Bryan Zepp Jamieson
October 13th, 2023
“At the beginning of the long dash the time will be exactly…”
For the vast majority of Canadians alive or dead (a few of this group were born before Canada became a country) the daily signal at 1pm Ottawa (ET) from CBC notifying listeners of the exact time was a small but significant part of our lives. Known officially as the National Research Council official time signal, the Dominion Observatory where the signal originated was less than a mile east of me. My Dad used to joke that meant the time signal was actually a couple of seconds fast, local time. I used to go by it about once a week when I rode the bus downtown.
It was a small part of my life. When I moved to the States, I have no conscious memory of missing it. Perhaps I was bedazzled by the fact there were THREE nearby radio stations that played nothing but top 40 twenty-four hours a day (14 hours when you subtract ads), or that in LA, they had NINE television stations, all different and all in English.
But many years later, the internet arrived, and I learned I could stream the CBC. Decades made life in my old home town seem pretty alien in a lot of ways. My years in southern California didn’t prepare me for a radio announcer cheerfully telling his listeners, “It’s a beautiful sunny day with a forecast high of twenty below, so come on down and enjoy the show!” Usually I would just catch the news, especially since news on American radio had all but vanished, replaced by shouty fascists and bible bangers.
But along about 1994 or so, I discovered Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe. A variety hour, it featured original music and featured major Canadian artists, and a series of monologues by McLean about “Dave and Morley” a fictional Toronto family whose touching and often hilarious exploits made for some twenty or thirty minutes of pure radio magic.
The only American equivalent was Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” but where Keillor’s show was affectedly and somewhat stereotypically rural (not that Ottawa lacked for Norwegian Bachelor Farmers or the Fargo accents) Vinyl Cafe was contemporaneous. It was unaffectedly genuine. A strange line like “At night, there are rabbits” could be spellbinding in McLean’s voice. Sadly, he died in 2017.
Being an early riser, I started tuning in on the Halifax CBC stream, which was four hours ahead. The noon show was at 8am, Pacific Time. I discovered that what followed Vinyl Cafe was another good hour—sometimes “Madly Off In All Directions” and sometimes some really good jazz. But there was something after that…
At 2pm, Haligonian time, 10 am my time, I heard “At the beginning of the long dash the time will be exactly 1pm, Eastern Standard (or Daylight) Time.”
The first time I heard it, I just grinned from ear to ear as memories came flooding back. So simple, such a small thing, and yet such a significant daily milestone. They were still doing it, I marvelled.
The only way I can explain it is if on the morning commute to work you’ve driven for years, you pass a fast food joint with some big, ugly, colorful statue of a clown or a grotesque kid or something like that. You may never eat there, or even want to eat there. But then, one morning, you drive by, and you see the statue has been torn down. Even though it was stupid and ugly, you find you miss the goddam thing. And of course, if it had any sort of milestone status in your life, you used to meet with friends in high school there, or it happens to be the exact halfway mark on the commute home from work…well.
The time tone played a vital role in people’s everyday lives from 1939 up until the end of the century, when technology made it obsolete. I certainly don’t need to stream CBC to know the time: my computer checks in daily to make sure it’s accurate, and my little weather station next to me has a link to the atomic clock in Colorado.
It got me thinking (and not for the first time) about the role the CBC plays in Canadian life, and the outsize role it plays in demarcating the difference between Canadian and US life. Both countries have very similar cultures (most foreigners can’t tell a Canadian apart from an American), and both have daunting social, cultural and political divides. Canada has the French/English thing, East vs. West, rural vs. urban, highly regionalized economic structures, and an even larger element proportionally of indigenous and immigrant populations.
So why isn’t it the howling mess the US is today? At least one American figured it out. A lot of people think Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” is an anti-gun movie. It isn’t. Moore, then an NRA member himself, went to Toronto and was surprised to learn that gun ownership in Canada is, if anything, higher than in the United States. And while violent crime is much lower, places like Toronto have similar levels of property crime. Yet in Toronto, people didn’t shy away from others that were ‘different’ in some way (and over 100 languages are spoken in Toronto!) or even lock their doors at night. Robin Williams once famously observed that being Canadian was like living in a really nice apartment over a meth lab.
The difference, Moore realized (and he was right) was that the news in Canada, principally through the CBC, was sedate, factual, and non-exploitative. Unlike almost all media in America, the news doesn’t jack up people’s fears and send them careening from one moral panic to the next in hopes of attracting viewers, and thus ratings.
The CBC, like the BBC in the UK, is a private not-for-profit corporation that is subsidized through tax dollars. It isn’t “owned by the government” or any part of it. The government has little or no say in how the funding is used. And since the CBC doesn’t have to worry about ratings, it doesn’t amp up the fear and controversy angles, scaring the piss out of their viewers.
US television used to be like that. The government mandated no ads during the half-hour news broadcasts in the evenings, making them free of the ratings chase. Further, there was the Fairness Doctrine, which stipulated if they opined, they had to provide equal space for responsible opposing viewpoints. It worked beautifully, but the corporations and their puppets in the Republican Party smashed all that.
It can be summed up very simply: when the news is put on a for-profit basis, it stops being journalism. When it’s put on a ideological for-profit basis, then it is nothing but propaganda. Do you really think the shouty boys on Faux have your best interests at heart? That they’re doing all that for you?
America has the Public Broadcast System and National Public Radio, but the corporate propagandists have eviscerated them, claiming they are “government funded” and thus not to be trusted, Almost all their financial support comes from private donations, and unfortunately, the same corporate entities that fuel America’s ongoing panic make up the majority of those donations. Yes, they play a hypocritical shell game with our information.
In addition to beefing up NPR and PBS, America badly needs a not-for-profit online news system, a clearing house for news and information, one accountable only to the legal rules and constraints it is founded on. Funding will come from tax dollars, and Congress would have no say whatever in how those funds were allocated for what stories. Look at Congress: do you really want those clowns controlling what you know and know about? They can’t govern themselves, and half of them want to rule you. No, thank you!
It could even have a daily time signal. A small thing, unimportant, perhaps even obsolete. But it’s the little things like that that bind Canadians together. As it did for nearly every Canadian born between about 1849 and 2017, who heard, “At the beginning of the long dash the time will be exactly…”