CBC Radio Show Gave Writers A Voice

Program launched literary careers of Canadian authors

Katherine McLeod

Canada’s most important publisher might be a former CBC radio program. That’s the claim Katherine McLeod relays about Anthology, the national broadcaster’s long-running show about Canadian writers and writing that she’s studying as a post-doc at the University of Guelph.

Robert Weaver hosted the show between 1954 and 1985. Today those collected readings, interviews and performances – including words and works by Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Gabrielle Roy and Leonard Cohen – linger in the basement archives of the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

But McLeod says it’s worth pulling that work into the light to see how the show helped shape our literary lives and letters. If you want to understand today’s poets, novelists and short story writers, she says, you need to consider the role of the national broadcaster beginning around the middle of the last century.

Alice Munro. Mordecai Richler. Timothy Findley. They’re well-known names to readers in Canada and abroad today. But they were relatively obscure before appearing on Anthology. Besides launching that program Weaver founded the literary magazine Tamarack Review, edited numerous collections and started the CBC literary awards.

His radio program “did much to influence the publication of Canadian literature,” says McLeod. That spirit of radio reflected a wider burgeoning of the arts, including creation of the Canada Council to support writers.

Anthology participated in and was part of events following the Massey Commission in 1951 to support and encourage the arts in Canada. We can see a burst in Canadian writing in the 1950s and early ‘60s leading toward the Centennial celebrations. Looking at radio allows us to see that connection.”

And not so much looking but listening – or “critical re-listening.” McLeod says few critics have considered literary radio archives in assessing writers’ works and careers, and in seeing how writers engaged with words and audiences. Listening to their voices – especially their younger voices – can offer insights today, she says.

That’s the case with late poet and novelist Gwendolyn MacEwen. She appeared on the CBC often, including writing material and hosting a four-part series on Anthology. McLeod says that series “constitutes a pivotal moment in MacEwen’s career by providing her with a national listening audience, an economic exchange for her poetic work, and an acoustic space through which to experiment with poetics, philosophies and her conception of herself as writer.”

The series aired in 1969, the year that MacEwen published The Shadow-Maker; that poetry collection went on to win the Governor General’s Award. Listening to the archives gives the Guelph researcher a new perspective on the work and the writer – as with other voices collected in the archives.

“I think we need a dialogue between radio archives and literary criticism. We would learn a lot by listening to what it can tell us.”

She visited the Toronto archives to listen, and expects to return to hear others. “There’s much more listening to do.”

Referring to MacEwen’s “evocative” voice, the Guelph researcher says the writer was grounded in Toronto but looked outward to capture “myths of other places” in moving language.

The CBC radio vaults contain more than 200,000 tapes, digital audio tapes and CDs, with more than 250,000 hours’ worth of material going back more than seven decades. The archive bills itself as the single largest collection of audio material in Canada.

McLeod spoke about her work at the TransCanada Institute (TCI) on campus this semester. She’s working with Prof. Smaro Kamboureli, Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Canadian Literature and director of the institute.

Kamboureli says the CBC program was crucial in launching unknown writers, especially for audiences relying mostly on radio rather than television. “We cannot know who we are today unless we have a sense of where we have come from. The CBC was one of the most important instruments created in Canada to create a sense of culture and a sense of national literature.

Referring to the archive, she says, “this was a time that Canadian literature had not come of its own, it was still in the process of formation. The Robert Weaver program on CBC was absolutely instrumental.”

Similarly, radio was – and is – important in promoting culture in Greece, she says. Growing up in Thessaloniki, Kamboureli relied on her library card and on a radio show called The Third Program that brought her numerous voices, including that of Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseus Elytis.

CBC Radio was ever-present in the background for McLeod, who grew up in Vancouver. She still tunes in, especially late nights to catch Laurie Brown on The Signal.

McLeod studied English for her undergrad and master’s degrees at the University of British Columbia before moving to the University of Toronto for her PhD. Her doctorate examined performances of poetry by The Four Horsemen, Michael Ondaatje, George Elliott Clarke and Robert Bringhurst.

During her BA, she became interested in connections between literature and other arts, notably music and dance. Poetry particularly moved her – she describes poetry as “moving through language.” That works both ways: in Toronto she saw a recent stage performance of Ondaatje’s novel Divisadero. “Hearing him read aloud, I thought, sounded like poetry.”

In 2010, she arrived in Guelph as a TCI post-doctoral fellow funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.