Canada Could Live Here: CBC Radio One as a Common Space for Cultivating Canadian Identity

From its inception, the CBC used radio as a tool to build Canadian national identity. The creation of a Canadian public broadcaster was intended to combat the cultural influence of the United States. Many decades later, Canada is still trying to understand its identity as a nation. The diversity of cultures in Canada, its many local and regional identities, and the sheer size of its land mass all work against national unity. Therefore, a key aspect of building national identity in Canada is the presence of a public sphere or a common space where Canadians can come together and encounter each other. CBC Radio One, as a national broadcaster, is accessible to almost all Canadians and aims to be representative of Canadians and Canada. The advantages of radio as a medium and the infrastructure of our public broadcasting system give national radio the potential to be that common space through which Canadians can find their national identity.

To showcase the strengths of radio as a medium, I will demonstrate how it maintains itself in Innis' two categories of time and space. From there, I will explore a factor Innis does not account for, community, and explain the need for a public space to maintain a strong society. I will examine both Habermas' concept of a public sphere and Dib, Donaldson, and Turcotte's concept of a multicultural common space to create my own idea of an open space where Canadians can encounter one another, and then explain why Radio One has the capacity to such a space. Using Derrida's definition of hospitality, I will also expose the flaws of the public sphere and the challenges of creating a multicultural common space, while at the same time demonstrating some of the ways radio overcomes these issues.

Radio is a unique medium in the way we experience it. It has an intimacy not found in other mediums in part due to the psychological influence of the voice. The listener may associate the experience of listening to the radio with their experience with sound as an infant, calling back to feelings of trust and intimacy (Breton). These feelings are reinforced by the format of radio—the listener invites these voices into their home, becomes acquainted with the hosts of particular broadcasts, and can trust the consistency of the radio schedule.

We experience radio through one sense, sound, as a collection of disembodied voices. Unlike television, which provides both audio and visual stimulus, radio requires the listener to be more active in creating reality, more like the process a reader undergoes when visualizing what is on the page. Because radio engages one sense while leaving the others open, it becomes woven into the fabric of memory. For example, my dad would listen to the radio in the garage, and so the sound of the radio is linked in my mind to the image of the garage and the memory of my dad (and his love of tinkering with our Jeep). The link between radio and memory is an example of how radio maintains continuity through time—one of Innis’ two biases of communication.

Innis divides communication into two broad categories, identifying that modes of communication are biased toward space or time. Radio, easily transmitted and received across vast distances (though not occupying a physical space per se), is space-biased. The messages on the radio are not physically permanent as a message on stone tablet would be, yet their link to memory does contribute to radio’s continuity through time. Radio itself is transient, which allows it to be flexible and to evolve as the country does. Canada’s identity is still developing and changing, and it would be detrimental for it to be set in stone.

However, Innis’ categories of space and time don’t account for another factor necessary for strong cultural development—community. In addition to the transmission of knowledge through space and time, the strength of a society also derives from the relationships between its members. The categories of time and space are still useful here, though in a slightly different context. The idea of a multicultural common space “where Canadians of all backgrounds meet” (Dib, Donaldson and Turcotte 162) requires a location in time or space. Rather than emphasizing the preservation of knowledge through time, radio unifies people in the current time and has the potential to be this common space. Engagement with talkback radio in particular can cultivate a sense of community by giving people a space to speak about and experience different perspectives without having to be physically in the same location (Breton).

Parallel to the idea of a common space is that of a public sphere (Habermas). I would argue that radio has potential both as a public sphere, and as a life world. Habermas’ idea of a life world is a social group we participate in with people like us, which allows us to live at a distance from the state. If we examine life worlds through Innis’ categories, their function is the continuity of identity through time. Local radio stations “reflect and reinforce local and regional identities” (Gregory 313), and we know encountering radio can create feelings of intimacy and trust, just like encountering a community in a physical place. On a national level, then, CBC Radio One (a public but not a state broadcaster) could be the space where these life worlds encounter one another. Its programming is intended to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity” (Government of Canada, Broadcasting Act), and the slogan claims, “Canada lives here.” The medium is dynamic, has national reach and connects listeners in real-time.

