It’s been described as unique, essential and on the leading edge. Some compare it to a pulpit. Others say its community is made up of eccentric, committed people who honor intellectual curiosity and share a social conscience.

The object of their esteem is, surprisingly, a radio program. The show is Ideas, now in its twentieth year, and currently heard on CBC Radio between 9:05 and 10 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday.

Even media executives resort to a certain hyperbole when discussing the show. Eric Friesen, from 1982 to 1984 head of the CBC’s Features and Humanities Department and now executive vice-president of American Public Radio, calls Ideas, “an oasis of thoughtfulness, enlightening radio,” adding, “Its producers are so bright and know so much, it was often intimidating to listen to them.”

What about Ideas elicits this uncommon reverence? After all, its material is often standard fare: the economy, international politics, the environment, social trends and the arts. But Ideas stands apart because its producers share certain assumptions about journalism. They are not interested in getting the story first, or even getting the same story. The show seeks to answer questions that are not usually being asked, to take what journalist A.J. Liebling called “a good, unhurried look at the world.”

The mandate of most forms of journalism is the “perfection of immediacy,” often resulting in superficial coverage, Ftiesen says. Ideas goes deeper and further. According to Bernie Lucht, a producer with the show since 1971 and its executive producer since June, 1984, “We at Ideas set our own agenda.” The Globe and Mail’s radio critic, Elina McNiven, agrees: “You will never hear the party spiel on Ideas.”

Its respectably sized audience is proof that this philosophy works. Roughly 222,400 listeners tune in for some portion of the show in an average week, according to the BBM Bureau of Measurement. This compares favorably to As It Happens, which draws 604,000 listeners, and Morningside, which has about 900,000, since both these CBC shows are on at peak listening times.

The unit receives about 400 letters a week, many of them long and impassioned. Although the program has sometimes been criticized as elitist or specialized, Lucht points out that the producers hear from farmers, blue-collar workers and students, not just the older academics and professionals who represent the majority of CBC’s listeners. He’s reluctant to generalize about the Ideas audience, yet the listeners do have something in common, maintains writer and teacher Varda Burstyn, who has prepared several series for the show: “They are people who don’t want to be condescended to.”

Ideas has a curious history, evolving from Town and Gown, a filler series introduced in 1958, which, incongruously, ran after hockey broadcasts on the AM network. Three years later, Town and Gown became The Learning Stage, a nightly venture on CJBC, one of two local Toronto stations on the old Dominion network. In 1965, the show’s name was changed to Ideas, and it moved to an hourly weeknight slot on CBC-FM, as well as filling an hour-long spot once a week on CBC Radio.

Some of the early shows were less than riveting. Staff members still cringe when they recall a slow-moving 1973 three-part series entitled “Rivers.” About other shows, Lucht says: “I still can’t believe what they let me get away with in the beginning. I was virtually learning my craft on the air .”

The majority of presentations were more successful, as the program’s many awards attest. Ideas has attracted some impressive talent over the years. Poet Phyllis Webb was an early executive producer. In 1967, Glenn Gould presented “The Idea of North,” an innovative program that is still requested by U.S. and Canadian audiences, and which later inspired a television film. Writers Arthur Koestler and Margaret Laurence, scientist Niels Bohr, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Marshall McLuhan have all been guests on or have written for various segments.

The working atmosphere at Ideas has been termed remarkably familial, but several years ago the show experienced some uncharacteristic upheaval. In 1983, Geraldine Sherman, the show’s executive producer since 1974 and the individual to whom many attribute the show’s stature, was removed from her post and appointed executive director of literary programming. Although there are those who say Sherman often did not share the same vision as the other producers, others claim her departure created a “scandal” at the CBC. “Sherman was central to Ideas. She fought for the concept of in-depth programming done in an exciting and critical way,” says one freelance contributor, who, like others, finds this issue difficult to discuss and would not comment for attribution.

