This article was originally published in 2012
If Bob Culbert’s career as a broadcaster and documentarian – spanning 40 years – comes as a surprise to anyone, it’s probably to him.
“I didn’t really start out thinking, ‘I definitely want to be in broadcasting over print [journalism],’” he says. “But once I got in there, I realized the power that broadcasting has. I stayed in broadcasting after that, and I got intrigued with the art of broadcast storytelling.”
In a fit of youthful adventure, Culbert and his wife moved from Northern Ireland to Canada in 1968, where he soon landed a job with the Winnipeg Free Press.
Working as a political reporter at the legislature, it didn’t take long for the CBC in Winnipeg to take notice of Culbert, and he was asked to join the team in 1970.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Northern Irishman.
“After I got there, they suddenly realized I had a funny accent, and in those days, it wasn’t actually welcomed. They liked everyone to speak the same,” he recalls.
Despite this, the doors had opened for Culbert, who went on to work as an assignment editor, lineup editor, and eventually as the producer of the current affairs section of the six o’clock news.
From there, Culbert quickly established himself as someone who was fiercely devoted to the principles of journalism.
“A lot of the journalism that gets done in current affairs and news is so process-oriented, and they cover politics like a horse race,” says former colleague and current head of the CBC’s documentary department, Mark Starowicz. “Bob saw beyond all that, and always kept our eyes on the ball of what the human story was, what the viewer needed, and what the viewer deserved.”
This, adds Starowicz, was why Culbert was recruited for CBC’s national current affairs program, The Journal – a program he worked on for ten years, eventually becoming its senior producer.
Following the cancellation of The Journal in 1992, due in part to the death of host Barbara Frum, Culbert became CBC’s head of network TV for current affairs, before moving on to executive director of news and current affairs.
The position, which he held from 1994 to 1999, saw him take responsibility for all news and current affairs programming at both the network and regional levels, as well as for Newsworld, the public broadcaster’s 24-hour news channel (renamed CBC News Network in 2009).
Shortly after, Culbert moved on to CTV, where he was made VP of documentaries.
But he couldn’t escape his commitment to public broadcasting, and would eventually return to the CBC for an 18-month stint as executive producer of The Nature of Things.
“[Bob] was a stout defender whenever public broadcasting was threatened,” says Starowicz. “He fought hard against any political interference in the editorial process. He was one of the strongest public broadcasting figures in our generation.”
Culbert, who now runs his own production company, Culbert Productions and Consulting, continues to be an active defender of the CBC and documentaries – especially in light of recent government cuts to both.
“There’s a huge future for docs, we just need people, broadcasters and theatre owners to commit to them, make space for them,” he says. “Then we have to find a way to have them paid for, so the producers can continue to have the resources to do the proper research and maintain production values.”
He also shows no signs of leaving the industry.
“I’m looking forward to a number of active years, and staying involved in documentary production, either as a producer or as a consultant on other people’s projects,” says Culbert.