‘I think radio has better pictures’: Q & A with Doug Ward, recent appointee to the Order of Canada

Doug Ward, the chair of the board of FRI, in the studio at Radio Fana in Mali.

We congratulate Doug Ward, the chair of our board, on his recent appointment to the Order of Canada. Doug is a long-time radio advocate, with 30 years of experience with CBC. Doug is a fantastic champion of the work of FRI, offering his expertise to our work and to our partner broadcasters.

Doug Ward will be joining our World Radio Day event, BOOM BOX. Tune in to this live webcasted discussion about change in the world of radio.

We sat down with Doug to discuss the power of radio and his storied career. (Note: This interview has been condensed.)

FRI: You have been appointed to the Order of Canada because of your work in radio and food security. How exactly do the two interact?

Doug Ward: A big emphasis of our work at Farm Radio is on food security. We aren’t there for the richest farmers who are selling orchids and putting them on an overnight plane to Belgium. We’re there for the bottom hundreds of millions of farmers who have a couple of hectares of land and are trying to improve the productivity on that land and support their families. Food security is as basic as that. In many parts of Africa, there may be enough bulk of food but the nutrients aren’t there. Radio has always been amazing because it penetrates like no other medium. Almost everybody in rural Africa has access to radio, but the problem with it is it can be very one-way. But when you add the cell phone, it’s a miracle. There’s no way to deal with food security on a wide scale without radio being the prime medium. If you want to have an impact, you’d better be using radio. Radio immediately means scale.

FRI: Your career in radio began in 1967 as the producer of Ideas. You retired in 1996, having helped to create the radio program As It Happens, to craft the English Radio Report and to strengthen CBC’s Northern Service. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the transformation of radio over the course of your career?

Doug Ward: When I first listened to radio in Canada, it was mainly radio stations that provided a whole range of programs to a whole public. When TV came on the scene, radio fragmented into family stations, rock stations, country and those were huge transformations. Now, what’s happened to radio is that podcasts are being selected and not even listened to live. Radio, in my 70 years has gone from the dominant medium that everyone listened to, to being something that maybe people listen to live and maybe people just choose the audio they want — and that’s an enormous change for radio.

FRI: Are there any moments in your career that stand out above the rest?

Doug Ward: I started a CBC radio station in Thunder Bay and one day I was listening to the station and they were playing a song that had been produced by the Northern Service of CBC, of which I had made the first recording of years earlier. Hearing something you had recorded on your radio station, it doesn’t get much better than that. That was a moment of egomaniacal wonder for me.

(In 1973, Northern Service producer Les McLaughlin introduced Doug to the ballads of Rankin Inlet’s Charlie Panagoniak. Doug arranged a recording session in Toronto for the guitar-playing singer-songwriter, and Panagoniak went on to make three records for the CBC Northern Service. The success of these recordings led to the establishment of CBC Northern Service Broadcast Recordings, which in turn have captured and shared the talents of many young Northern musicians.)

I remember when we started As It Happens, the whole idea of it was that you don’t have to send reporters out to get every story, you can use phones. I remember there was a story where we were talking to two trawler captains on two boats in the Bay of Fundy, one was from New Brunswick and one was from Nova Scotia. They were arguing on air about who could fish there and I thought — look at what’s happening. The two guys are arguing on air. That was a magical moment for me, the adaptation of radio at a particular time. So those two things stand out for me in my Canadian experience.

In Farm Radio, Kevin and I were flying to Seattle to talk to the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation. He was sitting behind me on the plane and he hands me a sheet of paper. On it was the first evidence of what percentage of farmers had taken up an improved practice after listening to a participatory radio series and the average was like 25-30% of all farmers who had listened. I couldn’t believe it because those statistics are just so much better than any other way of helping farmers improve practices. I just turned around and said, “Kevin this is where we peak. This is the game changer.” The fact that we can use radio stations for these kinds of results is amazing. So that was the biggest ‘aha’ moment for us. It just knocked my socks off.

Doug in Mali
Doug Ward on the ground in Mali in 2009.

FRI: You changed the face of the Northern Service of CBC, advocating the value of local news and local stories, reported by natives of the North. What are some of the similarities between radio broadcasting in remote communities in northern Canada and farm radio broadcasting in Africa?

