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Watching the Watchdog: The Final Dispatch from "Dispatches"

Over these past twelve years, MacInnes-Rae has proved withthat the ancient art of storytelling didn't die with. And that for broadcasters, traditional storytelling is still by far the best, most efficient and effective way to pass on information, one person to another.
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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

Date: Sunday, June 24, 2012

Program: Dispatches with Rick MacInnes-Rae (CBC Radio)

Rick MacInnes-Rae is different from just about every other broadcast journalist around. He has a voice like a strangled beagle. He looks like an out-of-shape lumberjack. And he believes fervently in traditional storytelling.

Since 2001, MacInnes-Rae has been co-founder and host of CBC Radio's international current affairs program Dispatches. Which makes him responsible for some of the finest storytelling this country has produced since This Hour Has Seven Days, killed by the CBC forty-six years ago when it became too politically controversial.

Seems it told its stories too well.

Over these past twelve years, MacInnes-Rae has proved with Dispatches that the ancient art of storytelling didn't die with Seven Days. And that for broadcasters, traditional storytelling is still by far the best, most efficient and effective way to pass on information, one person to another.

Storytelling makes the listener part of the story, join in its drama, care about its outcome, retain its message, be concerned about the people and events involved.

Sadly, storytelling is almost a lost art in Canadian broadcast journalism today. Instead, we're stuck with too loud, too fast, I'm-much-more-important-than-my-story-and-the-people-I-interview, all-knowing anchors and reporters who start stories at the end, the climax, so there's no tension left, no wondering how it all turns out, with never a pause for natural sound or for anyone to think.

Last Sunday evening at 8 p.m., CBC killed Dispatches.

To hear Sunday's farewell broadcast, a retroactive listen to excerpts from the program's stories from far-flung foreign fields over the years, is to weep for the death of something unique and very special.

No pompous politicians to baldly lie about their own virtues and their opponents' wickedness, immorality, corruption and general moral turpitude. No oleaginous spokespeople to justify raping the earth, fouling the air, poisoning the water, with the vapid excuse that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

Not even any silly celebrities.

Instead, Dispatches' farewell hour, like the twelve years before it, was full of people. Ordinary people. People who win and lose and laugh and cry and sweat and strain to survive whatever fate throws at them. People. Like you and me.

Just people. From all around the world.

And miraculously, MacInnes-Rae and his producers persuade their correspondents to behave like people too.

People who sound exactly like friends sitting with you in the summer sun on a patio, sharing a beer or three, telling about this fascinating place they're just been and the fascinating people they've just met. And involving you in the story so you care.

Where else do broadcast journalists ever sound like that?

It's quite possible that its got something to do with a couple of the guidelines on the Dispatches website:

"Something has to be at stake. Something must be happening. There are idea-driven documentaries on Dispatches, but they are animated with people and the events of their lives."


"Good dispatches include vivid images, tension, change, conflict, contradiction, or irony. Humor is always welcome. A surprise isn't bad. The most memorable dispatches contain a strong 'Who knew?' factor. The best ones shine a light into the lives of people."

If only the big, important TV folk on CBC, CTV and Global News followed such guidelines.

Here's MacInnes-Rae's sign-off, ending his final show last Sunday:

"Early on I asked our contributors to write like drunken poets. To experiment. Leave in the stuff conventional news leaves out. The personal stuff. The questions. Let the listener hear you thinking out loud.

"When we got it right, a colleague says it reminded her of the beat poet Jack Kerouac when he wrote:

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars ..."

"Which is how I found myself in the castle of a Druze warlord with foot locks on the walls. Singing on a mountain road with a bunch of inebriated Basque nationalists. In the middle of a racial standoff in Hot Coffee, Mississippi. In a prison in south Lebanon so recently abandoned the laundry was still wet.

"And in this chair.

"Talking to you.

"When we got it right, our stories had a beginning a middle and an end.

"And twelve seasons on, so does this program.

"Thank you for listening down the years.

"For writing, for being constant.

"It's been an honour."

The honour, you should know and remember Rick, was always ours. Not just because you told stories so very well. But because your stories took us to meet ordinary people in distant lands.

And through them we were able to understand something of the world beyond our own borders.

Which helped us better understand more about the world within our borders and, thus, ourselves.

(I called both CBC media and audience relations departments to ask a few questions. Like how much Dispatches cost, what its ratings were, what happens to its crew now, particularly MacInnes-Rae. Nobody from those offices ever called back. In fact, nobody from the CBC ["Canada Lives Here"] has called me back since my last request for information more than two weeks ago. I wonder what these folk actually do. I also wonder if their salaries could be better spent on programming.

Rick MacInnes-Rae did have the courtesy to call. He says he has no idea how much the program cost, nor what its ratings were. Other staff are being reassigned within CBC, he is staying and "working out" his next assignment within the corporation.)

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