If we grant that CBC radio has the capacity to function as a public sphere, the question then becomes about the public sphere’s role in national unity, and the preservation of multiculturalism. The flaw of the public sphere is that when life worlds and the state come together in the public sphere, some translation must take place. Each group, upon entering the public sphere, is obligated to present themselves in a way they can be understood by the others. The public sphere teaches tolerance, within which there is the ability to “other”, to distinguish “us” from “them”. Derrida suggests unconditional hospitality as an alternative; to be open to meeting people on their terms, not your own, acknowledging that the act of translation required to participate in the public sphere can destroy aspects of some cultures. One cannot be oneself in a public sphere, only a presentation of oneself. The act of translation contributes to othering, hegemony, and inequality—we always have to wonder, on whose terms do we encounter each other in the public sphere? In fact, the challenges of a multicultural common space range from social exclusion to racial discrimination and beyond (Dib, Donaldson and Turcotte).

The public sphere of radio, however, doesn’t necessarily succumb to all these problems. For example, there is no such thing as a “visible minority” on radio; it is difficult to distinguish race or age from simply a voice. Radio, furthermore, is accessible in a way physical location is not. Derrida compares conditional hospitality to a house and where someone has the key to the door, but on radio, we nearly all have the key. It is within our power to listen and to phone the talkback line. CBC’s Cross Country Checkup broadcasts simultaneously across six time zones and invites its listens to call in and discuss issues of national interest. This program, better than any other, evokes the “town square” image of a common multicultural space. As Sarah brought up in class, Canada’s identity should be a conversation. Radio One announces where the conversation is taking place and allows anyone to participate, while also contributing with its own programming, produced by Canadians. Furthermore, the policies of the CBC defend against sexism, stereotyping, and other prejudices, and embrace cultural pluralism, to make the space as safe and equal as possible, inviting anyone to be a part of it.

CBC Radio One attempts to reflect Canada back to itself, and like any mirror, the reflection is not perfectly accurate. We are a nation of many cultures and languages, but our national identity is rooted in what we share—the experience of living in Canada. The recent throne speech states in its introduction that “Canada succeeds in large part because here, diverse perspectives and different opinions are celebrated, not silenced” and goes on to say Canada’s government “will support CBC/Radio-Canada” (Government of Canada, Speech from the Throne). Our government seems to recognize, as I do, that open discussion between Canadians, in all their diversity, is necessary for our country. By supporting the CBC, it maintains the infrastructure that can make this happen. Radio—intimate, accessible, live—is a unique medium for cultural communication, and one of our best tools for finding, creating, and maintaining Canada’s cultural identity.

Works Cited

Breton, Hugh Ortega. "A psycho-cultural approach to radio listening and creative production." The Radio Journal - International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media Volume 11 Number 1 (2013). Print.

Derrida, Jacques. "Hospitality." Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities Volume 5 Number 3 (2000).

Dib, Kamal, Ian Donaldson and Brittany Turcotte. "Integration and Identity in Canada: The Importance of Multicultural Common Spaces." Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol 40, Number 1 (2008): 161-187. Print.

Government of Canada. "Broadcasting Act (Canada)." 1991. Justice Laws Website. Web. 10 October 2015. <>.

—. "Speech from the Throne to Open the First Session of the Forty-second Parliament of Canada." December 2015. Government of Canada Website. Web. 7 December 2015.

Gregory, E. David. "Vernacular Folk Song on Canadian Radio: Recovered, Constructed, and Suppressed Identities." Bart Beaty, Derek Briton, Gloria Filax, Rebecca Sullivan. How Canadians Communicate III. Edmonton: AU Press, Athabasca University, 2010. 281-318. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. "Equal Treatment of Cultures and the Limits of Postmodern Liberalism." Journal of Political Philosophy, 13: 1–28. (2005): 1-28. Print.

Innis, Harold. "The Bias of Communication." The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (1949): 457-476. Print.