Doug Ward: The main similarity is that people at the bottom of the pyramid have very little opportunity to express their aspirations and their concerns. This is true in the Canadian North and in Africa. When I came in as head of northern service, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was taking place. The CBC decided it was going to assign native language broadcasters to that area and they broadcast every day from the hearing. That transformed communication in the North. These people now heard important issues discussed in their native languages and it was a huge preparation for democratization in the north.

FRI: You have brought your expertise in radio to the work of FRI in several ways, training broadcasters overseas and through online training courses. Tell us about what has impressed you about the work African broadcasters are doing and how FRI is building upon this work.

Doug Ward: The thing that impresses me is that people do realize that there’s almost a magical ability of radio to connect people. The challenge is to learn how to do that well. It’s fun to run up against the challenges and the ‘aha’ moments. Everybody listens to radio and it’s a no-brainer that it’s the most accessible and highly used medium. It’s a very powerful tool and the question is: Can it be used to build up societies and people?

FRI: What is some of the advice that you have offered to African broadcasters as part of your training?

Doug Ward: I love giving advice. My favourite work now is writing a series of broadcaster how-to guides. I think the most important thing is to train program hosts and interviewers to draw people out. It’s important to get ordinary people to state their main concerns and aspirations on air. The more you can get people to express their concerns and aspirations, the more people will have them. You want to build the civic capability of people. Paolo Friere, a Brazilian adult educator that I very much admire once said, “The role of the intellectual is to give back to the people clearly what they gave you confusedly.” So, your job is to clarify for them and help them articulate their needs and aspirations and help them to collectively make change. The goal is to help ordinary people speak clearly and powerfully about their concerns and aspirations.

FRI: Why radio?

Doug Ward: I think radio has better pictures. I think that good radio broadcasters paint better pictures because radio stimulates the mind to create pictures. So you are more often an active user of talk radio than you are of television where the picture is provided for you. When you’re listening to a good documentary or a good sensitive interview, you get to create the picture. So I think that it’s for a special kind of person. The tragedy is there aren’t a lot of great radio jobs available right now but if you want to really get people talking and help people build pictures of their society and tell their stories, then it’s unbeatable.


Want to hear more stories from Doug Ward’s career? Listen to his interview with CBC’s All in a Day or with CBC Northwest Territories.

Doug Ward will be joining our World Radio Day event, BOOM BOX. Tune in to this live webcasted discussion about change in the world of radio.

About the author  
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is pursuing her Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton University. She joined FRI for an internship in January 2016.

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  1. Asni on January 28, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Congratulations to Doug and to FRI. Ideas and As It Happens are my two favorite programs. I will make a one time donation and the cheque will be in the mail soon. Oh, I can bring the cheque to FRI. Congratulations again.

  2. John Black on January 28, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Fitting recognition of a great contribution to Canadian broadcasting — and to the world of radio more widely.

  3. John Alvin Pelter on January 28, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    I am somewhat disturbed by what has been said in this release. When Lloyd Robertson got this movement off the ground, I thought its main purpose was to use it as an extension tool in reaching farmers, (mainly in Africa) with information on more productive food cultural practices. I am a retired agrologist, and have contributed for a number of years, and have also
    made provision in my will for a small perennial legacy. This release seems to indicate FRI is changing course to a broader social concept , and as desirable as this may be, it is not what I had in mind. It even makes mention that radio does not provide 2 way communication. Unless you can convince me that my concerns are unfounded, I may redirect the small legacy I have established . J.A. Pelter

    • Farm Radio International on February 1, 2016 at 11:46 am

      Our mission is still the same, to strengthen radio services in rural areas to provide vital information to farmers and to amplify their voices. Our work focuses on agriculture and small-scale farmers, but farming families also ask for information about nutrition and health, so sometimes we cover these topics. Radio is traditionally a one-way communication tool – from the broadcaster to the listener – but as Doug mentions, the “cellphone revolution” in rural Africa makes it possible for farmers to also contribute to the radio programs they listen to by, for example, participating in call-in shows or sending SMS messages to broadcasters.


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