CBC in context: Saving CBWK-FM in Thompson and CBKA-FM in La Ronge

Residents of Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, who listen to regional CBC Radio, got a welcome reprieve - not to mention hosts Mark Szyszlo here and Tom Roberts in La Ronge - May 15 from an impending loss of local programing during the current round of CBC English Services job cuts.Szyszlo, with some dry gallows humour, has publicly described it as being akin to a "stay of execution," which is apt enough. If CBC were to end North Country Morning edition and North Country at Noon as originally planned later this month on June 26, Szyszlo, as a full-time permanent CBC employee represented by the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), would have had to receive a "redundancy notice" no later than six weeks before his job was to disappear - in this case on May 15. A redundancy notice at CBC is not the same as a layoff. Permanent employees with at least six years of continuous service have "bumping" rights, although in Szyszlo's case, as the host of a one-person operation, it's not immediately clear where in the corporation he might have bumped his way into a job. But he might have, if his job had been declared redundant.Happily, he didn't find himself in that position because on the morning of May 15, CBC brass announced the Thompson and La Ronge stations were staying on the air. Roberts has been hosting the one-hour noon show Keewatin Country since 1984, broadcasting in Cree and English.The official word from CBC president Hubert Lacroix, echoed almost verbatim in a telephone call out of Winnipeg May 15 by John Bertrand, managing director of CBC in Manitoba, was that, "After months of strict spending controls and cost-cutting measures, it looks like our year-end results will be slightly better (by a few million dollars) than anticipated. We have thus created a bit of flexibility. Our year-end results mean we have immediately decided to keep our CBC Radio presence in Thompson and La Ronge."If anyone out there believes that is the complete story, we have a nice piece of real estate you might be interested in Florida. Or perhaps a hot tip on investment bank stocks.Much closer to the truth is that CBC management was caught trying to call its CBWK-FM station here in Thompson a bureau of CBW Winnipeg, while making a similar attempt with its CBKA-FM station in La Ronge. Does that matter or is it mere semantics? It matters plenty if you're CBC management and you've publicly committed yourself to closing no stations during this round of job cuts announced in March.As rookie Churchill riding NDP MP Niki Ashton argued, CBWK-FM and CBKA-FM operate under their own call letters and licensing requirements: "If it looks like a station, if it sounds like a station it is a station," she said.

It didn't hurt her case, as Ashton noted, that CBC had described Thompson and La Ronge as stations on its own website, although Bertrand, in an April 8 letter to Mayor Tim Johnston, said he was writing in "in regards to the closure of our Thompson bureau."

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Szyszlo himself said in a March interview a case could be made either way for classifying Thompson as either a station or a bureau. The station argument is based on the original programing produced here, but the fact he reports to because he reports to a producer and executive producer in Winnipeg would support the bureau argument for others, he acknowledged.Most importantly, however, is the view of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which says because Thompson transmits its own originating signal under the licence CBWK-FM, meaning that it produces local programing (on average a little less than two hours daily from Mondays to Fridays, normally) and is hence a station.In an "administrative renewal" May 12 - three days before the Thompson and La Ronge stations were spared - the CRTC issued Broadcasting Decision CRTC 2009-264 renewing the Thompson and La Ronge stations' licences from a year from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31, 2010 "subject to the terms and conditions in effect under the current licences."

Ashton, at 26 the second youngest MP in the House of Commons (Repentigny riding Bloc Québécois MP Nicolas Dufour, 21, also elected for the first time last Oct. 14, is the youngest) deserves credit here for doing well her first time out on a big issue that materialized less than six months after her election.

Ashton invested some political capital, based on passion and conviction, on a project that was from a certain success when she launched a petition and letter-writing campaign to save North Country March 30.

She also met April 22 with Lacroix to argue for the retention of North Country, and as an associate member of the Commons' heritage committee, spoke on the issue there April 27.

A noon-hour May 1 rally here to save North Country had a decent turnout even with unseasonably cold weather.

After more than six weeks of setting up tables with other volunteers on weekends in malls and elsewhere throughout Northern Manitoba, she was able to present Tory Heritage Minister James Moore May 13 with a petition with more than 1,300 names wanting to save CBC in Thompson and La Ronge.

Mind you, a year earlier more than 5,500 signatures - more than four times the save the CBC in Thompson one - were collected in less than a month, mainly by local restaurateurs, on a petition opposing a proposed two per cent municipal meal tax here in Thompson. Read into that comparison whatever you choose.

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