Doug Thompson in CBMF archives
Doug Thompson in CBMF archives

New Virtual Museum Strives To Protect Our Broadcasting History

If you judge a society by how well it protects and preserves its cultural history, then Canada has to be given something of a failing grade. That certainly is sadly the case in terms of our broadcasting heritage. As the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation (CBMF) notes on its website, “Day after day, a century's worth of Canadian broadcast history is disappearing into dumpsters or being destroyed by fire, flood, mildew or just plain neglect.”

As the CBMF states, “Canada is the only country in the developed world without a designated, consistent program to preserve its broadcast legacy.”

The Foundation was formed in 2001 by Lorraine Thomson and other broadcasting figures to address the problem. It has achieved a great deal, but plenty more needs to be done, and your support is required.

To get a better understanding of the Foundation’s work, we recently interviewed chair Doug Thompson and broadcasting legend Duff Roman, a member of both the CBMF executive committee and the board of directors.

Roman explains that “I came into the Foundation with the second wave under Bob Laine’s tenure as Chairperson," and this is a cause clearly close to Roman’s heart. “Broadcasting provides a rich resource of the daily endeavours of citizens, their relationships with each other, their political, economic, cultural, artistic and societal interactions “as they happened” in the voice of the communicators and the people they served.”

He views the preservation of Canada’s cultural history as imperative. “A country must know its history, good or bad, or they will be doomed to repeat it for better or worse. Until radio and TV came along to capture and record contemporary events, our history was interpreted via the written word in newspapers, books, diaries and journals – not withstanding our early cinematographic developments. It is also important to point out how vital it is to have a record of the normal activities of our people in the human dimension of their day-to-day existence.”

Veteran broadcaster and producer Doug Thompson is a real driving force at the CBMF. “I got involved about nine years ago, through the late Bob Laine, with whom I’d worked at CHUM. We were the archivists there,” he explains.

On the CBMF site, Thompson eloquently describes the Foundation’s mission. After listing some highlights of Canadian broadcasting over the decades, he states that “Our memories are so very precious...and so very personal. Now, picture all that history...all those memories...tossed into a dumpster, rotting away like yesterday's lettuce, never to be seen or heard again. That's what the Canadian Broadcast Museum is desperately trying to prevent. Join us...be a part of Canadian history.”

A key initiative of the CBMF is the establishment of Aireum, a website initiative described as a virtual museum. It’s a non-profit and registered charity with a volunteer board of directors. Its website explains that “We all search out, collect and preserve audio and video tapes, paper archives, scripts, memorabilia, physical artifacts e.g. signage; anything related to Canada’s vast broadcasting heritage.”

These discoveries are then preserved by being digitized in a form that can be viewed online, Thompson tells us. “We’ll film everything in 3-D and put it all up online with lots of description for it.”

He estimates that over 100,000 items have been collected, but the CBMF does not have the resources to properly house and display them in physical form. “Someone would have to give us a building,” says Thompson. “We have talked about a travelling exhibit that would take some items across the country, and one of the Museums in Ottawa has asked for it.”

There’s real excitement in his voice as he describes some of the highlights in this treasure trove. “We have the typewriter that [famed war correspondent] Michael Maclear trekked all over Vietnam with, reporting for the CBC. We have a lot of his reports and films too.

"From the collection of one of the early graphic designers at the CBC we have the very first Hockey Night In Canada drawing, a little charcoal drawing. During World War 2, the CBC created an audio vehicle with recording equipment that went over to Europe. We have the original compass in a wooden box. I was in Port Perry with our executive director Kealy Wilkinson last week and we picked up 60 boxes from the archives of one of the first major Canadian announcers."

Last year, through David and Julie Lennick, the CBMF acquired the broadcast-related archives of their late parents, Sylvia and Ben Lennick, including scripts for decades of radio and television drama and comedy, including the long-running Wayne and Shuster Show.

Many of the costumes from the Wayne and Shuster Show have also been saved from the scrapheap, as were props from the Canadian version of ‘50s hit TV show Howdy Doody.

The archives from CHUM, CFRB and CKEY (a station at which Roman and David Marsden worked in the early ‘60s) are well-represented in the collection, but Thompson laments that “other than that we do not have much from private radio.”

A shortage of funds is keeping the preservation and digitizing process from proceeding as fast as Thompson would like. He does acknowledge that “we have had great private donors who have contributed and kept us alive. People like Gary Slaight, Kenneth Murphy, Bill Evanov, Jim Waters and The Pattison Group. The big broadcasters don’t care though. What we’ve been trying to do is to hitch ourselves to the benefits package when there are big sales of broadcasters, but not many people are selling these days.”

He is grateful for the support of the Heritage Ministry. “They have been very good to us financially in the past and very supportive, but they get budgets cut like everyone else. We are in discussions with them for different things, including for Canada’s 150th next year.”

A crowdfunding campaign is in operation for Aireum, though Duff Roman notes that this approach  “has been a struggle. Our initiative is somewhat abstract and requires more engagement than most of the projects that have captured the attention and support of `crowdfunding` investors. The involvement of media such as what you are doing with FYI can be critical in getting our story out – particularly to the broadcasting and music industries who should care about the mission and mandate of the CBMF and its Aireum initiative.”

Any donations, large or small, are welcomed. Those with broadcasting-related memorabilia or archives can contact Kealy Alexander at (416) 367-4772. For more information on Aireum and the CBMF, go here 

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