CBC ‘Ideas’ host urges researchers to broadcast their ideas

Paul Kennedy has a love-hate relationship with what he calls the ivory tower of academe. The host of CBC Radio’s “Ideas” program walked out on his PhD adviser after an argument about Marshall McLuhan and straight into a career as a producer of radio documentaries for the venerable CBC program, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. But, as those attending his Tuesday luncheon talk for the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences would discover, he sees himself as a perpetual undergraduate student of “everything”.

Paul Kennedy at YorkRight: CBC Radio host Paul Kennedy (right) hands out CDs of his “Ideas” show with help from Janet Halliwell, executive vice-president of SSHRC

“I’m here to convince you that we do what you do,” Kennedy told his audience of Congress delegates who enjoyed a brown bag lunch in York’s Computer Science Building while they listened to the veteran broadcaster describe his work for one of the most individual radio shows anywhere. The talk was sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

“My seeds are ideas,” Kennedy said, harking back to the historical agricultural definition of the term broadcaster. “I really do have the best job in the world.”

As many journalists do when speaking publicly, Kennedy recounted his favourite “war” stories from a 29-year career that began with an angry tromp to the CBC in 1977 and has since included travels around the world to cover topics as diverse as oceans, single malt scotch, native land claims and the sounds of Tiananmen Square. But the main idea at the heart of his talk was a call to his intellectual colleagues to “broadcast your ideas, too.”

The underlying theme of Kennedy’s comments was the power of a public radio show about intellectual history and how it can make a difference in the world, just as social science and humanities researchers’ ideas can also have a powerful impact on our world. “It’s selfish if you don’t broadcast them,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Kennedy referred to the program’s Massey Lectures, which feature prominent academics, now exclusively Canadian, in a series of talks that are then published in book form. Many of those texts have become required reading in courses across the country. “I remember them as textbooks,” Kennedy said, “and they were actually radio shows.”

In a crafty move that generated a rush to the microphones for questions and answers, Kennedy gave away 10 copies of compilations of programs from the past 40 years of “Ideas” including interviews with Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and others. Predictably, the most-asked question was about how to propose ideas for “Ideas” (it’s all on the show’s Web site under submissions). “We need content,” Kennedy said, before adding that proposals are only accepted once a year now, in January, which disappointed one questioner, who said her research was very topical.

“We are never timely,” he said. “We are either two or three years ahead or 50 years behind.”

When the inevitable question about the future of the CBC came up, Kennedy admitted he was “very worried about the CBC”, particularly after the “painful and destructive” labour dispute which shut the broadcaster down for a time last fall, but added he thought “Ideas” would survive. “We’re the cathedral in the town,” he said, using the analogy of a city being sacked. “We’ll probably be the last to go.”