Dragon Done by Trevor Cole
Nov 1, 2010
Source: The Walrus
He was “a bad man,” I was told. Those exact words. And “a nasty piece of work.” That was one person’s opinion, of course, so I asked others. “Arrogant,” I heard. Actually, I heard that one a lot. “Dismissive.” Someone took pains to express it more fully: “You know he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about you.”
Understand, these were his employees talking, the folks whose cheques he signed. Said one of them, perhaps unnecessarily, “There are a lot of unhappy people.”
There were others, outsiders, who echoed that discontent. Some of them are famous. R. H. Thomson, for instance, that nice actor who exemplifies Canadianness in Canadian television, feared the man wasn’t deeply interested in the very thing he was supposed to be protecting. “He doesn’t have the instincts for it,” said Thomson.
You wouldn’t have cared about Richard Stursberg if he’d been in charge of a sheet metal factory. If he’d been known to be mean to people who make muffins. But he was the vice-president of English Services at cbc. He was the guiding force of, as he described it himself, “the largest and most influential cultural organization in the country.” He was the pilot of the last flying fortress of Canadianism. And plenty of alert and reasonable people were pretty sure he was steering it straight toward the edge of a cliff.
When Stursberg arrived in August 2004 as vice-president of English television (he annexed radio in January 2007), many people who concerned themselves with that sort of thing were dismayed. Ian Morrison, spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an organization that concerns itself with nothing but, seemed to fear the End Times had come. “There is absolutely nothing positive I could say about his appointment,” said Morrison, adding that the outlook for the corporation was “bleak.”
Six years later, those who feared wholesale change at cbc in the wake of Stursberg’s appointment could clasp their chins and gravely nod, unable to celebrate even as his departure was announced in early August. His legacy at cbc is not likely to be undone soon: Every one of the network’s programming directors has been replaced. Its prime-time TV line-up has been overhauled, as has everything about its news specialty channel, including the name. To cries of outrage, the comfortable rug of classical music has been ripped from under Radio 2. More than 1,000 people in cbc’s news division have seen their jobs changed or redefined. Anything else? Oh yes, the entire philosophical foundation of cbc English-language TV programming has been rearranged.
“I knew Richard was going to be a bull in a china shop,” says former cbc president Robert Rabinovitch, the man who hired him. “That’s one of the reasons I brought him in.”
Had any bull ever appeared less threatening? Just four weeks before Stursberg’s exit, suited in a grey that matched his thinning hair and wearing old-fashioned tortoiseshell-and wire-rimmed spectacles, the sixty-year-old then vice-president walked slow and straight-backed through the atrium of the cbc building. Hands crossed lightly behind him, a small smile on his face, he carried himself with the repose of a plantation owner. In his office on the seventh floor, it pleased him to discuss the Miles Davis book on his coffee table, the John Lee Hooker photo behind his desk, and the artists whose work hung on his walls (a group of five Canadians, including Douglas Coupland, all from the same class at Emily Carr University in Vancouver). I knew Stursberg loved art, because I’d been told his home was “dripping” with paintings. “There’s no one more cultured than he is,” said a former colleague. And this was important to note, because what he did to cbc is seen to be the opposite of culture. He is seen to have followed the agenda of a philistine.
“By and large, people don’t like change,” said the man himself, lightly, in his way. “Many people who have not altogether agreed directionally with where we’re going have been upset. That’s okay.”
Directionally, Stursberg made cbc Television a network concerned principally with ratings. To an audience of cbc folk, he once put it this way: he wanted the corporation to be Tim Hortons, not Starbucks. From this simple pledge flowed all of the change, and much of the ire.