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First Monday in April marked end of an era for Northern Manitoba’s media landscape

If you tuned in to CBC Radio at 7:30 a.m.

If you tuned in to CBC Radio at 7:30 a.m. or noon on Monday, April 3, whatever you heard, there is one thing for certain: it wasn’t Mark Szyszlo, the voice of the corporation’s North Country weekday broadcast, who’d worked for the CBC in Thompson since 1986 before his last day on the job on March 31.

Retirement shouldn’t be an overly difficult transition for Szyszlo, who spent much of 2015 on sabbatical, or perhaps even for listeners, who have grown accustomed in recent years to hearing different programming on the radio in the North Country slot when Szyszlo was not on the job, but this time it’s different: this time it’s permanent.

Szyszlo’s role as the CBC’s voice in Northern Manitoba nearly came to a permanent end seven years before he left on his own terms, when it was threatened by budget cutbacks in 2009, with the CBC announcing that its Thompson operation as well as its one-person bureau in La Ronge, Sask. were among 800 positions being cut in an effort to save $171 million. That prompted Churchill MP Niki Ashton to spearhead a campaign to save the northern stations, bringing the issue up in the House of Commons and presenting a petition with 1,300 signatures just days before the CBC’s May 15, 2009 announcement that the programs were no longer on the chopping block.

Szyszlo was born in Poland and grew up in Ottawa, where he first got the broadcasting bug on campus radio at the University of Ottawa and later at Western University. He started with CBC as a journalist and freelance documentary producer in the mid-1980s.

Szyszlo was the last of a dwindling breed in Northern Manitoba. At one time, CBC had as many as 12 staff in Northern Manitoba, including a TV reporter and a radio reporter based in The Pas. With his departure, for the time being, it has zero and the longer it takes for a replacement to be named, the less likely it becomes that Thompson and the north will ever again have a permanent CBC presence. Whether this is a big deal depends a lot on whether you see the CBC as equivalent to or somehow different than other media. In many ways, the importance of the CBC in a place like Thompson, which is served by other media is more a function of symbolism than anything. It connects us to the rest of Canada, and the rest of Canada to us in a nation-building role that seems somewhat quaint when viewed from a 2017 perspective. 

Still, if the CBC does find a replacement for Szyszlo, one thing is certain: it’s going to take a while for listeners to get used to hearing another voice tell them the temperatures in a whole swath of Northern Manitoba communities shortly after the opening theme song the way Syzszlo did for so many years. And they’ll probably have a name that’s easier to spell, too.