Why was she let go? Sherman would not be interviewed, saying only that her reasons for silence are “complicated.” One contributor says Friesen did not understand the show’s concept under Sherman, that he found her “difficult” and that he wanted a “sexier” show.

But Friesen, who made the decision to “relocate” Sherman, denies this assessment. “She’d done a wonderful job, but she had been there a long time. I felt the time had come for a change. There was no unusual friction between us,” he now comments. He does admit, however, that he had some concerns that certain topics-most notably feminism and supply side economics-“were dealt with from only one point of view.”

Today, Lucht agrees Friesen wanted some antifeminist material. “The management has rights and so you’re always negotiating. We heed our executive environment,” he notes. Four months after Sherman’s departure, the show moved to the AM network, increasing the audience by 80 percent. Friesen appointed Robert Prowse, who had been a senior producer of Morningside for two years, executive producer of Ideas. But Prowse’s contract was not renewed after the first year. He now explains: “There was a misunderstanding over my role. I was more interested in production and the creative end of the show. I didn’t have any administrative experience.”

Friesen agrees with this assessment. “I had made a mistake. There were indications Prowse was not a success as an administrator.”

Despite his lack of management skills, Prowse’s lasting legacy was his introduction of Lister Sinclair as host of Ideas in 1983. Sinclair is a formidable talent with more than 30 years’ broadcast experience, and he has given the show a higher profile and an increased following, and with the appointment of Lucht in 1984, harmony returned.

The unit operates out of a 1,200-square-foot space on Jarvis Street in Toronto. The hallways and small offices are decorated with tapestries, and the place is filled with shelves of books on everything from particle physics to dramatic theory. At times the area resembles a university faculty office, the quiet occasionally broken by the sounds of tapes being edited. Other days it’s like many newsrooms, with telephones ringing, typewriters clattering and writers trooping in to deliver material.

The unit’s producers share an array of skills and are central to Ideas’ character. Lucht works with four in Toronto: Max Allen, Damiano Pietropaolo, Jill Eisen and Sara Wolch. They are joined by regional producers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Halifax, senior technician Lome Tulk (who has worked with Ideas since Town and Gown days), and two production assistants, Susan Crammond and Alison Moss.

Lucht says that the producers hold varying political views. But they do share a belief that the public deserves more than it is getting from mainstream media. “Journalism is a form of behavior that has nothing to do with what we do at Ideas,” says Allen, a former story editor at As It Happens who has been with the unit since 1977. “We try to explain things, to empower people to work in their own best interest. ” Allen likes some forms of print journalism, but he dismisses most broadcast news as “amphetamine, music, flash. Its metamessage,” he continues, “is that the world is a dangerous place.” When asked if more of Canadian journalism would benefit from the assumptions inherent in the ideas’ agenda, he replies: “It’s like asking whether I wish Genghis Khan had been the pope.”

There is no formal criterion for the show’s mix, except to present programming that covers politics, science, the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The producers meet throughout the year to “talk about what’s important and what will be important,” according to Lucht. “We are interested in everything. We have to address the obvious, like unemployment or ideological shifts. But there are other issues which touch a deeper chord with our audience,”referring to shows that examine significant social and cultural concerns.

Lucht adds that the Ideas staff “makes no pretense at objectivity,” because they don’t believe it is possible to achieve. They are, however, obliged to present a variety of perspectives. As Donna Logan, director of information programming for CBC Radio, comments: “Ideas is governed by the CBC’s journalistic policies. If it didn’t offer several points of view over a season, I’d have something to say about it.”

To plan the approximately 130 new shows Ideas airs each season, Lucht and the producers hold major story meetings in February and at the end of September, during which they assess approximately 300 proposals annually submitted by freelance writers, as well as professors and other nonjournalists. Each year the unit accepts between 30 and 40 of these, which ultimately become shows varying in length from one to five parts. Producers often also write several series each season; the remaining slots are filled by specially commissioned lectures.

The unit’s annual operating budget is $400,000, which covers freelancers’ fees (they receive up to $2,000 per show), travel, guest honorariums, telephone calls and all other expenses besides staff salaries.

