Tuesday 22 May 2012

from Stardust: Best 2012 Book on the CBC

Ron Devion’s memoir of his life and days at CBC, from Stardust, is 2012’s must read book about the trials and triumphs of managing and programming the CBC.  It should be required reading for current CBC managers. 

Devion started his career at CBC in 1955 and took on numerous senior roles, including Head of TV sports, head of scheduling and station director in Toronto and Vancouver.  He oversaw the plethora of sports contracts that made the CBC a world leader in TV sports, including coverage of the NHL, CFL, the World Cup and the Olympic games. He retired twice, the last time in the mid-90’s after organizing the CBC’s coverage of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. He made a $5 million profit for the Corporation, despite the warning from the sales department that the Games would lose money.  He recommended that the profits be used to fund a radio station in Victoria, which eventually did get its own CBC station. His exemplary career is a beacon for how to manage the CBC, especially in difficult financial times.  Ron guided local TV stations through the Mulroney budget cuts to the CBC, which were similar in size and impact to the cuts the CBC just received.

from Stardust is naturally and fluidly written and starts out with the fascinating tale of Ron’s early life in Winnipeg, which prepared him for the challenges he faced in his career.  Like Ron, I grew up a Catholic and attended an all boys school and his thoughts about organized religion are intriguing.  He evokes the question: why is it that celibacy seems to have affected the behaviour of so many Catholic priests?

Ron had the good fortune to grow up in St. Boniface, so he was fluently bilingual which helped him to understand the French side of CBC.  He tells the hilarious story of how Radio Canada managed to get more than its fair share of corporate funds, by wining and dining the CBC president in lieu of making him read detailed planning books full of numbers.  He brings to life many of the wonderful men and women who worked at CBC in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, including Norn Garriock, Trina McQueen, Peter Herrndorf, Al Johnson, Gordie Craig, Wayne Skene, Hugh Gauntlett, Dave Martin, Brian Williams, Don Goodwin, Ivan Fecan and many others.  He hints that Fecan may not be finished yet.

Ron first hired Don Cherry for Hockey Night in Canada in 1980 for the grand sum of $50/game and knew that Cherry was a hit by watching the audience reaction of patrons in Toronto bars.  Not exactly scientific but effective!

Without knowing it Ron basically invented specialty channels and he describes how he did so in detail.  When faced with enormous budget cuts he found ways of developing very inexpensive programs, often funded by sponsors or the private sector, which allowed local stations to maintain numerous hours of local programming that audiences could relate to and which would later find their way to HGTV, Slice, Bravo!, etc.  He recognized thirty years ago that local programming was critical to the success and survival of CBC.

One central impression that one is left while reading from Stardust is the deep sense of respect and loyalty that Ron and his colleagues at CBC had for one another.  They used their knowledge and intelligence, not to compete with each other or to promote their own careers but rather to build a better public broadcaster, program by program.  Ron Devion exemplified the very best at CBC and this comes through in his book, without a word of conceit.  Success came to the CBC because it put people first, whether it was employees, partners, politicians or members of the public and they all responded positively.  It is a joy to read. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Barry! I remember Ron. I have not thought of him in years.