The public role of radio 

By Barbara Black

Mary Vipond trains a scholarly ear on public broadcasting. Magnifying glass

Mary Vipond trains a scholarly ear on public broadcasting.

Concordia’s History Department has taken on new life with 10 hires in the past five years, and no one could be happier than longtime history professor Mary Vipond.

Fittingly for its new dynamism, the History Department has been relocated to the 10th floor of the J.W. McConnell Library Building, where it has long, gleaming corridors and, from some offices, an excellent view.

Although Vipond teaches core history courses, her own field of scholarship is public broadcasting, particularly in this country.

In 1992, she published Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-1932 (McGill-Queen's University Press), about the period before the establishment of public broadcasting in Canada. leading up to the establishment of the CBC. (Odd fact: From 1922 to 1932, radio administration was the responsibility of the Radio Branch of the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries.)

Since the publication of Listening In, she has researched censorship and propaganda at the CBC in during the 1930s and the 1939-45 war, and is preparing a series of articles and a book for publication.

“The CBC played an important role in the war that deserves attention,” she said. “It was generally agreed that it was a just war, but there were internal debates [about coverage] within the CBC. They were determined to maintain its credibility by reporting bad news when it happened. The government understood this.”

There was some censorship, she acknowledged. “Reporting the weather on the radio was forbidden, for example, because it might be intercepted and affect the enemy’s knowledge of troop movements, but the CBC didn’t chafe under it. There were anti-conscription riots in some camps, and people knew about them, so they were reported.”

The CBC’s “darkest moment,” she said, came in 1942. A national referendum on military conscription was held, and opposition was widespread and vociferous in Quebec. The anti-conscription forces were not allowed to broadcast their position. CBC General-Manager Augustin Frigon later called this a mistake, because it damaged the public broadcaster’s credibility in Quebec.
Given the ubiquitous nature of broadcasting, Vipond is a scholar in a surprisingly sparse field. “Broadcasters are not very interested in their own history,” she said simply.

They can also be stubborn about sharing their archival material — if they even have it. Private radio, which was out of the gate early, is virtually undocumented. What material does exist is more difficult to work with than print, and few graduate students have been attracted to it.

There’s also an intellectual bias against the mass media, Vipond said. Despite the current interest in oral social history, the mass media are seen in academic circles as somehow inauthentic — wrongly, in her view. It’s the same in the United States, but in Britain, where the BBC is well funded and powerful, the history of broadcasting flourishes.

The British also vigorously debate the ethics of their public broadcaster. For example, the BBC’s media coverage of a missing child has divided the critics. One critic didn’t buy the argument that because everybody wanted to know more about the case of little Maddy McCann, the BBC should join the media frenzy. “Just because the public is interested doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest,” she wrote.

Vipond found this remark striking, because “the CBC has never been able to say that.” CBC television is always looking over its shoulder at its private competition, especially from the American media juggernaut. As a historian and as a citizen, she watches the CBC’s struggle to define itself with some concern. “Money is always the issue.”

Vipond was hired by Loyola College before the 1974 merger that created Concordia, and was involved in 1977-78 in integrating its history department with that of Sir George Williams University. She has been on innumerable committees and boards, and served successfully on the executive of Canadian Historical Association.

In nominating her for an Award for Outstanding Service to the Faculty of Arts and Science last year, her colleagues Graham Carr and Frank Chalk said, “at pivotal moments in the institution’s history, Dr. Vipond is someone that faculty colleagues and administrators have learned to rely on for sound advice, good judgment, fairness, leadership, scrupulous integrity and deep commitment to high academic standards.”


Concordia University