Entertainment

Mark Starowicz, creator of Canada: A People's History, steps down from CBC

Iconic CBC producer Mark Starowicz, the creative powerhouse behind epic documentaries such as Canada: A People's History, and popular CBC programs like As It Happens, Sunday Morning and The Journal, is stepping down from the public broadcaster.

Montreal-raised producer will return to '1st love' as independent documentary filmmaker

Producer will return to '1st love' as independent documentary filmmaker 2:36

Iconic CBC producer Mark Starowicz, the creative powerhouse behind epic documentaries such as Canada: A People's History, and popular CBC programs like As It Happens, Sunday Morning and The Journal, is stepping down from the public broadcaster.

After 45 years at the CBC, Starowicz – who turns 69 in September – is leaving to pursue work as an independent producer.

"I've been wanting to do this for a while. My motive is to go back to my first love, which is making docs and writing," he told CBC News.

As executive producer of CBC's documentary department, Starowicz has been in charge of commissioning and guiding documentaries for broadcast. However, whenever possible, he would also "string together" his vacation time to make his own films.

"I would even use holidays to make documentaries," he said.

"I'm a reasonably good documentary maker and I like being out in the world. I like the drama of the front, being out among people.... I'd like to go back to that. I've done my part in the office, so it's just a desire to go back to your core craft."

Radio revolution

The British-born, Montreal-raised Starowicz began his media career as a newspaper journalist in Montreal while still studying at McGill University.

After moving to Toronto, he joined CBC Radio in 1970 as a producer, and was part of the radio revolution, notably revamping As It Happens and turning the flagship news magazine show into the most popular program on the Canadian airwaves. Later, he created the award-winning current affairs show Sunday Morning.

Those in charge "basically gave us the keys to the network and said 'just go and experiment.' It was a period of intoxicating liberty," he recalled.

"We learned as we went along. When you didn't know what the rules are, you sort of end up inventing new formats."

"There's nothing ... that cannot be made understandable and accessible to virtually anybody with curiosity," says the iconic CBC producer. 2:42

A decade later, Starowicz was assigned to refresh CBC's TV news division and, as part of the overhaul, created the influential program The Journal — said to be the first network news show anchored by two female hosts (Barbara Frum and Mary Lou Finlay), and which became known for its in-depth analysis of news and current affairs.

"There's nothing that has any internal logic or integrity to it … that cannot be made understandable and accessible to virtually anybody that has curiosity … It's not only possible, that's the mandate [of the CBC]," he said.

"People used to laugh at us at The Journal [for some of our features]," he recalled.

"They laughed that we did a three-part series on menopause, the science of menopause … Tom Alderman did a piece on pizza. People eat pizzas! Half the country's gonna get menopause and the other half is married to someone who'll get it. Let's talk about these things! It's not all Ottawa politics or the Middle East."

Throughout his career, Starowicz also championed using fast, modern and accessible technology (like a simple telephone call or widely available cassette recorders) to get a journalist straight to the source, and provide a timely and Canadian perspective to the day's news.

Longtime CBC producer on being 'counter-intuitive' when covering news and current affairs. 1:16

"We need to get out into this world and compete or we're gonna get flooded," he said, noting that the CBC has always faced calls to get out of the business when faced with an onslaught of rivals in radio, television and, now, digital programming.

"When there's infinite choice [amid a wave of competitors], you make sure you're there. You make sure your Canadian stories are there. You make sure you have some sovereignty of news … You get out there and fight when there are more platforms. You don't retreat."

In 1992, Starowicz was named head of CBC's documentary production unit. Since then, he has helped bring to life acclaimed programs such as Witness and Life & Times, as well as epic miniseries such as his legendary Canada: A People's History, Hockey: A People's History and The Greatest Canadian.

Longtime producer and documentary filmmaker Mark Starowicz is stepping down after 45 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Kevin Van Paassen/CBC)

"I made a career of Canadians being interested in their own stories," he said.

"They were interested in Canada: A People's History and As It Happens. They wanted to see Canadians reporting around the world.... Canadians care about their country and their stories."

Myriad accolades

Along with multiple honorary degrees from universities and a raft of Gemini Awards, Starowicz is:

  • An Officer of the Order of Canada.
  • A member of the Order of Ontario.
  • A recipient of lifetime achievement honours from the Canadian Journalism Foundation and the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards.

"The programs Mark created or shaped crowd the CBC's trophy shelves," Heather Conway, executive vice-president of CBC English services, said in a statement that describes Starowicz as a champion of public broadcasting and mentor to hundreds of journalists.

"We are grateful for the leadership Mark has provided over almost 50 years and I know I speak for all of us in saying how proud we are to have been his colleagues."

With files from Havard Gould

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