBC Radio is more intrinsic and profound. However it all plays out, the CBC can certainly survive without Jian Ghomeshi. But most of Canada, I’d venture, would not even like to consider the prospect of surviving with a diminished CBC.