Lucht says in the past many of the program’s freelance contributions came from people with no broadcast experience, but lately the producers have started to increasingly depend on a group of proven writers. The program’s senior freelancer is Dayid Cayley, a former CBC current affairs producer and host, who writes an average of 10 shows annually for Ideas. He is generous in his praise for the show: “I have found a collegial relationship with the producers and a respect for the individual voice. I am grateful for the opportunity to do the show and get paid for it.”

Other contributors are equally admiring, if not entirely uncritical. “The producers do tend to light their holy candles a bit, and it’s like a calling for some of them,” notes Penny Williams, currently the editor of Your Money magazine, who has prepared more than two dozen shows for Ideas since 1968. But she was always willing to put up with what she affectionately calls the “hothouse” mentality of the unit because “I’ve never found any other documentary vehicle like it. We’d be poorer without Ideas.”

What many freelancers appreciate most is the freedom they are allowed at Ideas. Says Burstyn: “Although the CBC is better than other networks, the political pressures and homogenous quality of the corporation means radical or liberal ideas don’t get explored in a way that adequately represents their importance. Ideas is one of the few vehicles willing to explore.” To this end, each show reflects the view of its writer, who is usually also the on-air narrator.

Once assigned a story, freelance contributors often have months to prepare it. When finished, they bring their tapes and research material to the assigned producer, with whom they work closely during the investigative period. The producer then spends hours editing and, in some cases, revising written drafts and rough tapes. Post-production editing is often done on the day of airing.

What emerges is a show that may use narrative, interviews, dramatic readings, panel discussions, music, sound effects and newsclips to achieve what Lucht calls a marriage of form and content. Ideas’ closest literary cousin is the essay. Characteristic of this approach was an Ideas show aired in December, 1984, entitled “Death by Decree.” The capital punishment debate had resurfaced after a series of police murders across the country. For months before the Ideas show, media coverage of this volatile issue had consisted of little more than sensational stories and clips spotlighting angry policemen and grieving families.

By contrast, “Death by Decree,” produced by Sara Wolch and prepared by Stuart Allen of CBC Radio News, was a reasoned examination of the death penalty from a social and historical perspective. Host Lister Sinclair began the show by reading the “eye for an eye” passage from Exodus 21:23. Then Allen presented the history of the law and attitudes toward capital punishment since the mid-nineteenth century. Everyone interviewed-MPs, lawyers, professors, a prison guard who favored abolition, and relatives of murder victims-discussed the issue in an atmosphere of calm. The father of a boy killed by Charles Manson said that revenge equals justice, while a criminologist argued that a civilized society does not condone state-sanctioned murder. At the conclusion, Sinclair read from Matthew 5:39-“Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also “then the show ended with four minutes of a poignant Bach violin concerto. The mood of “Death by Decree” was reflective, but the pace was vigorous. Typically, it challenged listeners to think.

A number of Ideas’ supporters fear the recent CBC budget cutbacks introduced by the Mulroney government will result in the show being “vulgarized” or even dropped altogether. According to Logan, however, Ideas’ survival is assured, at least for the near future. Logan says she is “personally convinced there is a place for Ideas within our schedule. There’d be an outcry from the public if we took it off the air .” Friesen echoes this view: “The show is as sacrosanct as the news.”

The only immediate change planned for the show is that, as of September, it will be heard from Monday to Friday. Its department has been combined with that of drama for budgetary reasons, but nobody yet knows what effect this will have on the program; Lucht’s immediate goal is to “fine tune,” by improving production quality: “We’re interested in making the show entertaining, as in what’s pleasurable and intellectual.” According to some media critics, this approach works; they say the show has become tighter and sharper over the last year. For the present, Ideas survives as an “oasis” where, as Cayley puts it, journalists may still “dream dreams.”

“We are fringe, we’re in an air bubble up here, and we’re very fortunate,” Lucht says. He adds, “None of us could ever go back to regular journalism.”